A 93-year Shaftesbury man has returned to France, 75 years since the D-Day landings.
Bill Ridgewell says he felt ‘guilty’ as he watched the Allied forces bomb Caen, a city of strategic importance for the occupying Germans. But Bill was greeted as a hero on his return to Normandy this month and no longer doubts Britain’s wartime action. Alfred’s Keri Jones spoke with Bill at home in Enmore Green.
There have been many movies made about D-Day. Bill says most of the films don’t represent the experience he had. “Many people think that everybody that landed in France was a shooting, gung-ho person. For every ‘attack person’ in the front line, there were seven soldiers behind,” said Bill.
Mr Ridgewell served in the Army’s 79th Armoured Division, which operated armoured vehicles. “Our particular unit looked after a regiment of tanks that cleared mines from the beaches. We had to keep the tanks going,” said Bill. “The tanks went in on D-Day and we followed four days later. The people who landed on D-Day had all the food and the water that they needed for one day, but after that, somebody had to supply the tanks with petrol and ammunition.”
Bill says he understood at the time that the events could change history. “We knew it was significant, but to us, it was a job. And we had to go and do that job. We didn’t class ourselves as heroes. We didn’t think we were particularly brave,” he said modestly, although Bill says he was frightened at times. “Occasionally. We were very excited. I was only 18 and at 18, you don’t see a lot of danger,” he said, adding that he had no children or wife to worry about.
Bill clearly remembers the distressing sights that he witnesses when he ventured inland from the beach. “There was a lot of destruction around and there were quite a number of dead bodies. They were very often just covered with light layer of rubble from the shelling and the bombing. I dug a foxhole and cut through the side of a German soldier, just a foot down. I hurriedly filled it in and dug another fox hole.”
Soon dysentery took hold, but the men had to, literally, soldier on. “The whole unit went down with tummy trouble,” said Bill.
His brigade moved inland from the Channel coast, towards a major cathedral city. “Caen was a major German blockage point. On 5th July, we were just outside Caen. The authorities decided that we had to get through Caen to get to Le Havre, a port, so we could get reinforcements in quickly. The Germans were regrouping and unless we acted quickly, they would push us off into the sea again. We had to get to Le Havre. That meant Caen had to go,” said Bill.
“I saw this armada of bombing planes in the sky, stretching from horizon to horizon, a huge destructive rainbow raining down a carpet of bombs on Caen. I was sad and I couldn’t understand it, because we didn’t know all the reasons. I only understood that it was a French town with French people in it and they were supposed to be our friends. Allied bombers were flattening it, there were 500 of them probably. I felt guilty for a long time afterwards,” said Bill.
Over the last 75 years one image of the devastated city has stuck in his mind. “As we drove through Caen, two days later, I remember seeing a ruined building. It was like a huge anthill. On top of it was a single-decker bus with all four wheels flapping in the air. It looked as if a strong gust of wind would blow it off. I carried that guilt for a long time with me and every time I heard the word Caen, I remembered the bus on top of the mound. I remembered what we did. I thought, ‘they’re not going to like me at all, ever’,” he said.
After France, his tour of duty took him to The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. He has returned to those countries, but he hasn’t gone back to France until now. He was encouraged to cross the Channel again following an event at Blandford Camp in November, where he received France’s highest order of merit.
“We were given the Légion d’honneur by the grateful French government. Two French Colonels have kissed me on two cheeks. It’s not often that happens!” Bill laughed.
He attended with Peter Gardner, who was also presented with that medal. “Wonderfully for me, two 14-year-old school girls came with their two teachers and their headmaster from Caen, the town that I’d seen flattened. They brought presents, sand from the beach where I landed. A load has been taken off my back,” said Bill. “It healed my conscience a bit when I realised that Caen was rebuilt, and it is a city full of hope and full of young people.”
Bill experienced the heartfelt thanks of French people when he made the journey to France a few weeks ago. “We went to Courseulles and stood on the beach. People came out and put their arms around me and insisted on having photographs taken. You can’t get over it. People stop you in the street and shake your hand. It’s a wonderful gratitude they showed to us,” said Bill.
As a Royal British Legion guest, Bill was first invited to a commemoration event in Portsmouth and then he joined a group that sailed on the cruise liner Boudicca to Bayeux. He appreciated his invitation to the French service. “It was lovely to hear the Queen. I could hear every word she said,” smiled Bill. “I am semi-blind, so I can’t see faces. I don’t mind admitting that I shed some tears at the end of it. In fact, I shed some tears on the day before too.”
Bill’s most poignant moment came during quiet reflection, away from the organised event. “After the service, everybody was making their way into the marquee. On the other side were rows of gravestones. I said we would walk along until we found somebody who was 18 or 19. Five gravestones later, we found F E Hale from Hampshire. We sat by his grave because he was killed two days after my 19th birthday, and he was 19. I felt the luck of the gods that I’m here after having 75 years wonderful life and he’s lost it all,” said Bill, who added that he would love to hear from anyone with a connection to Private Hale.
After hearing Her Majesty speak, Bill enjoyed one-to-one conversations with some of Britain’s most influential people. His daughter Mary, who had accompanied him, introduced her dad to a well-known figure. “Mary said, ‘This is the Prime Minister’. And I said, ‘I am so pleased to meet you. I wanted to thank you for all the hard work you’ve done. Although it wasn’t successful, you really tried hard’,” said Bill. “She said, ‘I’m grateful for that, but I want to thank you for being here 75 years ago. Without you being here, I would not be here talking to you’. She chatted a little bit and then went on,” said Bill.
Next, Jeremy Corbyn introduced himself and when Bill revealed that he was from North Dorset, the Labour leader responded with, ‘That’s Hardy Country. Do you know the statue of Hardy upon the top of a hill?’ “Well, actually, it’s a statue of Admiral Hardy, not the Hardy he was thinking of, but I didn’t contradict him,” laughed Bill.
It wasn’t long before another familiar voice caught Bill’s attention. “There was a chap standing in front of me, shaking my hand. I recognised the voice and I said, ‘Charles? Are you Prince Charles?’ ‘Yes’ he said. ‘Are you enjoying it?’ I said that wasn’t quite the word I would use. I told him there was so much emotion that I had shed a few tears. Holding my hand with his right hand, he put his left hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry, old chap. Join the club.’ I expect he shed a tear or two himself, so I thought if he can do it, so can I,” said Bill.
After the commemorations on the coast, Bill travelled to Caen and found a thriving city, unrecognisable from the smoking rubble he recalls from 1945. “It is a lovely city. The old castle was untouched. We didn’t go to the cathedral. We visited the school from which those two young girls had come. The headmaster put his hand on my shoulder and said, in French, ‘I’m honoured’. There were fifty 14-year olds waiting to greet us and I sat at the front,” said Bill.
The youngsters asked questions through a translator. They wanted to know what Bill did after leaving France in 1945. His group carried on through Belgium and Holland to Nijmegen, Arnhem and across the Rhine into Germany. Then they finished up on VE Day in Hamburg docks. He remained with the occupying forces for a year.
On his return to his East London home, Bill worked on projects to create playing fields and progressed into teaching, specialising in Environmental Science. He taught at Huish Episcopi School for 19 years.
After years of worrying about what he had seen in France, Bill is at peace with events 75 years ago. In an exhausting few days of emotional meetings and conversations with important people most of us would never get to converse with, Bill hopes that the young French students will understand what he will never forget from this visit. “I said, ‘I met our future King and our Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and possibly the next Prime Minister. But the most important one to me was that 19 year old,” said Bill.