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London D-Day veteran: ‘We expected the worst’

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Jayne McCubbin & Liz Jackson,BBC News

BBC Mr Chafer wearing a blue baseball cap and smilingBBC

Mr Chafer says he spent seven years in the Army

Londoner Percy Chafer is thought to be the second oldest surviving UK D-Day veteran, and just a few months away from his 105th birthday in November he has said he is “still going strong”.

Thursday marks the 80th anniversary of the famous D-Day landings, also known as Operation Overlord – one of the most decisive military campaigns of World War Two, which saw a combined naval, air and land assault on Nazi-occupied France.

Former gunner Mr Chafer was there, landing on Sword Beach with the 7th Armoured Division of the British Army.

He invited BBC Breakfast to meet him in his home to look back at his experiences.

Expecting ‘the worst’

D-Day saw 156,000 Allied troops arrive in Normandy on 6 June 1944 during World War Two.

Some 4,400 Allied troops died, and about 9,000 were wounded or missing.

Mr Chafer, from Pimlico, said when he was on his way to Sword beach he remembers “it was the most amazing sight, all these boats”.

“What could we expect? The worst, I suppose, really,” he said.

He added even if people said they “don’t believe in God but then when the time comes”, “we all prayed”.

Asked what it was like to storm the beaches of Normandy, he said there was “terrible noise – banging, flashing, bullets flying around… and just a mass of soldiers running everywhere”.

Some soldiers were “calling for their mates, you’d see some of them go down and you’d have to ignore it, it was part of the war, you know, you’d see your mates die”, Mr Chafer continued, while “there were some guys who would cry for their mum – they were very scared”.

“They let these bombs go, they’d blow up halfway down, and they would scatter all these anti-personnel mines and you could hear them whirring down and you’d hope one didn’t land near you,” he said.

Ministry of Defence/Crown Copyright via EPA Archive image showing an aerial view of troops landing on D-Day at Sword beachMinistry of Defence/Crown Copyright via EPA

Mr Chafer said on Sword Beach soldiers were “calling for their mates, you’d see some of them go down and you’d have to endure it”

Mr Chafer said he remembers orders almost impossible to follow – to run into, not away from, the bombs.

“This bomber came out the clouds. We looked up, I saw these four little pills leave the plane and I thought, ‘that’s bombs’, so I said ‘run’,” he recalled.

“I suddenly realised the Sergeant Major had said once, ‘don’t run with bombs, run into them’, and that’s what we did – and by the time they came down they were whistling and went over our heads,” he explained.

“We could have been the targets, I don’t know,” he added.

“They may have seen us and decided we were four blokes who were going to cop it. But we didn’t!”

Tony Chafer and Percy Chafer sit looking at the reporter in a park

Mr Chafer’s son Tony said the commemorations are vital because “this has absolutely got to be recorded for these people”

Mr Chafer even remembers disobeying orders to ignore dying and injured cows caught in the crossfire.

He explained some of them were severely wounded, “and we were told ‘don’t shoot them’ but I took a gun and loaded a bullet and shot them in the head.

“I just couldn’t see them suffer.”

Although now 104 years old, Mr Chafer still regularly visits the shops in Pimlico including the launderette, plays bingo, and chats to locals.

His son Tony said his father is doing well for his age, adding: “Most of my mates think he looks better than me.

“A couple of them call him Warren Beatty, because of his Hollywood smile.”

Mr Chafer points at some fruit and vegetables outside a shop, with an assistant standing behind him looking on

“I don’t know what’s happened to the rest of my unit. As far as I know they’ve all gone,” Mr Chafer said

Tony believes this will be the last big anniversary commemoration “for these old guys” because perhaps no surviving veterans will be around “in 10 years’ time”.

“This has absolutely got to be recorded for these people,” he said.

After so many years, what comes to Percy Chafer’s mind is how much he misses his friends from the war.

“I don’t know what’s happened to the rest of my unit. As far as I know they’ve all gone,” he said.

“It was seven years of my life but it was seven years I wouldn’t leave. We were lucky.”

And what does he think of making it to 105?

“It’s not too bad going is it,” he said. “I’m happy with it, anyway.”

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