University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Personal Experiences of D-Day: Told through the words of the veterans by Jessica Harper and Katy Hodges

Jessica Harper and Katy Hodges, third year history students at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog entry on the research they conducted as part of a final year group research project. Along with fellow final year students Hannah Coulouras and Phillip Gerrish, Jessica and Katy looked into veterans’ experiences of D-Day in June 1944. As well as presenting their findings as part of the unit’s assessment, the students also gave a public presentation at Portsmouth City Museum. The final year group research unit is co-ordinated by Dr Robert James, Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural History at Portsmouth.

Personal Experiences of D-Day: Told Through the Words of the Veterans

As part of our final year research project we worked with the D-Day Museum, looking at the personal experiences of the veterans involved. The D-Day Museum holds a wealth of material on the campaign – we didn’t realise how much until we started looking through it – but we decided to focus on the sources that gave a personal perspective, such as letters, diaries, and interviews. We studied four different source types, comparing and contrasting them in order to assess issues such as change over time and national differences. We had the privilege of sharing our research with the university and the wider public, in the form of a presentation at Portsmouth’s City Museum, with the aim of provoking further research into the veterans’ personal experiences. These experiences can be put in conjunction with other historical writing on D-Day, which is principally coming from a military perspective, in order to create a ‘whole’ history of the event.

The first type of source we assessed was the letters and diaries written during 1944, surrounding the build up and duration of D-Day. To physically hold these contemporary artefacts, which are accessible in the Museum’s archive, made the experiences expressed in the letters and diaries feel more relatable and allowed us to make a connection with the veterans who wrote them. These personal sources reveal the great excitement and enthusiasm felt by the men in the lead-up to D-Day, but also hint at the nervousness they felt. For example, one combatant wrote to his wife requesting that she went to church to pray ‘for serenity of mind to face whatever lay ahead’. [1]

The interviews conducted by Cornelius Ryan in 1958 were the second type of source that we analysed. Ryan interviewed a range of people involved in D-Day, from both the allied and enemy forces. We decided to look into the German perspective of the D-Day landings. This gave us a fresh insight into the German experiences of the war, which have not been studied extensively in Britain. It is also a multi-layered source as Ryan took the interviews and then summarised them, resulting in the sources being reliant on Ryan’s personal interpretation. This, then, makes these sources incredibly unique, providing a new outlook on the German experiences. The sources revealed the great relief felt by the German combatants that the invasion had finally come to a head. ‘Now, let’s get it over with’, were the remarks made by one German soldier at the start of the invasion. [2]

The third type of source we examined was the memoirs of the 1990s and early 2000s, produced by Tony Chapman on behalf of the Landing Craft Association (LCA). These sources are useful as while the veterans – who demonstrated their trust in Chapman, an archivist/historian and member of the LCA, by referring to him as ‘shipmate’ – are able to recollect their experiences felt at the time of D-Day, they also provide a retrospective view. The memoirs and their experiences can then be compared in order to build interlinking stories which connect and develop an under-researched history.

Finally, we evaluated interviews that were conducted in 2014, created as part of the “Normandy Veterans 70 Years On” project. This supplied a source that was based on the memories of the veterans, and also one that was impacted by hindsight. Therefore, the experiences retold were those that had stayed with the veterans throughout the 70-year gap and which were most significant to them, as individuals. These sources are available on the Legasee website (http://www.legasee.org.uk/), making them easily accessible for anyone with an interest in the campaign.

We were able to find similarities and differences between the sources which enabled us to unearth various themes. These included British vs. German experiences, humour vs. trauma, and excitement vs. guilt. Through studying these themes, the issue of the importance of memory was highlighted. The humour and excitement was particularly emphasised in the 1944 sources, demonstrating how the veterans were making light of a confusing situation. Yet, later sources have illustrated how memory can be a fragile concept to work with. This does not mean that these sources are less valuable. They depict how hindsight has allowed these men to reflect on their feelings and how this shaped their experiences, not just during the D-Day invasions, but throughout the rest of their lives. One of the most poignant recollections came from Douglas Turtle. He recalled how bodies were ‘flying all over the place. Heads and shoulders and arms and legs, all over the place. It brings it all back, it’s terrible. Seeing all these men killed, what for, what for?’. [3]

Working in conjunction with the D-Day Museum has been incredibly enjoyable and useful for our studies. It has provided us with four different source types which were easily interlinkable and interesting to analyse. The public presentation at Portsmouth City Museum allowed us to expand on our findings and research further into the personal experiences of the veterans. It has been a great experience to present our hard work and provide the public with a fresh insight into D-Day, with the hope that we were able to provoke their thoughts about not only the military side of the campaign, but also the individual impact of D-Day on the veterans themselves.

Hannah Coulouras, Jessica Harper, Phillip Gerrish and Katy Hodges presenting their findings to visitors at Portsmouth City Museum.

Hannah Coulouras, Jessica Harper, Phillip Gerrish and Katy Hodges presenting their findings to visitors at Portsmouth City Museum.


[1]  H540/1990. Diana Holdsworth, Ramsbury, Wiltshire. Letter written to wife, 4 June 1944. D-Day Museum archive.

[2]  Lt Carl Saul, Cornelius Ryan interviews, 1958. D-Day Museum archive.

[3]  Douglas Turtle, interview held on Legasee website, http://www.legasee.org.uk/, last accessed 25 May 2017.

One Response to Personal Experiences of D-Day: Told through the words of the veterans by Jessica Harper and Katy Hodges

  1. Martin October 10, 2017 at 12:29 pm #

    Very interesting blog by the students, regarding their investigation into this tremendous topic. Keep up the good work.

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