Next month, 300 veterans who helped liberate France during the Second World War will return to the country to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landings – among them will be Boston’s Bob Simpson.
Mr Simpson, 100 this year, fought in the conflict as part of the Royal Artillery.
He was born in Boston and while he moved away with his family before the age of 10, he returned to the town on his retirement.
The one-time Park Board pupil signed up for the army in 1938; at that time, he was working as an apprentice engineer in London. He, along with a number of other apprentices, anticipated that war was coming and decided to enlist, rather than face the uncertainty of conscription.
“We knew we were going to be called up and we wanted to go in the unit we wanted to go in,” he said. “Otherwise you could have been put in anything.”
Mr Simpson chose to enlist in the Royal Artillery, based on the recommendation of his grandfather who had volunteered for the Canadian Artillery after the First World War broke out when he was in Canada.
“I was only a little boy, but I always remember him saying to me ‘if you join the army, join the artillery – it’s a great unit’,” Mr Simpson said.
Before taking part in the conflict in France, Mr Simpson’s service included providing support from the Channel by manning guns on the Isle of Wight and the Solent Forts.
Mr Simpson did not take part in the D-Day Landings, as the artillery was not brought ashore until the beaches had been claimed; he had a wait of a number of weeks before landing on Juno Beach.
“The first people to go ashore are always infantry,” he said. “If you are on big guns – and our guns weighed over 10 tons a piece – you had to wait for passage.”
As far as I’m concerned, it’s an Englishman’s duty to fight for his country and that’s all there is to it. If you live in a place, you should be willing to fight for it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all I was doing.
At this point in his career, Mr Simpson – a bombardier – had changed his role in the unit.
“I was already partly deaf and I didn’t want to make it any worse,” he said. “I changed from being a gunner to being a mechanic.”
In France, Mr Simpson and another were charged with retrieving vehicles – typically under enemy fire, and often having to repair them first – so the Allied Forces could use the ammunition on board.
It sounds a daunting experience, but Mr Simpson speaks of it in relaxed terms.
Getting shot at became ‘just an everyday sort of thing’, he said.
“If you went out to a vehicle and the Germans could see the vehicle and you started messing about with it, it attracted them,” he said. “They didn’t want you to take the vehicle away. My friend and I just took it as read.”
There is only one time when he remembers being scared, he says – when he was in a cellar amid enemy gunfire.
“[I thought] I hope they don’t hit this place because it will bury us alive,” he said.
“I suppose you get used to it,” he continued. “The thing is we had a job to do and we had to concentrate on the job. It’s like turning your mind off to what’s going on around you.”
And this is despite the vehicles involved typically carrying about six tons of ammunition.
“If a shell had landed in our truck it would have gone up with a big bang,” he said. “Mind, we would not have known much about it.”
It was not only in this role that Mr Simpson found himself in life or death situations.
He remembers arriving at a French settlement with his fellow servicemen to find, to his surprise, Union Flags sticking out of a hedge.
Mr Simpson was about to pick one of the flags from the hedge when suspicion took hold.
“I couldn’t understand if we were the first there where the Union Jacks came from,” he said.
On inspection, he found improvised bombs attached to the other end of the flags.
“It would have blown your head off,” he said of the booby trap. “I nearly pulled it. It just came to me, ‘why has someone put a Union Jack through a hedge’?”
Another brush with death came when he was chosen to be part of a small team to discover what the enemy was doing in an area of woodland.
“The air force had been over two or three times, but couldn’t see anything,” he said. “They couldn’t make out what was going on.”
Setting off shortly before midnight, the patrol crawled for two to three hours to get their answer, finding German forces repairing tanks.
However, in doing so, the first of their number, the captain, tripped a makeshift alarm – a branch laid across a path, which at the other end had a German solder resting his foot on it, ready to act if he felt movement.
Mr Simpson was next in line behind the captain and when the soldier appeared he got stabbed in the arm with a bayonet. The captain got up quickly and took out the soldier with the butt of his rifle.
“He didn’t have another go at me,” Mr Simpson said.
The drama was not over, however, as soon afterwards the German forces began firing at the patrol with machine guns.
“He must have triggered an alarm before he attacked me,” Mr Simpson said. “We were all on the ground as luck would have it.”
The patrol broke into smaller groups and escaped.
The only other injury Mr Simpson spoke of receiving was to the knee and came from a mortar shell explosion; he described himself as ‘lucky’.
Not all of Mr Simpson’s stories from the conflict involve such peril, though – a more light-hearted account sees him and another soldier caught out during an impromptu bath in a river.
“I was washing his back and he was washing mine and then we heard a lot of girls laughing, and about 50 yards down the stream there was about half a dozen women doing their washing and we were naked,” he said. “I said ‘don’t worry, they have seen all they want to see’.”
Inevitably, though, there is also loss, and Mr Simpson remembers emotionally a friend, Richard ‘Dick’ Hannel, a signaller, who lost his life serving in France, leaving behind a wife and young child.
He refers to him when asked about his forthcoming return to France as part of events to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It will be the second time Mr Simpson has been back to the country since the war.
“I want to go because I might meet some of my old friends. I would like to put a wreath on my friend’s grave,” he said.
Mr Simpson’s involvement in the commemorations – organised by the Royal British Legion – stems from an appeal seen by family friend Ken Gardner, 67, of Boston, for Normandy veterans to come forward.
Mr Gardner will be joining Mr Simpson as a carer for the events, which will be taking place on both sides of the Channel and, in Portsmouth, will be attended by the Queen.
In speaking to the Standard, Mr Simpson was nervous about being portrayed as a hero, saying that is not how he sees himself.
“I just considered myself as an ordinary British, English person,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s an Englishman’s duty to fight for his country and that’s all there is to it.
“If you live in a place, you should be willing to fight for it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all I was doing.”