'I couldn't speak French': WW2 veteran whose Normandy landing led to marriage

A 96-year-old veteran who helped liberate France from the Nazis in 1944 has been speaking about how he fell in love there, despite neither he nor his future wife being able to speak each other's language.

Bill Silvester joined the Royal Navy at the age of only 14 and was unable to speak French when he landed on the beaches of Normandy years later during the Second World War.

After a life of adventure abroad and decorated military service, the veteran has returned to British shores during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We didn't want war, but we had to have it. It's like the lockdown – you've got to put up with it," said Mr Silvester, who grew up in Dorset.

The veteran joked that his mother was "glad to get rid" of him when agreeing to sign him up to the military for 12 years in 1938.

"I spent 12 months on the training ship TS Warspite before joining HMS Ganges," he said.

Mr Silvester was 15 when the Second World War began.

Stints in Plymouth at HMNB Devonport, Isle of Man internment camps, Liverpool and Portsmouth followed, before his first operational posting with HMS Berwick.

In June 1941, the ship was dispatched to the Denmark Straits and then Russia, where he served off-and-on for two years in the Arctic Convoys – protecting the Merchant Navy's supply ships from German vessels as they headed for the northern ports of the Soviet Union.

"One time on the way back from Archangel, we nearly got torpedoed by one of our own destroyers and once, we were almost sunk in a blizzard," he recalled.

Mr Silvester's next role as a communications specialist brought him to an American landing ship heading from Suffolk to France in June 1944.

Six young British sailors on board arrived in Courselles-sur-Mer at 15:00 on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

The personnel were not on the list to take part in operations – they were supposed to be at Omaha Beach in Port-en-Bessin, 40km away.

"Off we trotted, pushing our trolley with all the equipment in," explained Mr Silvester.

Bill Silvester started a family with his wife Simonne during his service with the Navy (Picture: SSAFA).
Bill Silvester started a family with his wife Simonne during his service with the Navy (Picture: SSAFA).

After walking for two-and-a half days, they arrived at a small harbour which had already been secured in Operation Aubrey - the Battle of Port-en-Bessin.

Mr Silvester met Simonne, his future wife, in the local area while she attempted to wash troops' clothes for money.

"At that time, their parents were stuck in the German part of France and she had no money. But she had her younger brother and her niece living with her from Paris," he said. 

"After a while, I used to see her going up the top of a hill, running down to get something from the shop, and I made her a boat, a sailing boat for her. 

"When her parents got back, I got invited for lunch. And after three months, I asked her mother if I could marry her daughter. When I met her she'd had a boyfriend, but nobody liked him, so I was all right. 

The couple then got married in June 1945 - a year after Mr Silvester arrived in France. 

"Getting married was an experience in itself. We went to the church with two priests. One French, one English, because my wife couldn't speak English, I couldn’t speak French. It's love, it doesn't matter, eh?"

The pair later moved to Antwerp, before a posting to Singapore meant the newly-pregnant Simonne and Mr Silvester had to communicate with pen, paper and a dictionary.

"I remember being told that they'd [the US] dropped the atom bomb. I was glad the war was properly going to end," he said, although his work continued for another two years.  

"I saw my daughter for the first time when she was 18 months old, and that was all right."

Long after the war, Mr Silvester's British service medals for sacrifice were joined by the Russian Convoy medal from the Soviet Union.

In 2014, for his part in the Normandy Invasion, he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest award for bravery.

After his naval career, he had lived in New Zealand with his family for 36 years – until Simonne passed away.

"Her last words were she wanted her ashes to be spread off the Port-en-Bessin, so that's what I did. But I've still got some of them upstairs though. I keep them with me."

The veteran lived in France for 18 years, before military charity SSAFA helped him return to the UK at the age of 95, leaving behind his French girlfriend.

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