'We had a mission - and we were raring to go': Northampton veteran shares his memories of D-Day as UK marks Remembrance Sunday

As the country marks Remembrance Sunday today, the Chronicle and Echo speaks to one of Northampton's-own D-Day veterans, who will today be formally awarded France's highest military medal - the Legion d'Honneaur.

Friday, 8th November 2019, 6:01 pm
Updated Friday, 8th November 2019, 6:02 pm
Keith Whiting will today be formally presented with Legion d'Honneur for his role in D-Day - he told the Chron and Echo his story.

In June 1944, 18-year-old Corporal Keith Whiting of the Royal Marines Sea Service was given his first mission - liberate France.

After joining the Armed Forces six months before and diving headlong into his rigorous training, the Northampton teenager was told his first combat operation would be to shell the German artillery along a beach in Normandy aboard the HMS Ramillies.

That shorefront was codenamed Sword Beach, and the operation was later be known as D-Day.

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Corporal Keith Whiting was 18 when he was given his first combat mission - provide a support barrage for the D-Day landings.

Now 94-year-old, Keith told the Chronicle and Echo: "We knew a few days beforehand we had a job to do because a few of us marines were brought on the warship, and there was Field Marshal Montgomery himself, sitting on a turret.

"He told us we had a mission - and it was great, really. We were raring to go.

It set the crew of the Ramillies in an excited mood. Keith remembers how the shipmen dozens of cups were smashed against the bulkhead in anticipation. When they set sail from Portsmouth on Friday night, an announcement over the tannoy said: "This is what you've been waiting for."

Keith said: "Later, when we left Greenlock, this Norwegian ship [HNoMS Svenner] played 'Admiral Bogey' for us as we left.

Keith Whiting was awarded the Legion d'Honneur for his services in the liberation of France.

"Later, on D-Day itself, a torpedo just missed the Rammilles and sunk them instead. They were just behind us. It was broken in two."

HMS Ramilles was equipped with a range of deadly turrets capable of firing 15-inch and 16-inch shells that weighed up to a ton each.

And in the dark morning of June 6, Corporal Whiting and his comrades were tasked with firing shell after shell down on the German battery on Sword Beach to clear the way for the landing craft.

Keith said: "My job inside 'X' turret [a gun at the back of the ship] as 'intercepter' and 'airblaster'. I had to complete the electric circuit, which fired the shell. Then, when all that black smoke and cordite was in the barrel, it was my job to clear it out - if you didn't do that, the smoke would blow back in and kill everyone in the breach.

Keith's medals - including the 39-45 Star, the Italy Star, the France and Germany Star, the war medal and, now, the Legion d'Honneur.

"[The ship] fired 1,000 shells before the end of the battle. Some of the men I was with started to bleed from their ears and noses because of the pressure. That's when we knew to take a break.

"I couldn't see much but black smoke from in my position. But every now and then there would be a lull and you could step up on deck. There were so many planes flying overhead, and ships all around you.

"But our captain, Gervase Middleton, he had this grass skirt on over his uniform. He was gifted it by a warrior tribe in New Zealand, and wearing it was meant to be good luck. It must have worked.

"You didn't think about it very much. You had a job to do. It was just focus."

HMS Ramilles was successful on D-Day. In fact, it had to return to Portsmouth because its turret barrels were ruined by how many shells it had fired.

Keith saw combat again over the remaining two years of the war, including a role in Operation Dragoon in the south of France.

But when the war was won, he was de-mobbed in 1946 and returned to work at Northampton's boot and shoe quarter, where he worked for 50 more years.

He also met his wife Betty and enjoyed a happy married life with her for 58 years.

But this week, over 75 years after the D-Day operations, Keith will be honoured for his service.

After today's Remembrance Sunday service, Corporal Keith Whiting will be formally awarded with the Legion d'Honneur - France's highest military medal.

Keith said: "I feel honoured. Honoured and proud. A lot of people didn't come home, whereas I did."