D-Day veteran shares his story, with a warning
"Make every endeavour to try and get peace". Those were the words of one D-Day veteran as he shared his thoughts on the Ukraine war.
Cecil Newton, 99, from Aldbourne, served for more than three years in the Second World War, from landing with the first wave storming Gold Beach on D-Day to rolling into Western Germany. Ill-equipped and poorly trained, with tragic losses at every turn, Cecil recalled his experiences as a gunner loader in a tank regiment and warned against Britain sending troops into Ukraine.
Born on 26 December 1923, Cecil grew up in Muswell Hill in North London. He volunteered for the army in June 1942. After training, he joined the 4th Troop 'B' Squadron of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards. During the war, more than 100 men died in Mr Newton's regiment, many his close friends. A near-fatal injury in Germany ended his military career early.
"I worry that people will get involved if they're not careful," he said of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Unless, of course, the country [Britain] is actually invaded, then I suppose what can one do. But why are we getting involved in that now? They're dragging out old tanks now to fight the Russians. It made me laugh. The Germans made sure all their equipment was first class.
"If Ukraine got into that mess, then it has to get out of it. Why should our young people go out there and get killed? I think the same should happen if it was the other way around. I really think these wars are trade wars. They can't get what they want." "Make every endeavour to try and get peace. They should have made every effort then to get an agreement with Germany. But they didn't, with terrible results. Hitler was doing all sorts of dreadful things and had to be stopped, but there's more ways of stopping a war than having a war."
You can think about Remembrance Day, you can think of the many killed, but you don't know what they were like. I knew them. And it distresses me still.
Looking back to 1939, Cecil spoke about the Allied decision to go to war. "It was this country that declared war on Germany. And then the circus began. You would have thought they would be sensible enough to know that Germany was in a very good position to retaliate. You can think about Remembrance Day, you can think of the many killed, but you don't know what they were like. I knew them. And it distresses me still.
"It was criminal they should be killed like that. That's what happens. It shouldn't happen, but it's still going on. I don't know if it was special from what is happening in Ukraine, but it was bad enough then. And they faced it with stoicism. They did their job."
He also discussed how he thought the Second World War will be remembered once the last veterans have died. "It's sad to see these people going. It would be a big pity if there was no one available who was actually involved to explain it. A lot of people might possibly think we did the right thing, which I suppose we did in a way."
Before D-Day, Cecil's crew trained in the Duplex Drive 'Swimming' Sherman tank, which had been modified to complete an amphibious landing. On 6 June 1944, they landed in Normandy and succeeded in capturing their target, a blockhouse, but their tank became trapped in a shell crater concealed by shallow water.
Cecil explained how enemy resistance was minimal compared to other landing sites. Mines scattered along the beachhead posed the biggest threat to their tanks and infantry.
"I can't understand it really, when you get all those tanks destroyed and people killed, to then be able to draw something out further," he said.
His regiment continued advancing through France, Belgium, Holland and eventually Germany, liberating town after town. They provided relief to Allied paratroopers involved in Operation Market Garden, the disastrous Allied attempt at securing passage into Northern Germany — depicted in the 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far.
Cecil also explained how outmatched their American-made Sherman tanks were against the more superior German armour, which included the Panther and Tiger tanks.
"It was extraordinary really, and foolhardy, because we were nowhere near the armaments of Germany. We had a Sherman, which was a laugh really." Their narrow tracks made manoeuvring on soft and rocky terrain difficult. Their thin armour also gained these tanks the reputation of being notoriously flammable under enemy fire — nicknamed 'Tommy cookers' by the Germans. They countered this defect by adding steel plating.
Cecil's older brother, Frederic, served in the 5th Royal Tank Regiment, 7th Armoured Division — the famous 'Desert Rats'.
"My brother volunteered for the tanks, so I did what he did; I looked up to him considerably," he said. But in April 1945, his brother was killed by surrendering SS soldiers. "A potential German prisoner came out of the copse with his hands up. And when a suitable moment came, he plunged to the ground and five SS shot him in the head."
Does he harbour any resentment towards the Germans? "I never felt resentment against the Germans really. I was surprised by their behaviour, but the interesting point was that they had no control, the actual troops. There didn't seem to be any people who had the authority to tell them what to do, but the British did."
Cecil was badly wounded at an ambush in Tripsrath, Germany on 19 November 1944. A bomb blast broke his leg as he was bailing from his tank.
"You have to queue to get out a Sherman. My left leg was dangling and that got the full blast." He also received multiple gunshot wounds to the back, with one bullet lodging itself near his heart — where it remains today.
"When I was lying in the road, I had no pain at all. But my body was shredded." Some nearby troops dragged him to cover and waited for infantry to clear the area. Then 12 hours later, Cecil was evacuated to an army hospital, where doctors discovered his leg wound had become gangrenous.
"If they'd waited a bit longer, I'd have been dead. The blokes were really marvellous, they really were."
After the war, Cecil qualified as a quantity surveyor and moved to Swindon. He purchased a plot of land in Aldbourne and built the house where he lives today. He married in 1955 and has three children and two grandchildren.
"During my retirement, I made sure that the regiment's name was known," he added. Cecil has attended memorial services and reunions in France almost every year, but his health means he can no longer travel. He now honours his regiment at a private memorial built by his family in his garden.
Cecil has authored two books, taught himself to play the piano at 80 and enjoys painting landscapes from his home studio. His works will feature at an exhibition in Marlborough in April, with any proceeds going to his regiment.
"Having one of the last surviving World War Two veterans still living in Aldbourne is a source of pride. We include Cecil in our projects wherever possible. He is very much part of our village life, and we hope he will be for quite a bit longer," says Terry Gilligan, chairman of Aldbourne Heritage Centre.
When asked about what he considers the key to a long life, Cecil replied: "Keep off alcohol. Don't touch it at all."