William Jones D-Day Story
William died when his grandson David was just two, but his wartime exploits were a cause for some family pride and David grew up fascinated by the story - even though William had rarely spoken of it - and this inspired him to join the Royal Marines. David later became a SSAFA beneficiary and supporter.
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When war broke out in 1939 William left the Merchant Navy to join the Welsh Guards rising quickly through the ranks. When the order went out asking for volunteers for special forces, William was one of the first in line.
“He joined No 4 Commando which was put together before the Commando school at Achnacarry was even opened,” David said. “His first operation was the raid on the Lofoten Islands. The Germans had taken them over and were using the resources. The Commandos raided it, burned everything down and liberated it. It was the first time the British actually took land back from the Germans and a real indication that Commando tactics could work. The British were on their knees at that point of the war.”
William was also part of the disastrous Dieppe raid in August 1942 which saw more than 3,500 Canadian killed, wounded or captured. David said: “On either side of the landings there were big cannon pointing at the beach so No 4 Commando and No 3 Commando went in, climbed the cliffs, took the guns out and then went back to their boats and escaped which was probably the most successful part of the Dieppe raid.”
Although William was reluctant to talk about his war, the experiences of 4 Commando are captured in the book Swiftly They Struck written by his Lieutenant Murdoch McDougall who was with William on D Day, when their unit included the Free French Commandos.
“It was someone on the Commando Veterans Association website who told me grandad was mentioned in the book. I managed to find an old copy of it and it details a large amount about the D Day landings.
“Their target was Sword Beach. 4 Commando stormed the beaches and quickly moved up to the gun emplacements and defences and pushed past those positions. Their target was to move inland and link up with the British Airborne at Pegasus Bridge. They moved so quickly a lot of the Germans had not realised an assault was underway so the Commandos took relatively few casualties on the landing itself. They moved inland and took the town of Ouistreham.”
Commandos went on to fight in the Battle of Normandy and it was here, despite the relative calm, that William was injured. David said: “Grandad was largely in a defensive position outside Caen and not a lot really happened in the grand scheme of things but typically it was then that he was shot in the arm about six weeks after the landings. He was shot in the left elbow with an MG42.”
By a strange coincidence, on the same day elsewhere in Normandy William’s younger brother John, who was with the Somerset Light Infantry, was shot in the left shoulder.
Their parents at home in the small Welsh village where the brothers grew up received the telegrams on the same day and William and John were later released from hospital on the same day, returning home to a heroes welcome from the villagers.
Both brothers were soon redeployed with William going on to fight in the Battle of Walcharen. “I think Walcharen was very difficult for him,” David said. “The Commandos did another night raid and landed on the shores and went house-to-house fighting the Germans over a couple of days. Grandad took some shrapnel from a grenade to the eye. He carried on for the rest of the war but afterwards he was blind in that eye and he lived the rest of his life with a glass eye.”
John was not so lucky and was killed in a forest just inside the German border at Kleve. He was just 19. William was able to visit his brother’s grave soon afterwards and a couple of years ago David, his father Wyatt and sister Nicola followed in his footsteps.
“No one had visited my great uncle’s grave since the 1950s. Through the CWGC I found documentation with the grid reference of where he was originally buried and where he was later moved to so we were able to find the right place with the same tree in the background.”
For David, having spent nine years in the Royal Marines, including two difficult tours of Afghanistan, it was a poignant moment. “I had always known my Grandad was a Commando and from a very young age I wanted to be a soldier. I grew up saying I want to be a Commando and I still remember how disappointed I was when my dad told me they had disbanded. I must have been nine or 10 when we went on a day out to Chatham Dockyards and that was the first time I saw the Royal Marines Commandos. That was my dream from that point on.
“A lot of my research has really come in the last few years when I have had a better understanding of what Grandad would have been experiencing. Until I joined the Marines and began to understand the realities of battle I’d say my understanding of what my grandfather went through was very different.”
A back injury brought an unexpected end to David’s military career and a difficult return to civilian life for him, wife Naomi and their four young children. The family moved from Plymouth to their home town in Kent in February 2015 and were housed in temporary accommodation for more than a year including several weeks in just one room.
David began to suffer from hyper sensitivity and panic attacks and was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD. When the family was finally allocated housing it was in need of complete redecoration and had bare concrete flooring. Simon Sanderson, a caseworker from SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, sourced funding for new carpets, flooring, a washing machine and cooker.
“We just didn’t have the funds to put carpets down so my wife persuaded me to make the call. What SSAFA managed to do completely blew me away. I’m in a much better place now but I know my grandad never did really talk about what he went through. My advice to anyone making that transition from the military now would be, make sure you talk to somebody about how you’re feeling. Don’t put it off.”