“I didn’t need any medals. I got back. That was good enough for me”
PUBLISHED: 15:52 10 November 2010
Â© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2010
War veteran John Frew tells Derek James the story of his return to Normandy, 66 years on.
An old man stands beside a bridge in Normandy, medals glinting on his jacket. There are tears in his eyes as he remembers.
This is the first time John Frew has ever worn his medals, and the first time he has been back in 66 years.
John, now 87, was last here in 1944 when the landscape shuddered with gunfire and mortar shells, the shouts of soldiers and the screams of the dying.
The D-day landings had begun and field by field, road by road, and village by village, the Nazis were being beaten back.
Ten months later John’s company had penetrated right through to Germany and the war in Europe was over. Of the 120 men who had set out from England, just 11 remained.
Last month John, of Sprowston, returned to Normandy for the first time since the war. Accompanied by one of his four sons, he toured the battle sites where he helped make history, and the cemeteries where fallen comrades still lie.
He found the graves of friends and, for the first time, began talking about his war.
His son, Dennis, admits he found himself in tears too, as he heard about the danger, deprivations, fear and tragedy which John had survived, and had never shared.
John grew up in Scotland and joined the 51st Highland Division at 17.
He was sent for training, first to Mundesley, and then to Morton Hall near Attlebridge.
For a full year the troops trained in Norfolk with live ammunition. There were fatalities, but the men who made it through had the huge advantage of having been rigorously drilled for battle conditions.
John became part of a demonstration platoon. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was learning and demonstrating skills vital to the success of the D Day Landings.
He had also fallen in love with a girl from Norwich, and ran, every night, into the city and back, just to see her. “Only the Americans had cars. But it was lovely, that year, I used to run everywhere and was as fit as a fiddle!” said John.
Eventually the training ended and the 51st Highlanders were on the move. Lined up for a final parade before the invasion John and another man were surprised to be told to step out of the ranks.
They were being held back from the frontline – in case the entire company was wiped out.
If their troop ship sunk or every man was gunned down on the landing beaches or massacred in the fight for a free France, the company would have two members to begin rebuilding around.
“Consequently, I didn’t land until D-day plus three,” said John. And in the unexpected spare days he snatched the time to marry his Norwich sweetheart.
John and Audrey were married at St George’s Roman Catholic Church on Fishergate. There was no time for any family to get down from Scotland and within days John was fighting in Normandy.
The newlyweds did not see each other, or even have a photograph taken together, until the war was over, 10 months later.
On his first night in Normandy, on patrol, it was only instinct born of that year of Norfolk battle training which saved John’s life.
A mortar shell slammed down on the path he had been pacing, and exploded leaving a huge crater.
A single, distant boom, just beforehand, and the fact John had registered the abandoned German trenches nearby, meant he was able to dive for cover and save his companion’s live too.
It is this sort of story that his four sons have never heard before.
His second son, Dennis Frew, said: “When we asked, he might talk about what his mates had done and what they had gone through. It was never about what he had gone through. We got the impression that he was cocooned safely away from the action.”
Instead John was fighting to secure strategic bridges, flushing enemy soldiers out of villages, pushing back the front line, coming under fire on patrol…
“We were grabbing a little bit of ground here and there,” said John. “It was pretty hot.”
He remembers the constant noise of battle, the squeal and boom of shells, the smell of burning and the horror of losing friends. “I can still lie in bed and think about it,” said John. “I still remember them. I hadn’t wanted to go back because there were so many bad memories.”
However, his sons, who had always wanted to know more about their father’s war service, managed to get a lottery grant to help fund the visit and persuaded John to join a coach tour of the Normandy battlefields and cemeteries.
As the only veteran of the trip, John became an instant VIP. “The other people on the coach were awestruck,” said Dennis.
And throughout the tour John was greeted like the returning hero he was. At one museum he was awarded a medal. “This girl came up to him and said ‘Mr Frew, you have returned! Thank you!’ I got ‘grit in my eye,’ at that point,” admitted Dennis.
John simply said: “I felt humble. Looking around the cemeteries I knew that, but for the grace of God, it could have been me. I lost a lot of friends.” At times the memories were overwhelming. “Dad told me he felt like he was going back into battle as we drove up to some places,” Dennis explained, “I’m getting emotional just looking at the photos again.”
Before the trip John’s eldest son, Peter, sent off for the war medals which John had never claimed.
And in Normandy, by a river crossing where John had once fought Nazi troops, Dennis took a photograph of his 87-year-old father wearing his medals for the first and only time.
Peter would have loved to have been there too, but was seriously ill at the time. However, John was so moved by the tour that he is now considering going back again next year. John had been apprenticed to a builder before being called up and in 1946 he returned to Norwich and found work as a builder. He had suffered just one slight shrapnel wound.
“And I think he got it out himself after a few days!” said Peter. “I didn’t need medals. I got back. That was enough for me,” said John.
He and Audrey had four boys – Peter, Dennis, Robert and David, who all still live in and around Norwich – and today there are seven grandchildren, and great grandchildren too.
Audrey died two years ago, and the older two sons, Dennis and Peter, became convinced John should make a pilgrimage back to Normandy. “And after seeing what he experienced I thought it was something that could be shared,” said Dennis.
Today, John still enjoys racing his pigeons – something he began as a child in Scotland – and lives in his Sprowston bungalow, surrounded by family photos, and a few mementoes of his war service. And tomorrow, on Armistice Day, and on Remembrance Sunday this weekend, he will remember his fallen comrades.
“I don’t go to any parades, but I mark it on my own. I keep thinking of them,” said John.
At last! A war memorial in the centre of Norwich fit to honour our fallen heroes will be the centre of attention on Armistice Day tomorrow morning and on Remembrance Sunday. The memorial, which had become a disgraceful eyesore, has now been completely renovated, redesigned and turned around to face the City Hall.
See Friday’s and Monday’s Evening News for full reports and pictures of the ceremonies taking place across Norfolk.