Normandy veteran Bernard Jordan on sneaking from his Hove care home to join D-Day commemorations
PUBLISHED: 14:32 01 September 2014 | UPDATED: 10:25 02 September 2014
Bernard Jordan sneaked out of his Hove care home and travelled to France to join in the D-Day commemorations - proving that you should never underestimate the determination of a Normandy veteran, says Angela Wintle
Looking around the sitting room of his nursing home in Hove, Second World War veteran Bernard Jordan couldn’t quite believe his eyes. When he turned 90 in June, he received no fewer than 2,500 birthday cards from well-wishers eager to congratulate him after his D-Day escapades generated headlines around the world.
“It was quite overwhelming to be honest,” says the former Royal Navy officer, who had decided to have a low key birthday with friends and his wife Irene, 86. “I’m just one man and nothing special. Anyone would think I’d defeated Hitler on my own.”
Bernard summoned the spirit and determination of 6 June 1944 when he hatched his cunning plan to join old comrades and world leaders remembering the assault that cost more than 4,000 Allied lives.
By the time staff at The Pines care home realised he was missing (Bernie always comes and goes as he pleases), the veteran had already checked into a hotel in Normandy. The alarm was raised at 7.15pm and the police were notified, but eventually the care home breathed a sigh of relief when they received a phone call from another veteran, who said he had met the former Mayor of Hove on the coach – and all was well.
It was no surprise that Bernard had felt the need to be in France for the commemorations. From his ship off the coast of Normandy during the Second World War, he had witnessed the heroism and the horrors of D-Day at first hand. So come hell or high water, he was determined to take part in the 70th anniversary celebrations.
“When I set my mind to do something, I do it,” he says. “This is what Normandy veterans are like. Sometimes younger folk underestimate the capabilities and spirit of my generation.”
Bernard had fibbed about his age to get into the Royal Navy at 17 – a year early. Less than three years later, in 1944, he was an electrical engineer on the Endeavour, supplying tanks to the British troops invading northern France.
“My job was to make sure the doors of the ship opened properly to let the tanks out. Any electrical job that went wrong, it was my job to put right,” he says. “We released the tanks from the ship, and out of 20, two or three got badly damaged straight away, but the remaining 17 ploughed up the beach.”
He and his comrades worked on, as thousands of servicemen died on the beaches. “I was scared, but I used to keep up morale as best I could. I’m no comedian but we tried to keep each other laughing.”
He applied that same tenacity when he determined to make it to Normandy in June. “I’d tried to get on an official trip and my care home staff were helping me. Everyone had done their best but I couldn’t get a ticket,” says Bernard.
He had resigned himself to following the commemorations from home until his bulldog spirit got the better of him. “I decided whatever it took I’d get to Normandy. I suppose I was rather secretive, but I was anxious nobody would try to deter me,” he says.
So he got dressed and put on his medals, making sure to hide them under his blue mac before he said goodbye to Irene, who lives with him at the Pines.
Then he told the care home staff he was going out before taking the first bus into town. He knew no one would miss him for hours as he always takes himself off around Brighton.
He had planned to attend D-Day commemorations in Portsmouth, so he took a train along the coast. But after talking to other veterans who were heading for Normandy, he decided to join them. “I’d made the journey in far more hazardous circumstances during the war. I couldn’t see that any harm would come from hopping on to a ferry,” he says. So he bought a £30 Brittany Ferries ticket to Caen, boarded and settled into his berth for the night.
Once in France, Bernard managed to get into the stadium where world leaders were gathering, even though he didn’t have a ticket. “I enjoyed every minute. It was a jolly good day,” he says. But he was amazed at the media reaction to his escapade. “I was quite surprised. I didn’t want people to think I was trying to play the hero. I simply went across because I felt it was the right thing to do.”
Bernard’s wartime exploits, in which he also served on a ship involved in a successful mission to seize a German Enigma code machine from a U-boat, saw him earn five medals and promotion. By the time he left the Navy in 1948, he was a lieutenant. “I’ve always felt this great country is worth fighting for and I’d fight for it again and again,” he says. “If there was ever another war, God forbid, I hope those who fought in it would do the same as I did to remember it.”
Sussex dignitaries are doing their bit to honour the role he played during the war and Bernard could soon be awarded the Freedom of Brighton and Hove.