‘I was so young on D-Day, I just got used to the death and destruction’

Cyril Parkinson saw the MV Derrycunihy break in two off the coast of Juno Beach after being hit on D-Day  June 6, 1944.
Cyril Parkinson saw the MV Derrycunihy break in two off the coast of Juno Beach after being hit on D-Day June 6, 1944.
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He was leaning against the ship’s railings looking across to a neighbouring vessel when fire burst through the grey clouds.

Fulwood war veteran Cyril Parkinson, now 93, was recovering from sea sickness when he saw the anchored MV Derrycunihy launch out of the water and break in two off the coast of Normandy’s Juno Beach.

A drawing by Cyril of infantry troops exiting a ship onto a landing craft via camouflage netting.

A drawing by Cyril of infantry troops exiting a ship onto a landing craft via camouflage netting.

It was D-Day – June 6, 1944 – and still only around 7am.

Smoke billowed against a sombre sky and small boats spilled out of the ship as the sea swallowed its rear end.

There were countless bodies floating in the water while surviving troops from the 43rd Reconnaissance Regiment dived out into the sea, swimming for their lives and scrambling for something to hold onto.

But in the sinking half of the ship, numerous men were trapped in their sleeping quarters.

Cyril Parkinson was a dispatch rider on D-Day.

Cyril Parkinson was a dispatch rider on D-Day.

It was an unforgettable sight for an artistic 20-year-old dispatch rider, who had qualified to drive a Horton 16H bike just two weeks before D-Day.

“There was a terrible loss of life,” said Cyril, who ran errands and delivered messages for the 8th Battalion of the Middlesex Machine Gun Regiment.

The night before, as hundreds of ships travelled from the south of England, a terrible storm had swept across the English Channel.

And the Germans had littered the beaches with magnetic mines.

Cyril Parkinson (right).

Cyril Parkinson (right).

“It was too rough to land, so we had to stay aboard for another night, anchored near to Juno Beach,” Cyril says.

“I wanted our boat to go down – I was that ill. Most of us were.

“I was terrible. I was sick all the way. And I mean sick. If truth were known I wanted to stuff it.

“But the morning after it had all calmed down and I was feeling better.

“I was leaning on the railings just wondering what I was doing there, waiting to be unloaded and I was actually looking at the boat anchored next to us when up it went.

“As soon as they started the engines it drew a mine.

“That was a bad start.

“It killed loads of people and the ship broke in two. It was terrible.

“We were lucky because there was line after line of ships and we could have been on that one.”

The disaster killed 183 men from 43 Recce, as well as 25 of the ship’s crew.

But it wasn’t the only mine Cyril saw explode that day.

By mid-afternoon, his regiment had reached the shore and were scrambling down nets from their cargo ship to a landing craft.

Commanded by the swell of the waves, the two vessels bobbed up and down out of sequence, providing a brief moment of humour amid the devastation.

“That was a funny experience,” Cyril says.

“It was one big laugh.”

But it wasn’t long before the men were sucked back into the chaos playing out on the beach.

As his feet hit the sand and the troops began to sort out their trucks and attach themselves to the Middlesex HQ, Cyril caught the gaze of a farmer working with his horse in a nearby field.

But as the man continued with his work, smoke blasted through the air, a mine detonating beneath the animal’s feet.

The farmer was unhurt; his horse blown to bits.

“It made a mess of the horse,” Cyril adds.

“It blew it in a dozen pieces or more.”

Destruction was something the veteran would soon become well acquainted with.

Cyril, who celebrated his 21st birthday in Normandy with cake sent from his mum, attributes his youth to his survival.

“You think differently when you’re 20, almost 21,” he says.

“It was rough at times when there was shelling but you got used to it.

“You just accept these things as you go along.”

Cyril, by his own admission, was not a natural seaman, as he soon discovered when he fell violently sick during the long channel crossing.

As a young boy, he instead dreamed of taking to the skies and serving with the Royal Air Force.

Together, the RAF and United States Army Air Force made the largest ever crew of its kind, having been combined to create the 2nd Tactical Air Force, or 2TAF.

The RAF had been planning for the Normandy invasion for months.

Fighter-bombers had assaulted German airfields and bases, destroyed trains and convoys, shot down German Luftwaffe aeroplanes and prevented the enemy from moving troops or supplies by day.

Further attacks put more than 20 German radar stations out of action, completely removing their coverage for large parts of the English Channel.

Cyril was ecstatic when he was given a chance to join this almighty team, having secured a job as a wireless operation air gunner following an interview in Warrington.

But his dreams were dashed when he later failed a medical test because of his poor eyesight.

On his return to Lancashire, he tried to join the Glider Pilot Regiment after seeing a notice in the window of the city’s army recruiting office.

But he was again rejected because of his vision.

Though it hurt at the time, it was a decision which could well have saved his life.

The RAF’s role in the Battle of Normandy was costly: more than 2,000 aircraft were destroyed and 8,000 crewmen were killed.

And on D-Day, German machine guns planted in the trees and fields decimated a number of the US Army Air Force’s C-47 Skytrains, the transport aircraft used to deliver Allied paratroopers to Normandy.

C-47s were forced off target and dropped paratroopers at dangerous speeds at the wrong time and locations.

One trooper was even forced to play dead for two hours while Germans moved around beneath him when his parachute caught on a church steeple and he was left hanging in mid-air.

“I thank God that my eyesight was bad because pilots didn’t last five minutes,” Cyril says.

“I was very lucky.”

Instead, he was called up to train in Ireland and eventually joined the 8th Battalion in Kent in 1934.

They were nicknamed “The Die Hards” and training included street battles and lessons in basic first aid, as well as finding and removing mines.

After D-Day, he journeyed to Holland and narrowly escaped death when his regiment was hit by an overnight shelling.

And later, in Belsen, a town in northern Germany, he was told about the terrible piles of Jewish bodies discovered by British troops in a Nazi concentration camp in the nearby woods.

After a posting to Egypt, Cyril was demobbed from the war in 1946, but mistakenly recalled three years later and sent to Llanbedr in Wales to train for a mission in Korea.

Two weeks later, the error was rectified and he was sent home.

Cyril soon settled back in Preston where his passion for motorbikes and North End grew even stronger when he met his wife Vera one cold, October morning in 1953.

They were both on shift work at Orr’s Mill in Bamber Bridge when he’d spotted her with three other ladies waiting for the bus.

The pair soon fell in love and were married at the Emmanuel Church, Fulwood, which the veteran still regularly attends to this day.

And when he fitted a sidecar to his motorcycle, the couple took to the roads together and travelled the length and breadth of the UK.

After the war, Cyril enjoyed a more peaceful career, completing three years at art school in Preston.

He also finally fulfilled his dream of working with military aircraft.

But as a former employee at British Aerospace in Samlesbury, his feet were firmly on the ground.