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Dunedin veteran, 91, recalls World War II service on D-Day anniversary

DUNEDIN

The orders came by way of a letter from Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the Allied Forces, that Monday. Within hours, 15 sailors and two officers with the British Royal Navy's Support Squadron Eastern Flank were aboard a ship, heading toward a Normandy, France, port under the cover of night.

At 6:05 a.m. June 6, 1944, they swept onto the shore at Ouistreham, or Sword Beach, where 21-year-old seaman Basil Woolf squinted through the twilight at the chaotic scene that would become known as D-day — the kickoff of the Allied Forces' successful battle to liberate France from Nazi Germany. It's regarded as the largest seaborne invasion in history.

"As daylight broke, I looked down and saw ships in the hundreds all around us headed to France," recalls Woolf, now 91. "We had our decks filled with soldiers. We landed them all down to the beaches. At the same time, we looked up and saw hundreds of Hamilcar gliders and paratroopers released from planes."

Today, the Dunedin man is to be in Normandy, halfway through an 11-day trip, along with about 50 other British veterans commemorating D-day's 70th anniversary.

Woolf says his first return to Normandy since the war was spearheaded by his son Ian, who remembers listening as a child with his two sisters to his dad's military stories.

War had been raging for a year when Woolf, a 17-year-old East London native, volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1940 because "I wanted to do my part."

He was trained on the intricacies of engine room mechanics of flat-bottomed beach landing craft that included gunboats, rocket-firing ships and a headquarter ship.

Over his first several years of service, Woolf says his crew was dispatched to locales including North Africa, Malta to deliver food to bombed Italian troops, and Crete to smuggle in female guerillas.

But Normandy, he says, was the most memorable.

Shortly after landing, Woolf says, the Allied soldiers found warm coffee cups left behind by German troops who'd just fled a picnic table outside a beachside bed-and-breakfast.

From then on, he said, the Allies were under constant fire.

Woolf recalls how moments into his trek to top deck to refuel the headquarter ship generator, he heard a skipper yell "Get down!" followed by the rat-tat-tat of gunfire as the enemy "used my rear end as a target."

He and Anne, his wife of 69 years, chuckle at how Woolf managed to keep safe a glass vial of Chanel No. 21 perfume in his money belt during his entire three-month deployment only for Anne to drop and shatter it on her parents' tile floor when he presented it to her.

Basil, whose progressive hearing loss was prompted by the clamor of guns and bombs during Normandy, was honorably discharged in 1946.

"I've heard about it my whole life and I'm really excited to be able to share this (D-day anniversary) with him," says Ian, a 56-year-old California television producer who researched, booked and plans to film the voyage, "because it's a pretty momentous occasion."

The all-expenses-paid trip was organized through D-day Revisited, a UK-based charity that annually hosts pilgrimages for British Armed Forces veterans to the Normandy beaches.

Anne, 89, said she expected the trip would be an emotional one for Basil, who received recognition for his Normandy service from King George VI in 1944 and was appointed a Knight of the Legion of Honor, France's highest military award, in 2012.

The couple has lived in the United States since 1952 and Florida since the late 1980s. But Basil has kept the memory of his overseas adventures strong through the painting of more than 400 oils and acrylics, including a likeness of the landing craft on which the former petty officer sailed. In 2008, he penned a 265-page memoir, complete with historic photographs and documents, titled My Life in the Royal Navy (and a Little Before and After).

"It'll bring back memories of the battles," Basil said of the anniversary trip. "It'll bring back a lot of memories of guys I knew who didn't make it."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153.

Dunedin veteran, 91, recalls World War II service on D-Day anniversary 06/05/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2014 11:54am]
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