From his position on the deck of the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Tracker, Charles Starkes could hear the unnerving drone of thousands of planes racing across the sky over the English Channel for the coast of France on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The roaring from the sky blended in with the blasts and pounding of the naval guns as vessels battered the beachheads trying to unearth the dug-in German positions along the Normandy shores before the Allied soldiers landed. The whistle of bombs and distant rattles of anti-aircraft fire had become almost as common as the sound of waves crashing against the vessel, the wind whipping the flags.
Starkes was a torpedo man. He helped fit the fighter planes out with their munitions before they lifted off the deck as a part of Operation Overlord — the massive invasion that turned the tide to end the war in Europe.
It was a miserable morning, Starkes recalls, one of fog and drizzle and a turbulent sea in the English Channel.
“Rain and heavy fog and we couldn’t see anything at times. The sea was rough, but we didn’t mind in the Tracker, she was a big boat with all kinds of stabilizers. But the small boats took a beating,” Starkes, now 97, said from his home in St. John’s.
“All our aircraft went ashore and none of them came back. We didn’t know if they all got shot down or if they may have made it back and landed in England. There was too much gunfire to come back over France.”
Loaded with the tools of war
Starkes saw the troop barges heading toward the shore, rising and falling in the waves, water splashing over the metal landing ramp.
The Allied troops then stormed German defences on the beaches of Normandy to open the way to Germany from the west. The German army had prepared well. The coastline was a long fortress of guns, pillboxes, razor wire, mines and beach obstacles.
Starkes said they were worried about casualties. They wondered if the attack was meeting with success. All this while hoping they wouldn’t get hit themselves from German guns, or become the prey of a German U-boat.
The cargo decks of the Tracker were loaded down with equipment needed once the landing forces got a foothold on the beaches — tanks, jeeps, heavy guns — the tools of war needed to advance and begin the liberation of France and Belgium, and push through the muddied farmlands into Germany.
Later they would need to keep the channel open as a supply route for food, water and medical supplies and personnel, reinforcements and more ammunition and equipment.
Not long before D-Day, Starkes and the Tracker had returned from Murmansk in northern Russia.
The Tracker was doing escort duty for some of the 78 convoys through waters that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once called “the worst journey in the world” to deliver vital war supplies to Russia. Those who made the dangerous journey, Churchill called “the bravest souls afloat.”
Convoys were under the constant threat of air and U-boat attack. If you survived the torpedoing or bombing of your ship, you were certain for a quick death in the frigid waters.
“The area was a graveyard of ships,” Starkes said. “It was devil cold.”
The Tracker often encountered the enemy. German planes zoomed in, the Trackers gunners took aim and Starkes said they were lucky they weren’t hit. The gunners sometimes knocked down a German plane.
When the ship was on the hunt for U-boats, he’d fit the planes with depth charges, or with torpedoes for surface attacks.
Sometimes, to make sure the torpedoes were calibrated correctly, he’d have to fly with the pilot to monitor and make sure the torpedo hit the water at the proper angle.
“There were special tails on the torpedoes so they’d hit the water at the right angle,” Starkes said. “(Going up in the plane) that was something else. The torpedo weighed about 2,000 pounds and when the plane let it go, the plane would shoot up. The first time I did it, I thought we were finished, gone.”
On D-Day morning, there was some comfort in being in such a huge attack force. Word had spread through the crew the invasion would lead to the end of the war.
Starkes said they could see the coastline as the day progressed, and barges continued to come alongside to take their cargo ashore, a sign that progress was being made.
“It was noisy as the devil,” he said. “And the (anti-submarine vessels) corvettes were going around, turning up the water, looking for German submarines.”
Starkes said he didn’t feel fear. Along with his young crewmates — most of them 19 and 20 years of age — they were glad to be a part of it.
“If they said go, you had to go. Being 20 years old, you didn’t mind anything. You were glad to get a chance to go,” he said. “If a bomb dropped nearby, and you heard a bang, it missed you, so you’d just keep on doing your job.”
Thinking back, Starkes remembers the buddies he lost, and the long days at sea during the war. He remembers the German planes firing at his ship, explosions near the ship, and the sounds of battle.
After the war, Starkes had to stay behind for another six months defusing mines that had washed up on the shores of Dover after a storm.
“We had to take the detonators out of them,” he said. “We got paid extra for that … an extra 20 cents a day.”
He later spent another three months on a minesweeper before being discharged to return to Newfoundland and Labrador.
The key to not being affected in the years after the war, for him, was to not think about it, he said. Though it did suddenly creep up on him on one occasion.
“I came home after I was discharged. I met my mother down on Water Street and she had a few parcels and we took the bus,” he said.
“The bus was coming up over Longs Hill when someone must have pulled the buzzer for the bus to stop. I heard that noise and I bolted to the door. Someone said, ‘you want to get off? The stop is a little further along’ and I said ‘no, I thought I saw somebody I knew.’ I went back to my seat and told my mother the same thing.
“The sound startled me. That’s the only incident I had really, when I returned."
D-DAY AT 75: Remembering the heroes and sacrifices of Atlantic Canada:
- VIDEO: The road to D-Day
- Why a school in France is named for a Pictou soldier
- U-boat hunter Roderick Deon returns to Juno Beach for D-Day
- Sound of gunfire rang in P.E.I. soldier’s ears
- North Nova Scotia Highlanders at the sharp end of D-Day invasion
- STORY MAP: Follow the D-Day experience of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders
- 12 North Nova Scotia Highlanders murdered at Abbaye d’Ardenne
- ‘It was noisy as the devil,’ says St. John’s torpedo man
- 59th Newfoundland Heavy Regiment was eager to do its part
- A P.E.I. dispatcher’s long, uncertain journey to Normandy
- LAURENT LE PIERRÈS: D-Day invasion was best birthday present for my Dad
- ‘Sight of our boys being blown up ... wouldn’t leave my mind:’ Bedford veteran, author
- Dartmouth veteran's first combat mission was D-Day invasion
- Halifax air gunner had bird’s-eye view of D-Day
- ‘We had everything fired at us but the galley sink’: Yarmouth County veterans share war and D-Day memories
- New Waterford veteran has lived good life after surviving D-Day invasion
- JOHN DeMONT: An old film clip of D-Day shows the nature of courage
- D-Day landing map’s origins a mystery to army museum historians