‘They were heroes, every one’ – ex-army cook remembers seeing off soldiers on D-Day

Larry Grayson's friend Joyce Dowding. Photograph: Stuart Boulton.

A former cook serving the armed forces has told of her experiences of being in a secret army camp on D-Day and going on to be one of the first women to go to Normandy after the invasion.

Joyce Dowding, 97, of Redcar, was conscripted in 1940 aged 18 into the Navy, Army and Airforce Institute (NAAFI) which catered for servicemen in combat zones in the Second World War.

A Royal British Legion commemoration event will be held in Redcar on the 75th anniversary of D-Day today (Thursday, June 6).

Miss Dowding started as a kitchen assistant but by 1944, after attending a catering course just behind York Minster, was appointed a Head Cook.

She put her name forward after a notice was issued asking for volunteers for special work in the build up to D-Day.

“I was told all would be explained at interview. All went well but the destination of where I was going was kept from me,” she recalls.

“I was given a train ticket and found ten more girls, going to the same destination. We were taken in a lorry into this dense forest.”

Despite being aware there was a special operation, Miss Dowding and her ten workmates had no idea that the soldiers in the camp would be taking part in one of the biggest military invasions in world history.

“One morning we woke up and it was eerie quiet,” said Miss Dowding. “We were used to all this noise but the boys had gone in the night – just like that. A lot of those boys were dead before we went out.”

After the successful landing another appeal went out, signed by Eisenhower, asking for volunteers to help the Liberation Army. Miss Dowding again answered the call.

A few months later she found herself the only Northern Command member of the NAAFI aboard a hospital ship bound for France. It landed at Arromanches beach, used in the invasion in Normandy, and the young woman had to climb down a rope ladder onto a landing craft and then onto the prefabricated ‘Mulberry’ man-made harbour before being taken to the devastated city of Caen.

She was billeted into a cinema and one day, not used to cooking with oil, set the kitchen range on fire. “The lads rushed in and put it out but later the Commanding Officer for the whole of the area came in and said; ‘this is the only place in the whole of the town with a roof on – and burn the place down!”

Miss Dowding, who remembers bumping into a Redcar man, Terry Collins, in Caen who went on to become Redcar mayor, went on to Ypres and was there on VE Day. She then served in Germany after the war for five years.

“I remember those boys who went from our camp that day and never came home,” says Miss Dowding. “I can never forget them. They were heroes, every one.”

Dave Blissett, Redcar Branch Treasurer and Poppy Appeal Organiser of the Royal British Legion, said: “There’s not many veterans left it is wonderful to have someone who was there. At our event tomorrow we will have children attending which is very important. Those who gave their lives for our country must never be forgotten.”

A Royal British Legion service will be held at Redcar Garden of Remembrance on Coatham Road, Redcar, on Thursday (June 6), from 11am.