Jim Radford
Jim Radford

A song composed by D Day veteran Jim Radford will be performed in the special anniversary concert at The Witham on June 8. Durham resident Clare McComb was a great friend of Jim’s and went with him to Normandy five years ago. Here, she tells us more...

In 2019 Jim Radford, then the youngest D Day veteran, returned to Normandy for the 75th anniversary. I travelled with him as his carer. At the time he was holding Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran off top spot in the Amazon download charts with his song, The Shores of Normandy, which will be sung on June 8 by the St Mary’s Barnard Castle Community Choir to mark the 80th commemoration.

Jim would have loved that because communities and singing were his whole life. The song was his first composition, written just for himself, on returning to Gold Beach, at Arromanches, decades after D Day. The memories had flooded back: seeing heaps of bodies where now little children were playing in the sand. He could see that all the young men who died, had not died in vain.

The Shores of Normandy took a year to write, and it was quite a few more years before Jim actually performed it in public, in Hull, where he grew up. He wanted people to know what it had been like in the place where 22,000 men lost their lives to give freedom back to everyone else. He felt people should understand the realities of war, rather than be sentimental.

All the men in the Radford family went to sea, so it had been natural for him to sign up, aged 15, in 1944. He sailed with the crew of a deep sea tug, the Empire Larch, to France on D Day where they were tasked with towing decommissioned “blockships” into position to be sunk and form the first outline of the harbour. He was a galley boy, peeling spuds.

Sometimes he was called up on deck when extra muscle was needed. He told me everyone worked methodically and calmly, while shells from the German clifftop guns rained down, and the British shells exploded overhead.

There was no time to deal with corpses floating in the water, but he never felt he might be next. “At that age you feel invincible,” he told me. It was in the long years following that he could not erase their faces from his mind.

At one point he showed me a brochure depicting a huge aerial photo of the harbour at Arromanches, taken a few days after the landings. “This is the difference in what someone who was there notices: see those tiny dots in the water – here, and here – and there’s a group of them. What do you think they are? They’re bodies, held up by their life jackets. I know that, but you probably wouldn’t guess. I was left in charge of dying soldiers with orders to give them more morphine if they groaned. War is terrible. Sometimes, as on D Day, it is a just war. I’m no pacifist. But I want people to avoid being drawn into conflict without very careful thought.”

At that point I asked him: “When does someone stop being an enemy and become a human being?” It took seconds to answer: “When they’re in trouble. You would save a drowning German just like anyone else, if you could.”

Jim was a huge hit with everyone as we walked around Arromanches on June 6, 2019. We saw the new sculpture unveiled at the Normandy Memorial; we heard Macron and Theresa May’s speeches, and travelled with a blue-light police escort to the cemetery where Prince Charles and Camilla were attending. Jim had sung The Shores of Normandy on a big stage in Arromanches town square to thunderous applause. Everyone wanted to pose for a photo with him, everyone wanted to shake his hand.

Jim was a stalwart member of Veterans for Peace. His aim was not just to remember with respect those who had died on D Day, but to try to ensure there would be no need to ask for such sacrifice again. He felt that this was everybody’s task, not just the politicians.

He had holidayed in Barnard Castle with his family and taught his son to sail on a reservoir near there. I know he would have been surprised and delighted that the community choir is going to perform his song, with a special new arrangement for different voices.

Covid did for him in the end, aged 92. I had always thought he would go on forever. Were he alive today, I know he would have come to hear his song performed and would have been fascinated to hear of Teesdale’s six training camps where so many thousands were prepared for the D Day landings. He knew first hand how everybody played their part, and that those who managed to make it back were the lucky ones.

l D-Day 80th Anniversary Concert by St Mary’s Barnard Castle Community Choir chorus and Community Orchestra at The Witham, Barnard Castle, on June 8, 7.30pm. A feast of music is promised from the 40s to the present, from films, shows and popular culture. There will be sing-a-longs, foot-tappers, show stoppers and a stirring closing sequence in a musical salute to the brave souls who took part in “the longest day”. Tickets from thewitham.org.uk or call box office 01833 690116.