Jack Quinn with medals
While the infantry was taking the fight to the enemy, thousands of others each had their own role behind the fighting line. Without them, the invasion could never have succeeded. John Westlake and his team ensured fighter aircraft were maintained at the airfields close to the front lines, while John Gillespie was involved in the ambitious engineering feat of laying pipelines to fuel the advancing army. Wren Marie Scott relayed communications from the beaches to the secret HQ at Portsmouth. Joe Buttery was a stoker on a ship tasked with laying nets to protect the Normandy artificial harbours from enemy submarines. 

John Westlake with photo John Westlake with medals John Westlake with family

LAC (Leading Aircraftman) John Westlake

Fitter/Armourer, RAF

While the infantry were taking the fight to the enemy, thousands of others each had their own dedicated role behind the fighting line. Without them, the invasion could never have succeeded. One such man was 19-year-old Leading Aircraftsman John Westlake. His job was crucial: arming, repairing and maintaining the weapons of each aircraft in his charge. John oversaw a team and a workshop lorry that followed the front line at forward airbases, all the way through Normandy and beyond. At the airbases they were responsible for four or five aircraft as well as scavenging operations to retrieve usable spares, and ammunition, from crashed planes.

“[The] Typhoon, that was a terrific aircraft, it was known as the ‘Tank Buster’ and the pilots were exceptionally brave as they had to fly so low. It's so easy to work on. The guns were four cannons, and they were nice, big, bulky guns.

“In those days we knew we had to do our work and keep the momentum going, and we were working solidly. Of course, we lost more pilots than groundcrew and we were not [as] familiar with the pilots, so it was any groundcrew losses we noticed more.

“It was something we tended to accept as part of everyday life, someone not coming back… In a way I suppose we had like a gallows humour to cope with it, and we got a bit thick skinned about it I suppose, by way of survival and sanity. You couldn’t afford to think about it, glad it wasn’t you really. The worst was when we had to clear out the remains of the air gunners and hose down and repair the capsule, ready for the next gunner. That was grim.”

John followed the front line through Falaise, Rouen, Lille, Brussels and into the Netherlands. On VE Day he had just crossed the Rhine. He decided to sign on for an additional six months in the RAF before being demobbed in 1947.

Lieutenant John Gillespie

Royal Engineers

John Gillespie
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During 1943, John worked on Operation Pluto – the extraordinary engineering project to lay fuel pipelines across the English Channel following D-Day to supply the massive numbers of vehicles and aircraft.  John was part of a reserve team who was transferred to take the place of a Pluto officer who had been killed. Pluto was a huge success, supplying millions of gallons of fuel to the allied forces.

John Gillespie holding medals
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“The Royal Navy laid a buoy mooring off the fishing harbour at Port-en-Bessin… we laid a petrol line from the mooring to the beachhead. And there my section erected the first bulk petrol tank. 

On Boulogne Beach, I watched the first water pumped through the pipe and later the petrol through from Liverpool. Pluto supplied fuel to the British, Canadian and American armies and aviation spirit to the RAF at Carpiquet airport on the beachhead.

John Gillespie with family - edited
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When we were fully established, we were averaging a million gallons of petrol pumped per day. From Boulogne, we laid six six-inch steel pipes on the ground, all the way through France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. Every 20 miles we erected a 1,200-ton bulk storage tank for petrol.

We were qualified engineers and tradesmen and were doing a good job. And I think that was the satisfaction: ‘let's get on with it!’“

John arrived on Gold Beach on 18th June – the date of his first wedding anniversary.

Marie Scott with family Marie Scott holding photo

Wren Marie Scott

Women’s Royal Naval Service

Marie volunteered for the Women’s Royal Naval Service in February 1944 when she was 17. She was already a trained switchboard operator and was posted to Fort Southwick – the secret underground operations centre which coordinated the D-Day landings on the beaches. It was here that she was trained as a radio operator.

“On D-Day I was on duty in Fort Southwick, deep underground, and I was transmitting and receiving messages. Suddenly, in my earphones, I was on the beaches in Normandy. I heard everything, because they were the troops who were landing on the beaches. For a moment I was a bit bemused. I didn't know quite what was happening. I had the sounds of war in my ears: machine gun fire, cannon fire, bombs, men shouting orders, men screaming. All those sounds. I suppose, really, you could sum it up by saying it was the chaos of war.

Having got over the initial shock, I then started doing what I was there for: transmitting messages, but it was horrifying. I suddenly thought, all those young men, they don't know what they're going into.

I was on duty for 24 hours over D-Day… I remember when we eventually surfaced. Portsmouth Harbour was empty. Nothing there. All the ships had gone.”

Marie remained a Wren for over two years before demob in July 1946. She has two daughters and three grandchildren.

Stoker 1st Class JOSEPH BUTTERY

Royal Navy

Joseph Buttery service photo
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Joe Buttery was born in Leicestershire and was in a protected profession until he joined the Royal Navy and was promoted to Stoker, First Class. Shortly after D-Day he was serving on HMS Minster which was tasked with laying nets to protect the newly-installed artificial Mulberry Harbours from enemy submarines. On 8th June the ship was escorting Mulberry units being towed to Omaha beach when, at about midday, she struck a mine. By mid-June Joe’s family received a telegram saying he was missing. Some weeks later Joe’s 12-year-old son, Trevor, was at home alone when he received the telegram confirming his father’s death. He had to phone his mother with the news.

"A hell of a shock, yes. I was at home; mother had already left… and I was getting ready to go to school when this telegram came. So, I rang mother to tell her I'd received it and went to school.

…I was just stunned... I can't remember much of the rest of the day.

But, gradually of course you accepted that he was dead. Obviously, I was, being at grammar school, I did have to concentrate on schoolwork. But there were times when I just, you know, felt the loss. Particularly when others were talking about their fathers and what they were doing. 

I wasn't the only one to lose a father during the war, but, you know, it was sad not having a father as you grow up. He didn't deserve to die, but that can be said about so many. I mean, who knows what my life would have been like had he lived?"

The majority of HMS Minster’s crew of more than 70 was lost and most bodies were never recovered including that of Joe Buttery. The ship’s wreck remains a war grave.

D-Day 80

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