‘Our friend and our hero’: Tributes pour in to Ken Smith, one of York’s last Normandy veterans

York Normandy Veteran Ken Smith. Photograph: Nigel Holland
15 Apr 2020 @ 9.24 am
| News

Ken Smith, the gentle hero of the Normandy beaches, has died aged 95.

His wife Gloria was with him.

Tributes have poured in for Mr Smith, from Wheldrake, who campaigned tirelessly to educate younger generations about what happened and the tragedy of war.

With Gloria by his side he paid a last visit to Gold Beach last June, 75 years after was part of the D-Day landings.

Among those paying tribute to his “great friend” was Nick Beilby, who helped organise that trip with the York Normandy Veterans. He said:

  • An articulate and intelligent man who never realised how much he had done for us all. He will be greatly missed.

‘A wonderful man’

One of the greats… Ken Smith

The Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington said: “He was one of those people you simply thought would live forever. We are heartbroken to awake this morning to the news that Normandy veteran Ken Smith has passed away.

“A wonderful man, a life well lived.”

Military historian and battlefield guide Paul Reed said:

  • Tonight I’ve lost a friend, a dear friend: Ken Smith.

    I’ve been blessed to know him for so many years & the legacy he’s left behind with York Normandy Veterans so that the men of World War II are never forgotten is immense.

    A kind man, a good man, my hero, my friend.

Darran Walker said: “Ken was our friend and our hero.

“Such a lovely man who will always be remembered. We’re going to miss you so much Ken, you inspired us to keep going, you taught us so much.”

Editor of YorkMix Chris Titley met Ken on many occasions when researching and writing history articles.

“Ken was the epitome of the British hero. Modest, hugely kind, and a true gentleman,” he said.

“He was also a brilliant communicator, whose eloquent and powerful accounts of the brutality of war made a huge impact on all who heard them.

“He always had a smile on his face and a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. It was nothing less than a pleasure to spend time with him.”

Memorial service planned

Ken at the Normandy Service in York Minster

Gloria’s son Mark told the York Press that Ken died at home on Monday, three weeks after he had suffered a fractured femur in a fall.

His funeral will take place at the church in Wheldrake with a very small number of family members present because of the coronavirus social distancing restrictions.

But there would be a full memorial service at a later date when the pandemic was over, with a guard of honour, when he expected hundreds of people to attend.

A remarkable story

Card image cap

Brought up in Leeds, Ken was 19 and one of 156,000 Allied troops that stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 for the D-Day offensive that marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

Last summer he told the Yorkshire Evening Post of the trauma of that day.

“I was absolutely terrified and shaking quite a bit. But when you get actually on the beach and resign yourself to the fact that you might not get through the day, that tends to disappear.”

There was a Cockney lad with them who used to boast that he wasn’t afraid of anything.

“But just before we landed, I felt a hand on my shoulder and I thought it was somebody telling me to pull myself together because I was shaking – and it was this little lad.

“He just said in this quiet voice, all the bombast was gone, I’m scared mate. So I said we’ll look after each other. Going up the beach where mines had been cleared, or supposedly cleared, he went down.

“I saw him go and you’re not allowed to stop in battle. You have to keep going, so if anybody goes down you hesitate just for a minute and a voice behind you says keep going lad.

“That’s when I got to the top of the beach and the wireless set was no good… To my shame, I never found out what happened to him.”

Whilst getting out of a trench on October 20, 1944, Ken was hit by shrapnel as a shell burst nearby and killed a comrade.

He spent time in Brussels General Hospital before being flown home in a Dakota in November.

“When I came out the army, I was demobbed in York. I walked to the station and I called into the first church that I came across and I took an oath at the altar that I would not handle another weapon again and I’ve kept to that.

“I’ve not even bought my family toy guns. I won’t handle anything because over the five years, I have been responsible for the killing and wounding of quite a few.”