Bill Silvester, a 96-year-old second world war veteran – bon viveur and all-round adventurer – who joined the Navy at just 14, married the French girl he fell in love with after landing on the Normandy beaches on D-Day +3. Decorated for his two years on the brutal Arctic convoys, Bill is now saying thank you to charity SSAFA, who helped him in his latest adventure…getting home to the UK to live, just as the global Covid-19 pandemic took a grip of the world.
“At 14, I needed my mother’s signature to join, I expect she was glad to get rid of me, so she signed and away I went. I had to sign up for 12 years.”
Wilfred Augustus Silvester, known as Bill to his friends, was born on Wednesday, 30th April 1924. As a boy, he lived at Lulworth on Dorset’s beautiful Jurassic Coast, in the shadow of Durdle Door, the stunning natural landmark.
Indeed, the limestone arch that juts out into the English Channel played a part in Bill’s decision to join the Navy in 1938 as a boy sailor.
“It looked like a good life. But it was a hard life.”
“I lived in Lulworth and I was fascinated by the Navy. One time this ship came to retrieve a torpedo. They were testing them nearby. But a storm came up, and the ship got sunk, and the matelots were in a cave in Durdle Door, one sitting on top of the Door, and I don’t know why, it just attracted me. It looked like a good life. But it was a hard life.
“I wanted to join a training ship on the Thames at Grays, Essex, but, at 14, I needed my mother’s signature to join, I expect she was glad to get rid of me, so she signed and away I went. I had to sign up for 12 years.
“Because I was only 14 at the time, I spent 12 months on the training ship, TS Warspite before joining HMS Ganges.” This was in Suffolk.
By the time Bill had finished his initial training, he was still only 15-years-old, the Second World War came knocking. Because he was such a young man, he wasn’t sent to active operations straight away.
In October 1939, he went to HMS Devonport in Plymouth for three months, then he was sent to the Isle of Man for another 12 months working at the internment camps set up to house people feared a potential risk to national security.
“We nearly got torpedoed by one of our own destroyers and once, we were almost sunk in a blizzard. If you fell in, you’d only have two minutes to get out again.”
At the end of 1940, he went home for Christmas before being sent to Liverpool and then later to Portsmouth.
In Portsmouth, he trained at the Royal Navy Signals School before being given – at the ripe old age of 17 – his first operational posting with HMS Berwick, to take part in the campaign which Winston Churchill entitled ‘the worst journey in the world’.
In June 1941, HMS Berwick was dispatched to the Denmark Straits and then up towards Russia where Bill served off-and-on for two long, finger-numbing years, in the Arctic Convoys protecting the Merchant Navy’s supply ships, which were bringing much-needed supplies to the northern ports of the Soviet Union.
These trips were treacherous, for the extreme weather conditions and the enemy threat they faced.
“It was bloody cold,” said Bill with typical stoic understatement.
Ships’ records show temperatures could go as low as -30°C. Ice would coat the outside of the ship and sea splashes would turn instantly into a layer of dangerous ice as they hit the deck.
“Unlike these days, we had open bridges,” said Bill. “One time on the way back from Archangel, we nearly got torpedoed by one of our own destroyers and once, we were almost sunk in a blizzard. If you fell in, you’d only have two minutes to get out again.”
And all this was on top of trying to dodge the threat of German warships and U-boats who were continuously hunting them and the cargo ships they protected.
“He had a black beard, and it was full of phosphorous. He looked just like a ghost.”
Bill also remembers the ice-cold temperatures and a glow-in-the-dark material, used at the time in ammunition, could also create an eeriness about the place, especially in the dark.
“At night, you could see the phosphorous that came from the weapons. And one night I was on watch at midnight, and I felt somebody was behind me, I looked around and there was our chief yeoman. He had a black beard, and it was full of phosphorous. He looked just like a ghost. The phosphorous was on the mast behind him too. Oh God. It was something out of this world,” said Bill.
It was while on HMS Berwick that Bill and a friend spotted a recruitment notice for a communications specialist needed for special duties and once again the spirit of adventure kicked in. Bill was soon on his way away from the cold, going from Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, to Thurso at the very north of Scotland, to Edinburgh to London, to Portsmouth (and nearby Fareham) at the other end of the country, on the south coast England; a journey took the young men two full days.
Little did he know at the time, but those ‘special duties’ would eventually take him to the Normandy beaches.
“There was no room for us because they had 200 troops to carry to Normandy. They said you have to stay in the cable locker. The doors opened and there was a bloody big chain.”
In Fareham, Bill and his friend were ‘kitted out in khaki’ before spending time in Southampton and eventually being sent to join a ram-packed American landing ship in Lowestoft in Norfolk which would be heading across the channel in the early days of June 1944.
“The officers had a cabin. But there was no room for us because they had 200 troops to carry. They said you have to stay in the cable locker. The doors opened and there was a bloody big chain. There were no bunks. It was where they stowed stuff. So, we had to move jam and all sorts of tinned stuff for four of us to sleep in the bows.”But Bill’s story never takes the usual path. The group of six young British sailors – on the US ship – arrived in Courselles-sur-Mer, France on D-Day at 15:00. But after being told they weren’t ‘on the list’ for the operation were told to come back later, and then the next day. Eventually they were told that they should all be on operations at Omaha Beach in Port-en-Bessin, 40 kilometres from where they were.
With no other option, the matelots were told to ‘bloody well walk’ by the officer in charge of the beach.
“Off we trotted pushing our trolley with all the equipment in,” explains Bill.
For two and a half days, they trudged towards the correct rendezvous point. Sleeping the first night on the beach and the second in a chicken house where Bill excitedly found, and mistook, a dummy chicken egg, designed to encourage hens to keep laying. His lovely breakfast egg wasn’t quite what he had anticipated.
Finally, they got to Port-en-Bessin on the 9th June 1944, absolutely exhausted. The small fishing harbour which had been secured days earlier in Operation Aubery, an extremely hard-fought battle by the Royal Marines from No. 47 Commando and 4th Special Service Brigade.
It was a place that was going to change the direction of his life more than he realised. For this was where the 20-year-old would meet his future wife, Simonne.
In 1944, Simonne’s young brother was trying to bring in some money to make ends meet by offering laundry services to the arriving troops, like Bill, who was working at the port nearby, before being transferred further up the beach to Arromanches.
And while her brother was responsible for drumming up business, Simonne hand washed the clothes.
“My wife couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t speak French. It’s love, it doesn’t matter, eh?”
“One day a young boy come up, he was maybe 12-years-old, and he says, ‘Any of you chaps want your washing done? My sister can do it,’ he says, ‘It won’t cost you much, a little bit, but a little bit of soap with it.’
“That boy was my wife’s brother and she was doing the washing.
“At that time, their parents were stuck in the German part of France and she had no money. But she had her younger brother and her niece living with her from Paris.
“After a while, I used to see her going up the top of a hill, running down to get something from the shop, and I made her a boat, a sailing boat for her.
“When her parents got back, I got invited for lunch. And after three months, I asked her mother if I could marry her daughter. When I met her she’d had a boyfriend, but nobody liked him, so I was alright.
“We got posted to Antwerp in Holland but I came back down and we got married in 1945, on exactly the same day I’d arrived in France, 9th June.
“We went to the church with two priests. One French, one English. Because my wife couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t speak French.
It’s love, it doesn’t matter, eh?”
“Getting married was an experience in itself. We went to the church with two priests. One French, one English. Because my wife couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t speak French.
“It’s love, it doesn’t matter, eh? After that, we went to Bayeux and had a photo took.
“The wedding breakfast lasted two days. Then we went to Paris, to her sister’s place and had the rest of our honeymoon, because I had two weeks’ leave.
“We had oranges and bread and meat. And I thought this is alright. My wife had to stay in Paris because she didn’t have her passport. So, I went back to Antwerp and she joined me later, with her passport. We stayed with friends there until we rented a room. Actually, it’s something like the one I’m living in now. It’s funny.”
“We communicated mainly with pens, paper, pencil and a dictionary.”
The couple moved home to Bill’s mum’s and after a couple of weeks’ leave, Bill got posted again, this time to Singapore, leaving his newly pregnant wife, who still couldn’t speak any English, with his mum, who couldn’t speak any French. No one in the English family could speak French.
“We communicated mainly with pens, paper, pencil and a dictionary. When I was in Singapore, I used to write to her every day, every day,” said Bill.
“The skipper said, ‘We need to get underway and go,’ so we went. We had to keep watch all the way.”
For the journey to Singapore, Bill was reunited with his old friend, HMS Berwick, which had thawed out after the endurances of the Arctic.
When he eventually arrived in the Far East, he joined another dock landing ship (LSD) working between Singapore, Borneo and other parts of Indonesia and it sometimes seemed like a different world.
“We went up this river to a place called Palembang in South Sumatra,” said Bill. “We were told the ship would be fine. It wouldn’t be turned in the tide. But in the middle of the night, it did and we knocked down about five of the river houses on stilts.
“The skipper said, ‘We need to get underway and go,’ so we went. We had to keep watch all the way.
“On the way back we were early, so we stopped at an island, and there was nobody on it. The skipper said, ‘Anybody want to go ashore, have a swim? Have a go,’
“But as we approached the beach, it seemed to get up and walk away. There were millions of little crabs, just scared off.
“In Borneo, I saw a flying fox, the only one I’ve ever seen.”
“I remember being told that they’d dropped the atom bomb.”
Bill had been in Europe when the war had ended there…although admittedly, he was a little late to the party.
“I was in Holland, alone. Nobody told me. I had a phone, but nobody said anything, so I was there stuck on my own, everybody was enjoying life, not me, I was on watch,” he said.
And he was in Asia when it ended in that region too.
“We were in Singapore. I remember being told that they’d dropped the atom bomb. I was glad the war was properly going to end.”
“I saw my daughter for the first time when she was 18-months old.”
But although the war had officially ended, the work hadn’t. And he didn’t get home for another two years. By the time he got home, his new baby was a toddler.
“I saw my daughter for the first time when she was 18-months old, and that was alright,” he said with his usual understatement. “I had four weeks’ leave after two years out there, so we went to France. We had a good time.”
“I’m not what you call ‘proud’ of my war efforts, no. It was just what you had to do, it was duty”
Long after the war, on top of his British service medals he’d been given for his service and sacrifice, in the 1990s Bill was also awarded the Russian Convoy medal from the then USSR. And in 2014, for his part in the Normandy Invasion, he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, the highest civilian award in France.
“I’m not what you call ‘proud’ of my war efforts, no. It was just what you had to do, it was duty. No, not proud, I couldn’t say that. I’m more proud now than what I was then. But the last medal I got, Legion d’Honneur, I was proud of that.” said Bill.
With the war over, his next operation was with the home sea service on another LSD, transporting the SAS on exercise, and this was followed by a frantic scramble back through the Suez Canal as the 1956 crisis loomed.
“They were a mad crowd, the SAS, all intelligent, very intelligent people. They could go anywhere and you wouldn’t know they’d been, that’s how clever they were.
“We just got through the canal, and they blocked it and sunk ships there.”
“We went to Gibraltar and Malta, and through the Suez Canal. We went to the Persian Gulf where there was a problem in Bahrain, and then after about a month, we were told to get back through the Suez Canal as quick as possible. Well, the bloody LSD, only had a maximum speed of about 10 knots, so it was difficult to do anything fast, but we did manage it.
“We just got through the canal, and they blocked it and sunk ships there.”
His next big operation was with the Royal Navy’s Fishery Protection Squadron visiting the whole of Europe, where – surprisingly considering his wartime experiences – he was exposed to some of the worse and scary conditions on a ship he had ever known.
“That’s the time that I really prayed for my life, really sincerely, because I had a family and I wanted to get back.”
“After Oslo, we went up to the North Cape and we had a 100mph gale for two and a half days. There were two fishing boats up there. They were turned over. We couldn’t help them. We had to keep into the waves. If we turned, we’d have gone over.
“We had a crack behind the bridge which was about two metres long and there was one behind the funnel, a metre long. All the boats were smashed. All the Carley floats (life rafts) gone. The gun it had in the front was smashed in. That’s the time that I really prayed for my life, really sincerely, because I had a family and I wanted to get back.”
Just after this, his second daughter was born.
Bill’s next and last trip in the Navy was 18 months in Malta.
After disembarking for the last time, he worked on the railways and made aircraft parts.
But this wasn’t fulfilling enough for his adventurous spirit, and soon Bill, Simonne and their young family took to the high seas together, and moved to New Zealand, taking six weeks to get there but staying there for 36 years.
“We went all the way around South Africa, and then to Australia and then onto New Zealand.”
“It took us, six weeks to get there, on HMS Dunera, but my wife and our two daughters were in another cabin with another lady and her two children. I was in a cabin with three other men, so for six weeks, we didn’t sleep together.
“We went all the way around South Africa, and then to Australia and then onto New Zealand.
“We arrived in Wellington, which is at the bottom of the north island. But we were due to go to Auckland, so they took us by coach to the railway station, and overnight to Auckland.
“When we were sitting on the platform waiting for the train, we couldn’t understand why everybody was carrying a pillow under their arm, we didn’t know it was an all-night train, but anyway, we soon found out, and we had no pillows.”
“Her last words were she wanted her ashes to be spread off the Port-en-Bessin…”
The family lived in Auckland’s North Shore for 36 years – the longest Bill had stayed anywhere. He lived there until Simonne sadly died of cancer, and Bill came back to the northern hemisphere to scatter most of his wife’s ashes in the place they’d met.
“Her last words were she wanted her ashes to be spread off the Port-en-Bessin, so that’s what I did. But I’ve still got some of them upstairs though. I keep them with me.”
Bill came back to England and lived in Poole in a flat overlooking the harbour. But decided to move to France, aged 77, when developers blocked that view with another building.
“A couple of friends, holidaying in France, said, ‘Well if you’re not happy there, come over to France,’ so I did.”
Bill stayed in France for 18 years, until Brexit changed it for him and he decided – aged 95 and now living in a French care home, with a French girlfriend – to come back to the UK.
And this is when he turned to SSAFA for help.
After many hours of careful planning, SSAFA’s Branch Secretaries in France and Wiltshire co-ordinated Bill’s return home.
But it was a real team effort involving people beyond SSAFA too.
Bill initially went to Salisbury to live in sheltered housing but later he moved to the coast and the Naval port of Portsmouth.
It was a challenging move, midway through the pandemic, but it is one that Bill has found makes him feel more at home.
For almost all of the century he’s been alive, he’s lived either on or near the sea.
“I’d never go into a place for old people,” said the 96-year-old veteran. “All they do is talk about their health and moan on this and moan on that. It’s not me.”
“I got in touch with the SSAFA representatives in France and someone came to see me. He warned me about coming over, but I couldn’t care less.
“He says, ‘It’s more expensive,’ and what-have-you. My girlfriend was not very happy that I was leaving.
“I came over and was picked up by the branch secretary of the Wiltshire branch at Portsmouth and went to Salisbury. I then said I wanted to come down south, but that took time because of the virus. But now I’m here.”
“It’s very humbling as well to know that we can make a difference to people’s lives in small ways”
Alex Reeve-Howarth, Divisional Secretary for SSAFA in Salisbury explains:
“I had a phone call from our Branch Secretary for Wiltshire, Sam Brown, who’d been in touch with the SSAFA team in France.
“I was told there was a gentleman in Normandy, a Second World War veteran in his 90s, who wanted to return back to live in ‘Blighty’. Originally, he was considering moving to Salisbury, so that is where I stepped in.
“I knew of a local care home that was suitable and we discovered luckily that there was a space there for Bill. Sam Brown went down to Portsmouth one very wet and windy February morning, picked up Bill from the ferry with his suitcase and belongings, and took him to Salisbury.
“Once he’d settled in, I got in contact with Bill and went round there with a few SSAFA goodies to check he was okay and had everything he needed.
“I befriended Bill from there really and brought him to our Armed Forces & Veterans Breakfast Club, where he met a few Naval veterans he remains in touch with. Then unfortunately lockdown happened, and the breakfast clubs had to stop.
“Bill then decided he wanted to move to Southsea, which we helped arrange, and we’ve remained in contact to support him with whatever he’s needed.
“It makes me feel that what we do is worthwhile and it’s very humbling as well to know that we can make a difference to people’s lives in small ways. I’m very proud to work with SSAFA.”
“I’m a loner now. The people from SSAFA are like my relations.”
Bill now lives alone in sheltered housing in Portsmouth.
He is still helped by a network of veterans’ organisations, including SSAFA.
Although he has a sizable family of two children, four grandchildren and three (almost 4, another one is on the way) great-grandchildren – unsurprisingly for the globetrotter he is – they live mainly far away. He has never seen his great-grandchildren who are in Canada. And he feels his support team are like his family now.
“The people from SSAFA are like my relations. I’ve got no direct family here.”
“Its been hard because of Covid. A lot of the things that he would have enjoyed doing…they’ve obviously stopped at the moment.”
Since Bill moved to Portsmouth, just after the end of the first lockdown, he has been helped with a wide variety of issues from signing him up with a doctor, to setting him up with a mobility scooter and chasing up hospital appointments.