Alexander Bryant, D-Day veteran and electrician. Born 25 March, 1926 in London. Died 10 May, 2019 in Edinburgh aged 93
Almost exactly 75 years ago teenager Alec Bryant was in the thick of one of the most momentous episodes of the Second World War – D-Day.
Stationed at the bow of a landing craft tank (LCT), his role was to lower the ramp as they hit the beach, disgorginCanadian infantry soldiers into the maelstrom of Juno Beach on 6 June,1944
Surrounded by a cacophony – a churning sea, the roar of the bombers and fighters above, thundering explosions, mortar fire and the screech of flying bullets – young men, grim-faced and quiet, prepared for the run in to the shore.
As they reached land on the Normandy coast the deck jumped six inches as Bryant’s LCT hit some mines yet he successfully completed his task, his boatload of troops all reaching the beach without casualties. Elsewhere death fell all around as others stormed ahead, cut down in the water before they could reach the shore.
“I was scared. You’d be a liar if you said you weren’t,” he later recalled, “But it was exciting for a lad of that age.”
By the end of the day there were an estimated 10,000 dead and injured scattered across the Normandy beaches but Operation Overlord, the well-drilled invasion of France, signalled the start of the Allies’ victorious fight back against the Nazi occupation of much of Europe.
Bryant was just 18 and the experience of witnessing the deaths of so many young men continued to haunt him down the years.
The son of a Great War veteran, he was born in Longfellow Road, London, a true Cockney. As a boy his most vivid memories were of Oswald Mosely’s Fascist blackshirts marching through the city. Schooled mainly in the English capital before the family relocated to Meopham, Kent, at 14 he started work at Henley Telegraph works in Gravesend as a time clerk and dispatch clerk. There he was involved in the development of the PLUTO project (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) when British engineers, oil companies and armed forces worked to construct subsea oil pipelines under the English Channel, between England and France, in support of Operation Overlord. At the same time he was studying to become an electrician, training at day release and night classes.
The south of England was regularly being attacked by the Luftwaffe and he could vividly recall the sight of bombers overhead. Spurred on by the enemy air assaults, at 16 he joined the Home Guard, depicted years later in the sitcom Dad’s Army. “It was very similar to the BBC series and I was very much the Ian Lavender character,” he said of the naive Private Pike. All that would change when he joined the Royal Navy the following year.
He trained at Scottish shore establishments, in Troon at HMS Dundonald and in Bo’ness at HMS Stopford, becoming a junior probationary electrical mechanic. Further weapons electrical training prepared him for manning the landing craft on the D-Day invasion.
The probationers gained their sea legs in manoeuvres on the Forth, and in 1943 he was posted to Westcliffe near Southend where he was allocated to Landing Craft Tank 642, later to be deployed on LCT 716.
In the run up to 6 June exercises continued along the south coast as they repeatedly ran through the drill for landing tanks and troops. And he recalled the disaster on nearby Slapton Sands, Devon when American landing craft were attacked by German torpedo ships during one of the dress rehearsals for D-Day. More than 700 men died, some struck by friendly fire, but the tragedy remained secret for many months.
When D-Day dawned, said Bryant, “We fired the 105mm SP guns for the first time. We were part of the biggest barrage of the war and the battleships firing over our heads were deafening.”
After their first run in he and his fellow crewmen made another three or four runs on to the beach that day, making their way back to the UK that night on the first of the “starlight convoys”, loading up during the day and crossing the Channel every night.
During one mission they were driven on to the beach in a storm but eventually manage to refloat. On another convoy, they were attacked by German E-boats, fast attack craft who threw up a smokescreen allowing them to dart in and out firing their torpedoes and disappearing into the murk. When dawn broke they were off Le Havre where the Germans opened up on them from shore batteries. “Fortunately a lone Spitfire came over and they stopped.”
On Victory in Europe Day in May 1945 he sailed to the Far East, spending some time in India before embarking on an Landing Craft Tank (Rocket) for the planned invasion of Malay which never took place. A spell in the Fleet mail office in Singapore followed, then he was in Java on another LCT before being drafted to HMS London for passage home and demob.
Back in Kent he did various electrical work but quickly became bored by village life. In 1947 he re-enlisted in the Navy and was involved in recommissioning ships from England to Rosyth. He met his future wife Edith, married in 1950, settled in South Queensferry and left the Navy for the second time when their first child was born the following year.
He worked at Rosyth and Burntisland shipyards as a labourer and electrical fitter. When the Forth Road Bridge was being built he was contracted to carry out electrical work and later worked at Port Edgar on ship-to-shore supply on HMS Abdiel. He returned to Rosyth Dockyard, rewiring Bofors guns before working in the main electrical workshop’s planning department from where he retired.
His war was never discussed until he was asked to give a talk on his experiences at a grandchild’s school – an event, he said, that scared him more than D-Day. After that he became an active member of the Normandy Veterans’ Association and returned to the French beaches several times for annual commemorations.
Alec Bryant received the Freedom of Falkirk in 2005 at a ceremony to honour hundreds of locals who served during the Second World War. The event, in Grangemouth, marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the conflict.
On the 70th anniversary he was presented to Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, and received the Legion D’Honneur from the French government in 2016.
He is survived by Edith, his wife of almost 70 years, daughters Gillian and Carol Anne, sons Terry, Kenneth and Billy and extended family.