D-Day memories still strong
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, Brenda Finlay heard American landing craft rev to full power.
She knew immediately the US 4th Infantry was leaving Plymouth, England, for Utah Beach in Normandy, France, as the right flank of Operation Overlord.
"We knew where they were going because they were Americans and they loved to talk," the 90-year-old says.
Brenda was a dental nurse in the Royal Air Force's Women's Auxilliary Air Force. She was stationed with No 10 Squadron at the Royal Australian Air Force Coastal Command at Mt Batten in Plymouth.
"We had been turning the place into a casualty centre ready for the wounded."
The station overlooked Plymouth Sound where hundreds of landing craft were waiting for rough weather to pass so they could make the English Channel crossing.
Their engines had been running day and night for at least a week, Brenda says.
"They were ready to go, all they wanted was a calm day.
"We stayed on duty - drinking gallons of cocoa and playing cards for over a week till the early hours of June 6."
When dawn broke Plymouth Sound was empty "and so quiet", Brenda remembers.
At 11am she listened on the radio as General Dwight Eisenhower announced to the world it was D-Day and troops were landing at Normandy.
"No more cocoa, cards and ciggies for the No. 10 Squadron," Brenda says.
Flying their Sunderland flying boats, they were busy pinpointing the hundreds of wounded and dead soldiers who never made it ashore for rescue boats to pick up.
German forces didn't know what day or where the attack would take place, but they were ready and bombed and machine gunned the landing craft, Brenda says.
"The Sunderlands were also sitting ducks, they were so slow and lumbersome."
Brenda's duties changed from dental nurse to surgical nurse as casualties arrived.
Wounded were assessed and sent from Mt Batten to Plymouth's main hospitals.
"We didn't really stop. As they came in we did the first aid and sent them on from there.
"I slept in the dental chair because I didn't have time to go back to the barracks."
Burns were the worst injuries, she says. The sea would catch fire from ignited boat and airplane fuel.
But the experience wasn't traumatic, Brenda says.
"Everybody was calm and there was no panic. You knew that some of them were not going to make it."
The ones who had a chance went first, she says.
"They had broken limbs and stuff like that. But some of the bad burns you couldn't do anything about.
"We used to put a sort of tar, black charcoal stuff, on the wound and seal it."
Brenda worked at the coastal command until just before Christmas 1944.
She says the flow of wounded tapered off after the first wave.
"It gradually eased because they got hospital ships into the channel and they got more organised.
"There were hundreds of bigger stations all along the coast, so they could get wounded in quicker and get them to big hospitals faster."
Brenda married a Royal Navy chief petty officer Leonard Finlay, who served on escort ships guarding convoys going to Russia. She left the service when she became pregnant.
They moved to New Zealand in 1949 when Leonard joined the New Zealand Navy.
Brenda would like to hear from any surviving members of RAAF No 10 Squadron or their relatives.
Contact jay.boreham@ fairfaxmedia.co.nz to get in touch with Brenda.
- North Harbour News
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