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Interview: David Simm, civil engineer, D-Day witness

31 May 2024

‘We realised that this was the real thing, and wondered how the troops would get on when they reached their target’

I shall never forget the sight of hundreds of planes, most towing troop-carrying gliders, passing overhead in the gathering darkness of 5 June 1944. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that the sky was black with aircraft. During the later years of the war, we were blessed with Double Summer Time; so it was not really dark until 11 p.m.

All the planes were flying in a straight line towards the south-east. We realised that this was the real thing, and wondered how the troops would get on when they reached their target. The wireless was used to make the announcement the next day that Allied troops had also crossed the Channel in a vast armada, and had secured a foothold in Normandy.

In 1942, I had joined the school Air Training Corps. Membership was optional in the fourth form, but in the fifth form, it was effectively compulsory. I did not really mind, because I was, in common with the rest of the boys, very interested in aeroplanes, particularly the warplanes of both the RAF and the Luftwaffe.

We would have drill practice and classes in various subjects. The two that I particularly remember were aircraft recognition, which I enjoyed, and Morse code, which I did not.

Our local grass airfield at Woodley had a small RAF training presence. Saturday-afternoon flights were an extra privilege. I still have my flying log, which records 14 flights during my three years as a cadet. On one Saturday afternoon in June 1945, my pilot even gave me the controls and instructed me how to take off and fly.

I was born at home on 20 May 1927. Home for us — my parents, two sisters, and granddad — was the caretaker’s accommodation at the Gower Street Memorial Chapel in Shaftesbury Avenue, central London. Our home consisted of three rooms at the back of the main chapel building.

My granddad was the caretaker of the chapel until he was 82. My dad then took over in 1937, holding the post until he retired in 1957. The pay was awful, but we had a home, rent-free, and with light and heat paid.

My life changed drastically on Friday 1 September 1939. After saying goodbye at our homes in the morning, the boys from my secondary school all headed to the local train station to be evacuated from London. We were sent to the Reading area.

I lived with five different host families, with varying degrees of comfort and success. In the first house, another boy and I slept on the living-room floor; in another, I managed to set fire to a curtain trying to melt the ice on the inside of the window with a candle. However, I stayed with the last couple, the Youngs, for five years. Mrs Young had no children of her own, and therefore treated me as her son.

I can say that I never went hungry, and the sameness of the food did not worry me. Up to August 1940, things were not too bad: it was later in the war when we were more restricted. But the Youngs had a large garden. Mr Young was an expert gardener, and produced fine vegetables and fruit.

We had no involvement with the Anglican Church. My London family home was in a Baptist chapel; so it has been a big part of my life from the beginning. My host family in Reading were regular attenders at a Baptist chapel, and showed their faith practically by their kindness to me.

I experienced the Blitz while visiting my parents in London. Once, on 10 May 1941, we were in our shelter when the bombs began to fall. At about 11 p.m. there was a terrific crash, the heavy main doors of the church were blown wide open, and acrid smoke poured down the stairs into the basement hall where we all were.

After the all-clear sounded, I went for a walk around the local streets. There was devastation everywhere. In the weeks that followed, the evident danger that my parents were in began to concern me in a way that I had not felt before. I tried to pray for their safety, but somehow my prayers seemed useless — as if they were not getting through the bedroom ceiling.

After the war, I studied civil engineering at Northampton Engineering College, a college within Northampton Polytechnic in Islington. Most boys registered for their National Service around their 18th birthday. However, because I wanted to study for a degree in civil engineering, I was given a three-year deferment on the condition that I got my Higher School Certificate and was accepted by a university.

Looking back, it was a logical thing for the Government to do. The European war was almost over, and the thinking was that we fledgling engineers would be more useful in the inevitable reconstruction of Britain.

After graduation, I worked for the Metropolitan Water Board, a predecessor to Thames Water, for nine years. After this, I moved to what is now Kingston University, where I had teaching and administration roles for 35 years, including 17 years as head of the Department of Civil Engineering.

Now, I live in Wantage, Oxfordshire, at Framland Care Home. Framland is run by Pilgrims’ Friend Society, which is rooted in the Christian faith. There is a beautiful garden here, and the staff are so friendly and helpful. I have a photo on the wall of my room that I took during the war on VE Day of Big Ben spotlit for the first time after the blackouts.

I remember, on Easter 1940, my mother took me to a performance of Stainer’s Crucifixion at the City Temple, near Holborn Viaduct (later blitzed). I enjoyed the music, and was particularly moved when we all sang a hymn with the refrain: “Wonder of wonders, Oh! how can it be, Jesus, the crucified, pleads for me!”

My tears prevented me from joining in. I later realised that this was the first time God spoke to me. I am sure Mother must have noticed, but she said nothing.

Although I was brought up in a Christian family, it was only some time after I married that I was baptised, aged 36. Despite many difficulties during my life, including the chronic illness conditions of my first wife (who eventually died when I was 70), my faith has been sustained by God, who has been faithful to me.

Not much makes me angry, but the ingratitude of others or failure of others to do their duty has sometimes made me angry as a result of my frustration with them.

Music has been an important factor in my happiness. I recall as a college student attending a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall and, in particular, the soprano Dame Isobel Baillie singing the aria “I know that my Redeemer liveth”.

For the future generally, what gives me hope is that, despite the turmoil in the world, God remains in ultimate charge. Personally, in the last years of my life, “my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness”.

I pray daily for God’s blessing on family and friends, and for the prosperity of God’s worldwide Church.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the famous preacher of Victorian times — to enjoy the company of a godly man whose writings have been important to me.

David Simm, now aged 97, was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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