How smoking saved the life of 100 year old Doncaster D Day war hero Fred Adamson
Back in 1944, it seemed a long shot that Fred Adamson would live into old age.
But 75 years on, the retired wages clerk, from Conisbrough, is celebrating his 100th birthday – despite the best efforts of Hitler during the Battle of Normandy in the weeks and months that followed D-Day.
Fred celebrated his birthday with his family and friends with a party at Conisbrough Cricket Club. He was chauffeured from his home to the party in a World War Two jeep and then greeted by five military buglers on arrival.
But Fred admits it could all have been very different – he remembers at least two occasions when he was just inches from death while serving with the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry as the army fought its way through France and Northern Europe after D-Day.
Born in Kimberworth, Fred’s family – his dad was a miner at Denaby Colliery – moved to Conisbrough in 1925, when he was a six year old. After going to Morley Place school, Fred won a scholarship to Mexborough Secondary School, as it was then called, later known as Mexborough Grammar School.
Leaving school, he got a job for the Amalgamated Denaby Collieries – the company running the pits at Denaby, Dinnington, Rossington, Maltby and Cadeby – as a wages clerk.
But his life changed when he was called up by the army on February 15, 1940, and put into the 1/4 battalion, KOYLI.
Fred was sent to Strensall Camp in North Yorkshire for his basic training and then sent off overseas on the ship Andes, not knowing where he was going.
The destination was to be Iceland – where the British wanted a base in case the Germans tried to use it as a strategic base in the North Atlantic to threaten allied shipping. On the way, his commanders discovered he was a wage clerk and promoted him to lance corporal with responsibility for pay. His first task was converting UK money to Icelandic money.
The Germans never came to Iceland and they moved back to the UK for training in 1942.
In 1944, they were sent to Lowestoft, before moving south for D-Day. They were originally due to head the attack but the plan changes, and Fred landed on Gold beach four days after D-Day. He described jumping into neck-deep water – he was only 5ft 2ins tall – when his company came ashore in the operation.
It was during the fighting through Normandy and North Europe that his life was in danger.
Fred said: “I had some narrow escapes. One was at Cristot, in France. We were moving through a cornfield after being under fire from snipers and mortars.We held out for three or four days.
“We got notice that we would be relieved by another regiment, and the company quartermaster sergeant came in a 10 ton truck to take away equipment.
“Myself and a runner were folding blankets – he was on one corner and I was on the other, when we heard the stonk of mortar fire. The runner got a direct hit. That was the difference beween us – just one corner. If I had held the other corner it would have been me.
He saw another near escape at Poppel, near the Belgium-Netherlands border.
“I thought it was reasonably quiet,” he said. “I was in the back garden of a school when there was a mortar attack. I felt a severe blast to my left chest, and there was blood. I’d been hit by shrapnel in my left calf, and the blood was running down my stocking.
“They sent me to a first aid post to have a dressing put on my leg, and the padre told me he had some cigarettes in a big box that he was giving away. He asked if I smoked. I said yes, and he asked if I had anywhere to put some cigarettes, so I told him I had two cigarette cases in my breast pocket.
“When I got them out, I realised what had happened. What I thought had been a blast, was shrapnel which had hit the cigarette cases and they saved my life. It pierced straight through one, and bent the second one, so that was a very narrow escape.”
Those killed in the battalion included Fred’s friend and fellow Conisbrough resident Ronnie McGrath, who was aged just 17 when he was killed. Fred was just yards away when his friend died at Tessel Wood, France, on June 26, 1944.
After suffering his injury, Fred was sent back to Britain, and married his wife, Elsie Robinson, in January 1945. Elsie died four years ago.
He was later returned to his battalion in the Netherlands.
After the war ended, he was posted to Italy, before being allowed to leave in 1946.
He returned to his job in Conisbrough, and joined the newly nationalised British Coal in 1947. He went on to become head wages clerk, and then went onto be assistant industrial relations officer, before retiring in 1984, aged 65.
In 2017, he was awarded the French Legion of Honour by the French Government – the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, France’s highest military award, as a veteran of the Normany Landings
Last year he was among the veterans taken to the landing beaches on the cruise ship Boudicca, to mark the 75th anniversary of the landings, meeting then Prime Minister’s husband Philip May while he was there. He also visited the 49th West Riding Divisional Memory at Fontenay-le-Pesnel.
Fred’s grandson Philip Knight said: “He wanted to return once again to Normandy as it was probably the last opportunity to do so given his age, and the importance to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure peace and freedom. After 75 years memories of the achievement are fading so it is important that we keep the memory alive as so many of my Grandad comrades have passed – Lest We Forget.”
Doncaster’s elected mayor Ros Jones, and the deputy civic mayor Paul Wray were among those at his 100th birthday party, as well as friends and family.
He has five children, seven grandchildren, and 12 great grandchildren.