TRURO – Normandy will always hold a special place in Sam Riddell’s memory.
Not far from his thoughts will always be the 12 weeks he survived shelling from the German line, the uncertainty and fear, and the pilots he lost as a member of the Royal Air Force. But now, 70 years later, Normandy has provided Riddell with happier memories.
“I saw her coming along the perimeter,” he said. “She was shaking hands with all the old vets who were lined up. She worked her way around and was coming right towards me.”
Riddell stood at attention while the lady he’d seen countless times on television and in magazines came walking towards him.
Extending his hand, Riddell stood face-to-face and shook hands with the Queen of England last month.
“I have a little story for you,” he said.
Riddell told Queen Elizabeth II of how he intended to watch her coronation in 1953. At the last minute, he was roped into wallpapering a friend’s house instead. As a compromise, he flipped on the TV as he worked.
“I was hanging wallpaper and looking over my shoulder trying to see you,” he said.
“No, you didn’t!” the Queen replied.
“Yes, I did!”
As the pair had a brief chat, photographers snapped away. The photo of Riddell’s encounter with the Queen landed on the pages of Hello! Magazine, published in more than 100 countries.
Now at home in Lower Truro, the photo hangs on Riddell’s wall as he tells stories of his trip. It was the first time back to Sword Beach, the location where British forces first landed in France.
“Today France is much nicer,” he said. “Things are all built up and you wouldn’t even know there was a war there.”
It wasn’t always that way, however. The weeks Riddell spent in Normandy rank among some of the darkest of the Second World War. A mechanic for the RAF, Riddell spent much of his time ducking German shells.
“We spent most of our time in ditches,” he said. “We were constantly being shelled by the Germans who were three miles away in Caen. When you hear the shells coming, you dive for cover to get your head down underneath it.”
In 1944, the RAF was faced with a daunting task – to come in behind the first waves of soldiers and set up runways once the beachhead was established. Through the shelling, dust and dirt, the RAF lost 151 pilots in 12 weeks – including four who Riddell looked after.
“You still think about it, but war goes on.”
One of the pilots was a 23-year-old Montreal native whom Riddell worked with. After being shot down over the Maas River, he ejected without a floatation device and drowned swimming for Canadian land.
It was a difficult experience for Riddell, and one that came back to life while visiting burial sites around France last month.
“That was tough,” he said. “He was a young guy. All these guys, when you go to these cemeteries, you see they were 18, 19, 20 years old. Here they are, thousands of them.”
To honour those lost during the re-invasion, the 70th anniversary commemoration featured a grand re-enactment of D-Day. Planes dropped thousands of paratroopers, canons blasted and flames shot into the air.
“My wife was cowering under the sheet, it scared the life out of her!”
Taking in the events were the heads of state for the allied countries and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Some were greeted with raucous applause, while others, not so much.
“Of course, the person who got the biggest cheer was the Queen, when she came last of all,” Riddell said. “President Obama, he got a big ovation. And when Putin come down the way, he got booed!”
With the trip wrapping up, Riddell was in for one last surprise. After the vets got an invitation to be interviewed during lunch and tea at a countryside estate in England, Riddell took up the request.
After taxiing out through the Epping Forest, Riddell arrived at a massive country home where Sir Winston Churchill lived during the war. Emerging from the front door was not the former British Prime Minister, of course, but another British icon.
“He’s pretty easy to recognize right away, with his spiky hair all over the place.”
It was legendary rock star Rod Stewart.
During tea, Stewart spoke to the vets at great length while photographers snapped away. He even invited to bring them back next year.
“He was a great fella, a real interesting guy,” Riddell said. “It was nice that he took such great interest in us, you know?”
Stewart and the Queen weren’t the only ones taking interest, however. Much like a rock star or a member of Windsor House, the luncheon landed Riddell in the tabloids for the second time in the same issue.
Normandy will now hold happier memories for Riddell.
“It was massive,” he said. That’s a word you could describe it as. I’ve never seen so many people there in one place in my life – all so grateful for us.”
Who: Sam Riddell
Former member of: The Royal Air Force
Resident of: Lower Truro for 23 years
Native of: Northern Ireland
Memorable quote: “We were constantly being shelled by the Germans who were three miles away in Caen. When you hear the shells coming, you dive for cover to get your head down underneath it.”