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Royal Marines 350: Brothers in arms

PUBLISHED: 12:08 23 June 2014

Veteran Bill Bryant aged 89 with new recruit Marine Alex Rea 21

Veteran Bill Bryant aged 89 with new recruit Marine Alex Rea 21

© sghaywood photography

A D-Day veteran and a new recruit tell Chrissy Harris about their experiences in the Royal Marines

Photography by Steven Haywood

"It was so chaotic you never had the chance to be scared "

They stand side by side, like brothers in arms. Generations separate new recruit Alex Rea and World War Two veteran Bill Bryant but together they are part of a team of men that have helped to shape history.

At 21-years-old, Alex is just starting out on a gruelling journey that will eventually take him to far-flung corners of the globe to serve his country as a Royal Marine.

Seventy years ago this month, Bill Bryant was preparing to do the same as a new recruit in a very different world.

The 89-year-old played a key role in the D-Day landings in June 1944 when he steered a landing craft towards Gold Beach in Normandy.

They are from different eras but Alex and Bill have come together at the Royal Marines training headquarters at Lympstone, near Exeter, in a special show of solidarity.

Devon Life was there to witness this link between the past and present ahead of the Corp’s 350th birthday celebrations next month.

“Of course things are very different now but we are still both commandos,” says Bill, who is one of very few surviving Normandy veterans - and even fewer surviving Royal Marines - who took part in D-Day.

“Some of us old boys act as mentors for the lads here at Lympstone. They all seem to be very interested in what we have to say. I tend to leave out the gory bits but I tell them what we went through and what things were like for us.”

Bill joined up in April 1943 and left for Normandy in a flat-bottomed landing craft on June 5, 1944.

As daylight broke the following day, those on board suddenly caught a glimpse of a periscope appearing out of the water, right beside the craft.

“For a moment there we weren’t sure if it was one of ours or the enemy’s,” says Bill. “We were all scared stiff. Luckily it turned out to be the British lot checking to see if we were ok. Then all hell broke loose. We had to keep going through the days and nights. There was no let up – it was absolutely relentless. We were completely worn out.

“My engine was playing up on the landing craft and the compass smashed so we were just drifting around the channel for a couple of days. But it was almost as if there was so much going on, it was so chaotic that you never had chance to be scared. All you were interested in was saving your own skin and making sure your crew were all right.”

Bill knows he was one of the lucky ones and has already returned to Normandy to remember his fallen comrades.

He is planning another trip back to Northern France with the marines as part of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings this month.

“Last time I went, I was stood there, just looking out to sea thinking: ‘Did I really come all that way across in a flat-bottomed boat?’” says Bill.

“I got a little bit emotional about it all but it’s important we remember.

“The lads joining up today will never have to go through anything like that but they’ve got it tough in other ways. Things are a lot more scientific and the training is hard. In my day, as long as you could breathe and stand up – you were in!”

It’s a far cry from the weeks of vigorous physical and mental exertion Alex Rea has already been put through.

He is on week eight of the infamously tough 32-week commando training course and knows life will get harder before he can finally realise his dream of becoming a fully-fledged Royal Marine.

Knowing there are mentors like Bill around, offering advice and encouragement at a moment’s notice is some comfort to the young recruit, who is a long way from his home in South Shields.

“You just know that every man who’s got that green lid on has done exactly what we are training to do,” says Alex. “The mentors here know what we are going through.”

Alex was a successful swimmer in his teens and took part in Olympic trials before picking up a shoulder injury.

He first tried to join the marines aged just 17 but decided to wait until he was older and came back this year as a ‘re-join’.

“It takes a while to get adjusted but you know that every lad in that room with you is in the same boat,” says Alex. “You get through it together – it’s all about teamwork from the very start. You’re taught that your team is only as strong as the weakest man. If someone is weak in one area, chances are they are stronger at something else. You play to each other’s skills.”

Such rhetoric no doubt fills men like Bill Bryant with pride.

“The comradeship you feel is really something,” he says. “It’s part of what makes you a Royal Marine.”

The RM350 South West Proms is being hosted by Plymouth Albion Rugby Football Club from 16th to 19th July.

For tickets, visit rm350.co.uk

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