Hero schoolboy ran away to fight at 14 – and was youngest D-Day paratrooper

The tragic story of a brave schoolboy who lied about his age and ran away to join the Army making him the youngest paratrooper to take part in D-Day has been remembered 75 years on.

Private Robert ‘Bobby’ Johns was only 14 when he ran away from home and lied about his age to follow his two older brothers in the war effort.

His frantic parents launched a Saving Private Ryan-style search for their underage son before anything happened to him in battle.

When William and Daisy Johns found out he had dropped into Normandy with the 6th Airborne Division, they alerted the War Office who tried desperately to bring him home.

But before he could be withdrawn from the front line he was shot dead by a German sniper close to Le Mesnil crossroads Normandy on July 23, 1944 – two days before his 17th birthday.

It was yet more heartbreak for his parents who had lost another serving son, William, who was killed in a submarine attack in 1940.

Seventy-five years on, a plaque commemorating Pte Johns’ bravery and sacrifice will be erected on Friday on the street he was born I Portsmouth, Hants.

It will read: “Lived as he died, fearlessly.”

His niece, Jenny Ward, 58, from Burton, Chrsitchurch, Dorset, said: “My family is so touched that Bob’s courage is being remembered in this way.

“The bravery of all the young men who gave their lives in the war should never be forgotten. We owe them so much.

“His story definitely had echoes of the film Saving Private Ryan.

“My grandparents were so distraught at losing William when his submarine was bombed in 1940.

“They didn’t know where Bob was for almost two years until he wrote them a letter from France in July 1944.

“When they found out they were desperate for him to come home.

“They contacted the War Office to tell them he was underage. They tried to bring him home but it was too late.”

The plaque will be installed by Portsmouth City Council, who are commemorating each of the 119 men from the city who died between D-Day and the end of the Battle of Normandy.

Bobby was born in 1927 and his two older brothers, William and Ron, served in the Royal Navy during the war.

William, aged 23, an engine room artificer, was one of 58 men killed in July 1940 when HMS Narwhal was bombed.

The submarine had left its base in Blyth, Northumberland, to lay mines near German-occupied Norway.

But the Germans, who had cracked the navy’s secret codes, knew its route and sunk it.

Ron, who served on HMS Pembroke, was discharged after being shot in the eye by Bobby in a freak accident while playing in the garden in November 1939.

Despite being underage, Bobby, compelled by a desire to serve his country, was determined to follow in their footsteps.

Being a ‘big lad’ for his age, he was able to pass off as an 18 year old and he began training with the South of Lancashire Regiment.

He completed his jump course in January 1944.

Five months later, in the early hours of D-Day, he parachuted into Normandy with A Company of the 6th Airborne Division.

The grim reality of war seems to have hit home by the time he wrote a heart-rending letter to his parents a month later.

In it, he said he wished to be back with them instead of staying in this ‘God forgotten country’, signing off with the words ‘cheerio for now’ and five kisses.

Tragically, he was killed days before the War Office was able to locate him and bring him home. He was buried in Ranville, the first French village liberated during D-Day.

Major Jack Watson, Pte Johns’ commanding officer, said after the war: “He was quite a big lad when he did his training, and it was only when he died that we found out he had lied about his age.

“But I never suspected that he was underage. I was shocked and saddened.”

Bobby’s parents never got over the loss of two of their sons, his father carrying his letter in his wallet for the rest of his life.

Jenny has a poignant photo of the couple visiting his grave at Ranville some time after the war.

Jenny said: “I think Bob, like so many young men, was excited to go to war and fight for his country.

“But then the reality hit home of the horrors of war, the awful scenes he would have witnessed in France day after day.

“When I read his letter it makes me shed a tear, to think that Bob’s young life was snuffed out soon after.

“When my grandparents found out he had been killed, they were devastated.

My grandfather kept his letter in his wallet till the day he died.

“I just wish they were still here and could witness the ceremony as they would have been so proud.”

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