Firstly can I thank Lawrence and Ross of WW2 Nation for approaching me again and asking if I would like to write an article for publish. A few days have past now since I returned from Normandy after a five day tour taking in the commemorations for the 72nd anniversary. For several reasons I have found this anniversary to be personally the best I’ve attended.
We took the option this year of an evening meal on the 5th at the town hall of Merville-Franceville-Plage which would be attended by numerous veterans of the 9th Battalion, 6th Airborne Division. I have to say it was an excellent night and great to see the veterans dancing away and enjoying themselves. This then led on to a 1am meet at the RV point for the Merville battery assault, walking from the RV point to the battery itself…This was a small idea collectively between Mark Otway, Neil Barber, Shaun Coldicutt, Robin Savage and myself. It turned out to be a special and memorable night as we were joined by Fred Glover, 9th Battalion that landed 72 years previous in a Horsa Glider close to the battery.
For the second year running I selected to stay in a hotel which is used by the Norwich and District branch of the Normandy Veterans association. This is an annual pilgrimage for the veterans along with their family and close friends. It was a year ago that I first met Alan King and his daughter Joyce at the hotel. Over the past 12 months, I have seen them both on several occasions and Alan has kindly let me conduct interviews with him. Alan served with the 1st East Riding Yeomanry, landing in Normandy on the 6th June 1944. It has been fascinating listening to stories of Alan growing up and his pre war years. Accounts of him joining up and training with the men he would land with on the 6th June. The landings of June, liberation of France then Holland and to the crossing of the Rhine in 1945. I feel privileged he has allowed me the time to chat with him. My aim was to document his story for his family, especially his very young great grandchildren. I have visited the National Archives to obtain the war diaries and this has been wonderful to read though these and match Alan’s accounts. The detail he has provided me is breath taking considering it is now 72 years on. Hopefully Lawrence and Ross will allow me to write a separate article on Alan’s full story in the future.
On this trip I had arranged to take Alan to visit his friend who died on the 8th July 1944. This friend was Corporal Louis Wilkes, the commander of the Sherman tank that they both served in. After talking to Alan about Cpl Wilkes on several occasions, I had mixed feelings on taking Alan to visit him at the Cambes-En-Plaine war cemetery. I felt I did not want to impose on this pilgrimage for Alan, and give him the time, space and privacy he may want. After discussing this with Joyce who would be accompany us both, we planned to visit on the evening of the 6th.
After a busy morning and afternoon of attending services of remembrance I returned to the hotel in the evening collected Alan and Joyce to head to Cambes Cemetery. Whilst on route I was thinking of Alan’s account of the events that lead to Cpl Wilkes death on the 8th July. I have transcribed a small part of the interview on the action from that day.
“On July 8th we were ordered to attack this farm… .We take the farm, he was shot in the head…. We had a machine gun on top of the turret then a .5, we had one or two casualties…
He was shot through the head… I crawled from under the gun in my position and held him, the gunner had a great pad on his head. We tried to do the best…
I was shouting directions to the driver… He couldn’t see anything… Left hand down, right hand down…
Hull Gunner, Tom Carney, was blazing away with his machine gun to keep their heads down…
We got to a first aid post and they jumped on the back of the tank and grabbed him”
– Alan King, ‘B’ Squadron, 1st East Riding Yeomanry, 27th Armoured Brigade.
Alan had bought some flowers to place at Cpl Wilkes grave. We had both visited him in March this year but not together, Alan was on an organised tour at the time. The cemetery contains 223 burials, many from the Staffordshire Division around the dates of Operation Charnwood which the East Riding Yeomanry supported. As with all the cemetery’s this is a beautiful resting place and kept in immaculate condition by the CWGC.
I gave Alan space once we were in the cemetery as he headed towards Cpl Wilkes grave. I stood back as he placed the flowers at his grave, stood up and stepped back to attention. Alan then proceeded to salute Cpl Wilkes. This was very moving to witness and I can’t even imagine the thoughts that would be going through Alan’s mind 72 years on since he first landed in France.
What made this pilgrimage even more moving was Alan then went around to the back of Cpl Wilkes headstone, removed his East Riding Yeomanry beret and placed it onto the headstone, standing proudly behind it. He then spoke about the events of the 8th July and we discussed Cpl Wilkes family who we believe has relatives living in Canada. If they ever read or see photographs of this, I hope it brings comfort to them that if they cannot travel from Canada, Louis is regularly visited and remembered.
I feel privileged to have been allowed to spend this time with Alan and now also to make this pilgrimage with him. Alan kindly allowed me to take photographs of us at the cemetery. This one account of Cpl Wilkes is one of thousands from the fallen men that came to France to liberate Europe. My aim with the work I do is to honour all the men and women that served during the Second World War and to ensure they are never forgotten. The veterans are so modest and humble with what they did and don’t make a fuss of it. This was very evident during the service at Ranville War Cemetery in the morning of the 6th, where I spoke to Nick Archdale, 7th Battalion, 6th Airborne Division. I thanked him for his service and what he did for future generations. He said, “oh, well you would have done the same.” Alan has also said to me on numerous occasions, “I’m not a hero”. These men are from a special generation that will never be matched and we have so much to thank them all for.
Thank you to Ben for sharing with us his experience of visiting Normandy for the 72nd Anniversary commemorations, it must have been a real honour to have accompanied Alan and also what an incredible experience with the night time Merville Battery walk with Fred Glover.
You can find out more about Ben and his regular trips to Normandy by following him on Twitter : @BattlefieldBen or on Facebook : Battlefield Ben.