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News > History & Politics > 80th Anniversary of D-Day

80th Anniversary of D-Day

We remember Old Tonbridgians who served in WW II as we commemorate the 80th Anniversary of D-Day.
Allied Armada - courtesy of The National WWII Museum
Allied Armada - courtesy of The National WWII Museum

Extract from Duty to Serve by David Walsh (CR 72-09)
A copy of Duty to Serve, published in 2011, can be purchased from the School Shop. All sales will benefit the Foundation Award Scheme.

On 6 June 1944 Peter Bathurst (PS 40-42) was walking to Tonbridge station to catch a train to Charterhouse when he heard the news of D-Day. Above him there was a constant rumble of bombers passing overhead on their way to Normandy. That afternoon, as Tonbridge subsided to a heavy defeat, he had the satisfaction of bowling out a future England captain, Peter May. Across the Channel many Tonbridgians, particularly those who had left during the war years, were experiencing battle for the first time. Sandy Smith (FH 36-40) was at Pegasus Bridge, wounded and holding on to positions dearly won the previous night; Desmond Hubble (PS 23-27)  was with his Maquis group in the Ardennes, a sense of exhilaration abroad at the prospect of liberation; Pierre Jeannerat (PS 14-19) was on Sword Beach, a war correspondent with the ‘Agence Francaise Independent’ returning to his homeland with the Free French forces. Others had a wide variety of roles that day.

At about the time Sandy Smith was landing by glider at Pegasus Bridge, Murray Christie (SH 33-36), a platoon commander in 9th Battalion, Parachute Regiment, was parachuting into France, tasked with one of the night’s more difficult jobs of destroying the four heavy guns of the Merville Battery immediately to the east of Sword Beach. Flak broke up the aircraft formations and made the drop chaotic, leaving the battalion scattered over a wide area, but the guns were destroyed and Christie moved with 9 Para to hold the high ground to the east of the River Orne. For nearly a week the exhausted battalion held out against relentless attacks from German troops and armour, a stubborn defensive action which allowed the whole Normandy bridgehead to be consolidated. On 11 June Christie led a counter-attack at the point of the bayonet to re-take a position but was killed the next day by a shell just before the battalion was withdrawn. His grave can be found in the beautiful cemetery at Ranville, alongside so many other airborne troops whose desperate endeavours did so much to ensure the success of the invasion.

Pegasus Bridge 

Stuart Hills (JH 38-42) had heard the planes carrying the airborne forces pass overhead as he crossed the Channel that night in his Landing Craft Tank (LCT), keyed up with anticipation at the prospect of his first action. The crossing had been rough and many of the soldiers seasick but, as dawn broke, he viewed the vast armada around him, thousands of ships of every size and shape, an awe-inspiring and unique moment. His DD Sherman tank of the Sherwood Rangers was meant to be launched two miles from Gold Beach, coming ashore with its own propeller, the driver under the waterline and the commander peering over a supposedly waterproof canvas screen. Sea conditions, however, were so bad, with the wind whipping up white tops to the waves, that the LCT brought them in much closer. Gradually the heavy ramp of the LCT was lowered and Stuart could see the narrow strip of beach, the enemy pill-boxes he was tasked to engage and the spouts of shells in the water around. His was the leading tank, poised at the top of the ramp and clearly silhouetted. A shell slammed into the water just in front as he gave the order to go. The tank lumbered in and managed about sixty yards before it started sinking, probably a result of the earlier shell perforating the unarmoured plates beneath it. Frantically the crew scrambled into the dinghy, all their personal effects gone, to be picked up later by a launch, and next day were told to paddle into Gold with just the bedraggled clothes they stood up in. The Naval Beachmaster watched this ‘invasion force’ come ashore and declared that ‘there would be consternation in Berlin’.   

 Stuart Hills by a Sherman Tank in 2002                                                                    

Gold Beach saw other Tonbridgians come ashore that day. Lieutenant Colonel George Fanshawe (PH 15-20), commanding the 86th Field Regiment (Hertfordshire Yeomanry) became stuck on a sandbank in his landing craft and had to wade for three hundred yards in waist deep water. He recalled that in training for D-Day, a staff officer suggested that they were expecting ninety per cent casualties on D-Day, but ‘the divisions which followed should be all right’ – a remark not calculated to improve morale. Artillery was to be a vital resource in the fierce battles which followed and Fanshawe was awarded the DSO in December 1944.

The 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards was another Sherman tank regiment to land on Gold. With them was a troop commander, Charles Pillman (Sc 34-39), who was killed on D-Day, while Clarence Hampton (MH 27-30), the regimental signals officer, was wounded a few days later. The regimental doctor, Captain Samuel Hood (WH 32-37) was a Cambridge Scholar who, with war approaching, forsook a certain First at Cambridge to complete his clinical qualifications as a doctor and join the army as soon as possible. In subsequent heavy fighting around Cristot he went back time and again under heavy fire to collect wounded men from both sides in his half-track, some of those recovered from shot-up tanks suffering terrible burns, but on 13 June, while attending to another wounded man, a sniper shot him dead.

Further west two Tonbridgians were helping American forces on D-Day. Alistair Birrell (HS 36-39) was commanding an LCT carrying seven Sherman tanks and their American crews to Omaha Beach. He had left Plymouth on 5 June and rendezvoused at the Isle of Wight with the vast armada crossing the Channel on this historic but rough night. He had only been given his command a week previously and his American troops were also going into action for the first time. As he landed them at about midday the fighting had moved from ‘bloody Omaha’ to the heights beyond and he watched the tanks move off the beach towards the battle. He often wondered about their fate. 

Above him Dick Law (JH 34-37), a Fleet Air Arm pilot, was flying Seafires spotting for the guns of American warships off Omaha. Venturing too close to a shore battery he was shot down and crash-landed in no man’s land behind Omaha, from where he was rescued by a very large black American corporal who offered him a swig from his water bottle containing a very acceptable vin rose. Later he was to win the DSC in the Far East beating off the final kamikaze attack of the war.

A little further east John Hoare (FH/SH 34-38) came ashore on Sword Beach. He had become a regular soldier in the Royal Engineers after leaving Tonbridge, which he still remembers fondly for his good education and the professionalism of the OTC. By early 1944 he was second-in-command of a Field Company RE, training on the Humber to build  Bailey bridges, one of the great British inventions of the war. Hoare moved under fire on D-Day to Pegasus Bridge, which he found intact after the glider assault of the previous night, and in the next three days his company built two more bridges of about three hundred feet each across the Orne Canal to increase the flow of troops and equipment into the eastern part of the bridgehead. As the Allies broke out of Normandy, so Hoare and his Field Company followed close behind the leading infantry. Under German artillery fire they bridged the Seine at Vernon in two days with a seven hundred foot span, which needed a convoy of over three hundred vehicles to bring up the parts. Further bridges followed in Belgium and Holland, including a massive structure across the River Maas. The skills and courage of these field companies, often under fire, were extremely important in preserving the momentum of the advance.                            

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