Battalion Colours

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    Post by Battalion Colours on Sun Oct 24, 2010 6:57 am

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    The following article was written by David Hughes, the Nephew of Lt 'Frankie' Hughes, who served with the 1st Battalion South Lancashire Regiment.

    It has hung on the wall of our family home for as long as I can remember; a photograph of a handsome young man in military uniform. I remember as a small boy my father telling me that the soldier in the picture was his older brother, my Uncle Frankie, who died fighting in Europe during the Second World War. It was not until years later that I came to learn the details of where and how he died – as a Canadian officer attached to the British Army for the Allied invasion of France on 6 June 1944. It was decades before I began to understand the circumstances of his sacrifice, the epic significance of the battle in which he participated, or the importance of the cause for which he gave his life. My appreciation deepened when my father and I began to research my uncle’s life. That research was to culminate in a pilgrimage to England and Normandy to participate in the 60th Anniversary of D-Day – an experience that proved to be an historical and emotional journey for both my father and me.

    My father never really spoke much about my uncle, but based on what little he did say I always knew he was a hero. I remember fragments of stories, short references to the letters he wrote home from Europe, or occasional speculation on his romantic interests and fiancée – barely enough to make him come alive in my mind. The equally limited details of his death, on the other hand, had a much deeper impact on me. I recall vividly my father telling me how my uncle had been killed by German machinegun fire, and his speculating on what had happened to his medals – given, my father thought, by my grandmother to my uncle’s fiancée. And I will never forget the story of how, when my uncle’s personal effects finally arrived home the following spring, the box contained his boots still covered in mud and blood, or how it was my father, not yet 11, who took the boots outside to clean and polish them.
    After I moved overseas to go to university, years passed with only the occasional mention of my uncle until early 1998 when my parents decided to take a holiday in Europe including a short visit to my uncle’s grave in Normandy. They had only one free day but managed to take the train from Paris to Bayeux. When they arrived, however, they found the local buses do not run on Sunday. Not knowing what to do my father stuck up a conversation, in his rusty Quebecois French, with the stationmaster. He explained that he had come to visit his brother’s grave at the British War Cemetery at Hermanville and the Frenchman asked what unit the fallen soldier had fought with. When the stationmaster heard it was the 1st South Lancashire Regiment, he told his subordinate that he was taking an early lunch (it was perhaps 10:30 am) and spent the next few hours driving my parents around the area in his car. For he knew what my father still did not, that the 1st South Lancs were the first assault troops to land, liberating the man’s home town of Hermanville-sur-Mer.
    The stationmaster escorted my parents to a spot on the beach, marked by a memorial, where the 1st South Lancs landed, to the local Liberation Museum temporarily housed every year for the anniversary of D-Day in a church, and to the cemetery when my uncle is buried. He then took them to his home in the adjacent town to meet his wife, and even drove several kilometers out of the town to show them a place he simply referred to as “le Château,” the significance of this last location, unfortunately, was lost on my parents at the time.We were to later find out that the exceptional hospitality extended to my parents by the stationmaster, while not something foreign tourist can expect in France, is representative of the Norman people’s genuine appreciation for their liberators. It was certainly a precursor to the kindness my father and I would be extended during our visit to Normandy for the 60th Anniversary of D-Day.

    About the time my parents returned to Canada from this trip, I moved to New York and so was able to speak with my father more frequently about my uncle and my parents’ brief visit to Normandy. He mentioned that he wanted to return and it was clear to me that their visit had raised more questions for him than it had answered. The trip had clearly stirred up some deep emotions and it became difficult for my father to talk about his brother Frankie, or his first visit to Normandy, without the tears welling up. Around this time Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was in cinemas and watching the opening sequence, now knowing that his brother had been in the first wave of infantry, must have been very difficult for my father. He was clearly looking for answers, and perhaps some form of closure, and so my mother, father and I began talking about visiting Normandy together.
    Our intention to visit France for the 55th Anniversary in 1999 were dashed when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 1998 and was undergoing treatment when we would have been planning the trip. She recovered and enjoyed relatively good health for the next 2 and one half years and we talked often of another trip but unfortunately she never made it to Normandy. The cancer, as it so often does, returned in late 2001 and my mother, Victoria Hughes, died on 22 September 2002.

    As the grieving passed, my father and I once again revived our discussions about someday visiting Normandy. It became a common goal on which to focus our energy. Sharing our research and then planning and making the trip became an unexpected bonding experience, a chance to get to know a side of my father I had rarely seen.In preparation for the trip, while on business in London, I began to research my uncle and his regiment more seriously, visiting the reading rooms at the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum. From my findings there and the materials and books I found on the internet I began to build up a small library focused my uncle’s battalion and Sword Beach where they had come ashore. It was around this time that my father decided he would like to wait a year and visit Normandy for the 60th Anniversary of the Allied invasion, a fortuitous decision we will never regret. This gave us a deadline and some time to do our research. My father requested his brother’s service record from the Canadian Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and we began to read through the dozens of books we had each accumulated for any detailed information on my uncle and his regimental history for June 1944.
    Our research efforts continued even during our 2004 trip. While in London we visited the National Archives in Kew, where we were able to get a copy of the 1st South Lancashire Regimental War Diary for the brief period my uncle served with British Army. The diaries for May and June 1944 provide a day by day, and in some cases hour by hour, account of the regiment’s activities during the preparations for and the actual invasion of Normandy and proved to be one of the most informative primary sources of information.

    As a result of our research we were able to start piecing together the life and military career, including the final days, of Lieutenant Harry Franklin Hughes. Frankie was born 18 August 1920 in East Angus, Quebec, Canada to Mr. and Mrs. Byard and Alberta Hughes. He was very athletic and played virtually every sport on offer. Being the oldest son, he was forced to leave high school at seventeen to help support his family but the next year, on 6 September 1939, as soon as Canada entered the war, he signed up with the Canadian Army and was attached to the local Sherbrooke Regiment. He was nineteen. That winter D-32007 Corporal Hughes shipped out to the UK on the first wave of troop ships. After 3 years in England, he returned to Canada in April 1943, and soon after received his commission. He then studied Military Intelligence at the Royal Military College, Kingston, after which he was apparently offered a position as an instructor at the Royal Officer College in Farham, but instead chose to volunteer for a little known program code named CANLOAN – a decision that would determine the course of the remainder of his life.

    By late 1943 the British Army was suffering a severe shortage of junior infantry officers while the Canadian Army had a temporary surplus of well trained, albeit largely inexperienced, junior officers. Both armies agreed that it would make sense to create a scheme to lend junior officers, primarily Lieutenants and a few Captains, to British regiments for the imminent invasion of German occupied Europe. The scheme, called CANLOAN, had the Canadian Army select from volunteers, who were then assigned to regiments throughout the British Army. In the end, 623 junior infantry officers and 50 Ordnance Corp volunteers were transferred to the British Army, and one or more of them served in almost every battalion of the British Second Army. Often they served as platoon commanders; many like my uncle were destined to lead assault troops as the army was reluctant to send the British officers with battle experience in the first waves where so many were certain to be lost. Between D-Day 1944 and VE day1945 these 673 CANLOAN officers suffer a causality rate of 75 percent and received nearly 100 awards for bravery including over 40 Military Crosses. 128 men, including my uncle, did not survive the war.

    Now a full Lieutenant, my uncle was not only accepted into the program but mentioned in a list of sixteen men “who appeared to be the most outstanding all-round officers,” from his cohort of 250 officers. Assigned CANLOAN number CDN/401 my uncle went through briefing and refresher training in New Brunswick and departed from Halifax in mid-May 1944. When he arrived in England he was immediately attached to his new regiment, the 1st South Lancashire Regiment (The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers), 8th Brigade, British 3rd Infantry Division and preparations for the D-Day invasion were already in full swing. According to the regimental diary, on 27 May 1944 the 1st South Lancs were 813 men strong. Most all of them, like my uncle, were well trained and fit, but few, if any, had combat experience. Information in official reports including the Regimental Diary provides us with a timeline of the 1st South Lancs’ activities leading up to the D-Day invasion:
    26 May – Sealed in camps and given French francs and phrase books. Guards given orders to “shoot to kill” anyone trying to enter or exit perimeter.
    1 June – Assembly in Cowplain near Portsmouth, final briefing and preparations made.
    2 June – Dispersed to marshalling camps.
    3 June – Mustered at Victoria Barracks, Portsmouth, before embarking LSI (Landing Ships, Infantry) nos. 70-72 (including the Glenearn and Cutlass) by 1700 h.
    4 June – Practiced manning LCAs (Landing Craft, Assault). Received word that invasion is delayed due to bad weather.
    5 June – Quiet day aboard LSI. Weighed anchor and left port at 2230 h.
    6 June – Channel crossing.
    0545 hours – A and C Companies board LCAs.
    0600 hours – B and D Companies board LCAs. From this point the LCAs, each capable of carrying a platoon, like my uncle’s, of up to fourty men, began their approach towards their objective, the beach before the seaside village of La Breche (now called La Breche d’Hermanville) designated, for this day, by the codename SWORD, QUEEN, WHITE.

    With heavy smoke from the preliminary naval artillery bombardment largely obscuring their view of the shoreline, rough seas tossing about the small vessels about and a full array of underwater obstacles, the approach must have been absolutely chaotic. Although the engineers and tanks were scheduled to land at 0720 hours, ten minutes ahead of the first wave of infantry, it was not to be. At about 0725 hours, together with men of the 2nd East Yorkshire Regiment, A and C companies of the 1st South Lancashire Regiment hit the beach almost simultaneously with the Duplex Drive (DD) tanks of the 13th/18th Hussars just behind the Armored Vehicles, Royal Engineers (AVREs) of the 5th Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers. All along QUEEN, WHITE, they were met with heavy machinegun and mortar fire, the East Yorks alone suffering some 200 casualties from a single 75mm gun that was eventually knocked out by ‘flail’ tank.
    At 0745 hours a second wave of assault troops came ashore, this time consisting of two companies of the East Yorks, and B and D Companies of the 1st South Lancs, the latter being my uncle’s. They were met with small arms, mortar and 88 mm fire as they crossed the long sand flats with virtually no cover. This second wave came in further to the east than planned and landed right under the active guns of the defensive installation designated strong point COD. Many men were killed as they tried to get off their landing craft and the battalion lost their commander and two company commanders in just a few minutes.
    In spite of this heavy resistance, and the intense fighting that persisted at strong point COD, my uncle’s platoon was able to carry out its orders “to move inland as rapidly and as far as possible and not to engage the enemy on the beach” so as to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the landing area. They succeeded in doing so, exiting the beach by 0830 hours, and moving inland to secure Hermanville by 0900 hours. D Company thus held the honor of being the first British infantry unit to press on inland.
    First day casualties for the 1st South Lancs -18 killed, 89 wounded and 19 missing (for a total of 126 or a 15% causality rate) - were considerably lighter than had been expected for the assault troops. Casualty estimates for the regiment had been as high as 86% for the first day. In fact, Private John Gale of the 1st S. Lancs, whose account appears on p.224 of Cornelius Ryan’s famous book The Longest Day, was “cold bloodedly told that all of us in the first wave would probably be wiped out.” Perhaps as a result of these horrific expectations my uncle wrote in his first letter from France that his unit’s losses during the landing had been “much lighter than expected.” These high casualty estimates, however, were to prove ominous for my uncle’s platoon before the end of the campaign.
    There were a number of reasons for the relatively low casualty rate that first day, perhaps most significantly the fact that the German troops being held in reserve could not be released without Hitler’s consent and no one on his staff dared wake the Fuehrer with “more bad news.” He had gone to bed the night before with a sleeping pill after hearing that Rome had fallen to the Allies.

    Later that day the German reinforcements were released and the 3rd Division was ordered to dig in for the night. Over the following days slow but steady advances were made and on 10 June D Company occupied a château called Le Londel. The next day, about 600 yards away, the 1st S. Lancs faced off against the a Panzer Regiment on the grounds of an estate called Château de la Londe located west of Biéville-Beuville near Bénouville (the similarities of the settlement names were a source of confusion at that time as well) about 8 kilometers from the beachhead but some 5 kilometers short of the 3rd Division’s original D-Day objective, the city of Caen. On this small patch of land fierce fighting continued for 17 days, earning it the nickname “the bloodiest square mile in Normandy.”
    D Company was relieved on 15 June and it is during these next few days that my uncle wrote his last letters home from a place called Cazelle. Although he acknowledges his fallen comrades and the horrors of battle, overall his letters are extremely positive. Perhaps to keep up his spirits, but more likely so as not to worry the folks back home, he writes of the success of the landing, how their causalities had been far lighter than expected, and how he is convinced the war would soon be over. He goes on to explain that because he speaks their language the French people have been especially gracious to him, expressing their appreciation by offering him bread, wine and even fresh eggs.
    My uncle’s company returned to the front lines on 21 June and the following day the Lancashire men took the Château de la Londe in a silent attack just before dawn. The next day heavy mortar and artillery fire on the position was followed by a counter attack by the 21st Panzer Division. After holding the position all day, B Company of the 1st S. Lancs was overrun, and the rest of the battalion was forced to withdraw.
    The Château de la Londe changed hands twice more during the next five days and it was not until 28 June when the 1st South Lancs, along with much needed support from the East Yorkshire and Suffolk Regiments, finally took and held the château. It was at about 1530 hours on 27 June, during this final frontal assault across cornfields and under heavy mortar and machinegun fire, that my uncle, Lt Harry Franklin Hughes, was wounded. He died the following day at the 88th General Field Hospital. He was twenty-three years old.

    And so, with this still incomplete story in hand my father and I set out for Normandy and the 60th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion. Our Tour was scheduled to leave from Victoria Station on 4 June, but we decided to arrive in London a few days beforehand. This allowed us, in addition to visiting the Nation Archive, to see the D-Day exhibits at the Cabinet War Rooms, and the Imperial War Museums at Duxford and Lambeth, as well as to visit the National Army Museum in Chelsea. We especially enjoyed Duxford where they had numerous special D-Day events that included a reenactment of the 5 June Typhoon pilots’ D-Day briefing, lectures on the Overlord invasion and German defenses, and a very special “meet the veterans” sessions where we had the opportunity to meet two veterans from the 15/18 Hussars whose tanks had landed at the same beach as my uncle. It was wonderful to hear their stories and to have a chance to personally thank them for what they did for all of us sixty year ago. Their charming and positive attitude was to be representative of all the veterans we would meet during the remainder of our trip.

    So the time had come and we were finally to visit Normandy to see where my uncle had fought, lived and died. We had booked a one week “D-Day 60th Anniversary Epic Tour,” that we found through the Imperial War Musem. When we joined the coach early on the morning of 4 June and settled in with the group, we were pleased to find such a diverse range of interesting people, including two veteran American veterans who landed at Omaha Beach.
    As we passed the chalky Dover cliffs and rolled onto the ferry in our air conditioned coach I couldn’t help thinking that exactly 60 years ago to the day, not far from here, tens of thousands of young and frightened soldiers were boarding their troop transports for their rough crossing, or how at the point, about eight miles from the French coast where these same soldiers battled high swells to man their landing craft, we sat on the deck sipping our cappuccinos. Thinking about this gave me a very strange feeling, not of guilt perhaps, but a growing appreciation for what they had done. Our tour guides had planned a full week and even with the disruptions caused by the increased security resulting from the host of dignitaries attending the various ceremonies, we managed to not only cover all the beaches and landing areas, but we were also able to observe some of the special events including a tribute to the British 6th Airborne gilder landing at the famous Pegasus Bridge, attended by the Prince of Wales , and a recreation of the troop drops from Dakota aircraft. Our visits to the American cemetery at Omaha Beach, with its acres of crosses, and the German cemetery at la Cambe, where some 21,000 soldiers are interned, drove home the scale of the losses suffered on both sides.

    My father and I had made arrangements to attend the 6 June ceremonies at Juno Beach where the Canadian forces landed. This was attended by several hundred Canadian veterans who were supported by thousands of family members, friends, and proud Canadians. The program included speeches by an array of dignitaries including both the Prime Minister and Governor General of Canada. However, the highlight for everyone in attendance was a speech by Her Majesty the Queen. Her Majesty spoke briefly but eloquently, in both English and French, thanking the veterans for all they had done, in particular for “coming thousands of miles from relative safety across the sea to throw yourselves into harms way.” It was the first time the Queen had attended the annual Juno beach ceremony and her heartfelt thanks were genuinely appreciate by everyone in attendance, especially as she walked amongst the veterans to greet and thank them personally.

    However, it wasn’t the official ceremonies or what the dignitaries said to the veterans, but our personal interaction with the veterans that we will remember forever. Our whole trip, everywhere we went from Duxford to Caen, was highlighted by a series of fortuitous meetings with these heroes. Hearing their stories and thoughts first hand, and having the opportunity to thank them face to face for what they did for subsequent generations was, we realized, the real value of visiting on this historic anniversary. The meetings, however, would sometimes prove to be far more emotional than we had been prepared for.
    I remember my conversation with one veteran in particular, a Highlander whom I met only briefly at the historic Merville battery. He spoke with a young man’s glint in his eye, of how wonderful it is that the post-war generations in Normandy still welcomed the old soldiers with open arms. He told me with absolute glee how the previous night a pretty French femme, no more than twenty-five, had run out of the crowd and kissed him – just as the young women had sixty years before.
    I assured him that it is not only the French who appreciate what he had done. I shook his hand, looked him in the eye, and thanked him from the bottom of my heart for what he had done for my and future generations. At that, we both began to cry and I mumbled something about it not being my intention to get so emotional. As we parted, tears sill in our eyes, he smiled, said he understood and thanked me. I regret not getting his name or unit but I will never regret thanking him and I will never forget, however brief it was, the moment we shared that June morning.
    The theme of appreciation by the French for their liberators was to repeat throughout our time in Normandy. The following encounter on the streets of Caen illustrates this well. I came out of the restaurant to find that my father and some of the others from our tour group had struck up a conversation with two couples – a Scotsmen and Englishman, each with a chest full of medals, and their wives, one English the other French. The latter, we discovered later, had met her husband during the invasion of Normandy. I asked if they had come to attend the ceremonies at Gold Beach and they replied that in fact they had come to attend a smaller dedication ceremony at a local school to be named “The Griffin and Edwards School” – after them! We were so happy for them and were struck by just how much the French truly appreciate, in spite of the centuries of animosity between their peoples, what their British liberators had done for them in the summer of 1944. The longer we spent in Normandy, the more apparent this deep appreciation became to us.
    I want to stress that this appreciation of their liberators is not just “for the tourist” or limited to kissing girls and school dedications the week of June 6th, it permeates much deeper into the lifestyle and society of the people of the Calvados region. I can illustrate this with a story of a bus ride my father and I took from Caen to the Sword Beach area around Hermanville-sur-Mer where we would retrace my uncle steps. It began when we found the bus stop near the intersection of rue 6 juin 1944 and avenue Liberté, and continued when I told the bus driver in my rudimentary French that we wanted to go to a little know museum on Sword Beach. When the driver indicated to us it was time to get off, a French woman, who had overheard my request, explained she would take us there. She led us, almost literally by the hand, and as we walked for some 15 minutes she recalled in French her fond memories of the nearby beach where, as a small child, her parents had brought her from Paris every summer for holidays. But that all changed, she explained, when the war broke out when she was six and they could no longer visit. She went on to explained how the area looked the first time she returned after the war, with mountains of rubble lining the streets and the beaches still covered with obstacles. A short distance from the museum we parted after a long exchange of merci beaucoups; she headed to her friend’s house where, thanks to the allied liberation, she still spends her holidays.

    The purpose of our bus ride that day, in fact the main purpose of the trip (for me at least), was to walk in my uncle’s final footsteps literally. And so, soon after we arrived in Hermanville, my father and I found ourselves on the very spot of beach where my uncle had come ashore in that first wave of the “thin red line.” I was reminded of one of his letters that my father often quoted, where he wrote of coming ashore and making “footprints in the sand.” As we stood there at low tide looking out at the stretch of flat sand we could only imagined the ordeal of the cold, wet and sea sick infantry men, running for their lives for hundreds of yards with full packs, under a shower of mortars and bullets with no cover to speak of – so many of them not making it to the relative safety of the dunes. This image was eerily contrasted by that of the children we watched playing on the same sand that had once been soaked with blood. Standing directly in front of what had been the notorious German strongpoint COD, my father and I comforted ourselves with the thought that it was precisely so these children could be free to fly their kites and build their castles that those brave men had fought and died.
    From the beach we moved inland on the route my uncle had originally taken. In the village square of La Breche d’Hermanville we stopped to read the memorial to the 1st S. Lancs and to photograph the “landmark buildings” of the Hotel and adjacent house we had seen in so many contemporary pictures of the troops’ landing. We then continued to the church where the local D-Day museum is temporarily housed. There we read through the materials, most provided by the local residence, hoping to find some undiscovered facts about my uncle or perhaps survivors of his unit, but unfortunately we left a little disappointed. We looked up the road and my father explained that it lead to my uncle’s final resting place, but we were to visit there another day, and so after walking the length of the beach once designated SWORD,QUEEN, we boarded the bus to Caen. About two thirds of the way back to the city we passed the Château de la Londe. This time, my father not only recognized the building the stationmaster had shown him during his previous visit, but also the significance of it. As we peered from the bus window it was difficult to believe that this regal country estate, surrounded by peaceful fields of lavender, was once “the bloodiest square mile in Normandy” where my uncle had been mortally wounded.
    On the fifth day of our tour we had a rare opportunity; we visited the site of the American landing at the infamous Omaha Beach, and at the gentle request of our tour guide, the two American vets on our tour graciously agreed to recount for our group their memories of landing there sixty years ago. 33561-727 Staff Sergeant Lawrence W. George, and 33431-1880 Technical Sergeant George “Duke” S. Jaynes were with the 295th Combat Engineers, 29th Division, and had both come ashore on this very spot. They recounted for us what their first nights in France were like. They were told to “dig in or find cover” and recalled trying to sleep while hugging for dear life to the walls of the narrow canyon leading off the beach. They explained that the dirt constantly being thrown up from the impacting artillery rounds fell “like rain” on their helmets. On one occasion, they recalled, 500 reinforcements for the US Army 29th Infantry Division arrived late at night and bedded down on the beach without digging in. Spotting this the Germans called down an air strike and in a matter of seconds 120 men were killed.
    Larry and Duke were kind enough to share both their good and bad experiences with us. They talked about the camaraderie amongst the soldiers but also about including one chilling story about how, later in their European campaign, an artillery round hit their ammunition dump. Larry’s words still echo in my mind. He told us that “in one second I lost 27 friends. We couldn’t even find pieces of many of them.” But even while telling us about the horrors of war these brave men were still able to prevent the mood from becoming too heavy. They seem to refuse to dwell on the negative. This is a common trait we observed in all the veterans my father and I met. Without exception they all had a positive attitude, and not just about the war but about life in general.
    My father and I later discussed how one could argue that the more optimistic people are probably more likely to return for the anniversary but I think it goes beyond that. I speculated that maybe their brighter disposition is what helped them survive the war, or perhaps surviving made them appreciate all the more every day of their lives since then.

    During our visit we saw so much but of all the places we went or things my father and I did none was as memorable or moving as our visit to my uncle’s grave site. When our tour guide, Jon Cooksey, heard that my uncle was buried at the British War Cemetery at Hermanville, he kindly offer to include it in our itinerary. Initially my father was reluctant to accept but luckily for all of us he did.
    The immaculately kept cemetery, overseen by The Commonwealth Graves Commission, is located less then 2 kilometers inland from the beach where my uncle landed and perhaps 6 km from where he was wounded. When our coach arrived, the guides enquired of the group if they wouldn’t mind my father and me having a few minutes alone in graveyard. Everyone was very understanding and so we went ahead into the quiet grounds. The cemetery contains 1,005 headstones including those of three French, three Australian, and thirteen Canadian fallen soldiers. My father, clearly recalling his previous visit, made a straight line for my uncle’s grave. After taking a few photographs of the gravestone, my father and I spent a few minutes with the memory of my uncle. We cried, we hugged, and then we cried a little more. It was not easy, especially with the sixty years of feelings being stirred up in my father.
    After my father rallied, we walked around reading the tombstones and looking for the names of men my uncle had mentioned in his letters or who had written to my grandmother after his death. We found a few, including the Canloan officers who died in the same battle as my uncle Lt. D.E. Edwards and Lt. S.A. Reid; they were easily distinguished by the Maple leaf emblem on their headstones, an addition made when the original crosses were replaced with stones in the 1970s.
    As the graves lay roughly in the order the soldiers died, it was sobering to note those days when many men from the same regiment were killed. More sobering still were the dates on the stones, so many of them marking the graves of boys no older than eighteen. Even the officers like my uncle, who were forced to make the decisions that would determine who might live and die, were often only in their early twenties. By this time the other members of our group had joined in the cemetery and many expressed their condolences to us or paid their respects at my uncle’s grave which was very touching. Just as we were preparing to leave a group of men, many in berets and medal laden blazers, came down the path. They turned out to be British veterans, members of the Cornwall branch of the Normandy Veterans Association (NVA), who had come to perform an Honour for their fallen comrades. Wreaths were laid, followed by a short sermon closed with the words “We will remember them!” Words that were repeated by the vets and many teary eyed members of our tour group. The Last Post and God Save the Queen were then played and the short but poignant ceremony finished with a touching prayer.
    When the ceremony ended I approached the leader, South West Regional Representative of the NVA Major Ken Preece, thanked him, and explained that my uncle was a CANLOAN officer buried a few yards away. I asked if he knew of any veterans from the 1st South Lancs. He said that none of the men present were, nor did he know of any. By this point in our trip my father and I realized that our hopes of meeting veterans from my uncle’s company or even his regiment were probably in vain. In fact, amongst the dozens of British veterans we met, including many who landed at Sword Beach, we never met anyone who knew any living veterans from the 1st South Lancashire Regiment. Instead we were often met with conciliatory comments such as “I understand those lads took it quite hard.” Perhaps this should not have come as such a surprise to us as we had both read the letter to my grandmother dated 8 August 1944, in which one of his platoon members wrote that as far as he knows only two of the original platoon, of fourty or so men, were still alive.
    After I apologized for bothering to the gentlemen he did something we though was extraordinary – he offered to personally say a prayer for my uncle. We graciously accepted and so, as we three stood over the grave, Major Preece led us in a prayer for my Uncle Frank. This must have been very difficult for my father, as I watched him fight to hold back the tears. As we prayed, and I held my father’s hand, I couldn’t help but imagine what was going through his head and heart. Perhaps he was recalling his previous visit with his wife who had died just eighteen months earlier, and the fact that she could not be there with him this time. Or maybe memories of the day my grandmother received the dreaded telegram stating that Lieutenant H.F. Hughes had “Died of wounds on 28 June 1944″ – ironically my father’s 10th birthday. As for me I comforted myself by thinking that my uncle did not die for nothing – but for a truly noble cause.

    Before we knew it our week in Normandy was over and we were saying goodbye to our new friends. When we returned to England, my father and I made two more stops, each hosted by friends, before returning to North America. One was a personalized tour of the de Havilland museum at Salisbury Hall, home of the Mosquito. The other was a guided tour of the Southampton and Portsmouth area including the D-Day museum and Victoria Barracks in Portsmouth, where my uncle spent his last day in England prior to the invasion. These last couple of days gave us a chance to reflect on our Normandy visit, process what we had experienced, and prepare to return to our regular lives.

    Although our research and trip may not have provided my father with all the answers he was looking for, I trust the experience helped him to better know his brother and to better come to some closure on his loss.
    As for me, I am satisfied that we now know a little more about the officer in the photograph, who he was, how he died, and why the sacrifice he made is so important. But we also learned about a lot more. Doing the research, visiting the sites in Normandy, and especially speaking with the veterans, I came to more deeply understand just how wasteful and stupid war is, while at the same time realizing that when there was no other acceptable option left open to them these young men fought and died for us.
    On the 50th anniversary of D-Day American President William Jefferson Clinton summed it up by saying: ”On these beaches the forces of freedom turned the tide of the 20th century…let us not forget that when they were young, these men saved the World.”

    Dedicated to the 288 men of the 1st South Lancashire Regiment who died during the Normandy Campaign. The author would like to thank Dr. Richard Gooch, Professor Brian Cotton and Nelson Wong for all their help and continued support.

    A list of the CANLOAN Officers by Regiment can be found at the following link.

    CANLOAN Army Officers Association


    Posts : 438
    Join date : 2009-11-28
    Location : Calgary, Alberta, Canada


    Post by qsamike on Sun Oct 24, 2010 8:45 am

    Very well written and a fantistic read.......


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