D-Day 75: Remembering the soldiers of Normandy

For D-Day 75, Commission Intern, Abigail Eagles, writes about her Great-Grandfather’s experiences during the Second World War and in Normandy, and how her internship with the Commission has helped her find out more about his past.

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I grew up seeing my Great-Grandfather’s photo on the wall in my Grandparents’ house. I always knew he fought in the Second World War, but he never really spoke about it and died before I was born.

Before my CWGF Internship, I knew very little about his fascinating story. Working in the Commission has been a great way to learn more about the war, from reading war diaries to working at the cemeteries, it inspired me to find out more about my family’s story.

My Great-Grandad Jack fought in and survived the Battle of France, the retreat to Dunkirk, the Battle of Normandy and the battle for Arnhem. He was 20 when he signed up in October 1939 and joined the 5th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment who arrived in France in 15 January 1940. 

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Jack’s first involvement in the Second World War was during the Battle of France but his battalion was soon forced to retreat towards Dunkirk in May 1940. They marched 95 miles in 83 hours until they finally reached Dunkirk on 25 May, a day before the evacuations began. However, his Battalion was sent back into France to hold the village of Ledringhem at all costs against the Germans. 

Over the next few of days, Ledringhem was completely surrounded by German tanks and machine guns. They knew they were alone, surrounded and in incredible danger but that they had to fight. A cry of “Up the Gloucesters!” was heard and 3 attacks on the Germans were carried out. Each time the leading officer was seriously wounded. 

13 officers and 130 men survived and escaped the village, including my Great-Grandad Jack. They crawled next to hedges in single file for 6 hours, lit by flares and a burning windmill in the local field. Two farm horses were taken to carry the wounded men and one man was even pushed in a wheelbarrow. They made it to Dunkirk by the 30 May and were evacuated on the Little Ships.

Severely weakened after Dunkirk, the regiment was posted to the Cornish coastal defences, before Jack’s battalion was converted into the 43rd Reconnaissance Regiment of the Reconnaissance Corps.

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Jack’s new regiment was not at D-Day itself. He instead left the London Docks on 18 June 1944 on the MV Derrycunihy. They attempted to land at Sword Beach but were unable to do so because of the intense shelling and high seas. They instead attempted to dock the next morning instead and spent the night just off Sword Beach.

However, as the engines started at 7.40am on 24 June, an acoustic mine was detonated and split the ship in half. The stern of the ship sank rapidly, and the explosion set the oil that was leaking from the ship on fire. My great-grandfather was incredibly lucky to survive this shipwreck, not least because he couldn’t swim. After the war, the only story he talked about was being pulled from the sea by an American soldier. Out of 600 men, 183 died and 120 were evacuated wounded.

The majority of those who died in the sinking of the MV Derrycunihy are commemorated on the Bayeux Memorial.

However, some of the men made it to land before they died. Researching Jack’s story lead me to find out about Trooper Albert Phillips, who served in the same regiment as my Great-Grandfather and died on the day of the disaster. They were both just 25 when Albert died.

Using the search tools on the Commission’s website, I found that Trooper Phillips was buried initially in Bernières-sur-mer before being moved to Bayeux War Cemetery in July 1945.

I’ve been able to find his grave registration, the record of his reburial and even details about his headstone, which bears the inscription: “Ever remembered by his loving wife Enid. He died that we might live”.

The Grave registration report, concentration report and headstone report for Trooper Albert Smith

The Grave registration report, concentration report and headstone report for Trooper Albert Smith

Jack was extremely lucky to survive the war. He began the war as a newly married 20-year-old and ended the war as a 26-year-old experienced soldier with 3 children. His first son Jack (Jackie) was born on 9 June 1942, his daughter Jeannette was born on 29 January 1944 and my Grandad (Michael) was born on 4 July 1945. He had three more children after the war, Angela, Julie and Freda, and went on to live happily with his wife Freda until his death in May 1999, a year before I was born.

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My Internship with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has had a huge effect on the way I think about my Great Grandfather and the War itself. I knew he was involved in the Second World War and was lucky to survive it, but I had no real idea of what that involved.

When he enlisted, Jack was only a year older than I am now. Without him, I wouldn’t be here today. Learning about Jack, and the battles he fought in, during my internship has made it abundantly clear how brave the men and women involved were, how difficult the conditions were and crucially how important it is that we continue to remember them.