Friday 19 August 2011

In the company of Heroes

Yesterday I was privileged to spend the afternoon with members of the Normandy Veterans Association in Southend-on-Sea, Essex. The Normandy Veterans' Association was launched in Britain in April 1981 and steadily grew to over 100 branches world wide. The aims of the association are to: Encourage the 1944 spirit of comradeship, irrespective of rank or social position; Promote contacts between former comrades via branch meetings, reunions etc; Organise visits to places of interest and former battlefields; Give practical assistance to members and their dependents who are in need; and, Educate the younger generations about the times and past deeds of their forebears.

Sadly the relentless progress of time is taking its toll on the Associations membership and branches are beginning to close. While current membership of this branch is dwindling its remaining members are vibrant, full of life with a sharp and often rude sense of humor!

Ernest Dark, Ray Newlyn & Don Shepherd (Chairman)
The Southend and District Branch of the NVA gather on a monthly basis and my Brother-in-law Ray and I were invited to come along to meet and interview some of its members. Over the course of a couple of hours we were regaled with war stories from a generation of men eager to pass on their experiences. One of the things  I liked most about this group was their sense of humor. Although every one is now in their 80's and most have the normal long list of ailments that come with age, their spirit and zest for life was clearly undiminished. When asked how are you every one replied with a variation on "Mustn't grumble, I'm still breathing!".

Fred Roberts (Trooper) 7th Armoured Div
I had the pleasure of interviewing Fred Roberts formerly of the 7th Armoured Division who drove a Valentine bridge layer and landed on D+1 on Juno Beach supporting the Canadians. Fred had trained on the Cromwell Tank but less than a week before the invasion he was transferred to a turretless Mk II Valentine fitted with 34 ft x 9.5 ft Class 30 scissor bridge. The only other crew member was a Lance Corporal who he had never met before. They waited in a holding area for 4 or five days with no idea of where they were going or when they would set off. Then one day a dispatch rider came along and ordered them to embark on a Landing Craft Tank at Southsea, Portsmouth. Fred described the LCT as little more than a box with an engine in the back and commanded by a 'Boy' of 18. Fred was only a little older himself.

Before they had set off Fred enjoyed a self heating tin of Turtle soup but regretted this meal once they were out at sea. He found a warm dark place among the Camouflage netting on the back of his tank, curled up and slept his way across the channel. On arrival off of Juno Beach on D+1 the inexperienced LCT commander dropped the ramp into deep water and the first vehicle off sank without a trace. Fred's Valentine was next but he refused to move until the LCT had changed position. Although this was D+1 the beach was still being shelled and there were plenty of hazards and unexploded mines to be worried about but Fred still remembers exiting the LCT as one of his most frightening moments of his arrival in France. As it was the repositioned LCT had got much closer in and the Valentine "barely got its tracks wet".
Replica Map - German Order of Battle

After the excitement of the landing Fred's war in Normandy initially consisted of rushing to and fro with his Bridge laying Valentine only to arrive at a destination and find that a crossing had already been established. Although the Valentine was better armoured than the Cromwell he trained in it was much slower meaning they were always racing to catch up. As the driver Fred's view of the beaches and countryside of Normandy was usually limited to a postbox sized vision slit. Unfortunately our time was used up by this part of his story so I'll have to find out what happened to Fred next time we meet.

Ernest Dark (Trooper) 7th Armoured Div 
Meanwhile Ray was interviewing Ernest Dark of the 5th Royal Horse Artillery, 7th Armoured Division who landed on Gold Beach on D-day itself. He was a Driver Mechanic of a Cromwell Tank and was just 18 when he landed in France. Ernest is still full of vigor at 85. He gave Ray a couple of photographs of him and his tank in Normandy and these are reproduced here. I'm not sure where he acquired the .45 (certainly not standard issue to a driver) but he looks quite proud to have it in this photo. The easily recognisable robust looking gun mantlet of the Cromwell is in the background along with additional track sections on the front armour. Ernest said that replacing track was one of his most frequent jobs but thankfully he found the Meteor Engine (derived from the powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine used in aircraft such as the Spitfire) to be very reliable.

Ernest Dark today 
In fact one incident proved the engines reliability and saved Ernest's life. They were moving through a village somewhere around Caen when the three tanks (possibly SPG's) ahead of him were destroyed by an '88'. He knew he was next and immediately threw the Cromwell into a turn to escape. Unfortunately he wasn't fast enough and at least one AP round hit his tank in the engine compartment. He later found that the round had destroyed three cylinders of the engine yet he was able to limp his tank back behind a building before the German gun could hit him again. When talking to Ernie its clear he wasn't all that impressed with the Armour protection or the 75mm gun of his tank, but he clearly loved the engine.

We also had a chance to meet several other Normandy Veterans but sadly didn't have time to interview them all. However the Chairman of the Southend and District Branch, Don Shepherd, offered us an open invitation to come back again at future meetings so I'm sure Ray and I will get a chance to gather more stories another time. This afternoon with the veterans (many of whom are also members of the Market Garden Association) was truely an inspiration and a privilege and I felt humbled in their presence.

We truly were in the company of heroes.


  1. Brilliant... would love to have been there!

  2. Probably a very exciting although moving experience for you and Ray. A very godo post. Thanks for sharing guys

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks Lee.

  4. Fantastic post Lee, it sounds like a great day, unfortunately time takes its toll, but its great that you could speak to these guys about their wartime experiences and share some info with us.

  5. Very jealous of your experience, thanks for sharing.


Thank you for leaving a comment. I always try to reply as soon as I can, so why not pop back later and continue the conversation. In the meantime, check out my YouTube channel Miniature Adventures TV