50th Anniversary of D Day

Tue, Oct 6th 2020 at 1:30 pm - 2:10 pm

Rod Stokes talks to the club about a personal link between Rotary, military vehicles and a 50th anniversary of D Day trip.

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A personal link between Rotary, Military Vehicles and a 50th Anniversary of D Day trip.

I joined Rotary in 1992, Ripon Rowels, a relatively new club started by the Ripon Club. After a year’s I took over as manager of the sales team in the South West and transferred to Marlborough where I joined Marlborough Rotary. I met a Rotarian John Robins who was renovating an old military lorry and was invited to drive a military vehicle to the 50th D Day anniversary celebrations in Normandy. And so, it started.

The Jeep

This is the vehicle I bought a few months later, a Willys jeep. The origin of the jeep as far as is the American Government asked motor companies to come up with a small all-terrain vehicle, my words not theirs. The various designs were submitted and the winning one was from the Bantam motor company. A very small company who could not fulfil the production capacity. So their design was circulated and made by themselves, Ford and Willy's. Almost identical with interchangeable parts.  The Ford featured the flying F on most panels and had a couple of cosmetic differences. This jeep was always a British Jeep and as far as I know only left the country on tours well after the war. The White Star is an 'Invasion' star and does not signify it being an American vehicle.

We had decided to go and Ralph, Ann's Dad, decided to make the trip with the Essex Yeomanry, his old regiment. Firstly how did we meet the Yeomanry. We obviously knew where they were going and the approx. timings before we left England- But on the afternoon of 5 June we were at a cafe for our usual afternoon session of Coffee and Calvados .

Anyway sitting at the cafe a old soldier approached Ann my wife and asked the way to the toilet. She thought it would be easier to take him rather than direct. on the way she recognised his tie as the Essex Yeomanry and when questioned he pointed out Ralph and so we met.

This is the 6 June1994, how did we meet up with the Essex Yeomanry that day?

Well they were late, French organisation at its best. In fact they were so late with coaches via the road  they would have been unable to get to the presentation to the queen. They were stuck in Asnelles and that's where we were. So the trip down the beach began. Tanks followed by the other British marked vehicles full of veterans

Ralph's summary:

On June 6th 1944 the Essex Yeomanry equipped with Sextons, a sexton is a 25 pounder gun mounted on a modified Sherman chassis. Having completed the run in shoot we landed on jig section, gold beach and since then, at 10 yearly intervals, the Essex Yeomanry Association has revisited the beaches. This year the party consisted of 47 ex gunners and 10 relatives. Contrary to our normal practice of travelling to Le Havre we travelled to Calais and our oldest member celebrated his 81st birthday. This visit was based at Bayaux the locals in a festive mood and the gendarmes very security minded, later they were to prove a problem. One instance despite official passes they diverted us several times only to arrive back at the original point of diversion.

It is hard for the newcomer to visualise the scene of 50 years ago because the beach and near vicinity where we landed is now a housing estate The hedgehogs with telemines surmounted on them have disappeared and now sand yachts and children have taken their place. The fields have been so enlarged that the hedges that concealed snipers and anti tank guns and also proved obstacles to tracked vehicles have gone. The nearest village to our point of landing Le Hanell is now incorporated in the development although one strong point has been preserved.

  It was for me personally a special occasion this time as my daughter was with me (his eldest daughter Valerie) and we both stood together at the place where I was, when she was born fifty years ago. It has not changed much, same hedges, same trees. The trees older and taller but the same layout. The track along which the ammunition lorries used to come is still there and one of our party reminded us of the dust the lorries used to create. In those days there was a saying "dust meant danger".

Everyone who visits the war cemetery remarks on the condition and dedication of the staff and this was very obvious this time because despite the bad weather and the extra wear from various ceremonies, they were in perfect condition.

    June 6th 1994 was a very busy day for us because at 9 am we were laying a wreath on the RA memorial at Ver sur Mere then we had breakfast with the Mayor and his friends. We then went on to the service at Rees cemetery which was due to start at 11 am and the French police did their best to make us arrive late. After the service, we went onto Asnelle to lay a wreath on the Essex Yeomanry memorial and meet our friends from the historic vehicle trust. A Sexton was in attendance. After that it was onto Van de Mere for lunch and presentation of the Normandy Medals and as far as I recollect that ended about 3 o'clock at which time we were supposed to be in our positions for the ceremony at Arromanches- but we were not to worry as we had our own transport standing by. The historic vehicle trust was providing 1939-1945 vehicles including a Sexton and three Sherman tanks to transport us to the parade. We all mounted the vehicles and my joy was riding in the Sexton although I did find I needed some assistance to climb up the side and two of my friends took up their old positions in the co drivers seat in the Shermans. Away we went along the beach to the parade. We were a small cog in the parade of 3,000 but made our mark by arriving and departing in the classic transport. To me again this was of particular interest because Rod and Ann, son in law and daughter, are members of the trust and were partaking in the drive.

    On the 7th June some of us took advantage of the fact we were at Bayuex to visit both the Cathedral and the Tapestry because despite previous visits, we never seemed to have time to look round the town. In 1944 we bypassed it and Bayuex actually didn't suffer any damage at all. It was one of the lucky spots in Normandy!

As I said earlier the other highlight was to actually see Shermans and a Sexton on the move when you normally see them in Museums static. But to see them alive and trundling along the beach really revived old memories.

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