A huge round of applause and cheers greeted a pair of local D-Day veterans when they entered a packed Lewes Town Hall in full fig complete with military medals on the occasion of the Battle of Lewes Banquet.
The dinner, on Friday May 9, was one of many events held to mark the 750th anniversary of the 1264 conflict between the army of King Henry IIl and the rebel baronial forces led by Simon de Montfort. It was also too good an occasion not to remember the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944, a region to which so many of the Battle of Lewes protagonists had historic ties.
I was delighted to invite Lewes resident Cyril Tasker and Fred Glover, of Woodingdean, along as Guests of Honour on what turned out to be a very special evening. Cyril and Fred have remarkable D-Day stories to tell. They were both youthful volunteers who served in the 6th Airborne Division. They didn’t actually meet during the war but became firm friends in the course of many annual reunions held in Normandy over the past seven decades.
Though they are proud to wear their red berets, smart blazers and rows of medals the two are modest in the extreme, always emphasising how lucky they have been to live long and fruitful lives whereas so many of their young comrades didn’t survive.
Fred was the first of the pair into battle. He landed in a glider in darkness in the very early hours of D-Day, 6th June 1944. He was part of a specially trained unit detailed to assault the Merville Battery, a strongly defended German artillery emplacement with powerful guns that could range on the Allied armada due to rendezvous off the landing beaches at dawn.
The attack occupies a legendary place in the annals of D-Day. Accidents, faulty navigation and enemy anti-aircraft fire took a terrible toll to the extent that just 150 men, about a quarter of the original force, made it to the assembly area. Nevertheless, the attack went in and in an epic action the lightly armed paras succeeded in capturing the guns.
Fred and some companions ran into a German patrol about 250 yards outside the battery. Though already wounded in the legs by shrapnel, he took part in a confused firefight. Later, when his unit moved on he found himself falling behind. Eventually he was left with two seriously wounded Germans whom he tried to help as best he could. Fred believes that his efforts most likely saved his own life for when a German patrol came upon them their mood was decidedly grim, not helped by the fact that the paratrooper was found to have a gammon bomb and fighting knife still on his person. Fred says: “I don’t speak their language but I am pretty sure that one of the wounded Germans piped up on my behalf because suddenly the tension lifted and the atmosphere eased.”
Fred was transported to several German military hospitals where his leg wounds were treated with varying degrees of success (he was still having bits of metal extracted from his knee at a hospital in Brighton in 1947). At Pont-l’Eveque he had the surprise of conversing with a German who spoke English with an American accent; the man had been a pre-war waiter in New York before returning to Germany to join the Wehrmacht. Fred ended up in a Paris hospital in August 1944. The Germans were hastily evacuating the city; in the confusion Fred was able to limp out of his ward and on to the streets where he linked up with the Resistance and can justly lay claim to playing a role in the liberation of the French capital. With his partly-healed leg wounds opening up again, Fred’s war ended with his repatriation to England. He was still a teenager.
Cyril Tasker landed by glider near Ranville in Normandy in the late afternoon of D-Day. He recalls: “Aircraft were scattered all over the place. Some gliders had smashed into poles erected to thwart just such an attack as ours. There was an awful racket from mortar fire, shelling, rifle fire and the rattle of machine-guns. Men were getting hurt and men were being killed. I was certainly scared and I’m sure everyone else was as well. We were told to dig in for the night.
“As it got lighter things once more hotted up. The battle had a rhythm. Vicious storms of fire were followed by deceptive lulls. Later we were ordered to head for a location that was to go down in history as the famous Pegasus Bridge. We got a bit lost and I decided to check where we were with the occupants of a large house. I saw a big burly soldier walking towards me. He looked familiar. I suddenly realised it was General Richard Gale, commander of 6th Airborne. He called out ‘I think you’ve lost your way soldier’ and with that gave me a hefty push in the chest, strong enough to propel me into a ditch that ran alongside the drive. General Gale dived on top of me. A second later there was a great big explosion right by where we’d both been standing.
“As we got to our feet the General asked if this was my first time in action. I told him it was indeed my first battle. ‘You’ll soon get used to it’ he replied, ‘You’ll be able to tell from the whine of the shell how close to you it will land.’ He was right. I did learn.”
Cyril was in the vicinity of Pegasus Bridge for most of the summer of 1944 when British and Canadian armies were engaged in a terribly costly but ultimately successful war of attrition with Hitler’s crack panzer divisions. He didn’t take part in the ‘Great Swan’, the surging advance through France and into Belgium and Holland of the Allied armies in August and early September of that year. But he was back in action with the 6th Airborne for the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and the assault over the River Rhine in March 1945.
Next week Cyril and his wife Jeanne will be going to Normandy for the 70th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings. Unfortunately it seems that Fred will not be able to make it. He suffered a stroke soon after the Battle of Lewes Banquet and though he has made an excellent recovery it is unlikely he will be well enough to travel. My wife Barbara feels partly responsible and remorseful. She danced with Fred in Lewes Town Hall late that Banquet evening and remarked on what a lively mover he was. I told her not to worry; Fred had a great night out. Besides which he’s now my benchmark. I hope I can move like he can when I’m 88!