DAVID ARNOLD: Canadian friends camped in forest

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Last week I made reference to the way the fields and forests of South East England suddenly emptied of the vast numbers of men and vehicles that had been gathering there for many months prior to D-Day.

By coincidence, on the very day the piece was published I received a letter from Daphne Wickens on just that subject.

Daphne now lives in Uckfield but in 1944 she lived near Broadwater Forest close by the border of Kent and Sussex. In her letter she writes: “One spring evening in 1944, while in the woods by our house, my sister Peggy and I were shocked to see a lot of noisy armoured cars and lorries suddenly coming along our quiet little road. They parked all along the grass verge close to our house.

“Two armoured cars even parked right beside our back gate where there was a gap; a bit cheeky we thought. The rest of them made camp opposite us in the woods. The 12th Manitoba Dragoons had arrived!

“No tents for them, just tarpaulins and groundsheets. A water lorry came daily. We were used to having no gas or electricity and we got our water from a spring in the woods but these soldiers had come from the relative comfort of Brighton Barracks so roughing it in the countryside was no cushy number for them.

“Over the weeks we got to know those soldiers who were nearest our garden gate and our Dad would invite a couple in for Sunday lunch. One was called Harry Mills and he would chat to Dad quite a lot as he spent plenty of time in the garden where he grew lots of vegetables.

“Early one June morning there was lots of activity and the sound of engines being started up. As I came out of the gate to go to work (I was 16 at the time) Harry thrust a box of chocolates into my hand. He told me he’d only eaten a few but didn’t have room to take the rest with him. Then with a ‘must dash, cheerio’ he was gone.

“When I got home at tea time, the forest was so, so quiet and empty with the only sound coming from the birds. The 12th Manitoba Dragoons were on their way to ‘Somewhere in France’. We wrote to Harry and his pals and got a scribbled note back to say they were busy but OK. After the war in Europe had ended in 1945 Harry visited us. We went with him to Tunbridge Wells Station to say goodbye to him and those of his mates lucky enough to come back.

“We stayed in touch with Harry for over 50 years. He came to England to see us and we went to Canada to see him. While over there we took the opportunity to visit Niagara Falls.

“Harry always seemed like an older brother to Peg and I and we loved him and were very sorry when we learnt he had passed away.”

Now it just so happens that Daphne’s own family has a link to the D-Day Dodger Geoff Huxley whose story also features on this page. Daphne’s daughter Rosemary is married to one of Geoff’s sons, Alan Huxley. So that makes him my brother-in-law. Alan and Rosemary have a son, Simon, who is married to Verity. In a final twist to this tale, HMS Verity was the name of the ship that rescued Geoff Huxley and many of the people aboard SS Strathallan after it was torpedoed!