War diaries revealed the horrors my father locked away forever
Today my brother Michael and I will stand on a beach on the Normandy coast. This beach is known as 'Gold' beach and it is where our father, Leslie Walker, landed on the morning of June 6, 1944 at the beginning of Operation Overlord, or D-Day as it is known.
Two points are of interest about his participation in the first day of the greatest amphibious invasion the world has ever experienced. The first is that he did not carry a weapon. He was a chaplain and so was unarmed.
The second is that he never talked afterwards about this day or his experiences in Europe over the next 10 months. Growing up, we knew he had been a chaplain because at church services he always wore proudly the scarf of the Royal Corps of Chaplains. But he refused to talk about these events, apart from sometimes remarking that war was hell.
In his effort to draw a veil over these events, however, there was something that our father forgot. One of his sons became an historian.
Recently I set out to find out what happened to him on D-Day.
I obtained a copy of his 'particulars of service' from central Army records in Glasgow. It recorded that on November 5, 1943 he was granted an emergency commission as "a chaplain to the forces, 4th class", with the rank of captain. In late November he was sent to the 6th Battalion of the Border Regiment, originally from the north of England but now based at Ayr in Scotland. Crucially, it was part of the 10th Beach Group, which meant it would have a key role in any invasion.
From a history of this battalion, we can read that the next three months were spent in intensive training, followed by a move to a base at Brockenhurst in Hampshire. Shortly afterwards the invasion began.
Last Saturday I went to the National Archives at Kew in London to look at the war diary of the 6th Border Battalion. This showed how the 6th Border Battalion formed the nucleus of the 10th Beach Group.
The task of a Beach Group was to land with the assault troops and then organise the base at the beach, which included a hospital, petrol and ammunition dumps, and port facilities, including one of the Mulberry Harbours at Arromanche.
The diary records that all personnel were moved to Southhampton and then divided into ships before sailing from the Solent on June 5 .
Their arrival at Gold beach on June 6 on the first tide is not described in detail, but it is likely that the worst of the fighting was over when they arrived. While his arrival on the beach may not have been especially challenging, the rest of the day must have been traumatic.
One of the roles of a chaplain was to give comfort to wounded and dying soldiers and to bury the dead. It is very likely that my father would have been fully occupied with these painful duties.
Over the following weeks this Beach Group played a very successful role in the arrival and movement of supplies. Between June 9 and July 8, 39,040 vehicles and 51,156 tons of supplies were brought ashore at Gold. Then in August, the 6th Border Battalion was disbanded and the soldiers were sent to reinforce other regiments.
By this stage, however, my father had already gone. His Army record shows how, on July 2, he was posted to HQ 30 Corps. What this meant was that he had now been moved to the front line. His record does not show if he remained with HQ or was sent to another battalion.
The war diary of 30 Corps reveals a very different scene from the settled and reasonably peaceful place of Gold beach. On July 1 the diary recorded "during the day a series of attacks by enemy infantry and tanks – probably 2 SS and 9 Panzer divisions". The enemy attacks were repelled but this remained an active front, on the edge of Caen. Over the next month the diary records tank battles, attacking enemy strongholds and frequent enemy mortaring, which was one of the main causes of British deaths and injuries.
At this point I ended my study of the 30 Corps diary. I know that it was involved in a number of heavily fought battles, but in August the enemy was eventually pushed back. By September, the Allies had taken Brussels and Paris.
I have not been able to find out what happened to my father in this second half of Operation Overlord. Last week, however, the Press reported on the personal war diaries of another chaplain from this campaign, Capt Leslie Skinner.
His account of the life of a front line chaplain casts an invaluable insight into what my father probably experienced.
The role of the chaplain included not just comforting soldiers, holding services and conducting burials. It also involved identifying dead soldiers and seeing to the removal of the remains of often badly destroyed bodies.
The report on Capt Skinner showed an extraordinary picture of a chaplain helping to wrap the body of a British soldier in sack cloth. He was smoking a cigarette to mask the smell of death.
Our father chose never to talk of these months, so we will never know exactly what he experienced. The records tell us a little of what happened but it is unlikely that we will be able to fill in the full picture.
To some extent, I believe he did not recount these events because he went on to have a fulfilled and happy life after the war. At the same time, I believe that he chose not to talk of these terrible days to protect us from the sheer horror of what he went through. Today we will honour his memory on Gold beach.
Brian M Walker is Emeritus Professor of Irish Studies at Queen's University, Belfast