Brian Walker: A voyage around my Army chaplain father who landed on Normandy beaches 75 years ago today
Seventy-five years ago today, on the morning of June 6, 1944, my father, Leslie Walker, landed on Gold Beach in Normandy at the beginning of Operation Overlord. Growing up, we knew he had been a chaplain, because at Church services he always wore proudly the preacher's stole of the Royal Corps of Chaplains. But he refused to talk about his wartime experiences. In his effort to draw a veil over these events, however, he forgot that one of his sons became an historian. Recently, I set out to discover what happened to him on D-Day and afterwards.
Central Army records in Glasgow provided me with a copy of his "particulars of service". 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. It stated that he had been born in Belfast in 1911. His nationality was described as Irish and it noted that he had a degree from Trinity College Dublin.
His home address was given as Ballinderry, Co Antrim, which was where his widowed mother and sisters had moved after their home in north Belfast had been destroyed in the Belfast Blitz. In fact, he joined up from Bangor, where he had been a Church of Ireland curate and where he met my mother, Dorothy Mercer.
His record shows that, 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.
The next three months were spent in intensive training, followed by a move to a base at Brockenhurst in Hampshire. I visited the National Archives at Kew in London to look at the war diary of the 6th Border Battalion for this period. All substantial Army units kept diaries, which contain a daily record of events and orders.
These papers 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. Besides the Border Battalion, the group included members of the Medical Corps, Engineers and Navy representatives.
The diary records that all personnel were moved to Southampton 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.
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My father is listed as one of three chaplains, two, including himself, described as "C of E" and the other as "RC". 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. A photograph published in the Press a few years ago showed another D-Day chaplain helping to wrap the body of a soldier in a body bag. He was smoking to mask the smell of death.
Earlier standing orders to the beach group stated that burial grounds would be established immediately at the base, with a chaplain responsible for each. It is very likely that my father would have been fully occupied with these painful duties, dealing with the soldiers killed in the initial invasion at Gold Beach. For someone who had no previous experience of war, this must have been a very distressing time.
The battalion war diary includes daily one-page news summaries, which were issued to all personnel. On June 13, soldiers were warned against looting of local property, including vegetables: "Remember do not eat up local supplies. We are not a plague of locusts, however odd we may look." The next day it was reported that, "the stores programme is now progressing very well and there is no shortage of any kind of supplies, except beer".
On June 16, personnel were advised: "An unduly friendly attitude towards prisoners must be prevented; such treatment raises their morale and makes interrogation very difficult so that valuable information is lost." The notes also reported on the great success of the beach group in the arrival and movement of supplies.
They record how, between June 9 and July 8, 39,040 vehicles and 51,156 tons of supplies were brought ashore at Gold Beach. With their job done, in early-August the 6th Border Battalion was disbanded and the soldiers distributed to reinforce other battalions.
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 frontline.
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 attack was 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. On July 30, in Operation Bluecoat, it reported: "At 600 hrs 50 Div. attacked on a two brigade front against strong resistance and many mines and booby traps."
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.
What happened to my father in this later phase of Operation Overlord? We have a photograph of him, taken in Brussels in September 1944. I do not know what unit he was with in this period, because his record only mentions his attachment to 30 Corps.
He never talked to his family about 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.
I think that he did not recount these events, because he went on to have a fulfilled and happy life after the war. He became rector of Knockbreda parish in south Belfast. Also, 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 remember him.
Brian M Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies at Queen's University Belfast. His new book, Irish History Matters: Politics, Identities and Commemoration, will be published later this month by History Press