I grew up with the photograph on the left in a frame on top of our piano. My mum told me it was my cousin Bertie, who was killed by a sniper along the Rhine, a month before WW2 ended. That’s pretty much all I knew for many years and I didn’t think much about it until I was contacted several years ago by a cousin, Bertie’s sister, who was asking for family stories as she was putting together a family tree.
I’d not seen her for years so I called her to pass on a few details for her project. We talked about the family, which for me was a treat because I’m an only child and very much the baby of the entire family; everyone was and is a lot older than me. I remembered Bertie’s photo and asked about him, and discovered the very dramatic true story of the experiences of this young man who I never knew. He was 23 when he was killed, and he is buried in Hanover War Cemetery.
Bertie was a member of “A” Company of the 8th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment ACC and he was parachuted into France as part of the D-Day operations on 6th June 1944. The weather was bad and the paras, dropping from the gliders which carried them, were blown off course from their target. Bertie, in a group of 40 paras, was found by 17 year old Gaston le Baron who was helping the resistance, and had gone into the marshes near the River Dives to search for the paras who he hoped would help liberate France.
Gaston hid the stranded paras. They wanted to reunite with their battalion, but after several fruitless attempts they were sheltered in a farm building near Troarn. Eventually, they made a break for it and left during the night of July 17th but were intercepted by an SS unit. The men were in a dilapidated, exhausted state and were taken prisoner, but one of them – Bertie – managed hide in the undergrowth. He was found by a neighbour who took him to Gaston’s house where he was given civilian clothes and a false ID (deaf and dumb as he couldn’t speak French). His uniform and military papers were hidden in the hay on the farm’s smallholding.
On July 18th, the exodus began. Gaston’s family were ordered to leave within a few hours, leaving their doors open. They loaded belongings on to their horse and cart, put Gaston’s 5 year old sister and their dog on the top of the cart on a mattress, tied two cows behind it with chickens and rabbits in a large cage underneath, and set off. Gaston led the horse while his mother and disguised deaf and dumb Bertie brought up the rear.
They crossed the River Dives and made their way over the marshes, with rain and shells falling around them. They slept rough in a cowshed and in an isolated crumbling house, meeting many files of German convoys marching to the front. There was joy on the day of France’s liberation, (25th August 1944), but Bertie then left them to find the Allied troops and rejoin his battalion.
In November 1944 he returned to thank the family, and Gaston in particular, and he wanted to get his military papers back. They couldn’t be found as Gaston’s house and smallholding had been ransacked and used as a shelter by German troops. Bertie told Gaston he would come back again to visit them after the war, but he never did. He was shot a few weeks before the war ended.
In August 2003, Bertie’s brother Reg and his family went to France to meet Gaston at the Pegasus Memorial Museum. They presented Gaston with a framed photograph of Bertie (the one in colour shown above) in gratitude for what he had done. Some French people received a plaque or honour after the war, but Gaston had nothing as he was considered too young to have made a contribution. Without a doubt he did.
Four years ago I went to Normandy to retrace Bertie’s D-Day journey. It was an emotional trip, but very satisfying to find the places where he’d been and hidden, and understand something of what it must have been like for him.
The farm building where the paras hid; Gaston’s house where Bertie hid with the family
Farm track to the bridge over the River Dives; the Dives and surrounding marshes
There’s an interesting twist to this true story. Richard Llewellyn, my colleague and friend of many years, was a young mishipman, a teenager like Gaston, in June 1944 when Bertie parachuted into France on D-Day. While Bertie was overhead, Richard was on board HMS Ajax which was standing off Gold Beach bombarding and disabling the German battery at Longues-sur-Mer.
Richard is one of the D-Day veterans travelling to Normandy in 2019 for this special anniversary year, but he has been back many times. He has taken and placed on my behalf a commemorative cross for Bertie, and always holds him in his thoughts at these events as he honours and remembers Bertie for me, along with countless courageous others who took part in this significant battle.
Richard has been awarded the French Legion d’Honneur for the part he played in the liberation of France on D-Day. I’m very proud of him, and of my cousin Bertie who I never knew.