The background to our visit to France goes back to August 1999, when Captain Bill Simpson was asked by the Mayor of Conteville about some 'writings' in Conteville, that indicated Major R D Stokes TD of the 4th Bn Lincolnshire Regiment had been killed on 13th August 1944. Information was forwarded to the mayor together with brief details of the action that took place. In 2003 an invitation from the Mayor's of Conteville and Chicheboville together with other nearby villages was extended to veterans for the 60th Anniversary of the 'invasion'.
After a great deal of organisation under the leadership of Captain W.L. Simpson (Secretary of the Stamford Branch) an itinerary began to emerge and finally 40 people, including Rosemary the daughter of Major Stokes and her family, set off by bus from Stamford (with a very able driver Steven Kilby of Tudor Coaches), our destination was Newhaven for the ferry to Dieppe. This route, as our veterans will recall, was where they set off 60 years ago for the Normandy beaches, in particular 'Sword Beach'.
On reaching French soil we continued our journey, eventually arriving almost two hours late for a reception at the village hall in Chicheboville. We were a little weary from the travelling, but the warmth of the welcome we received was tremendous, removing all signs of weariness. We were introduced to our hosts and friendships soon were made. Here we also met our courier/guide for the visit Nigel Stewart. Nigel is a professional battlefield guide, who gave us his time for free and who proved to be an invaluable asset for the whole visit. Finally after a sumptuous buffet meal, 41 tired but happy travellers were collected by their hosts and tottered off to bed.
The next morning Friday 13th August 2004 saw us head off to Caen, and after a short visit to the castle we were joined by members of the Grimsby Branch at the 'Abbey aux Dames'. Here Admiral Brae De La Perriere presented Chest Badges to Grimsby Branch veterans and other veterans from France and Canada. ('Speech of Welcome' see Appendix 1). We returned to Chicheboville village hall for a leisurely lunch and then prepared for the special dedication ceremony at Conteville. We were welcomed here by the Mayor M, Andre Dubreuil. (It must be remembered that it was he who initiated the ceremonies and our visit.)
We were again joined by the Grimsby Branch members, French veterans, and many people from the village. Branch Standards were on parade along with the Normandy Veterans Standard and local French veterans associations, all under the command of Sergeant Walter (Wally) Hibbard, whose commands were impeccable (but a little lost on translation which continued through out our visit). The Mayor of Conteville and the regional Senator made speeches.
At this point the veterans from Stamford, Lincoln and France were presented with their Normandy chest badges. Wreaths were then laid at the newly created memorial, assisted by children from the village. The memorial bore the names of Major Stokes and comrades from other regiments who were named on the original wall that had been found several years before.
Rosemary Gawthorne (daughter of Major Stokes) gave a very warm and heartfelt thank you speech to the assembled gathering (see Appendix 2).
After the parade the Mayor M. Andre Dubreuil conducted a walk around the village to identify the place where Major Stokes was killed.
During the evening the whole group sat down to another sumptuous meal at the village hall.
On Saturday morning 14th August 2004 we attended a ceremony at Poussy la Campagne, where we were welcomed in the village church by the Mayor, Mme Helene Gibeau. Once again the village children played a part in the ceremony, reading extracts from a poem called 'Liberte' written by Paul Eluard. There was also an exhibition of the children's drawings on display. Wreaths were laid at the memorial in the church and it was during this ceremony that Jack Summers of the Lincoln Branch was presented with his Normandy Chest Badge.
A booklet had been prepared for our group of the ceremony and service, including the Mayor's speech translated into English, together with copies of the children's drawings.
During this visit we were informed of the discovery of an inscription that had been found in a local house. The owner invited all of us (over 40 people!) to enter his house to see it. It had been carved into the wall by a soldier of the Hallamshire Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, 146 Brigade, 49 Division. (A copy of the inscription is in the booklet.)
After the ceremony we visited a Calvados distillery, when a presentation by the owner M, Jean Pitrou gave an insight to the history of Calvados, and of course a taste of this rather interesting drink. Afterwards most of us were able to purchase the odd bottle. A regimental plaque was presented to M. Pitrou, who promptly hung it on a Calvados barrel, a much-appreciated gesture.
We returned for another splendid lunch at the village hall in Chicheboville, and then moved for the ceremony at Billy where we were welcomed by the Mayor M. le Baron. The ceremony took place outside the church. Again it was well attended by the official parties and people of the village. Later we were once more entertained by the villagers, with a reception were local wines were sampled; and I am led to believe that some even had the odd glass of orange juice!
Later that evening we were able to spend time with our host families in their homes for an evening meal.
Sunday morning 15th August saw us in Chicheboville attending a ceremony in the church, with a welcome speech in English by the Mayor M. Andre Arruego (See appendix 3), and a wreath laying ceremony at the War Memorial in the churchyard. We all then retired once again to the village hall for lunch.
The afternoon saw us in Airan, being welcomed by the Mayor M. Deuzet. The ceremony took place outside the church were a wall plaque honouring the 4th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment, and the Hallamshire Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, was unveiled by Captain Bill Simpson. The party then moved to the War Memorial at the side of the church, where speeches of welcome were given by the Mayor and the regional Senator. We were then all invited to the grounds of the Mayor's office for a reception.
Later that evening again we were again guests of our host families for our evening meal and relaxation.
On Monday morning 16th August we travelled to Ranville Military Cemetery where Major D Stokes TD is buried. A formal procession, under the command of Sergeant Wally Hibbard, made its way to the graveside led by the Standard Bearers. The branch representatives and Rosemary Gawthorne laid wreaths, followed by a few words, on behalf of the family, by his granddaughter Sarah Wake, and a reading by his grandson Robert Gawthorne,
Our next stop was Pegasus Bridge with a visit to the now famous cafe (the first house to be liberated in France in 1944) and the new museum. Here we viewed many excellent displays, saw a replica Horsa glider, and were able to walk on the old Pegasus bridge, which forms part of the display outside the museum. It was then on to Ouistreham for lunch. Later we visited Sword Beach (here Wally Hibbard did a splendid job clearing the beach of any hostile activity, the natives appearing to be very friendly!!).
It was unfortunate that the excellent weather we had been enjoying, suddenly changed to rain, which made our visit to the Peace Museum and Garden something of a damp affair. But we were not disheartened, and found the nearby D-day Museum most impressive.
We returned to Chicheboville for our farewell dinner (or was it a banquet?). Our hosts had all gathered here, along with the five Mayors, and most of our host families, as well as other guests from the villages, and the French Standard Bearers. Speeches were made, plaques and ties presented. The outstanding meal was supplemented by a generous supply of wine, and a very special 60-year-old Calvados. A collection had been made and was presented to the chef and his staff to show our appreciation for the marvellous food that they had prepared for us, and for the young people who had waited on us throughout our visit. There was also a special presentation to the chef's son, (the youngest -waiter in all France) by Ivor Paternoster. The evening culminated with Wally Hibbard dancing the quick step with the Mayor of Poussy, Mme Gibeau, to the strains of the Lincolnshire Poacher.
The final day
Tuesday morning came round all too quickly. Our early start was slightly delayed as we said goodbye to our guide and courier Nigel Stewart. He had done a splendid job looking after us and acting as interpreter throughout our visit. After a short stop at a supermarket we headed for Dieppe and the ferry, and after a very smooth crossing, on to Stamford and our homes.
There is no doubt that many friendships were made, our hosts having genuinely made us truly welcome. Saying our goodbyes was tinged with a little sadness and hope for the future. This had been a memorable visit in which the Mayors and the people of Conteville, Poussy la Campagne, Billy, Airan and Chicheboville had demonstrated their genuine affection and eternal gratitude to the veterans who had liberated them, which, they assured us, will long be remembered for generations to come.
Finally I am sure that we would all like to give a very special long thank you to Bill Simpson and his team for the organisation, time and hard work they have put in to make this trip so enjoyable and memorable. And to my fellow travellers, thank you for your company and your friendship, as Vera Lynn would say: -
'We'II meet again'.
John Hudson Honorary member Stamford and District Branch
Appendix 1: Speech of the Admiral Brae De La Perriere at the Chest Badge Ceremony at the Women's Abbey
Veterans, My friends,
It is with great emotion that I welcome you here today in the name of the President of the Regional Council at the Women's Abbey, headquarters of the Normandy Regional council.
Sixty years after D-Day on June 6th, Normandy has not forgotten its liberators. Your determination and courage remain engraved in all our memories. We can never express our gratitude strongly enough to thank you for the sacrifices you made to restore freedom in our country.
Veterans, my friends, you were 20 years old, you took part in a gigantic battle, you fought on the Normandy Coast against fearsome enemies.
A new front in the west decided by the Allied Supreme forces during the Teheran conference took place in Normandy, and was the most extraordinary and daring military operation.
Thanks to your courage, you drove the occupying forces away and led the way to freedom Normandy had the privilege of being the first region liberated in Europe. We know how much we owe to our allies and we say it aloud.
Once more, dear veterans of the allied forces, thank you for taking part in the Landings that changed the course of history putting an end to the Nazi barbarity and restoring democracy.
As a mark of gratitude and tribute to the Overlord heroes, the Regional Council of Normandy decided to create a special 60th Anniversary badge and to present each veteran who took part in the D-day and the Battle of Normandy with this badge. It is a personal tribute that Normandy wants to pay to each of its liberators, here today at the Women's Abbey but also elsewhere in the weeks to come.
Thus each veteran present for the 60* Anniversary during the summer, will be awarded this badge, upon request in the place where the unit he belonged to became famous. This badge is the testimony of the recognition of the people in Normandy.
The 60th Anniversary badge recalls Operation Overlord, it represents in the background the Normandy Coast with the German line of defence, the paratroopers, the bombers in the sky, and the allied naval fleet at sea. In the foreground, you can see three soldiers with their guns in their hands coming from the sea on their way to re-conquer Europe.
In order to pay tribute to all of you who have come in thousands to Normandy to remember your fallen comrades, the Association of D-Day with the support of the Regional and County councils of Normandy have organised an extensive program of events that are taking place all summer long.
Before ending this speech, I would like to say that, this moving ceremony is also dedicated to younger generations.
It is very important that the remembrance of the price paid 60 years ago to recover freedom ruined by an inhuman ideology, should not fade away. It is also essential that younger generations do not forget how courageous their elders were on the Normandy beaches.
Since June 6th 1944, Normandy is a land where we recall the most extraordinary military operation of the 20th century. At the same time, our region wishes to turn this event into a message of peace, tolerance and friendship between people.
Veterans, my friends, heroes of D-Day and of the Battle of Normandy, we thank you and wish you an excellent stay in our region that has also been yours for sixty years.
Appendix 2: Address by Rosemary Gawthorne (Daughter of Major Donald Stokes TD) at the Dedication of the New Memorial ceremony at Conteville
Honoured Mayor's, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Thank you for keeping the memory of my father alive in this place. His memory and his love have always been in my heart and in my mother's heart and are now in my husband's and in my children's hearts.
Thank you for caring so beautifully for his grave and those of his brother soldiers. It means so much to all the families.
Recently I asked a veteran who knew my father very well.
"Why was Major Stokes so popular in the Regiment? What was the secret of his success as a person and as a soldier? He was always at the right place at the right time, with the right information", was his reply.
My friends, he was here, at the right place, at the right time, for you and for your families, and I am glad for that.
May God bless you each one.
Appendix 3: Speech of welcome by the Mayor of Chicheboville, M. Andre Dubreuil
It is with a great deal of emotion that Chicheboville municipality welcomes today, our British friends of the Lincolnshire Regiment, of which some crossed our village this week 60 years ago, in 1944.
This 60th anniversary of our liberation is an important occasion for us to express our gratitude to you, but also remember in homage those who died, some of whom were never found, from this village.
I would like to thank the Mayors of all the villages you have visited so far, the standard bearers, veterans of both our countries, and all those who have helped with the ceremonies and general organization of this weekends events.
By their presence here today, they wish to express the recognition to all the British veterans here, but equally to honour the memory of those who cannot be with us.
The history of the liberation of this village has not been widely researched beyond oral commentary and never, to my knowledge, has there been a ceremony to commemorate the events of 60 years ago. We therefore have the opportunity, today, to rectify this fact.
There does not appear to have been violent confrontation in the village. I take note of a remark made by Captain Simpson to Andre Dubreuil, "Chicheboville was found empty of Germans".
From June 6th German officers and regulars living in the village, by order of requisition, received the order to return to the marshes nearby, where the German army was entrenched and hidden, then nothing. After the hope of immediate liberation faded in the first weeks that followed D-Day, some locals even wondered if the Allies had been thrown back the sea.
But on July 7th one single artillery shell was fired onto the marshes, about 1 a.m. in the morning, precisely from the property of Mlle Ozou. This has been interpreted as a warning, the shell falling onto the marshes and the village. On July 15th a shell fell close to the house of Edmond Romain and fatally wounded Mr. Grienberger, hit in the head.
Taken to the hospital at Grel, he later died. Antoinette Marie was wounded in the leg by the same shell. She was taken to the Chateau d'Adigne where the Germans had a medical headquarters. That same day another shell killed 2 people from the Pensibis family and that of the Mr. Decrock. From that point onwards, most inhabitants of the village left, going south. The only inhabitants that stayed, hidden in the marshes, were Mr. and Mrs. Jules Rignet, and all the family Lemoine.
As the British arrived, they witnessed an exchange of fire from the western end of the village and from Beneounslle, the German position. We know that there was a salvo of powerful artillery on the farm near the Chateau d'Adigne, in order, no doubt, to move the German resistance. Once the village had been cleared, the Germans gone beforehand, the British moved into the Chateau of Mme Augustin Normand, taking over from the Germans.
Civilians returned from the end of August, everyone noting the damage to the buildings. Marcel Gilbert found a dead British soldier in the marshes. There was a temporary cemetery in the village, and he was buried amongst 12 other soldiers, following an appropriate service given by a local priest in this very church.
Life slowly came back to the village, with all the difficulties that we know of. For all our villages your arrival signified the return of liberty and of hope, the end of a period to which we had been deprived of so much, and the beginning of the reconstruction of our country.
Therefore today is a most important day of remembrance - remembrance of those young British soldiers who here in Normandy closed their eyes forever, far from their homes, far from their loved ones.
The memory of all this suffering is known in particular by those who survived the war and its slaughter. They keep it in their souls as a burning trace of the hell that they witnessed. Gentlemen of the British Army, please accept our immense gratitude.
Our presence here by your side signifies that we know, that by your will and your sacrifice, you participated in a dramatic moment in history. We also know that as well as sharing pride you share painful memories. Thank you therefore to have come back again, 60 years later. Thanks to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, losing their lives in the name of a cause. It was because of you that we now live in a free country and live in peace.
Peace and Liberty are precious but fragile. For our children we have the obligation, the duty, to continue to work relentlessly, with vigilance and determination, so that this liberty and peace that you defended, remains with our countries.
As the President of the French Republic stated on June 6th of this year, "France will never forget what she owes to her allies - a Europe finally in peace liberty and democracy "
British and French veterans alike, thank you for giving us back these valued and cherished ideals.