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Meet Gerard Rogerson, the Lancashire D-Day Veteran

PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 June 2016

D-Day veteran, Gerard Rogerson, holding a pop-up card made by local children depicting the church at Saint Come de Fresne which rang the first bells of freedom

D-Day veteran, Gerard Rogerson, holding a pop-up card made by local children depicting the church at Saint Come de Fresne which rang the first bells of freedom

Archant

June is the time we remember the D-Day heroes who launched the liberation of Europe. Stephen Canavan spoke to one of Lancashire's few survivors

D-Day veteran, Gerard RogersonD-Day veteran, Gerard Rogerson

The Ordre de National de la Legion D’Honneur. To the French, it is their most sacred of medals, a commendation that is neither easily won nor frivolously awarded.

It’s a medal that proudly hangs from the chest of Lancashire D-Day Veteran, Gerard Rogerson. While it is 72 years since men like Gerard took part in Operation Overlord, the French have never forgotten the British heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy.

Gerard was an 18-year-old sapper in the Royal Engineers on June 6, 1944 when, as part of the British 21st Army group, he landed on Juno Beach in support of the 3rd Canadian Army division where he would spend over a month under almost constant artillery and machine gun fire, helping bring ashore vital supplies.

This was the beginning of Operation Overlord, the Allied Invasion of the five beaches ringing the French coastline code-named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword, and Juno. It would begin the bloody liberation of Western Europe.

Juno beach landings on 6th June 1944Juno beach landings on 6th June 1944

Still sprightly at 91, Gerard and his charming wife Freda, welcome me into their Longridge home where a black and white picture of British troops wading ashore onto Juno Beach hangs on the wall. It was a gift from the Royal Engineers Association, the only visible indication of his illustrious past.

Like most brave men, Gerard does not rush to show me his Legion d’Honneur award, presented to him by French Ambassador at a moving ceremony at Liverpool Town Hall recently. Indeed he hands me this beautiful medal with that touching mixture of pride and shyness that most veterans possess.

He was an apprentice garden boy at Whittingham Hospital, near Preston, when he was called up in February 1944. His older brother was already serving in Burma.

He was posted firstly into the Durham Light Infantry, before being transferred into The Royal Engineers, who taught him to work as a stevedore and the art of bomb disposal.

D-Day would be his first combat mission and the first time he had set foot outside England. ‘We were taken from our barracks in Boden and shipped down to Purfleet Docks. There were 25 lads in our company and one sergeant. We were issued with 24 hour rations – a tin box containing a bar of rock-hard chocolate and two biscuits, a rifle and ammunition. We were put on a wagon the next day and onto a ship and we sailed at night from Southampton. There was a heck of a lot of boats gathered there. It was early when we set sail across the channel.’

Sealed orders revealed their mission was to land in support of the main Canadian Infantry Division and the Royal Marines at the beachhead on Juno. Facing them was the formidable 21st German Panzer Division and the experienced German 716 Infantry Division.

‘When we got anchored in,’ Gerard recalled quietly, ‘we were being shelled all the time. There was a massive German bunker to the left of us as we came into the shore. We unloaded all the wagons and the drivers and the troops and the we got off the boats and onto the shore between 3 and 4 in the afternoon.’

Gerard and his company made their way up the already bloody beach through clouds of acrid smoke, past the torn bodies of Allied soldiers, under constant fire from the banks of concreted German machine-gun positions. Sections of the beach turned into hellish infernos of orange and red fire.

‘We were in the open so we had to get off the main beach as quickly as we could. We were supposed to join up with our company but as we started to walk up the beach we came across some Canadian troops. We said we were looking for our company and they replied: “They’re not out there lads – we’re the front line!”’

Disorientated amid the constant shelling from both sides, Gerard and his comrades headed back. ‘We got down in this dry ditch. There was myself and two other lads. We got a dry sheet and covered ourselves up. The next day we looked for our company but we never did find it.’

They joined another company. ‘We worked on the beach on the DUKW’S (amphibious trucks which transported supplies and troops) unloading the boats. We must have been there over a month.’

It was very dangerous work. ‘Our job was to go out to the ships. They would get as close to the beach as they could. We would have to scramble up the netting on the side. We had to unload anything they brought...ammunition, food, clothing. It was tricky scrambling up the sides if there was a swell on. Sometimes you would have to dive for it. Lots of lads got their legs broken getting trapped between the boats. Sometimes we would be called out at night and we would only have a small torch fastened to our belts to help us see. I couldn’t swim either!’ he laughed.

After the Canadians and British took Juno, Gerard’s company followed the tortuous Allied advance towards Caen, then to Dieppe before moving up to Antwerp. ‘We had only been in Antwerp two or three days when we were bombed with the V2 rockets. Every window in this school we were staying in was shattered so we moved back to Ghent and took over another school for quite a while until the end of the war.’

After the war Gerard’s unit moved up to Hamburg getting his first leave just before VJ Day on August 15 1945. However, he was sent to India before he even had a chance to get home!

Gerard spent 13 months there and it was while he was in India that he started swapping letters with Freda, who was asked to write to him by a friend of Gerard’s. The correspondence sparked a courtship that would eventually see them married – a marriage that is still going strong 66 years later.

His final journey back to England, after Whittingham Hospital had successfully applied for a exemption for him to return to his job, was nearly his last as the ship nearly sank twice – first in the Indian ocean and then near the bay of Naples.

A non-swimmer’s fear of drowning is etched in Gerard’s face as he recalls those incidents. ‘Rough! The sea did everything but turn the boat over. Two lads died from the rupturing caused by the sea sickness. Terrible.’

Finally, by late December 1947 Gerard had arrived safely in England only to be stranded on Wigan railway station on Christmas Eve. The last train to Preston had gone but a kind rail guard placed Gerard and his pal in the compartment of the guard’s van of a train heading for Fleetwood. Gerard was able to get home for Christmas Day.

He laughs at the memory. ‘I ended waking my mother up at 6am on Christmas Day! My elder brother was back from Burma too. It was the first time in years we had been all together. I can still remember the look on my mother’s face as she opened the door...the surprise and joy in her voice saying “That’s our Gerard!”’

It was back home now that Gerard and Freda met for the first time at a dance in Longridge. ‘Gerard was visiting friends in Grimsargh,’ recalled Freda. ‘I was there with my mum and dad. I didn’t know that he had come home and we had never met before.

‘He grabbed hold of me and gave me a big kiss and asked me if I was going to the dance that night at Longridge. I had to ask my mother but she said “Go on Freda, go and enjoy yourself.” We’ve been together ever since!’

Gerard who had spent his 19th, 20th and 21st birthdays away from home, returned to work at Whittingham Hospital and after a total of 48 years retired as district garden superintendent.

The last few years have seen Gerard return many times to Normandy – for the 60th and 70th anniversaries in particular – a process that his wife Freda thinks has been instrumental in helping her husband come to terms with what he experienced during the war.

‘The last time I went to Normandy, for the 70th anniversary, our driver took us back to the exact spot I had landed. It was very emotional,’ he admitted.

Freda said: ‘I never heard Gerard talk about the war until we joined the Royal Engineers Association about four years ago. A lot of the young soldiers would ask him: “How did you cope when you came out of the army?”’

She looks across at her husband who smiles back at her warmly. ‘Gerard just said to them: “You forget about it, otherwise it would drive you crazy.

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