This year our country commemorated the 75th anniversary of D Day. On 6th June 1944 the long-planned invasion for the liberation of North East Europe came to fruition as the allied forces landed on the Normandy beaches, in combined operations of land, sea and air.
Follow up preparations for further landings were also in progress. Not least was the 6th Guards Armoured Brigade with its Churchill Tanks and the attached Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) workshops, all based in the grounds of Newlands Riding School on Charing Heath, Kent. Everything was ready for their departure to Normandy, via Portsmouth, on Monday, 26th June.
A few days earlier it had become apparent that the camp was on a flight path of ‘Hitler’s new secret weapon’, the V1 flying bomb. At about 6am on Saturday 24 June a V1, shot down by the RAF, ricocheted off the roof of the riding school and landed amongst the Nissan huts, housing mostly the men of the REME workshops.
Fifty-two young men of the REME workshops were killed. For reasons of security, it was decreed that they must have an ‘active service’ burial and that same day squads of soldiers from the Guards Battalions, working in relays, dug a mass grave in the cemetery of nearby Lenham village. That night they laid their dead comrades to rest by the light of a hurricane lamp.
I was reminded of this tragic event at Charing after finding an extremely poignant anonymous poem amongst my late father’s personal papers, together with a copy of a church service with a military emblem and 6th Guards Armoured Brigade REME workshops on the cover, dated 24th June 1945, exactly a year to the day of the loss of the men at Charing. I already knew that my father had been part of that REME unit and that he would have been in the camp on that fateful morning but for the fact he had been previously detailed to leave particularly early to drive an officer elsewhere.
However, I then realised that he had attended the commemorative service, I think in Germany, and had carried the poem and order of service, together with his precious letters from home, with him throughout the rest of his service until September 1946.
|God willed our gallant men should die,
Before their job was done
No glory or distinction theirs,
Fighting against the Hun.
They perished in their own dear land,
That all was done in reverence,
And after they were laid to rest,
|They raised a last memorial,
That memory shall not die,
And all we mothers, sweethearts, wives
Once again would try –
To let you know, each, every one,
Each evening as we kneel to pray,
God bless you all, and keep you safe,
This poem was sent to REME by a relative of one of the soldiers lost at Charing and is in memory of the REME workshops’ men lost there, although some of its words could easily be dedicated to all those comrades of troops who before, then and since, have given their lives in service to their country.
The original Order of Service and poem were gifted to the REME Museum (their only copies) for perpetuity, as part of their collection dedicated to the lost men of Charing.
The grave and named memorial stones are under the care of the War Graves Commission at Lenham cemetery.
The 6th Guards Armoured Brigade and the REME workshops were essential to the strategic planning of the next phase of allied advancement and they finally landed in Normandy on 20th July, having managed to replace their lost troops, albeit with ‘green’ recruits.
A few days later they played an active part in Operation Bluecoat, an attack by the British Army at the Battle of Normandy from 30th July to 7th August 1944.
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