It was Tuesday morning, June 6, 1944. In a landing craft full of fear and anxiety, two officers with very different backgrounds squatted low to avoid the inevitable incoming fire. In an earlier confidential briefing, the men had warned to expect 75 percent casualties – dead and injured – while loading Sword Beach as part of the D-Day landings.
Understandably enough, they had preserved that grim prediction of the rank and file as they prepared for their role in the largest overseas invasion in history: codenamed Operation Neptune, more than 155,000 men were added.
One of those two men was privately trained Lieutenant Colonel Richard Burbury, 38, commander of the 1st Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment; the other was a working class & # 39; Lancashire kid & # 39 ;, Lieutenant Eric Ashcroft, a 27-year-old signal officer. The last one was also my beloved father.
Lord Ashcroft tells how a previously undiscovered family document revealed the enchanting story of the colonel who led his father to battle. (Photo) Troops that come ashore during training exercises for D-Day
As they rushed through the waves and drove on to Sword Beach, the 1st South Lancs came under destructive enemy fire.
Lieut-Col Burbury was shot by the bullet of a sniper and my father sustained serious injuries from shrapnel.
Those are the fine margins between life and death on the battlefield. If only my father had stood a few feet to the side, he would have been killed and Lieut-Col Burbury would have lived.
My father fought until he was ordered from the battlefield, and he went on a full recovery.
He would later get married, have two children, and enjoy a satisfying career as a colonial officer before finally dying in February 2002, a month before his 85th birthday.
A young Lord Ashcroft photographed with his father Eric. His father suffered serious shrapnel during the war, while Lieut-Col Burbury was shot by a sniper bullet
My father told about his terrifying experiences when I was about ten years old, and it was this that inspired my lifelong interest in courage – one that would lead me to the largest collection of Victoria Crosses in the world (over 200 to date) and to write six books about brave.
During my adult life I had always wanted to know more about Lieut-Col Burbury, but apart from his name, rank, age and the date of his death, the details of his life were unknown to me until now.
Pictured: Lt. Col Richard Burbury who was killed during the D-Day landing in 1944
Because in a strange coincidence I discovered that Eton College appealed a few months ago and asked the families of the old Etonians who were involved in D-Day to provide information for a school project on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the landings.
Sarah Warren and Emily Houghton, the school librarians and the inspiration behind the project, were understandably happy when they received a fascinating archive about the life and career of a Lieut-Col Burbury. It turned out that, in another coincidence, Sarah Warren had worked closely with Andy Saunders, a respected military historian with whom I worked – and who was aware of my interest in Lieut-Col Burbury. After getting permission from the family, Eton kindly allowed me to access the archive to tell the full story of his remarkable life – and death – for the first time …
RICHARD Percival Hawksley Burbury was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, on April 1, 1906. He had a twin sister, Patience, and three older brothers.
The five children were originally raised in the city on the west bank of the River Dearne.
Richard & # 39; s father, Francis, was an experienced soldier himself. He had served as an officer in the Queen & # 39; s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) before retiring from the army to lead a successful company of linen manufacturers and then resuming military service for the Great War.
Francis Burbury and his wife Ethel both died in 1919. Francis died on active duty in India; his wife probably died of the Spanish flu (between 1918 and 1920 the pandemic claimed about 50 million lives worldwide, making it one of the deadliest diseases in human history).
The five orphans were then cared for by their aunt, Ethel's sister, who had two sons of her own. The money, however, was clearly abundant, because they were trained privately. Richard went to Ludgrove School and later to Eton College, and left in 1923 at the age of 17 for a military career.
After the training of the officer, he was commissioned as second lieutenant in the light infantry of the Duke of Cornwall, who served in India for some time. He was already a promising soldier and was sent to Palestine in 1938, a year before the outbreak of the Second World War, and was mentioned in the shipments.
On his return from the Middle East, he married Daphne Macnaghten, a daughter of an army officer from Camberley, Surrey, in March 1940.
Burbury served in France in 1940 and was evacuated from Dunkirk. Again, he was mentioned in shipments. A confidential report of a senior officer of August 14, 1941, in which Burbury is assessed for promotion, describes him as & # 39; sound technical knowledge, good judgment, and considerable personality, initiative, and determination. I consider him completely fit to control a battalion & # 39 ;.
Burbury was indeed occupied for the higher order, since he was promoted to content leader in September 1942, he was seconded in the rank of lieutenant colonel to command the 1st South Lancs.
Such progress undoubtedly reflected his valuable services in Palestine and with the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940 and, equally, his leadership qualities.
Under his equipment, when he participated in the D-Day landings, silk maps from France and Germany – clearly stated that the Nazi army would soon return to his homeland.
I am fortunate that many years after leaving the army, my father gave a tape-recorded interview to the sound archive of the Imperial War Museum in which he described the atmosphere in the landing craft as the attacking force with a typical malicious sense of humor. English Channel.
& # 39; The scraps that were sick, their puke bags were pushed over the edge. And one of the two feverishly switched, you know, "don't throw the bag!" Apparently his (false) teeth were in the bag.
& # 39; And that seemed to break the tension of things: this guy wasn't worried about landing on the beaches; it was more that his teeth were in the bag. & # 39;
Once ashore, Burbury shouted to his men as they ran onto the beach.
Captain Arthur Rouse, from the 1st South Lancs, was also interviewed by the museum and he records the story: & Colonel Burbury headed for the sand dunes. There was a small opening to his left and his skinny figure strode across the sand to this hole in the sand dunes. I followed him and one or two people started to fall when mortar fire and machine gun fire came over and (there was) a fixed artillery shooting along the line of the beach.
& # 39; I said, "Keep going, they will be taken care of." We didn't want people trying to help their friends.
& # 39; Eventually we all gathered in the shelter of these sand dunes, the commanding officer and I watching. And he just turned to me with his card in his hand and said, "Where are we, Arthur?" And then he was shot immediately.
His jaw went into cramps and he fell down.
& # 39; The Colonel was such an obvious target: he had a flag in his hand in case confusion arose and he could be recruited, he also waved his card. I think he was hit by a sniper. & # 39;
My father, who had seen Lieut-Col Burbury shoot into his chest, also said: & # 39; About two-thirds of the high water line I was beaten aside when, it would appear, a chip of 88 millimeters (a chip) of a 88 mm scale) hit my right arm. I walked along the beach fairly quickly and I didn't think about it. I kept moving. & # 39;
My father added: "I remember that when we were in the sand dunes, I looked down and saw a procession of ants and thought," Goodness me, they are not affected by the war. " The foolish thoughts you get. & # 39;
JUNE 6, 1944 was the end of the life of both Burbury and my father's war at the front. General Sir Douglas Baird, Colonel of the South Lancs, wrote to Burbury & # 39; s twin sister Patience on June 22, 1944 and said: & # 39; Please accept my deepest condolences for your great loss. Your brother was a great soldier. & # 39;
In his interview with the museum, my father remembered the aftermath of men's and women's fighting: & I was sent back to the field dressing station and in that phase I saw many of the wounded on the beach.
& # 39; I saw officers who were blinded, injured, stretchers, and all documentation was in progress. Labels, tags.
& # 39; Those who received morphine had lipstick on their foreheads, I think I remember: a capital M. & # 39;
Although there were many dead and wounded, and almost near the five beaches of Normandy chosen for the invasion, the victims were smaller than feared.
On D-Day itself, the Allied casualties were just over 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead.
Eventually my father was evacuated to Britain on a hospital ship. Indeed, it was during his recuperation that he met my mother, who incidentally died earlier this year, at the age of 97.
The Richard Burbury archive is from Will Stirling, himself an old Etonian and the godson of Patience Burbury. Patience has never been married and eventually lived in the nineties.
The death of her twins was a second terrible loss for the family, because the oldest of the boys, Jack, had already been killed in the First World War.
Jack, also an old Etonian, became 19 years old during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 in Belgium.
Contained in the Burbury family archive is a moving front-line letter in which their father (who also fought on the western front) describes Jack's death. & # 39; He was hit by a bit of a bowl in his head, and although he lived for 12 hours, he was never aware, thank goodness, & he wrote.
& # 39; I, who had a job with the railway staff and was about ten miles away, borrowed a car and ran as fast as I heard it run, but didn't see him alive, which I don't regret.
& # 39; I saw him and his face was the face of an angel, and I'd rather remember that. & # 39;
ETon College is perhaps a bastion of wealth and privilege, but there is no doubt that the ancient Etonians have performed brilliantly on the battlefield for centuries.
No less than 37 old Etonians received the VC in conflicts from the Crimean War to the Falklands War (Colonel & # 39; H & # 39; Jones – who died when he freed those islands – attended Eton before joining the army and starting the officer training in Sandhurst).
At least 17 ancient Etonians were killed during Operation Neptune, the first phase of Operation Overlord was aimed at conquering Normandy for, ultimately, pushing deeper into Europe occupied by Germany.
Five years ago, for the 70th birthday of D-Day, I visited Sword Beach to see for myself where my father had landed and where his CO had fallen.
I visited the Hermanville Cemetery in Normandy to pay my respects to Burbury & # 39; s grave. When I looked at his tombstone, I saw that the date of his death, etched in the white Portland stone, was given on June 7, 1944.
As a tenacity for detail, I decided to correct this: he finally died on D-Day, one of the most important dates in world history, not a day later.
After submitting proof of his date of death, I am happy to say that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission finally agreed to correct the date on his tombstone.
So, given my great interest in Burbury & # 39; s life, you can imagine my joy – just a few days ago – to gain access to his archive: photos, letters, army documents, certificates, cards, his regimental lapel badge, textbooks and more.
Incredibly, the archive also contained pictures of the original grave marker that displays the date of Burbury's death as & # 39; 6.6.44 & # 39 ;.
Today I feel a sense of closure that I have finally learned so much more about my father's courageous CO. And I feel privileged that this article has enabled me to pay tribute to the man who fell on my father's side on D-Day 75 years ago.
Perhaps the best tribute to Burbury was the one who had publicly given him his regiment after his death: & # 39; To meet him, you had to be immediately impressed by his strong personality and soldier opinion. He was a born commander and a permanent officer of the very best type …
& # 39; In the manner of his death, he wrote his name in the hearts of the men who admired and loved him and who saw him fall in the heat of battle. & # 39;
- Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and interviewer. For more information about his work, go to lordashcroft.com and follow him on Twitter @LordAshcroft.
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