Farewell to a true Norwich hero - D-Day veteran Reg Burge passes away
PUBLISHED: 08:35 12 March 2014 | UPDATED: 11:49 12 March 2014
Archant © 2012
He returned to Normandy every year, desperate to piece together the final moments before a German tank blew him out of the armoured car he was driving, killing his friends and leaving him with a heartbreaking memory loss which has haunted him for decades.
The generosity of EDP and Norwich Evening News readers has ensured that Norfolk’s D-Day veterans will return to Normandy – our campaign raised the £20,000 needed to help the soldiers return one last time.
Money flooded in to our campaign, from £2,000 donations to £5 donations, some readers offering us their winter fuel allowance in order to ensure our heroes and heroines returned to the French beaches where they fought for our freedom almost 70 years ago.
The EDP will be accompanying the veterans on their emotional trip to Normandy for a series of special reports from France. Donations are still being accepted to help the veterans meet additional costs, such as travel insurance.
Send cheques payable to Archant Community Media to Sandra Mackay, PA to Nigel Pickover, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE.
But this year, D-Day veteran Reg Burge will not be among the comrades who will be returning for the 70th anniversary of the longest day and the bloody battle for victory on foreign soil. He died, aged 94, on his devoted wife Kitty’s birthday on February 28.
Reg signed up for the Royal Devonshire Regiment in Bristol in 1940 and was sent for training at Paignton, staying in a holiday camp in the middle of winter before being attached to the fourth battalion.
Posted to Gibraltar, he spent almost four punishing years working on the vast tunnel systems that lie beneath the gateway to the Mediterranean, carved deep into the rock in preparation to defend against a German invasion.
“We’d do eight or 12-hour shifts and they were absolutely bloody awful. I’d go into the tunnels wearing my dungarees and come out looking like a snowman, covered in rock dust.
“We had to wash it off using salt water because there was no fresh water available,” Reg told me.
Sent back home to prepare for D-Day, he and his battalion were stationed at Bewley Camp near Southampton, unsure what they were preparing for and battling terrible weather conditions.
“We set sail on June 2 and stayed out at sea until we landed in France on the sixth. It was really rough, we were on a flat-bottomed landing craft and felt every single wave. Everyone was seasick,” he remembered.
“Everyone’s spirits were low – in fact we wished we had some actual spirits to drink! – and we ran out of fresh water pretty quickly.
“Frankly, we wanted the word to attack because we wanted to get off that boat as quickly as possible!”
Mr Burge landed on Gold Beach after 7am on June 6. Driving his Bren Carrier off the landing craft, he drove into a scene of utter carnage.
His memories from that day were chilling.
“Everyone was frightened, and anyone who said otherwise is a liar. We didn’t know what we were going into. I lost all my mates on those beaches, all of the lads I joined up with, gone,” he told me.
“My friend Tom Theobald died on the beach beside me – he joined at the same time as me but had never left England until D-Day. He was killed by a sniper.
“I saw my mates fall but we weren’t allowed to stop and pick up their bodies, we had to keep pressing on. I had to try and put aside what I’d seen and keep going.”
On D-Day plus seven, he was driving his Bren Carrier when he noticed a German tank approaching. The tank opened fire, killing Reg’s three passengers and blowing him out of the vehicle. It took a year to recover from his injuries, and almost seven decades trying to lay the ghosts of what happened that day to rest.
“Maybe my memory blocked out what happened because it was too much for me to remember and perhaps I am shutting out things that I can’t bear to think about,” he said.
His mind wiped blank by the blast, he was unable to remember the names of the men who fell by his side that day. Every year he returned, desperate to find their grave so that he could pay his respects: and several years ago, he believed he had found his friends at Tilly-sur-Seulles cemetery, south of Bayeux.
Jack Woods, secretary of the Norwich and District branch of the Normandy Veterans’ Association, said the loss of Reg so close to the 70th anniversary of D-Day was a sad loss to the organisation.
“He will be very much missed. He was adamant that he would be there for the 70th; now we will have to represent him ourselves,” he said.
His wife Kitty, who is social secretary of the Norwich and District branch of the Normandy Veterans’ Association, said that for Reg, returning to Normandy was a compulsion and that she would return on his behalf this year, to lay the wreaths that meant so much to him.
“Reg had to keep looking until he thought he’d found the men who died beside him that day. His D-Day experiences changed his whole life,” she said.
“He used to have terrible nightmares about what happened and returning made him feel that he was doing his bit – unless you were there, you can’t imagine what the veterans went through, what they saw and how they have to live with it for the rest of their lives.”
She explained that Reg had been taken ill with breathing difficulties but that he had been expected to return home from the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital the day after her birthday and that she had spoken to him just hours before his death when he had seemed in good spirits.
“It was such a shock when I received the call. I just can’t believe how well-loved he was – I have had about 50 cards from people which all say what a dear gentleman he was: and he was. The house is so full of memories. I am suddenly lost: he’s not here.”
Mrs Burge, who was married to Reg for almost 40 years and has been by his side for 45, said she hoped Reg had been reunited with the lost friends he has battled to find for decades.
His funeral will be at St Faith’s Crematorium on March 21 at 11am.