Normandy Veteran Reg Burge revisits D Day memories
Every year, D-Day veteran Reg Burge returns to Normandy, 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.
Three fellow soldiers died in the attack, which came seven days after Reg and his battalion had escaped the heavy German shelling after landing on Gold Beach on the morning of June 6 1944.
'After I was blown up, I lost part of my memory. I can't remember the names of the lads who died that day with me and I want to – I need to. I go back every year, hoping to remember,' said Reg, 93.
'I have spent years trying to find my friends so that I can pay my respects to them. I survived that day, but they didn't. Last year we found three graves next to each other of men killed on the same day I was blown up and now I can't stop thinking to myself: 'were they my mates?''
Reg signed up for the 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.
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Posted to Gibraltar, he spent three- and-a-half punishing years working on the vast tunnel systems that lie beneath the gateway to the Mediterranean, carved deep into the rock.
The tunnels were carved during World War Two in preparation to defend against a German invasion: almost 36 miles of tunnels were created, enough space to hold 16,000 men inside the rock.
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'We'd do eight or 12-hour shifts and they were absolutely bloody awful,' said Reg, who lives with wife Kitty in West Earlham.
'I'd go into the tunnels wearing my dungarees and come out looking like a snowman, covered in rock dust and then we had to wash it off using salt water because there was no fresh water available.'
Sent back to England to prepare for D-Day, Reg and his battalion were stationed at Bewley Camp near Southampton, unsure what they were preparing for and battling terrible weather conditions.
'It rained and it rained and it rained – it never stopped!' remembered Reg.
'We didn't really have a clue what was going on, but when the barbed wire and the Yanks arrived we knew it was something big.
'Then we were given French money, which was a bit of a giveaway.
'We set sail on June 2 and we 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.
'Everyone's spirits were low – in fact we wished we had some actual spirits to drink! – and we ran out of fags and fresh water pretty quickly. Frankly, we wanted the word to attack because we wanted to get off that boat as quickly as possible.'
Reg landed on Gold Beach after 7am on June 6. Driving his Bren Carrier off the landing craft, he drove straight into a scene of utter carnage.
'Everybody was frightened and anyone who says otherwise is a liar,' he said.
'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. 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.'
A week after D-Day, Reg was driving the Bren Carrier when he spotted a German tank approaching – the tank opened fire killing Reg's three passengers and blowing him out of the vehicle.
He spent more than a year recovering from his injuries in hospital and has spent almost seven decades trying to piece together enough information 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,' said Reg.
Wife Kitty, who is social secretary of the Norwich and District Branch of the Normandy Veterans' Association, added: 'He used to have terrible nightmares: he'd wake up in the night and be terrified. It's only in the last 20 years or so that they've stopped.
'Of course none of the boys ever had any counselling about what had happened to them, they were just expected to come home, get on with things and go back to work.
'Unless you were there, you just don't realise what the veterans went through, what they saw, what happened, how they have to live with it for the rest of their lives.'
Reg and many of his fellow veterans would love to go back to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, allied forces claiming the beaches of France on June 6 one last time to pay their respects to the comrades who never made it home.
The young men who once ran towards danger are now silver-haired veterans who, year by year, fall in amongst the ranks of their comrades for whom D-Day marked the end of the war.
'I will go back to Normandy until the day comes when I can't make the journey,' said Reg.
'I know that day will arrive sooner rather than later, but until it does, I will be there.'
Kitty added: 'Veterans are wonderful boys and it's absolutely fascinating to talk to them and hear their stories – when they're back together it's as if they're still young men reliving their experiences.
'It's so important to have the association and for the veterans to be able to meet up and talk to people who really understand what happened because today, for most people, it's just a story, something that happened to other people. For Reg, it changed his whole life.'
If you would like to donate money to help Norfolk's veterans return to France to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, send cheques made payable to Archant Community Media Limited to Sandra Mackay, PA to Nigel Pickover, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE. If you would like to organise a fundraising event, contact email@example.com or write to Stacia Briggs at the above address.