Video: D-Day comrades say one last farewell to their Normandy war hero
- Credit: copyright: Archant 2014
He was the Norwich soldier who ignored heavy shelling in order to make the Normandy beaches safe for his comrades, the Barnardo's Boy who found a family among the soldiers he battled to protect. STACIA BRIGGS joined the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans as they laid Ernie Mears to rest.
In life, Ernie never felt as if he had a home he could call his own.
In death, his ashes have been be scattered in a beautiful, peaceful place where he can rest for eternity – the Hottot-les-Bagues military cemetery in Normandy, close to Bayeux.
The cemetery is the final resting place of 965 British soldiers, 34 Canadians, three Australians, two New Zealanders and one South African, together with 132 German soldiers, most of whom lost their lives in the second fortnight of June 1944 in the furious fighting around Tilly-sur-Suelles.
Ernie was fighting for freedom in this very area in June 1944, a quiet hero who found himself in the thick of the action on D-Day, who survived a baptism of fire on June 6 and who played a pivotal role in the attack that threw Hitler's war machine off-balance.
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'He was a hero, one of the men who, under fire, had to clear the beaches at Normandy so that landing craft could make it safely ashore. It was a tough job,' said Jack Woods, secretary of the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans Association.
As with many D-Day heroes, Ernie, who died on February 9, 2013 aged 91, was a modest man and little was written about his experiences on June 6 1944 – we know the landing craft that carried him across the water to France hit an obstruction and that the hydraulics failed, but little else.
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In 1994, Ernie returned to the Normandy beaches where he first landed on D-Day as part of a convoy led by the London Taxi Benevolent Association for the War Disabled. The association took 250 old soldiers back to France to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day: travelling in 70 taxis, the convoy took a ferry to the French port of Ouistreham, from where the taxis ferried soldiers to hotels in Caen before the anniversary was marked on the beaches of Normandy.
There, on the shore, he stood alongside silver-haired veterans who once ran towards danger but now, year by year, fall in among the ranks of their comrades for whom D-Day was the beginning and the end of their war.
As a private in the Pioneer Corps, Ernie had been in the thick of the action.
From the early hours of the Normandy invasion through all the main engagements in France, the Lowlands and Germany and up until the final assault over the Elbe, the Pioneers played a pivotal role. Pioneers went in where others feared to tread, they were airborne to Arnhem, were vital in the chemical warfare force, built bridges, repaired railways, maintained roads, brought troops supplies and stores, worked in hospitals and acted as stretcher bearers with frontline troops.
On D-Day, 13 Pioneer companies landed with the first tide and a further 10 with the second, leaving around 6,700 men ashore, including Norfolk's Ernie Mears.
Their duties included clearing the beaches of debris and fallen soldiers, laying tracks and collecting casualties, all under enemy fire and in conditions so horrific that many of the Pioneers never spoke of what they had seen that day.
The first Pioneer party landed 20 minutes after Operation Overlord had started, their main mission to assist in mine clearance and to dig a Command Post in preparation for the arrival of the Beach Group Commander.
Arriving 'wetshod' – meaning the soldiers waded ashore wearing full equipment or in some cases swam ashore from grounded craft – soldiers worked in the water to lay flexible causeway off the ramps of the landing craft in rough seas and amid heavy shelling. Theirs was a dangerous, but vital role, a job for heroes.
Ernie never knew his parents or his family in Norwich. A Barnado's Boy, after the war he was asked to be a Norfolk Colonel's 'batman' – it was not uncommon for upper class officers to ask lower rank soldiers to follow them into later civilian life as their domestic servant.
For years, he happily worked for his Colonel, but after his employer's death, he fell on hard times and his life became more of a struggle, although he was supported by his friends at the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans' Association.
After his death in a local nursing home, he was given a military funeral with full honours in March 2013 at Earlham Cemetery in Norwich. Yesterday, under blue skies and sunshine, Ernie's last chapter finally closed.
A large crowd of veterans, dignitaries, a Highland piping band and villagers gathered for Ernie, watched over by an official from the War Graves Commission from whom the veterans had obtained permission to scatter the Norwich man's ashes. It is illegal to scatter them on Normandy's beaches.
'When it was his turn to fight for his country, he joined up. This little man was in the Pioneer Corps, the working corps, the men who went in on D-Day before the infantry to clear the beaches so that our tanks and heavy artillery could land on the beach,' Jack told the group, who assembled around a photograph of Ernie placed under a tree.
'Closure is what you need when your life is through and little Ernie has been waiting for closure and he's going to get it today. Goodbye, old friend.'
After prayers and the Last Post, Ernie's ashes were scattered as his adopted family – the comrades he fought alongside and who were his closest allies in war and in life –bowed their heads in reflection.
Later, Jack told me: 'Ernie would have been so happy that so many people were here for him. He never really felt he belonged, but today proves that he most certainly did.'