Almost exactly 75 years ago, on the 6th June 1944, the liberation of Europe from the Nazis began.
It is hard to conceive the epic scope of this decisive battle that foreshadowed the end of Hitler’s dream of German domination. Operation Overlord was the largest air, land and sea operation undertaken before or since June 6th, 1944. The landing included over 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes and over 150,000 servicemen.
Despite suffering nearly 10,000 casualties, the valour, fidelity and sacrifice shown by the Allied Forces, Fortress Europe was breached. One of those men who was there that day was Okehampton resident Eric Gelder.
I have been lucky enough to interview former secretaries of state, professional sportsmen and Oscar winners for the Moorlander, but meeting veterans like Eric is by far and away the greatest privilege of my job.
I was greeted at the door by Eric’s wife Cynthia, who I hesitantly addressed as ‘Gelder’, as her surname was the only information I was given by my editor!
Slight embarrassment aside, Eric came down from his art studio to meet me. He looked remarkably spritely for a man in his 94th year. Born in Sheffield, one of eight siblings, we started by discussing his earliest memories of the Second World War.
“We had two very bad air raids. I remember the first one which started at around eight o’clock in the evening. We were all down in the air-raid shelter…I remember sitting and watching the
wooden gate that my father had put on the…shelter and each blast was making this gate slam backwards and forwards.”
He then went on to tell me about his first near-death experience. The second air raid was on “a freezing cold night and my father was an air raid warden, so he was responsible for all [our] district so when the raid finished he had to go inspect all the properties. There were unexploded bombs everywhere.
‘He said to me would I like to go with him and I said yes. It was so exciting for me. We went into the house opposite but we couldn’t see anything. We went into the lounge…you could see right through to the sky. What we didn’t know was that we were standing on an unexploded bomb. It was as close as that.”
He and his father – who himself had served in the Royal Artillery during the First World War – walked out and into another house, checked round and came back out just before the house blew up.
As if it had just happened to him the day before, Eric vividly described to me how he looked up to see this house explode in to “million pieces” in the air. “That was my first worst experience of World War Two.”
Eric’s first experience of Devon and Dartmoor was when he was brought down from Sheffield for the first time in 1943 when he joined the Navy in Plymouth: “…and of course I never went back.”
“My whole education got disrupted…I had to leave school at 15 and my ambition was to become a doctor…which was unheard of in those days, especially in the Northern towns.
‘The war came in 1939 and then I just kind of bumped around until I was 17”, when he could join the armed services.
“Getting into the Navy was practically impossible. Everyone was drafted into the army because that is where they wanted the numbers…I had five brothers-in-law and they were all drafted into the army.”
The Government wrote to him in May 1943 and asked if he would like to go into the Navy early at 17, for hostilities only, until he was 18: “In those days, to be called up into the Navy was magical.”
So, at the tender of age of just 17, Eric left everything he knew as he was drafted straight down to Plymouth to HMS Raleigh: “I was lifted straight out of Sheffield and dumped straight down here. There is no other way of putting it…as a boy of 17”.
His initial training took place here before he was sent to HMS Boscawen in Portland to be trained on Motor Torpedo Boats.
“Then for reasons I will never know…I was there for only a
matter of weeks and they uplifted me from there, on my own,
and sent me straight over to Belfast.
‘You were never told. Nowadays they would hold inquests and everything about it but in those days you were never told anything. You were given travel warrants and then I had to find my way across there, across the Irish Sea, on my own, to Ireland.”
He was sent over to the Harland and Wolff shipyard to assist in picking up and commissioning a whole new ship, a ship that would become synonymous with the rest of Eric’s wartime service: HMS Rifleman.
“It was a fleet minesweeper. Apart from submarines, it was the most dangerous occupation there was in the Royal Navy.”
When you ask a veteran about their wartime experience, you expect stories about the first time they were scared to be when they were in action. However, Eric’s was not: “One of the first frightening experiences I had was…the sub-lieutenant came up to me…and I had to climb the ship’s mast and attach the ship’s commissioning pennant.
‘I’ll never forget the fear I had then…You’ve got nothing surrounding you, you are exposed. I had to cling on for dear life and loop this thing around the mast.”
It is during this anecdote that I could really empathise with what he was telling me. As someone who is scared of heights, I imagine that this, had it been me in Eric’s shoes, would have scared me the most to begin with.
Though, during his time on the fleet minesweeper, HMS Rifleman, Eric took part in one of the largest military actions of the Second World War.
“What people don’t know is that we went over on the 5th of June, not the 6th of June, to start sweeping to clear the mines. There’s no way the D-Day landings could have taken place…the whole English Channel was littered with mines…they wouldn’t have got there!”
This was, however, a complete surprise to every one of the crew.
“You never had any idea where you were going…Even the Captain didn’t know where he was heading for. He was given a course to set but it wasn’t until he was out to sea that he had these sealed envelopes that he could open.”
On the morning of the 6th of June, after spending the night making the Channel safe for the invasion, Eric was greeted by the sight of the Normandy coast.
“I went out on to the top deck and I could see these yellow cliffs. It has always stuck in my mind. This was Normandy. We were there but you didn’t know that at the time.
‘I remember looking to my left and seeing about 5000 ships, and an equal amount of aircraft. Battleships, cruisers, destroyers, they were all there and they were all opening fire…You just can’t describe that.
‘I was on the upper deck just staring at these aircraft from horizon to horizon. There had never been anything like it since and there never will be again…I was absolutely transfixed.”
The minesweepers and their attendant consorts led the assault forces to the Normandy beaches. The whole invasion of Europe was completely dependent on their success. Eric had done his job.
In September 1944, HMS Rifleman was nominated for Air Sea Rescue duties during the Arnhem airborne assault, and in October she carried out mine clearance operations in the Scheldt estuary and escorted a military convoy to Antwerp.
She was transferred to the South West Approaches with the rest of her flotilla and was employed in anti-submarine patrols out of Falmouth until December, when she was refitted for service in the Far East.
In February 1945, Rifleman re-joined her Flotilla and together they formed the escort for a convoy of landing ships from Falmouth to Gibraltar. On 22nd February she sunk a U-boat before rescuing some of the 41 survivors from the German submarine U-900 which had been attacked by sister ship Pincher.
“We took…5 or 7 of the crew from the U-Boat. I wasn’t aware of it: I was busy doing what I was doing in the bowels of the ship. I ran into a few of the crew and they said ‘Have you seen the German survivors?’ and I said ‘What are you talking about?’ I didn’t even know we had sunk a U-boat.
‘I went on to the upper deck and there they were all stood. All five or seven of them. Covered in oil like you see in the films nowadays…We cleaned them up and gave them all clean clothes… I have always wondered if they were offended that they had to put on our uniforms on because that’s all we had!”
Rifleman dropped the POWs in Gibraltar before carrying on to see action in the Far East. Eric arrived at Colombo on 14th April and on 1st May began minesweeping the approaches to Rangoon for the assault ships. In June she was at Trincomalee to prepare for planned minesweeping off Phuket Island and during July she and her sisters came under sustained air attack, with Squirrel and Vestal being sunk.
“We were moving along and Squirrel hit a mine. The end result of that was me coming up to the deck and watching all the ships crew jumping into the sea. This all happened on a beautiful sunny afternoon – this is what was so unreal about it all. It was so peaceful, so sunny.
‘It could quite easily have been us as the leading ship and it would have been us [that hit the mine].”
It is at this moment that Eric first encountered a sight that filled every Allied serviceman who served in the Far East with dread.
“That’s when I first saw a suicide bomber…the next thing I knew all hell broke out…All these cruisers etc. were firing at this thing and it just blew up in the air…It was like an atomic explosion because they were packed from nose to tail with explosives.
‘What was so painful for us was that HMS Squirrel was still afloat [come the end] and we had to sink her with our own guns. You can imagine how emotive that was.”
Eric would go on to describe how, during visits to the Far East in later life, he would pass over the wreckage of Squirrel. To this day, it still fills him with sadness.
Following this attack, Eric’s war was coming to an end. But not before he witnessed something that has scarred the whole nature of the Second World War.
In August, Rifleman carried out minesweeping operations to clear the approaches to Penang for the entry of the battleship Nelson, and the cruisers Cleopatra and Sussex. In September, the minesweeper performed the same task in the Malacca Straits prior to the entry into Singapore.
“We went into Singapore…with the Sussex and other ships…I will always remember entering Keppel Harbour…I was stood on the upper deck and we were coming alongside and there was still Japanese soldiers lining up with rifles and bayonets, and they had already surrendered!
‘One of the worst experiences I remember was the authorities coming on to the ship and they had these British, Colonial and American prisoners of war. They had been POWs for practically the whole of the war. They were all skeletons. They asked us – and it was the biggest mistake they made and we made – if we would be willing to give up our Sunday dinner [for the POWs].
‘I will never forget what they looked like. They hadn’t eaten anything proper for four or five years and they were suddenly given a full Sunday roast dinner. They got hold of the tins of pineapple and were pouring them on top of the roast. It wasn’t very long afterwards that they all died. I have always thought that we killed them through kindness. Their system just couldn’t take it.”
Across Eastern Europe and the Far East, as Allied soldiers liberated city after city, town after town, the true horror of what had occurred in the previous 6 years was becoming more and more stark. Millions starved to death. The end of the Second World War—one of the most brutal conflicts in human history – was brought to an end with the surrender of Japan. Millions of men, some like Eric who hadn’t even reached 20, but had seen a lifetimes worth of suffering, returned to their home and a sense of normality.
“I was brought back to this country on a defunct pleasure cruiser!
‘My last job in the Royal Navy was as an armed guard. It was my job to travel around the country bringing deserters back to camp…It was a job I never really enjoyed for obvious reasons.
‘You just wanted to get back to a normal life.
‘When it was my turn to be demobbed, I remember going to Portsmouth and there were these long columns. In one section you were given a trilby. The next section you were given the shirt. They gave you a completely new set of clothes.
‘When I finally got home, I remember a tramp coming round to the house one day in desperate need of clothes. My mum gave him my whole new set of clothes!”
At the end of our interview, Eric said something which I think spoke of the heart of the man: “I am only too glad that your generation enjoy the lifestyle you’ve got. The only ambition that we had was that the generation after the war would have a better life than we had before the war. That was genuine. That was my fervent desire.”
Sadly, just a matter of days after our interview, Eric passed away. The debt of gratitude that we owe to all of our veterans is one that I don’t think can ever be repaid.
Men like Eric, at an hour of maximum danger, amid the bleakest of circumstances, who thought themselves ordinary, found within themselves the ability to do something extraordinary.
The world is now a lesser place without him. But, on this year’s 75th anniversary, as we mourn the loss of yet another hero, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which he lived and died.