… or how I became involved…
A friend of mine, Stuart, who I had known for many years, having been made redundant, went on holiday to Normandy, France with his dad and, “as you do” decided to purchase a house. This was the old village bakery in the village of St Vigor des Mezerets.
As we talked from time to time over the ‘phone, he told me about something of interest on the wall of the shed in his garden – “there’s some names that you might find interesting” was the usual comment (Stuart aware of my interest in the Second World War).
First family visit
Eventually, in 2003, we decided to go & visit him. So, having made our way through France, we unloaded our gear and the conversation went something like this…
“OK Stuart, where’s this shed?”
“There… & see those patches? Well, they’re patched up bullet holes”
“Hmm..OK, But there was a lot of fighting around here in 1944!”
“Go in, then”
“OK… you’ve got a big, empty shed with bullet holes in!”
“Now turn around”
And that was when I saw the area of the shed wall with the 18 “signatures” on… Name, Rank, Serial number, Date of Capture & unit (In one case, an address, also & a record of several escapes & re-captures!). At this point, I did say something, but it was quite rude & not for print!! Let’s just say, I was well impressed!!
Stuart had found out a little about the fighting in the area, but nothing specific regarding the men who were captured, so I agreed to see what I could do to track them down as I had access to the Internet; Stuart didn’t.
What I could tell him, straight away, was that where he lived was (more or less) situated on the top edge of what became known as the “Falaise Gap” where the German Army attacked to try to force a gap between the British & Canadian Armies and those of the Americans.
The quest begins
So, in December 2003, I began the quest to find out what I could about these men. Did they survive the war? Are they still alive? Did they have any memories of being held captive in my friend’s shed?
Until February 2006, I had had mixed results. The British Infantry were still a complete mystery. I had been in contact with their original units, museums & Associations, but no real success (I shall have to re-visit some of these, now that I have slightly more information!), however, I had more success with the Americans.
I managed, via a posting on a POW website, to make contact with the family of one of the American paratroopers (M/Sgt Morris Sheppard); I had also come across a website about the 404th Fighter Group that two of the pilots belonged to and, through contacts made with the guys behind this, was privileged to be able to speak to one of these veterans – Francis Gillespie – before he passed away who, during the conversation told me of one of the guys that was held with them… an American serving with the RAF – I told him that this would have been a Flt Lt JW Harder!
The seeds of success
Beyond that, however, I appeared to have reached a bit of a “dead end”; work took over (I run my own business) and the research went onto a bit of a “back burner”… until February 2006, when, as I was scanning through a WW2 website that I am a member of and occasional visitor to, I noticed that someone had posted a request for information on her Grandfather’s POW records; a gentleman called Arthur had passed on the relevant details from some reference books that are in his possession. So, I dropped him an email to see if he could help with my 18!
The response was fairly swift & he was able to correct some of the names & initials that I had copied down from the shed wall (well, they were in pencil & almost 60 years old!). In addition, he was able to give me a key piece of information about this RAF pilot; the RAF station that he was flying out of when shot down – RAF Harrowbeer.
A search on the internet gave me: http://www.rafharrowbeer.co.uk/& I noticed they had a personnel page… a quick search through this gave me a “John Harder”. Although the date appears odd (23/6/44) – John was shot down on 24/7/44 – I took a gamble & “googled” any & all combinations of these names & ranks & finally came across a posting on a guest book by someone called Lewis Harder looking for information about his father!
The rest, as they say, is history!!