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Quest for a Lost Father: France 1940

by labris

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Location of story: 
Northern France 1940
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Contributed on: 
04 March 2004

Quest for a Lost Father
I am the only surviving male of my family. I thought that if I didn't get the family history together, then it would be lost forever. Hence with the help of my wife I started researching the family tree. I then found that the biggest mystery was just a generation away. 'Quest for a Lost Father' became very important to me.


My mother had told me that my father had been killed in France at the beginning of World War 2. She also said that it was at a place called St Valery. No other information was forthcoming.

Many years later my mother had passed away and an unfortunate fire in her house, then lived in by my sister, destroyed any information concerning my father’s death.

At this point in time I had become ‘au fait’ with computers, gained access to the Internet and had developed an interest in Family History.

This is where “Quest for a Lost Father” really began.

Information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission gave the date of my father’s death and where he was buried. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission ‘Debt of Honour Register’ quoted the following

“In memory of
Corporal John Ernest Smith
26 Field Coy., Royal Engineers
who died aged 30 on Tuesday 11th June 1940
Corporal Smith was the son of Ernest and Florence Ruth Smith.,
Husband of Edith May Smith, of Dover.
Remembered with honour
Seine-Maritime, France”
After 59 years my father’s last resting place had at last been found and in April 1999, due to my wife, Beverley’s, insistence, perseverance and organisation, the surviving members of my family visited my father’s last resting place in Veules-Les-Roses.

But this was not the end of the quest, because the communal cemetery posed more questions that needed answering. The cemetery contained 38 burials of the Second World War, 14 of them unidentified, and all dating from June 1940. Ten of the burials died on the same day as my father, 11th June 1940. What was happening there on this date?

Further investigation on the Internet told of the surrender of the 51st (Highland) Division at St Valery-en-Caux on 12th June 1940. St Valery-en-Caux is only a few miles West of Veules-Les Roses on the coast road.

A quote from from the Internet Site Scots at War/Army/Divisional Formations/

“The German attack began on 10th May 1940.
After bitter fighting the Division retired to conform to the French Defence plan and the whole
British Expeditionary Force eventually withdrew to Dunkirk.
In the process of covering the withdrawal, the 51st (Highland) Division were cut off and were forced to defend the town of St-Valery-en-Caux and await evacuation.
No ships came, the French surrendered and on the 12th June 1940, General Fortune surrendered the remnants of his exhausted Division to the German Army”

It was also discovered from this site that the Divisional Formation of the 51st (Highland) Division included the 26th Field Company, Royal Engineers.
The Curator of the Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham kindly sent me a photocopy of the War Diary of 26th Field Company 1939-40.

7th/8th June
Orders for a further withdrawal, were received, by the Division, this time to an area, inland, of Fecamp.
There followed a night and morning of great confusion, and things started to go from bad to worse.
German armour attacked from the southwestern flank.
The infantry there lacked any effective anti-armour capability and were defeated.
The German tanks were therefore able to outflank the Division and reach the cliff top overlooking St Valery,
thus making escape to the beaches impossible.

From this War Diary I now had the locations and movements of 26th Field Company, Royal Engineers from August 1939 when they started work on the concrete pill boxes along the French-Belgium frontier until that fateful day on the 8th June 1940 when things went from bad to worse.

Except for those last three days, I can now trace the movements of my father from the moment he landed in France. The only clues concerning those last three days is the fact that there was only one Royal Engineer buried at Veules-Les-Roses (my father). Of the ten soldiers that died on 11th June 1940, six of them were 2/7th Battalion. Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment.

Details extracted from the book “Churchill’s Sacrifice of the Highland Division- France 1940” by Saul David, stated

On the morning of 11th June 1940, four battalions were holding the line of the River Bethune from Dieppe to Mortingny one of which was the 2/7th Battalion. Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment.

On the afternoon of 11th June 1940, fierce mortar and artillery fire directed at the position held by 2/7th Battalion. Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment around Veules-Les-Roses.

I have been very lucky to get this close to the last three days of my father’s life. Whether my assumptions are anywhere near the truth will never be known.

Dunkirk and what happened there will always be known. Very little has been published or is known of those who stayed behind. The 51st (Highland) Division and their sacrifice should be known as much as Dunkirk.

A very personal note to this story, In 1939 when I was seven years old I was given the task by my mother, of taking a small package to the Post Office. This package contained a wallet with the Royal Engineers Badge on the front. It was a present for my father who was in France with the BEF working on the Maginot Line. I duly hooked the package on the handle bar of my scooter and set off for the Post Office. Upon my arrival the package was gone. I searched the route back to my house but with no luck. My mother was very upset about the loss. Several weeks later, a letter was received from my father thanking my mother for the wallet. It must have been found, by some very kind person, who posted it on.

In about 1943, my mother received from the Red Cross the wallet which I assume had been found on my father’s body. Also a badge of the Maginot Line, which I believe was issued by the French to those who worked on the Line.

The badge is still in my possession but the wallet was lent to my son who lost it.

This photograph was taken at the end of 1939 shows my father (centre) and his 2 great friends. Their names are unknown to me, but I understand that when my father was killed, one of them was taken prisoner and the other escaped,
unfortunately to die later in the D- day landings. If either of these men are recognised I would like any information.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - date of death on burial stone

Posted on: 04 March 2004 by guyrommelaere

sorry for the lot of mistakes following but I learnt english a lot of years ago...
I think you have to be very careful about the date on the burial stone. In our british cemetery, the days of the deaths are going from 27 may to 31 may 1940. The true date of deaths is 28 may 1940. In the neibourough cemeteries, there are the same mistakes;
Guy Rommelaere - deputy mayor of Esquelbecq - North France

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