ON Thursday, June 6, beacons will be lit, special services held and bells rung in commemoration of the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the largest military naval and land operation every attempted and which marked the start of the allied campaign to liberate Nazi-occupied north-west Europe. Here, Group Captain Phil Rodgers MBE RAF (Ret'd) remembers his uncle, Ron Hepper who was amongst the first to land on the Normandy beaches and is one of the names on Skipton's War Memorial.

AS we celebrate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, it would seem timely, for me to note an inscription on the Skipton War Memorial. It is that of R N Hepper, who served with the 13th/18th Royal Hussars, and as the commander of an amphibious Sherman DD (swimming) Tank, he was among the first to land on the Normandy beaches.

For his actions that day and his “bravery in the field” he was awarded the Military Medal, for which the ribbon was presented by Field Marshal Montgomery [picture attached] in November 1944.

Although he survived the landing and was part of the advance on Germany, he lost his life at Goch on the German Border. His tank was immobilised by a land mine; but he and his gunner held their position until they were killed by anti-tank fire.

As a war widow, my aunt Margaret received the actual medal from King George VI at Buckingham Place on October 29 1946. Uncle Ron had married Aunt Margaret at Holy Trinity Church on October 11 1943. Her bridesmaids were Mary Sladen and Mary Ashworth, with whom she worked at the Skipton Building Society.

The best man was my uncle: Kenneth Rodgers, who served with the (Skipton-based) 6th Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, and was part of the follow-on force in Normandy, where he was wounded and evacuated. Happily he survived the war, and went on to marry Nellie Clark of Hartlington Mill, Burnsall. Like so many couples before and after the war Nellie was at the Girls’ High School whilst Kenneth was at the Boys’ Grammar School.

With regard to the 6th Battalion, which must have given up many names to the Skipton War Memorial: they arrived in Normandy on June 11 and on June 14 they moved to Loucelles. where they came under fire for the first time.

On June 17, the Battalion attacked Le Parc de Boislande; where the defensive fire began to take its toll with heavy mortar and small-arms fire. During the course of the attack, the Battalion lost over 160 killed and wounded. There was intermittent fire throughout the night, and on June 18 the whole area was subjected to mortar and artillery bombardment. This was followed by a counter attack by infantry, supported by tanks, and the ‘Dukes’ were forced back. Casualties continued to rise, and the total loss for two days of fighting was approximately 240 killed and wounded.

The Battalion was withdrawn to Le Haut d’Andrieu. Besides the loss of personnel, a great deal of equipment had been lost or destroyed, and a general reorganisation was required before the Battalion could again become an effective fighting unit. The Battalion was therefore designated Brigade reserve and moved to the village of Bronay. Whilst there, on June 20, they were located by a German reconnaissance aircraft, and suffered further casualties when they came under artillery fire.

On the night of June 22 the Battalion moved to St Croix Grande Tonne, and on the morning of June 25 the Battalion arrived back in Bronay, as part of the Brigade reserve. On the 23rd they were on the move again. In full view of the enemy, they came under mortar fire; but all four companies achieved their objectives. Meanwhile the Battalion Headquarters had come under fire, and as the casualties increased it became clear that the Battalion needed time to rest and reorganise. The scale of reorganisation was such that it could not be done in France, and so it was decided that the Battalion should be brought back to England to be re-formed.

In all, in the Normandy Campaign, 19 officers and 350 men had been killed or wounded. The 6th Battalion was never reformed as a Field Force Unit; but provided reinforcements for the 7th Battalion and became an Infantry Primary Training Centre. Returning to Ron Hepper: the regimental history of the 13th/18thRoyal Hussars makes a point about the number of troopers who married Skipton ladies, and after being wounded, one of the hussars is quoted as saying “Skipton here I come”

And so, in this 80th anniversary year we look to all their generation in gratitude for their service and sacrifice.