The 24thJune 1944 saw a major incident occur early in the day. An incident which, at the time, due to necessity of secrecy, was not widely discussed as it related to the second wave of the Normandy landings. If news were to get out that the German war machine had inflicted such a significant ‘hit’ it could have turned evens and encouraged a greater defence by the Nazi’s in the Bocage area of Northern France.
With so many actions being marked with 75thanniversary events – it seemed only right and fitting that this particular, local, event should be appropriated observed.
But what was it to do with Lenham? Some, but not all are aware, others asked me on the day of the event. This in itself suggests that such an important part of local history is forgotten by some – hence its retelling here.
Those who know the cemetery north of the A20 will be aware of the (newly refurbished) gates erected in memory of the 52 men of the 6thGuards Tank Brigade Workshop (REME) who were killed on the morning of the 24thJune 1944. Of the 52 – 46 were killed instantly, the remaining 6 dying of their wounds. At the time they were billeted at Newlands Farm, now Newlands Stud, near Charing.
Their role at the time was to convert the Churchill tanks with larger armaments and plough blades specifically for work in clearing the emplacements hidden in the notorious Boccage area of Northern France. They were a highly respected unit having served in other theatres of war including Africa prior to returning to England before the invasion of Normandy. They had moved down to the secure zone (at that time covering much of Kent) ahead of their planned departure.
On the morning of the 24th, early – around 7am – a V1 (flying bomb) ‘doodle bug’ was being pursued across the Kent skies by a Spitfire (possibly MK811 – piloted by Flt Lt Ivor Watson of 165 Squadron). It was heard to be flying into the ground with its rocket motor still running having been hit by the aircraft (rather than one which had run out of fuel and glided to a crash). It came down on in Newlands Farm – which had been taken over during the war as a workshop and staging post – with an array of Nissen huts as billet, and the main house being the Officers Mess.
With virtually no warning 7 of the Nissen huts were destroyed along with stores and offices, damage to 14 vehicles and 16 motorcycles. One officer and 20 other ranks were also wounded.
The secrecy element due to the work they were doing on the particular tanks (and the actual armament changes) led to the order for an ‘active service burial’ – where the men were laid to rest in a common grave dug by Scots, Grenadier and Coldstream Guardsmen. The interment took place that night by candle-light – with a map being drawn of the order of each man laid in the grave. The map was then placed in a glass bottle and buried also under a simple wooden cross.
These are the largest group of the war graves in Lenham – closest to the Sword of Sacrifice memorial.
These are the men who were being remembered at a service attended by the Major of Ashford, Lenham Parish Council and a large number of Senior Officers of the 103 Battalion REME (Ashford) as well as a Guard of Honour.
Each of the 52 were named in a role call.
Each receiving the salute of one of their own.
Each was recognised with a poppy cross.
Each received the grateful thanks of those present for their sacrifice.
The events of the 24thJune 1944 remain in REME regimental history as the single biggest loss of life of ‘honest craftsmen’, ever.
It is the largest REME war grave, anywhere.
There is no glorification of war – only the glorification of sacrifice. As the saying goes: ‘when you go home, remember us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today’.
It was humbling to see the current men and women of 103 Battalion each standing by a headstone – emphasizing as it were the magnitude of what each stone represents – a man in his military uniform – gone, but not forgotten.
So many local men were lost in both conflicts – and in battles since.
It is important to remember them all, and individually. It is also important to remember the stories that accompany their sacrifice.
As a foot note: many consider that the chalk cross which sits on the downs is a war memorial. And this is true. However, it was created in 1922 as a memorial to those from the village who died in the Great War. During the second war, the cross was covered up to ensure it could not be a way marker for enemy pilots.
As a further footnote – we should also remember that other than the 52 headstones of the REME workshop incident, there are other CWWG headstone – marking the Canadians – buried a long way from home – who were lost at the Lenham infirmary in the first war, as well as individual headstones and a small group in the corner near the gates – which includes a Luftwaffe pilot. Fittingly illustrating that all are equal in death and, to the futility of war.