Harrogate man remembers D-Day landings and cycling tour of Britain

Lawrence Burns with his archive.
Lawrence Burns with his archive.

Almost 70 years after the D-Day landings in Normandy, Lawrence Burns remembers his wartime experiences. JAMES METCALF reports.

Lawrence Burns, who is now 90, and his teacher Mr Bentley planned to ride from John O’Groats to Lands End and back to Harrogate, where Lawrence’s mother was tracking their progress on a hand-written itinerary.

Lawrence paid for his bike with his weekly wages from the greengrocers and butchers where he worked, and eventually bought the bike outright on September 18, 1939 - 15 days after war was declared on Hitler’s Germany.

Lawrence’s memories of his cycling adventure are saved in a diary, full of faded pencil notes.

He also has an archive of photographs and documents from the time, including the record of payments for his bike.

“This is everything that I have kept since I was a lad,” he said.

His daughter Jane collected this material and created a book dedicated to her intrepid father.

She said: “He has an amazing memory and an amazing story.”

Before reaching Stratford-on-Avon, however, after visiting Oxford, the pair headed home early and prepared to do their duty.

Lawrence said: “When we got to Oxford we went to the university. To get in I had to have a jacket and trousers and Mr Bentley had to wear a gown.

“After that though he said the clouds of war were gathering and we had to get home.

“I couldn’t cycle all night, so we tented on the Great North Road on the grass verge and then came home.

“My friends joined the Royal Air Force but my brother wanted to be somewhere where he could get home, and the tank regiment was just down the road at Skipton.

“He volunteered so he could choose which regiment he went up to, so I went off and volunteered too.”

Lawrence and his brother joined the 13/18 Royal Hussars - traditionally a cavalry regiment of the British Armed Forces, but provided with Sherman DD tanks during the Battle of Normandy.

The hussars were based in Skipton when Lawrence signed up, and this was close to his home and he could travel home regularly. They did, however, move near Ipswich, which Lawrence said was a bad start.

He said: “On the day that war was announced I was in Sunday School. We gathered round the radio to hear Mr Chamberlain declare war. I was only 15.

“We thought it would be over before Christmas, but it was not of course.

“I was 18 when I went to war, after going to train and then to the regiment near Ipswich.”

In the first half hour of the D-Day landings in Normandy, Lawrence reached the shore of the French coast with his regiment in one of the many amphibious tanks that launched their attack in Operation Neptune along 50 miles of the Normandy coastline.

This began at 6.30am on Tuesday, June 6, 1944, shortly after the aerial assault landing of 24,000 allied troops.

At the time this was the largest amphibious attack in history and included 73,000 Americans, 61,715 British and 21,400 Canadians, along with 195,700 Allied naval and merchant navy personnel in almost 7,000 naval vessels.

Lawrence remembers the day as particularly disorganised, however.

He said: “On D-day it was not very smooth. We started three miles away from the shore, and then swam in on the tank.

“When you landed you dropped the screen and the gun was already pointing forward, so you could shoot straight away.”

l Share your story with the Harrogate Advertiser series.

Get in touch by calling the newsdesk on 01423 564321

Alternatively you can email ackrill.news@ypn.co.uk, or contact us via Fa cebook at www.facebook.com/HarrogateAdvertiser