Memories of Charles Strafford

I have known Charles for over 50 years and many memories come back to me. I knew him first when he came as Education Officer to 6th Airborne Division from an Armoured Division which had been disbanded. He sent a circular round the Division offering musical evenings on a gramophone and he used to come once a week to 3 Parachute Brigade HQ to play records of classical music and we had a very good gathering organised by our chief Clerk. He even came to give us one in the deep snow when 3 Parachute Brigade was entrenched on the banks of the river Maas in Holland in January 1945.

We pass to the storming days of the invasion of Normandy. Charles was not scheduled to come over in the early days of the landing but he was anxious to get back to France as soon as possible. He had been a Signal Sergeant on the staff of General Lord Gort's HQ with the BEF and was lucky to get evacuated through St Malo. In order to get back to Normandy early in the invasion he was able to make an arrangement with 1 Corps HQ (under whose command we were during the initial stages of the invasion) to allow them to use his 15 cwt truck if they would phase him into the invasion at an early stage. A very informal arrangement and I don't know what would have happened had he been killed or wounded.

The first I remember of him in Normandy was when he turned up at 3 Parachute Brigade HQ, where we were under heavy fire; he must have got through on his motor-cycle. I gave him a captured German typewriter which I thought might be useful for the production of a Pegasus News Sheet. Thereafter Charles used to turn up every day with the News Sheets having done the rounds of the units distributing it out each day and he was under heavy fire; one day he was blown off his motor bike but as far as I can remember, neither he nor the bike was put out of action! Pegasus was an enormous success as it included news which Charles listened to on a wireless (probably a signallers set) and gossip that he picked up on his rounds and a Cartoon by Nutty. When we had been in Normandy for some weeks, Charles went to live with the RASC and he was able to arrange for Pegasus to be delivered with the rations.

I assume that the daily issue of Pegasus ceased after our return to England in September and our musical evenings at 3 Para Bde revived. When 6 Airborne Division went to the Ardennes at Christmas 1944 and subsequently to Holland, Pegasus must have revived. Whilst we were in Holland, 3 Parachute Brigade HQ was located in a little village and Charles managed to bring a gramophone to us despite the deep snow and we had an enjoyable musical evening in one of the billets.When the Division flew back to England to prepare for the Rhine Crossing, Charles stayed in Belgium with the transport and so far as I know Pegasus continued during that time.When we had landed over the Rhine, Charles, of course, came up to us and Pegasus continued until we left Wismar.

I was a bit late in getting back to England from Wismar as I had to stay behind to clear up a number of Courts Martial as a very co-operative Judge Advocat called Edward Clarke worked late in the evenings to assist in that connection. When I got back to England the Division was in a state of turmoil as 1st Airborne Division was being disbanded and any personnel eligible to go to the Far East were posted to 6 Airborne, which was kept in being and non-eligible people in 6th Airborne were either posted to No 1 Airborne or elsewhere. Charles had gone elsewhere to become a Major, a promotion which he could have had long before but he wanted to stay with 6th Airborne. Reorganising 6th Airborne was a headache indeed and I had little spare time. Charles did come to visit us one day and I think I have a photo taken on that occasion.

As is well known, the atom bomb was dropped, 5 Para Bde went to SEAC and the rest of the Division (including 2 Para Bde, which came into the Division) went to Palestine by sea. Pegasus was not revived in Palestine, but the new Education Officer, Francis Clarke started a magazine called Bellerophon. I don't know if that continued until the Division finally left Palestine.

Whilst the Division was in Palestine, the first Pilgrimage to Normandy was held. I suppose that about this time in June 1946 the first issue of Pegasus magazine came out edited by Charles. I have the first Pegasus which I must look out: there is a picture in it of me taking a box of chocolates or something from the van of that indomitable tea lady Marge Fildes.

The Pilgrims stayed with French families in Ranville, James Hill led the Pilgrimage and Charles was billeted with Dr and Madame Hissard. Dr Hissard was a skin specialist in Caen where they have a house. They also had a house in Ranville which was where Charles stayed and Hal Hudson was in the same place. During the hostilities in the area Madame Hissard had prepared a Roll of those buried in the Divisional Cemetry. This Roll she later gave to Charles and it reposed in my office strong room until it was formally handed over to the Airborne Forces Museum.

Each year in the early days of the Pilgrimage, the French used to entertain some of us to a very long drawn out dinner in some restaurant near Ranville or sometimes in the lovely steep roofed Chateaux Benouville-Bavent belonging to Baron Chadenor, through which I had passed on the morning of D-Day. Such gatherings were most enjoyable.

After the initial Pilgrimage, it was felt that it was too much for the French families to put up the Pilgrims and Charles was able to arrange some splendid small hotels in Cabourg and through a great deal of hard work on his part, he was able to retain most of them over the years and they were only given up when it was necessary to make a simpler arrangement in Caen when the conduct of the Pilgrimages was taken over by a commercial firm. In the late winter or spring each year, Charles used to go over to Cabourg and check up on all the bookings and arrange very good terms. Then the Pilgrims travelled over, he came over again to settle the Pilgrims into their hotels and deal with queries and at the end of the Pilgrimages to go round and help settling up the bills. During all this time he worked in close co-operation with the various Controllers of the Security Fund, Lt/Col E B Holmes; Brigadier Berry Steyner; Col Ted Lough; Lt/Col Tony Bishop and Major Malcolm Steggles.

In later years Charles bought the cottage at the Val d'Auguillon. He continued to do the recce for hotels in Cabourg but then came on to Normandy from the Channel Islands where he had been appointed to inspect the schools. (At the same time as that visit to the Channel Islands Schools, Charles had arranged with the Royal Academy of Music to take its Youth Orchestra over to perform in the Channel Islands where he conducted it. In recognition of this work with the Youth Orchestra Charles was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy.) Charles would then come on to Cabourg to meet the Pilgrims buses and help to settle them into their hotels. Staying for dinner and then returning to his cottage.

It was when Charles bought the cottage at Ranville that I started to stay with him. Prior to that, Pat and I used to come over with the Pilgrims and stay in Cabourg. It was fortunate that Charles got on so well with Richard Gale, particularly for the smooth running of the ceremonies in Ranville. During the war, Charles had built up a very good relationship with the General and during the Pilgrimage Charles made sure that everything was ready for him. The General was a very busy person in his high appointments and Charles had ready the appropriate speeches and translations.

When Nigel Poett took over, Charles also had a similar relationship with him, though it was a bit different, as Nigel had become a good French speaker. Charles used to stay with Nigel on his way to Normandy and it gave him great pleasure to have his early tea brought to him by a full General. There was also much more to do with Nigel as Airborne Assault Normandy Trust had started up. He was very conscientious in the work that he did to start that up and keep it running.

On demobilisation Charles always had in mind to be one of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools as his friend Philip Browne had been a Chief Inspector based in London. They had met when Charles was teaching in Cornwall prior to the 39/45 War and Philip was an inspector in that area. The authorities said he should have a bit more teaching practice before being appointed and he had a job at a school in Bucks for a year or two.

I used to travel to Charles' cottage at Ranville via Newhaven - Dieppe and then taking a train and changing at Rouen for the Caen train and a lovely journey by wooded country via Lisieux to Caen where Charles used to meet me. The last two times I have used the Normandy Ferry to Ouistreham and then had the delightful walk between the river Orne and the Canal du Caen to Ranville. I arrived at Charles' cottage via the old Div HQ in the Bas de Ranville. I had come on the night ferry and arrived at Charles' cottage in time for breakfast.

On my last visit in 1993 I knew Charles had been very unwell and I was rather overcome at our greeting but Charles soon cheered me with champagne and Calvados. On the day of my return to England there was a good old Normandy downpour and Charles insisted on driving me to the bridge over the canal at Ouistreham and my last view of him was when I turned to wave to him in the pouring rain as I crossed the bridge into the Fishmarket.

The memorial plaque outside the Merville Battery was made by a stonemason from Bayeux called M.Simionet. He was devoted to Charles and called in with his daughter during my last visit. I met him at the unveiling of Charles' Seat Memorial and he was worried that I was camping in a tent most kindly brought over for me by Bill Mills and he tried to make me go and stay with him in Bayeux.

On 6th June, I (with a Padre) had missed the return buses for Merville which would have taken us to the banquet at the Hippodrome outside Cabourg. We happened to meet M.Simionet coming down the road and told him of our misfortunes. Although he was otherwise engaged, he insisted on driving us to the banquet as a token of his esteem for Charles. What better memorial could Charles have coupled with the Memorial Plaque and seat behind the Old Mill (which itself commemorates the involvement of the Belgian Parachute Brigade) opposite the Divisional Cemetery which means so much to us all?

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