Author: Lt Col (Retd) Steve Colling, Corps Historian

80 years ago, Allied forces were gathering in Southern England and making preparations for D-Day. From a REME perspective it was a busy time supporting exercising troops, keeping their kit operational, completing official modifications (and one or two unofficial ones), and waterproofing vehicles and equipment. In addition, REME had to fit-in their own specialist training and hone their military skills.

For D-Day itself, the history books tend to focus, perhaps rightly, on the part played by the infantry, tanks, artillery and sappers landing in the first wave. Yet without REME’s earlier work, the outcome may have been very different. REME workshops and most REME manpower would not arrive in Normandy for several days as the priority was establishing a bridgehead and defending the beaches from counterattack. However, on the day, REME soldiers crewed recovery vehicles and were tasked with keeping the routes off the beach open to traffic. Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicles (BARVs) based on a modified Sherman Tank, D8 Bulldozers and Ward La France Recovery vehicles recovered drowned vehicles and REME mechanics were able to get many of them running albeit in the most hazardous conditions. The BARVs were also used to push back grounded landing craft.

Our blog Remembering: D-Day and Beyond last year recorded the deaths of three soldiers on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Sadly, there is very little of their individual stories in the REME Archives, but we have pieced together what we can. Craftsman (Cfn) Alfred Jacobs served with 6 Airborne Division Workshop; his story will be told in a few days’ time. The stories of Corporal (Cpl) John Patterson (sic) of 24 Beach Recovery Section and Cfn George Hunt of 7 Parachute Regiment will be told below.

Corporal John Paterson

John was 23 when he died. The CWGC website carries some detail and names his parents, James and Hannah of Lochgelly, Fife. The REME Archives hold a tracer card for many REME soldiers but John’s card contains very little information. John is buried at Bayeux Military Cemetery.

In 2023, I cycled through Normandy and took the opportunity to visit some of the war graves of REME soldiers. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit the graves of the three REME soldiers who died on D-Day but I wrote a blog and Corporal Paterson’s relatives have been in touch.

A black and white photo of a soldier in uniform, waist up. A photo of a white headstone.

Left: Paterson in uniform, wearing the formation badge of the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division. © Paterson Family. Right: Paterson’s headstone in Bayeux Military Cemetery.

A textile patch with embroidery of a blue shield with white diagonal cross.

A close-up view of the formation badge from the Museum’s collection. 1987.3206.11.

The 52 (Lowland) Division trained in mountain warfare and then Combined Ops in Scotland. In 1944, it trained as an air-portable division. However, it was not until October 1944 that it saw action and then it was as a ‘standard’ infantry division in North West Europe. So, Paterson trained with the Division but was not serving with it on D-Day.

Two black and white photographs, one of three men, the other of a soldier in uniform with a woman.

Left: Bill and John Paterson flanking Uncle John Paterson. Right: John with Fiancée, Margaret. © Paterson Family.

John was one of eight siblings from Lochgelly, Fife. His brother, William (Bill) Paterson was wounded on 15 May 1944, three weeks before D-Day, while serving with the 6th Battalion Black Watch at Monte Cassino.

John was a Corporal when he died and clearly a capable tradesman and soldier. Without a service record, it is difficult to fill-in the background. Records of Service are normally available from the Ministry of Defence to the Next of Kin for a small fee. However, REME soldiers’ records are currently being moved to the National Archives at Kew and, consequently, getting copies is taking longer than usual.

John was assigned to 24 Beach Recovery Section REME; part of 9 Beach Group which landed on Gold Beach. On this day, this section recovered about 100 tracked vehicles. John was very likely the first REME soldier to die on D-Day. He died on GOLD King Beach whilst driving an armoured tractor.

The CWGC website records his burial first at Ver-sur-Mer before he was reburied at Bayeux Military Cemetery. Paterson’s family were kind enough to share with us a letter from his Commanding Officer.

A typed letter on white paper with handwritten signature.

Copy of the letter from Officer Commanding 24 Beach Recovery Section REME to Paterson’s family, dated 12 June 1944.

A man and two children stood next to white headstones in a cemetery.

Bill’s son, Harry Paterson, with his sons Niall and Ewan at the Graveside in 1989. © Paterson Family.

With thanks to Ewan for getting in touch with the REME Museum and Archives, for sharing the detail, the images and permission to use them.

George William Hunt

When George died on 6 June 1944, he was 21 years old. He is commemorated by the CWGC at Ranville War Cemetery, France.

A white headstone with first pattern REME badge.

Hunt’s CWGC headstone at Ranville War Cemetery.

In November 1942, the 10th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry re-roled and became 7 Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, Army Air Corps. At the time, the AAC comprised of the Parachute Regiment and the Glider Pilot Regiment.

Craftsman Hunt joined 6 Airborne Division Workshop at the end of September 1943 and in April 1944 he was posted to 7 Parachute Regiment. A tracer card held in the REME Archives notes he Embarked on 5 June 1944.

A typed document in diary format.

A typed document in diary format.

The War Diary entry for 7 Parachute Regiment, 1-6 June 1944. Source: National Archives/Ancestry.

On D-Day, Hunt was serving with 7 Parachute Regiment which landed in the area of Benouville, in sight of the bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne. 21 Army Group’s objective was to capture these bridges intact and hold them against any counter-attack.

A black and white map.

Map from 'By Air to Battle - The Official Account of British Airborne Divisions', HMSO, 1945. © Crown.

The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire (Ox and Bucks) Light Infantry were first to arrive at the bridges, landing by glider. 7 Light Infantry Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, AAC were tasked to reinforce them on the two bridges. However, the wind was stronger than expected and the Battalion fell some distance from their dropping zone and a number were killed on the way down. The Commanding Officer (CO) used bugle calls to gather his troops and by 03:00am had reached the canal bridge and established a defensive perimeter - ‘A’ Company in Benouville, ‘B’ on the escarpment further inland and ‘C’ in the grounds of a local chateau. The situation was difficult as the CO had not more than 200 men.

The Battalion held on but with increasing difficulty. ‘A’ Company was cut off and lost all its officers, either killed or wounded. All three companies dealt with snipers, German tanks approaching from Caen and gunboats on the canal. Gliders descended with the rest of 6 Airborne Division and much needed supplies in the evening.

After two days of fighting the Division was firmly established on the Eastern bank of the Orne. It had achieved all its objectives except a small coastal strip near Franceville, but it had suffered 800 casualties and more than 1000 paratroopers had not yet reached their rendezvous.

The circumstances of George’s death are unknown. The CWGC records show George was Presumed Killed in Action and initially buried at in the grounds of Grangues Chateau.

A document with table of names and details of burials handwritten.

The burial register for Ranville Cemetery. © CWGC.

We can’t be sure of Cfn Hunt’s trade. However, a strength return made at the end of June notes two REME deficiencies in 7 Parachute Regiment; a Sergeant Armourer and Private (Cfn in REME) Vehicle Mechanic. A note states both should be parachutists. We don’t have a record for a Sergeant Killed in Action.

The Battalion left France from Arromanches on the Empire Javelin and arrived back at Southampton on 4 September 1944.

All images of headstones in this article were taken by the author and remain copyright of the Museum. 

Find out more

Our War Graves Project continues to gather the images and stories of REME soldiers who died in service, but we still need your help. All images and information will be gratefully received and is always acknowledged.

Find out more about D-Day, with articles and events commemorating the 80th anniversary this year.

Find out more about REME units and their movements during the North-West Europe campaign of 1944-45 in our D-Day to VE Day Campaign. Follow along on Facebook or Twitter.