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D-Day Anniversary – Notes From the Archive: A Long Way From Home

In the early hours of June 6 1944, the Allied forces prepared to launch their most daring and crucial mission of the Second World War. Almost a year of planning and several special forces operations had been building to this moment. Expansions and foul weather had already postponed the attack, but it was now or never. Over 1 million men, 7,000 ships, 11,590 aircraft and 4,126 landing ships and craft from eight allied countries prepared themselves for the most important day in their lives. This was the moment they would make history and invade Europe. This was D-Day.

Out of the millions of men involved in D-Day, I discovered that around 10 were Old Millhillians. I searched through ‘A List of Those Who Served’, a comprehensive book outlining the service of Mill Hill alumni who fought in WW1 and WW2. The Old Millhillians who fought on D-Day were from various backgrounds and ages; the youngest was 19 years old, and the oldest was 52. They were involved in various roles, from minesweeping to the actual landings themselves. To keep this article from turning into a book, I have whittled the ten names down to just four, and to maintain some semblance of order, I will outline their stories alphabetically.

The first Old Millhillian on our list is Dermot John Lizars Adamson, who attended Mill Hill between 1924 and 1928. He was in Ridgeway House, and his Mill Hill Register entry notes he was a choirboy during his time here. During the war, he served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander, no mean feat. On D-Day itself, Dermot was on board the HMS Friendship, helping the minesweeping division of the Allied ships. Their job was to clear the various traps laid on the seabed and shallows along the French coast to deter an Allied invasion before the smaller landing crafts could be released. His extraordinary efforts on D-Day led to him being ‘Mentioned in Despatches’. This means that he was named in an official report written by a superior officer, which was sent to the high command, that described his commendable action in the face of the enemy. Clearly, this is a pattern for Dermot, as by the end of the war, he also collected several Star medals for his service. He received an Atlantic Star, for those who partook in the Battle of the Atlantic, a France and Germany Star for his efforts in Europe, a Burma Star, for fighting in the Burma Campaign, and he was also awarded a Pacific Star, given to those who fought in the Pacific Campaign. That’s going to be a difficult achievement to beat!

The next name on our list is Jasper Donald Aungiers. He joined Mill Hill in 1935 and left at the outbreak of war in 1939; he was in Collinson House. Much like Dermot, Jasper served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, albeit working as an Engineer. His MH Register entry notes he attained a Watch Keeper’s certificate during his service, an international qualification that enables the holder to work as a deck officer on ships with a gross tonnage in any operating area. Moving onto his efforts on D-Day itself, Jasper is noted as serving on HMS Bellona, named after the Roman goddess of War. Aptly, the ship’s motto was “Battle is our Business”! The Bellona was one of the ships that provided artillery support for landings at ‘Omaha’ Beach (one of the five code-named beach areas), a 5 miles stretch of the Norman coast from around Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes to Vierville-sur-Mer. Bellona and her sister ships engaged in battle at around 8 am that day, opting to concentrate fire along the flanks of the beaches to avoid friendly fire. HMS Bellona was also equipped with radio-jamming technology, which was important as this prevented the enemy from sending signals to detonate the bombs and other traps they had set. Perhaps Jasper’s engineering skills were put to good use, helping maintain the jamming systems.

After Aungiers comes Henry Gilmore, or Goldman; he is listed under two different surnames in different accounts, which made it quite difficult to track down information about his service! Henry attended Mill Hill between 1937 and 1940, in Winterstoke House, during the School’s evacuation to St Bees in Cumbria. He served as part of the Home Guard from 1940 to 1942 until he was old enough to enlist. For the remainder of the war, much like Jasper and Dermot, Henry worked in the Royal Navy but as a telegraphist. This meant he was trained to use a telegraph key to send and receive messages in Morse code for the ships to communicate by landlines or radio. Alas, I was unable to find which specific vessel he served on, but it is known that Henry was stationed at ‘Gold’ Beach on D-Day, probably onboard one of the 18 assisting Navy ships stationed there. These ships were drafted to form a naval bombardment force, specially named “Bombarding Force K”. The bombardment began early, at 17.30 am, whilst the amphibious landings started several hours later at 07.25 am. The ships managed to disable three of the four artillery guns at the Longues-sur-Mer battery with direct hits. Perhaps Henry helped maintain communication between the ships and later, the landing parties once they had arrived on the beach. Much like Dermot, Henry managed to attain quite a few medals for his service, 5 to be more precise, a 1939-1945 Star for service during WW2, an Atlantic Star, a France and Germany Star (see Adamson above), a Defence Medal for his Home Guard service, and a War Medal for those who had served full-time for a month in either the Armed Forces or Merchant Navy.

Our last Old Millhillian is Peter Malcolm Clyde Wiggins, who attended Mill Hill from 1934 to 1938 – he was in Priestley House back when it was still part of School House. Peter served in the Army, having worked his way up to Major by the end of the war. He served in the Middle East between 1940 and 1943; after that, he was posted to the Central Mediterranean Forces in Italy, where he helped invade Sicily and Italy. Afterwards, he was moved to France, Belgium, and Holland to join the British Liberation Army, a term used to describe British forces fighting along the Western Front. On D-Day, Peter landed on the beaches as part of the Royal Artillery invasion force – 5 units landed across the different beaches that day, and sadly it proved impossible to try and specify which unit Peter was in. However, I do know that; unfortunately, Peter was wounded sometime on D+2. Although the exact date and time are unknown, a record of his hospitalisation does exist. Whilst in Normandy, in a twist of fate, Peter bumped into a contemporary Old Millhillian, Captain James Thurston/Thurstan (Winterstoke, 1934-39) of the Royal Engineers, who was “busily clearing up beach obstacles and mines” along the beaches. Much like his fellow alumni, Peter also received several honours for his service. He was awarded a 1939-45 Star, a M.E.F. 8th Army Star, for those who served in the Mediterranean Forces in Italy, an Italy Star, for those who had served in the Italian campaign and a France and Germany Star (see the above entries). Clearly, Mill Hill produced some fine, brave men!

I also have a very personal connection to D-Day. My great-grandfather Henry Jones, whom I never had the privilege of meeting, was involved in the D-Day preparations. Henry was a carpenter, one of the Reserved Occupations that prevented him from enlisting. Nevertheless, his skills as a carpenter were put to good use as he was enlisted to help construct the D-Day landing crafts. Thousands of these crafts had to be built, and without them, the troops wouldn’t have been able to cross the shallows to land on the beaches on that fateful day. Even though I never knew him, my heart always swells with pride whenever I look at his work tools that sit on a shelf at home. Particularly now, when I think about how the crafts he constructed may have carried Peter and the other Old Millhillians, I was unable to mention, onto the beaches that day.

It is my pleasure to finish this article with the news that all the Old Millhillians involved in D-Day – Dermot, Jasper, Henry, Peter and the other 6 Old Millhillians I haven’t mentioned – survived not only D-Day but the war and were able to return home to their families and friends. However, we must also remember that these men and boys were lucky to survive when thousands of others lost their lives on that fateful day, June 6 1944. Without their sacrifice, the outcome of the war would have been very different. As we carry on with our lives, we should take a moment to thank Peter, Dermot, Henry, Jasper, and all those men who never returned – Lest We Not Forget.

Ms Forte