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D-Day memories: How a Surrey man witnessed history unfold 80 years ago as a kid in England

For Dave Gibbs, the 80th anniversary of Normandy landing stirs up ‘very significant memories’
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Surrey resident Dave Gibbs with pins given to him by American soldiers when he was a boy in England, around the time of the Normandy landings, or D-Day, 80 years ago Thursday, June 6. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

Dave Gibbs didn’t fight in the Second World War but clearly remembers those who did, especially some friendly American soldiers involved in the landmark Normandy landings (D-Day) 80 years ago today, June 6.

At the time, Gibbs was an 11-year-old boy living in Somerset county, England, where Allied troops gathered for the invasion of the Nazi-held beachfront in France, across the Channel.

The Surrey resident witnessed history in the making at an army camp, and vividly recalled those wartime years in a letter sent to the Now-Leader.

“The approaching 80th Anniversary of D-Day has stirred up some very significant memories for this 91-year-old, some pre-D-Day, some post-D-Day,” started Gibbs, a longtime Royal Heights-area resident.

“I was born in 1932 in a house on a large estate in Somerset, Southwest England. The estate, with a very large manor house, was owned by a very wealthy family. Behind the manor house was a very large forest, below it acres of parkland. My parents both worked for the owners.”

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Surrey resident Dave Gibbs points to a 1946 photo of himself among classmates at Taunton School in England. He was 13 at the time, post-Second World War. (Photo: Tom Zillich)
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A framed photo of the manor house in Somerset, England, where Dave Gibbs lived as a child during the Second World War. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

In 1939, the estate was taken over by the government and turned into an army camp, he wrote. When British troops left for North Africa, the camp emptied.

“It was now early 1942,” Gibbs continued. “My brother and I were playing outside our house which was inside the perimeter of the camp. Along came a strange vehicle with two soldiers. It was a Jeep with two American GIs. There was a trail past our house through the forest. They wanted to know where it went. We told them there was no way they could drive it and it went nowhere anyway. They told us to get in and they would check it out. So we went where no vehicle had ever been before, quite a trip.”

That’s when the camp started filling with hundreds of American soldiers.

“I spent all my spare time with them,” Gibbs recalled. “They would buy me Coke and other goodies at the cafeteria on the base. They taught me to play pool, and I would often get a ride the three miles to school in a Jeep or a truck. They truly were awesome and treated me like I was their kid brother.”

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Three pins given to Dave Gibbs by American soldiers when he was a boy in England, around the time of the Normandy landings, or D-Day, 80 years ago Thursday, June 6. He later had the pins mounted on this wooden shield. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

In May 1944, he found his way to an area where many vehicles were parked.

“They were hard at work extending the exhausts and air-intakes up in the air and putting something like putty around the engines,” Gibbs remembered. “I asked them what they were doing and was told this was in case they may have to go ‘in the water.’ One night, it must have been the start of June, all night we heard the vehicles starting up and moving out. The next day the camp was deserted again. Then we heard about D-Day.”

The camp soon turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers returning from Normandy, the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany.

“Some had terrible injuries, many had lost limbs, but they all seemed to be in good spirits, feeling fortunate to have survived, I suppose,” Gibbs noted. “They had stories to tell this 11-year-old and souvenirs they had brought back. They gave me a uniform jacket and I sewed on many of the badges they gave me, including one German badge. Thinking about it since, I wonder if at the time, it occurred to me, it may have come from a dead German.”

Today, Gibbs has so many memories of such “wonderful, generous young men” at the camp.

“I wish I had invested in a camera,” he wrote, “although that may not have gone over too well in a military establishment in wartime. I would love to know who of the young men I talked with, played pool with and heard about life in the U.S.A., made it through the war and who didn’t even make it off the beach.”

• RELATED: B.C. D-Day vet dies on the eve of his return to Normandy.

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Dave Gibbs and wife June both worked as police officers (“Bobbies”) in England before moving to Canada. Sadly, June died last October at Surrey Memorial Hospital. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

Gibbs remembers the name of just one soldier he met, Quintin Twitchell, from Salem, Utah.

“He gave me a book called Look to the Mountain,” he told the Now-Leader. “My daughter has been helping me, bless her heart, and she found a guy named Quint Twitchell who was in the army and we’re wondering if that’s maybe him.”

He managed to keep three pins given to him by soldiers, and later had them mounted on a wooden shield.

“They gave me their magazines, about hunting and fishing, that they were mailed from the States, and I used to pull the stamps off the letters they received,” Gibbs said in an interview. “That jacket I had, boy, if I still had that it’d be amazing…. When I left home for the Fleet Air Arm, I left everything behind and my Mom probably thought, ‘He won’t need this anymore,’ and put it all in the garbage, all those keepsakes, you know.”

Eighty years later, he has fond memories of the war heroes he met.

“I can’t imagine today’s youth doing what those guys did,” Gibbs said. “You know, they actually had no idea what was ahead of them. Those guys got out of the landing craft and the Germans just mowed them down, just like in the movie Saving Private Ryan, if you’ve seen that one. I often think about those guys. Every year, it all comes back (on the D-Day anniversary), 80 years ago now.”

• READ MORE: A mass parachute jump over Normandy kicks off 80th anniversary of D-Day.

• READ ALSO: Trudeau will mark 80th anniversary of D-day at Juno Beach ceremony in France where 14,000 Canadians stormed the beach in 1944.



Tom Zillich

About the Author: Tom Zillich

I cover entertainment, sports and news for Surrey Now-Leader and Black Press Media
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