Letters from the front on VE Day
Capt Geoffrey Gilbertson was a tank commander in the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards who landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day and fought through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany until the Nazis were defeated. His daughter, Mary Stastny, from Whorlton, is currently writing a book about his life. Her parents, who lived at The Square, in Greta Bridge, later became Sir Geoffrey and Lady Gilbertson after her father, who had polio shortly after the war, was knighted for the work he did to better the lives and rights of disabled people. Here are some of the moving letters he wrote home around VE Day in 1945.
May 4, 1945
Just heard the news – all and everybody surrendering. I didn’t hear it as I was out with Rob Anderson doing a recce; just as it finished a German machine gun fired, taking a pot shot in our direction. We returned very wet and fed up to be told everyone was surrendering; we said ‘ha, ha’. However we’ve had a Boche brigadier in tonight blindfolded with surrender terms for the whole of the division ahead of us.
I couldn’t be more pleased as it was Rob’s and my job to attack tomorrow at first light so we may be saved that job.
It’s been a rotten week not wanting to waste a single life, yet having to go in all the way through till the end.
However, it has been much lightened by Rob who is a splendid man and has absolutely no idea of his own safety – only the job he has to do. Darling, you would love him – he’s just your type.
We are sitting in a room feeling rather funny; all my crew, Hassell, Taylor, Pallett, all looking at each other and making facetious remarks. They are making my supper for me. Two fried eggs on toast or fried bread or something – the smell of frying is intense.
Darling, these last ten months... Normandy, D-Day, all the casualties, the final breakout, the fun of swanning*, the awful realisation that it was not the end of the war. The slogging after that, our leave, a brief dream that keeps coming to mind all the time, all after-leave and, as always with war, the last fortnight which always seems the worst of all.
It is now 40 minutes past the time when the Bosch brigadier was meant to be back and he has not tipped up; everyone getting a bit excited. Wonderful if it’s true; we’ve been shelled quite hard most of the day and it seems impossible to believe that all is over and we’ll never hear any more whistle bang, whistle bang after tonight.
Oh darling, can you imagine. I feel we may yet spend our life together. Oh God is too good! All that keeps me from going mad with excitement is Mike and Dick and Geoffrey, George and Charles and all the others.
Sparrow, Rogers.. oh God. That they were all here to see and enjoy tonight. It is always the best that go and the worst that remain.
God bless you, I’m going to sleep to dream that soon I’ll be with you for always. My darling I adore you.
* The “great swan” was the rush north through France after the allies broke out of Normandy. It led to the false hope that Germany might capitulate.
V DAY, MAY 8, 1945
9.30pm on official victory day. Actually our V day was three days ago when the announcement was made about all troops in north-west Europe packing up. It was a funny day. We were leading squadron as usual and I took a troop out to shoot some German MG’s up that were being troublesome and had wounded a Sgt Major in the infantry. We had a good shoot then the German guns began to get our range so we pulled back a bit. Then got an order that all firing had to cease.
We sat there all day and got stonked or shelled and were quite browned off at being able to do nothing back at all.
However, blindfolded Bosche brigadiers started to arrive and we took new heart.
In the evening Rob Anderson and I went out to do a recce for an assault crossing of a canal the next morning and at 9.15pm were shot at by a Spandau just as the news had said all hostilities in north-west Europe are over. Since then I’ve been very intoxicated most of the time, flying round with a bad head and bad temper looking for billets and had two super walks. We went down, Rob and I, to a lake that looked good on the map.
Dear one, it was just like a Northumberland tarn – we saw a plovers’ nest with four eggs, two buzzards, a brace of mallard and also grebe.
It was a wonderful afternoon. We both fell in the lake, or rather a large river going to the lake, and had the most wonderful party – just like old times again. Funny how when one meets someone out of one’s own school [Durham] one appears to be so completely at home with them.
Today, and for that matter yesterday, have been intensely interesting. We had to come over the “border” between British and German forces yesterday. Only one representative per unit to look around the unit.
I came along and it was incredible.
Thousands of Bosche soldiers all over the place. A German guide took us all round past the “ach-ach” guns and German field guns that had been shelling us, past all and everything,
German tanks and all these soldiers; it was an experience, and yet it was only an experience looking back on it.
Actually, doing it I was quite fed up had no feeling of superiority or victory or anything else. Just another job. Nick said tonight I’ve become such a fatalist in the last 11 months that I even take the whole German army gaping at me for granted and it is absolutely true.
It is only afterwards that one really gets somewhere to realising that one will never hear another shell or bullet.
Oh dear one, I am so near to happiness and you tonight. oh dear one, my heart is so full of gratefulness tonight.
God bless you and thank you for being the most super wife. Dear one, all through your wretched time of waiting you never mentioned yourself except to say how well you were and kept sending my Naafi packs off. All was for me. Dear one, I never took that for granted I just love you more than ever for it.
I hate to put a word of warning in here but I don’t think I’ll be back in two or three weeks or even months.
I may well go to Burma, either with the regiment if it goes or on draft as reinforcement if it doesn’t. So do keep that in mind. We may yet have more to go through before we are really together, but all will be well in the end.
Dear one, I’m longing to get your first letter from our house*. I do hope it won’t be too long.
From what you said in your last letter I should think it is on its way by now.
Well my dearest Dot, it’s time to go to bed now and dream of you. Dear one, it’s over. God bless and keep you.
* Dot and family were moving into 18 Humbledon View, in Sunderland, that very day and the first thing Dot did was to hang a Union Jack flag out of the window.
‘Germans kept raising the white flag – someone would keep taking it down’
CAPTAIN Geoffrey Gilbertson managed to get through the whole campaign without a scratch unlike so many of his fellow officers and men, but four years later in 1949 his luck ran out and he contracted polio.
Although this left him paralysed from the waist down it did not stop him from going on to lead a useful and remarkable life, culminating in a knighthood in recognition of all the work he had done to better the lot of disabled people
During the 1980s, a member of the family conducted an interview with him. When asked how he reacted when the war ended, he replied: “At the surface level a very normal reaction of relief.
“I remember in fact the actual ending of the war, that we had been told to stop where we were at this village and there was a village ahead of us we could see across the valley that was occupied by the Germans.
“And all through the day, first of all a white flag would start fluttering from the top of the church tower, to be
pulled down ten minutes later.
“Then half an hour later and the flag would go up again and ten minutes later somebody else would pull the thing down again.
“So, it was a peculiar day, but we had been told that if nothing had happened we would have to attack at dawn the next morning, whatever they were doing over there.
“So, an infantry major and I went forward to reconnoitre a way round that we could get to the village without going right down the main road and coming under what was obviously still some people with a gun with them. When we got into this field we came under very heavy machine gun fire from just across the river.
“So we both dived for a ditch and everytime we put our heads up the machine gun started again.
“So we remained there until it was dusk and then managed to get ourselves back to the village and when we got the first person we saw was the regimental Sgt Major of the Black Watch which was the regiment we were in fact working with and he was very drunk indeed and the major was absolutely horrified.
“It was only about three minutes later that we discovered that in fact the war was over while we had been lying in the ditch and everybody else of both regiments were very drunk indeed, and that was the end of the war.”