Tributes paid to Norfolk D-Day hero who built bridges under enemy fire
- Credit: copyright: Archant 2014
He was an unassuming hero who started work at 14, stormed the beaches of Normandy at 21 and was awarded a Masters degree at the age of 53.
D-Day veteran, beloved husband, loving uncle, good friend and lifelong learner George Gallagher, who lived in Sheringham, has died at the age of 97.
He passed away peacefully on March 29 at Suncourt Nursing Home having moved to Sheringham from Ashdown Court in Cromer, where he had been a much-loved resident.
George Gallagher, the first of five children born to George and Florence, arrived on October 31, 1923 in Lancashire.
A bright boy, he did well at school but the opportunity to progress in the education system was closed by the need to earn money for his family: as George left school, his mother was pregnant with her last child and his youngest sibling.
There were lots of mouths to feed and George needed to start paying his way.
“I started work at the age of 14 years despite qualifying for a Grammar school education, unfortunately the financial situation at the time precluded the additional expense involved,” he later recalled.
Opposite the Gallaghers' small cottage was John Ashworth’s spinning mill where George began a lifetime of hard work: “Equipped with my new pair of bib and brace overalls I began my first day’s work as the Bogy lad.”
His job involved pushing a conveyor belt for 45 long hours a week, a punishingly tedious job, but an important one that provided the backbone to Lancashire’s cotton spinning and weaving heritage.
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By 1937, the industry was dwindling, but for George, the spinning industry would be woven throughout his entire working life and be the thread that kept him attached to his beloved Lancashire.
From school desk to factory floor in a matter of days, George took to hard work like a duck to water: “I was proud to have become a bread winner, but was still in short trousers after taking my overalls off. My first long trouser suit was purchased after three months of my working life,” he recalled, drily.
Promotion quickly followed for young George who, after 18 months, became a Comber Apprentice and after two years at Ashworth’s, he moved to JP Coates United Thread Mills in Eagley on the outskirts of Bolton.
“The mill, which produced sewing cottons and embroidery threads, was well known throughout the world and provided a ‘cradle to the grave’ existence for most people in the village with the promise of a pension scheme after 10 years,” wrote George.
“The welfare and sports activities were excellent and I soon became a regular member of the firm’s football team.”
In 1941, 18-year-old George was called to serve in the army and was attached to the 73rd Field Company Royal Engineers, seeing action in France, northern Europe, Italy, Egypt and Palestine.
Although he was hugely proud of his role in the Normandy campaign and was an active member of the Norwich and Norfolk Normandy Veterans’ Association, George was a modest man who had to be coaxed to talk about his wartime experiences.
He returned to Normandy with fellow veterans and was hailed as a hero by grateful French townspeople who remember what Allied soldiers did for them in 1944.
In Normandy, being part of the annual D-Day commemorations is like being a rock star at a fan convention: people burst into tears of gratitude, stoop to take selfies and vigorously shake hands with each and every one of the old soldiers.
And they, when the spotlight was off them, enjoyed each others’ company, the years melting away until they were the same young men that first set foot on French soil more than 75 years ago, forever bonded thanks to a shared experience.
George was particularly close to fellow Normandy veteran the late Margaret Dickinson and at one point the pair lived just a few houses away from each other in Cromer.
On June 6, 1944, Allied forces launched the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare codenamed Operation Overlord.
The D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy marked the start of a long and bloody campaign to liberation north-west Europe from Nazi occupation.
On the morning of June 6, George was about to embark on his own journey across the channel towards the assault beaches that still ran red with blood.
He recalled: "On June 7, 1944 I was on a troop ship mid-Channel. I was frightened to death of U-boats.
"I landed on June 10 on Juno Beach. We landed in deep water and when I jumped out of the boat, I lost my rifle. But I found another Lee Enfield rifle on the beach, so I took that.”
George was hugely understated when it came to talking about his war. But the brutal facts speak for themselves.
It was the Canadian 3rd Division’s objective to secure Juno Beach, one of five assault beaches on D-Day, and to link up with British forces on Gold Beach to the west and Sword Beach to the east.
Rough seas had delayed the landing and the rising tide reduced the width of the beach which quickly became jammed with incoming vehicles and equipment.
The Germans defended Juno heavily and casualties were high, particularly amongst the first wave of landing infantry.
By the day’s end, more than 156,000 Allied troops had stormed Normandy’s beaches with a tragic death toll of up to 4,000 with many more soldiers wounded.
From his ship in the middle of the Channel, the bombardment would have been heard by everyone on board and it would take until June 11, a day after George landed in France, until the Allies secured the 50-mile strip of coastline.
It was the job of the Royal Engineers to keep the Allies on the move during the Second World War, providing military engineering and other technical support to the British Armed Forces.
The Engineers would build defences around airfields, military establishments and structures, defuse unexploded bomb, clean-up operations after Luftwaffe bombing attacks, undertake mine clearance, stake out cleared routes through minefields; unloading supply ships and rebuilding roads and bridges.
George would speak of building bridges across the Seine, the Maas, the Rhine and the Elbe “mostly under heavy fire”, adding, “I nearly got killed many times.”
At the Rhine Crossing, George recalled the thunderous roar of the artillery and the shaking of the ground beneath his feet as the opposing sides fired salvo after salvo of heavy shells at each other.
Following the end of the war in Europe, he was attached to the 659 Artisan Works Company of the Royal Engineers, a group of skilled men from a variety of trades who were used for a wide range of work such as hut making and road construction.
George returned to England in 1946 to resume his position at JP Coates.
“The transformation back from Army life was difficult to adjust to,” he admitted, “because I missed the freedom of Army life when compared to the confinement of mill life.”
Within two years, George had taken a new role at a new mill and met his future wife, Dorothy, who he married in 1948 and who predeceased him.
Living with Dorothy’s parents, he studied at Bolton Technical College for three years and was awarded the Ordinary National Certificate in Cotton Spinning.
Returning to the mill he joined as a 14-year-old, George took a supervisory role, an important job in an industry filled with legendarily dangerous machinery.
“I must have been doing the job satisfactorily,” he said, “because we had no serious accidents in my department in my employment there.”
When Dorothy’s father became ill the couple moved back to help which involved George travelling 19 miles to work at 5am until he found another job.
A lifelong learner, George continued to take evening classes at Bolton Technical College and he later became a teacher in the spinning laboratories at the University of Manchester.
Awarded the Associateship of the Textile Industry, a degree-level title, he would entertain students with lessons which involved him using a vacuum cleaner to produce yarn as a novel way of presenting open end spinning.
He was awarded a Master of Science Degree in July 1976, graduating alongside many of the BSc students he had taught.
George was a great friend and a wonderful neighbour to many, but especially Frank and the late Margaret. He will be missed by his nieces, nephews and their families and by all those who were lucky to know him.
A life well lived, we thank him for his service.
Donations, if required, can be sent to the Huntington's Disease Association and the Normandy Veteran's Association c/o Cromer and District Independent Funeral Services, 32 West Street, Cromer, Norfolk, NR27 9DS.