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Who were the soldiers?
As we've previously explained, if we could find Anne Hughes' original manuscript still extant, we could solve many of the problems we face in understanding the book and make a major contribution to the study of farming life in the eighteenth-century. The Preston family's account was that Jeanne gave or loaned the old Diary to an American WW2 soldier around D-Day and that it then disappeared with him when he was suddenly sent away. But it's a rather daunting task trying to trace one American soldier among the thousands in the area, given we know neither his unit or his surname, that he may or may not have been called Lee or Leigh from Alabama, and that so much time has elapsed since then.
The Americans were not the first troops to find themselves billeted in Sarsden. And although the British troops that Jeanne befriended will be able to tell us nothing about the diary's disappearance, it's possible some of them, too, may have seen it. Additionally, they may be able to tell us more about the way their living accommodations in Sarsden were set up for them, and therefore presumably for the Americans who followed them.
With the whole area an armed camp, especially for the last stages of the war, it has been a difficult task discovering just which unit was here and when. So what follows is our best estimate of the series of troop movements into and out of Sarsden, but it should not be taken as a comprehensive or completely accurate account.
The first soldiers we know lived in Sarsden were from the British 151st Infantry Brigade HQ and a detachment from the RAOC, or Royal Army Ordnance Corps. We know they were around as we've seen an old envelope bearing the postmark and name and address of the soldier to whom it was sent on 14th December, 1939. It was found at Sarsden House, with other mementoes of the period, under the floor of the old stables when they were being renovated.
Not all the writing is still decipherable but we can see that Private G. Skelton was part of the RAOC's presence in the 151st Infantry Brigade HQ. Who he was and what exactly he did remains to be discovered, but with the help of the REME Museum at Arborfield, we now know that LAD stands for Light Aid Detachment. These were men who provided workshop support to the brigade, maintaining equipment such as vehicles or artillery. At this time they were assigned from the RAOC as REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) wasn't formed until 1942. The Americans, later on, used the stables as a message centre, so perhaps Private Skelton may have been part of a signals unit if the stables were used by the British for the same purpose. (Click on the photo to bring up an enlarged view.)
Exactly where these first soldiers lived isn't certain. It may have been later that a group of Nissen Huts or possibly their American equivalent, Quonset Huts, were erected in the field next to the lane where both Jeanne and Win lived. The RAF aerial survey of 1946 shows where they once were. In the case of the Americans, we know it was the enlisted men who lived in the huts, and this was almost certainly true for the British troops before them. The officers of both countries lived in what are still known as 'the officers' rooms' in Sarsden House itself. There was additional accommodation for the ordinary soldiers in a barn loft opposite Jeanne's house that was converted into a dormitory, but it's not clear whether all units used it. The barn, now rebuilt, has lost many of its original features including its loft and exterior staircase. There is still a bracket and insulator for what was probably a phone line, so it may have served other purposes as well. Army headquarters offices and functional areas were set up in the outbuildings of Sarsden House. In what seems to have been a hut opposite the old Coach House, there was a PX or Post Exchange. It may previously have been a British NAAFI which served the same function. In the old open fronted coach house, first the British, and later the Americans, had their bar where the men relaxed. The 'war art' the Americans left behind here is mentioned in more detail in the 'Exploring Byways' section of this website.
The next soldiers who came to our attention were the men who served under Lord Wyfold of Sarsden House. After the Dunkirk evacuation of May 26th to June 4th, 1940 and the resulting confusion, he brought them to Sarsden and billeted them temporarily on his estate land or in the area around. Later, they were sent to their officially designated location.
Jeanne's wartime notebook tells us men of the 'Liverpool Scottish' were in her yard when she arrived. The four she met were Private Hay, WO (Warrant Officer?) Anderson, Dudley, and Kenneth. With them was 'the Babe', who was joining the RAF and was a friend of Pte Hay. By 24th Dec 1941, when Jeanne was writing, they had left and 'gone to the north'.
Her entry for March 1942 tells us that 'the boys' currently 'stationed in the yard here' will be leaving the following Sunday and mentions by name: Towney, Billy, Dennis, and later, Pat and Pop. By April 19th, they have all left, Towney, she thinks, for Africa. No unit name is mentioned.
May 30th, 1942 saw the first thousand bomber raid on Germany in which Dickie Horlock, an RAF sergeant and, we think, son of a near neighbour, was killed. His death is recorded on the Churchill war memorial.
Sometime around 1941 or 1942, certainly before American soldiers arrived in the area, we learned that soldiers of the British 'Border Regiment' were in Sarsden and that the Brigadier's driver, Geoffrey Johnston, was among the men billeted in Jeanne's barn.
Then there is H. Brimelow and his companions. He signed his name on the reverse of the photo in our Photo Gallery and writes 'in the yard 1943' and 'in Sicily May 1944'. The consensus of opinion is that they are British servicemen. The overalls and the presence in 1944 in Sicily of a REME unit (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) might be a clue to their identity. It's also possible they could be RAF maintenance personnel.
David, a local farmer, also kept a diary which tells us there were American soldiers present locally by Christmas 1943, as they joined the Christmas carols party.
The unit history of the US Army's 38th Engineer Regiment, (renamed in England and the ETO as the 38th Engineer General Service Regiment) puts their Company B in Sarsden from 17th January to 23rd February, 1944. (See 'links' and 'photographs' pages for more information.)
As far as we know, the next and final group of military visitors to arrive in Sarsden was the HQ Company of Combat Command B of the American '6th Armored Division'. (See 'links' and 'photographs' pages for more information.) Along with the rest of their Division, they arrived in the Cotswolds the night of 25th February 1944 and landed on Utah Beach in Normandy between 18th and 24th July, 1944. Units of the 6AD were spread right across the Cotswolds area and remained there for four and a half months, except when on training exercises elsewhere.
It is among the soldiers of these last two Sarsden-based units that we most expect to find our elusive Lee from Alabama. We know that the men of CCB HQ Co. left in mid-July
, in the very early hours before most of the area's inhabitants were awake and with no official notice given to the locals. Equally, we know that men of the 38th Engineers were employed in mine clearance on the Normandy beaches on D-Day itself, June
6th, and probably left their final UK billet area under similar circumstances. Lee could have been with either US Army unit and for a while we wondered if the 38th Engineers might be the front runners. But this may not be the case. Given access to a jeep or other transport, Lee could instead have visited from neighbouring American locations such as Chipping Norton, Daylesford House, Kingham or Adelstrop. And, as we'll see, the 38th Engineers were elsewhere by D-Day.
Jeanne remarks on the big RAF camp at Sarsgrove built to service the Chipping Norton Relief Landing Ground. She also mentions piles of ammunition stored along the roadsides and moved by 'our own RASC' soldiers or by black soldiers, probably American, who we know were living at other huts at the crossroads where the road goes to Sarsgrove.
Another memory of those days comes from our friend Win who once saw General Dempsey's staff car, complete with flag, drive up the lane past where she and Jeanne lived. General Dempsey commanded the Allied 2nd Army during the Normandy landings. We've been unable to confirm the rumour that General Patton also visted Sarsden House, but he certainly visited the '6th Armored Division's' HQ in Batsford House in the Cotswolds.
So the situation back then was a complicated one. How we can try to narrow down the search for 'Lee', we'll discuss in the section, 'Solving the Puzzle'.