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David Saunders - beyond D-Day.

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posted on 2024-06-05, 18:20 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

I hold the archive of my great uncle David Saunders, who served as an Able Seaman on LCI-185 (subsequently LCH-185) which was sunk off Normandy on 25th June 1944. Details of this ship are recorded in a recently published book 'The Search' and documentary 'No Roses for a Sailor's Grave' by John Henry Phillips. I was unaware of this project until after its publication.

David's story was not really known or told in detail in that book, but as the holder of an archive of some 30 letters (dating from 1942 to his death) and 100 photographs, I feel it appropriate now to tell something of his story.

David was born on 31st July 1923 in London, the only son and youngest of five children of Charles and Amelia Elizabeth Saunders. Before joining the Royal Navy he served with the Home Guard between 21st November 1940 and 16th January 1941.

His service number on all his letters home is FX83787 but the memorial information at Chatham lists it as C/JX 283813. I believe that service numbers were changed for D-Day, but it proved a barrier to finding out more information about him. His age is slightly wrong too, as David was a month shy of his 21st birthday when he died.

I believe he entered the Royal Navy as Able Seaman in the Fleet Air Arm, and imagine this to be some time between January 1941 and August 1942. His first letter home dates from August 1942 when he was based at Chatham. From here he undertook training and joined Combined Operations in the Autumn of 1942. He was based variously at Calshot, Troon and Dunoon. Late in 1942 he sailed to New York to pick up the Landing Craft which was known as LCI-185 until it was repurposed for D-Day to become the HQ ship and therefore reassigned as LCH-185. During 1943 David was on active service on the ship, crossing via Bermuda and Malta through North Africa and Sicily, and returning to Britain at the end of 1943. From there he went up to Scotland (Inver) to start preparations for what would become D-Day. His letters and photographs document this period in some detail.

There is so much to tell of David, whom I have got to 'know' in the past 40 years through his letters and photographs, but I am sharing the final part of his story at this time (Remembrance Weekend) as it seems most appropriate.

I attach pictures of David and his mother when he was a boy, (mid 1930's) on what I suppose was a working holiday in the countryside. It's a picture I look at every day of my life as a copy hangs in my kitchen. There is also one of David's mother (my great-grandmother) and his cat Jimmy (referred to frequently in his letters). It seems that David always kept and took charge of ships cats on board. There is also a picture of David and a crew mate on board, having caught 'little and large' fish, and one of him at the beginning of his naval career, I assume taken outside his house. Through these, and many other photographs, I have built up an emotional bond with this man I never met and I feel able to relate to his sense of humour and feel privileged to get glimpses into various stages of his life. I have always felt it's important to do more than utter the words of remembrance once a year, and I keep his images in everyday sight, in the process reminding myself of his life and my connection to him.

Our 'relationship' has also been developed through reading his letters. Often they do not have dates on them and so it has been a long task (still not complete) to try and order them and work out when each was written, but I now have a reasonably accurate chronology. They are funny, and poignant in equal measure, even though they are simply letters from a very ordinary young man.

Final letters, I suppose, will always hold the most emotional impact. In David's case, his final letter was written on 12th June, around a fortnight before he was killed. In it he is upbeat, obviously trying to reassure his mother that he is all right. For me, the emotion lies in the fact that while he may have been afraid, there is nothing here to indicate what was about to happen - as is inevitably the case when a life is cut short through an act of war. The ship was blown up and David died in that explosion. The suggestion of 'The Search' is that it would not have been a swift or painless death.

More poignant perhaps is what happened after this. His mother wrote her final letter to him on 23rd July, not knowing he was dead. She wrote in advance of what would be his 21st birthday. She told him of plans to celebrate in his absence and how she would raise a glass for him at noon.

Two days before this big event, on 29th July, she received a telegram telling her that David was missing in action. At which point her life must have crumbled. I don't know if she would have stuck to commemorating his birthday as she planned. But that's not even the end. I don't know what happened next, regarding confirmation through letter or visit from the Navy confirming his death, but at the end of September, her last letter to David was returned; having been, it seems, all round the world. I can't imagine how painful it would be, two months on, to get that letter back. And there's something unutterably sad about looking at the myriad of postmarks and realising that this letter, which embodied a mother's love to her son, was still floating round the 'system' months after he was dead. His life was gone but the love lived on in the transit of the letter. When it came home again, which he never did, that must have been another brutal moment of a life ending.

I do not know when or how my great grandmother found out details of what happened to her son. She died when I was young, and the only details I got from family members was that 'he died at D-Day'. When I got hold of the archive of letters/photographs (from my mother some 40 years ago) I was perplexed that D-Day was on 6th and he was writing from France on 12th June. I started searching. I could not trace him through service records and I could not find any proper war grave. The Chatham memorial was less than helpful and I've never been able to track down a service record. It was not until a couple of years ago when I found out about 'The Search' that I filled in the gaps, learning of the explosion and sinking which led to his death on 25th June 1944 off Sword Beach and the fact that a memorial now stands at Lion-sur-Mer.

My personal feelings are quite strong in this matter. I have always felt that lives are not 'given' but 'taken' in a war and I have always felt it was a waste of young lives - and particularly that my great uncle's life was stolen from him (and so potentially from all of us). This has perhaps been compounded by the fact that it (his life/service/death) seemed entirely unimportant in the bigger scheme of things. I am glad that now, 80 years on, there is a proper memorial to honour his service and to mark his existence. I feel a weight of responsibility holding his letters and photographs - items which he touched and treasured - but am overwhelmed as to what to do to 'make something fitting' as a tribute of them. But the least I could do for this Share Our Stories Project was to share at least the end of David's story, so that he can be acknowledged and remembered as just one of hundreds of thousands of young men whose lives and stories are 'lost' at sea.

History

Item list and details

Object upload list Photo (Fleet air arm) Photo with mother Photo Mother and cat Photo On board ship 1943 Envelope front -last letter returned Envelope back - last letter returned David letter p1 last letter David letter p2 last letter David letter p3 last letter Mother letter p1last letter (returned) Mother letter p2 last letter (returned) Mother letter p4 (last letter returned) Telegram Transcripts of letters

Person the story/items relate to

David Saunders

Person who shared the story/items

Anon

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

He was my great uncle

Type of submission

Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

Record ID

95919