Amongst my World War Zoo Gardens project collection of original civilian diaries and letters from WW2 is a recently acquired 1944 HMSO No. S3 Diary, its military date stamp [Jan?] 1944, crossed out with childish writing: “Matchbox Album”
Inside along with adverts to buy 3% Defence Bonds from the National Savings Committee is the pencilled inscription S/Sgt Bernie Walker US Army for ‘Sammy‘, amidst lists in childish writing [by Sammy?] of countries where the matchbooks and matchbox covers pasted on the pages have come from.
January to March 1944 pages are covered with matchbox covers some of which have overprinted “War Quality 2 Pices” on Indian made matchboxes, a few possibly postwar ones (marked 1947) from almost every country in Europe and many countries of the Empire (India, Burma, S.Africa) as well as Canada, USA, Japan, Lebanon and others.
The matchbox labels themselves are interesting as wartime propaganda, with lots of patriotic slogans:
– “Waste in wartime is a crime”
– “Save food, save metal, save bags, save paper”
– “Save coal gas electricity paraffin, save fuel for battle!”
– a football picture with the words “Back up your side, and help the war effort”.
– “Don’t talk about your work, get on with it!”
– “We must win! Buy more war bonds stamps” and other similar
– “Invest in America, Buy War Bonds” (Maryland USA match co.) and “Keep ‘Em Flying Buy War Bonds” (Jersey USA match co.)
– Canadian YMCA War Services Along with a big “V for Victory” (Canadian matches)
A colourful childhood collection given to & continued by Sammy?
However on the first blank pages in late March 1944 is written:
Wednesday 29 March 1944: Surgeon Commander Visit to Unit with General Bradley and General Gerhardt and [?] HQ.
Charles Gerhardt (June 6, 1895 – October 9, 1976) commanded the U.S. 29th Infantry Division from 1943 throughout its training in Cornwall and Devon and D-Day until the end of World War 2. Omar Bradley was chosen to command the US First Army throughout D-Day. I’m not sure who the Surgeon Commander was, it may well have been US Army Surgeon General Norman Kirk
Monday 24 April 1944: Intensive Training Category B Exercise (Amphibious) (B)
Ditto for Tuesday 25 to Thursday 27 April 1944.
Friday 28 April 1944 – Training Live Category A ocean and beach Assault (A)
Enemy shipping in Area (U/T) some units engaged. Some of our boats lost.
Saturday 29 April 1944: All information heavily censored and restricted.
The following first week of May the diary is ruled across and the words “Censored” written in, no other entries recorded throughout the rest of May. It is interesting to see contemporary references to Exercise Tiger, where hundreds of US servicemen were lost off Slapton Sands in Devon on 28/29 April 1944.
Friday 2 June 1944: large movement of forces and equipment
Saturday 3 June 1944: ditto
Sunday 4 June 1944: boarding for Exercise Category A
Monday 5 June 1944: En boarding for Exercise. Weather heavy swell / Storm
No further entries are recorded for the day after, 6th June 1944, which was of course D-Day.
There are only a couple more scrawled entries:
Tuesday 18 July 1944: St Lo France Falls.
Thursday 26 August 1944: Brest France Offensive
Monday 18 September 1944: Brest France Falls
Thursday 7 December 1944 page lists River Elbe 4/19/45
River Roer 2/23/45. Bremen Germany 1945
The remaining pages are full of matchbox and matchbook covers, some from wartime, others from the 1950s (for example Festival of Britain 1951, Ascent of Everest 1953).
More Research Needed?
I’m not sure at the moment about the full story behind the diary / album and it demands more research. If you have any other thoughts or insights on this unusual diary, please contact me through the comments page.
- Who was ‘Sammy’ for whom the diary or album was a gift?
- Who was Staff Sergeant Bernie Walker who gave the album & presumably wrote the diary?
- When and how were the matchbooks and matchboxes collected?
Looking at these places and dates, it seems likely that this album is from someone connected with the 29th Infantry Division. In May 1943 the division moved to the Devon–Cornwall peninsula and started conducting simulated attacks against fortified positions. At this time it was assigned to V Corps of the First United States Army. After training in England for two years, the 29th took part in D-Day or Operation Overlord, the landings in Normandy. The division was among the first wave of troops to the shore at Omaha Beach, suffering massive casualties in the process. It then advanced to Saint-Lô, and eventually through France and into Germany itself. All this tallies with entries in the diary.
Hopefully the 29th Infantry Division Historical Society or Regimental Association may have a record of Staff Sergeant Bernie Walker. There is an excellent autobiographical article by PFC Mills H. Hobbs in the recent 29th Association newsletter. The 29th have several related reenactment groups which you can find online, no doubt very busy with June 1944 commemorations.
Previous related blog posts
I have written several times about D-Day stories uncovered during World War Zoo Gardens research, and our Cornwall and Devon links, through Newquay Zoo, Paignton Zoo and Slapton Ley (all run by the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust).
So this week on the 70th anniversary of the 6th June 1944 landings I will be thinking of S/Sgt Bernie Walker, among the many V Corps / 29th division troops that embarked from our local Cornwall & Devon beaches, hards & harbours like Brixham & Trebah, those that trained at Slapton Sands, as well as the US IVth Infantry Division GIs (the “Ivy Boys”) camped at Paignton Zoo not to mention some missing & delicious peacocks & wildfowl …
I’ll also be thinking of one of my neighbours whose late father went in with the British 48th Royal Marine Commandos at Juno Beach (pictured in the IWM image B5218 ) & survived the Normandy Landings on 6 June 1944, but that’s another story for another blog post …
Thanks to Nigel & Tony at http://www.militarytrader.co.uk for their sourcing & assistance with the item.