An Example of Life in the 1940s: Britain at War:
A D-DAY TRIBUTE: PETER LESLIE HOLMES 1914 - 1944 (AGE:30)
This page is dedicated to Royal Marine Commando Peter Leslie Holmes Marine PLY/X 101828 one of the original members of No. 45 (four-five) Royal Marine Commando Unit, who died whilst taking part in the Allied forces D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, France on the 6th June 1944.
Family Life: (A Brief account) Leslie (photo opposite) was born in the district of Swinton and Pendlebury, Lancashire in 1914 to Peter and Elizabeth, only four months before the start of the First World War. He was their first son and second child.
His father Peter, worked in the mines on the coalface, as a joiner putting up pit props. It was a very hard job, working in darkness broken only by flickering candles and lantern light in dirty, muddy, cramped conditions in stifling heat and coal dust ridden air.
As a boy, Leslie attended Cromwell Road School, which he left in 1928 at the age of 14
to work as a tile packer at Pilkingtons, known locally as the Potteries.
Although this was a poorly paid and very physically demanding job it was infinitely
preferably to being down the mines. The work required a great deal of strength as it involved
packing tiles into large crates and manually loading them onto lorries.
However within twelve months Britain was thrown into the Great Depression of 1929 with mass unemployment and as the north of England was the home of most of the Britain's traditional industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding, steel and textiles it bore the brunt of the depression making the 1930s the most difficult in living memory for people in these areas. In the North West places such as Manchester and Lancashire suffered huge unemployment and extreme poverty. Fortunately Leslie kept his job in the potteries, but his father Peter, like so many others, lost his in the mines.
Leslie’s father had put up a partitioning wall in one of the bedrooms so that it divided the window in half. On one side slept the two girls, Ivy and Minnie, and on the other the three boys, Leslie, Cyril and Victor who all shared a three-quarter sized bed. The youngest child Lionel, slept in his parent’s bedroom.
Having been in poor health for sometime Leslie's father (right) died on in 1935 of acute heart failure and apoplexy (old-fashioned medical term which can be used to mean 'bleeding' or to describe any death that began with a sudden loss of consciousness). Peter was only 47 years old. This meant that at the tender age of 20, Leslie had to take on the role of head of the house being the eldest boy.
Life was very hard in the depression and Leslie took his family responsibilities very
seriously, purposely shieding away from getting married knowing how the family were dependent upon him.
Burton Street. Leslie and his family lived in the end terrace. The area was known to the locals as, 'Bilston' after the Midlands pottery town, where many had come from when the Pilkington's tile factory opened.
Tragedy was to strike the family yet again two years later when Leslie’s brother,
Victor died, after a series of accidents.
SERVICE and 45 COMMANDOS: When the Second World War started Leslie was conscripted into the Royal Marines on 28th January 1941 aged 26. Both he and his friend, Bill, got their call up papers on the same day and travelled down to Plymouth together. However they were split up into different units and, unlike Leslie, Bill returned home after the war.
Leslie was sent for training to the
The Royal School of Signals. Besides their regular packs and rifles, communication marines also had to carry large radios on their backs. After his training, which involved mountain climbing in Scotland in full battle order, he was attached to the 18th and then the 5th Battalion.
The first commando units were formed at the request of Winston Churchill in a call for specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can inflict terror on the enemy and were generally seen as "elite" soldiers who had to meet relatively high physical and intellectual requirements. The Commandos bravery did much to raise the morale of the British public in the Second World War. The first Royal Marine Commando (40 Commando Royal Marines) came into being on St. Valentine’s Day 1942. Leslie became one of the original members of the 45 Royal Marine Commandos (pronounced four five) on the 1st August 1943, the day it officially came into being at Burley.
A commando unit consisted of an Headquarters which included Signals and Medical sections, five Fighting Troops, each with three officers and 62 other ranks and a Heavy Weapons Troop which normally contained two 3in mortars and two medium machine guns. Therefore the battle strength of a Commando was approximately 400 strong, including all ranks.
The British Commandos caused so much trouble for the Germans that on the 18th October 1942 this infamous edict was issued to senior officers in the German armed forces by a furious Adolf Hitler in response to the Commandos raids which continued to attack and harass his troops and installations across the coastlines of Europe and North Africa during World War II;
"From now on, all men operating against German troops in so-called Commando raids are to be annihilated to the last man...whether they be soldiers in uniform or saboteurs, with or without arms...even if they make obvious their intention of giving themselves up as prisoners, no pardon is on any account to be given" --- Adolf Hilter
TRAINING: In September the unit moved from Burley to billets in Ayr and on the 26th November to the Commando Depot at Achnacarry, near Spean Bridge, Scotland, where Leslie would have completed his 12 weeks Commando Training Course. The training included physical fitness (carrying logs, hand-to-hand fighting, long-distance speed marches etc), survival, orienteering, close quarter combat, silent killing, signalling, amphibious and cliff assault, vehicle operation, weapons (including the enemies) and demolition. The soldiers affectionally referred to Achnacarry as 'Castle Commando'.
One of the most infamous obstacles that every trainee had to take part in was the "death slide". This involved men climbing a forty-foot tree before sliding down a single rope, which was suspended over a torrent river while being shot at. All training was conducted with live ammunition and sadly some recruits were killed.
Les did not escape the training totally unscathed as during one of the many
gruelling hikes into the mountains wearing full battle gear, he fell and broke his ankle which
laid him up for over two weeks in hospital.
Achnacarry separated the men from the boys and those who did not pass the arduous training were sent back to their original units.
After successfully completing his training Leslie was entitled to wear the much-coveted Commando's green beret, the distinctive hallmark of the Commando ethos. After completing the training 45 Commando moved back to Ayr.
On the 2nd January 1944 the unit moved to the Combined Training Centre at Dorling and after two weeks they moved south to billets at Eastbourne for more training which included 'Dig or Die', patrol work, embarkation exercises, landings on Seaford Beach, river crossings in rubber boats, firing range practice at Beachy Head, etc. Although it was not all hard work as the commando units enjoyed organised swimming, athletic and football competitions, plus dances and parties. In fact it was 45 Commando that defeated 3 Commando in the Brigade football final.
On the 26th May 45 Commando left Eastbourne by train at 04.00 hours, bound for Southampton on the last lap but one to war. For almost two weeks they were sealed in the staging camp (popularly known as 'Stalag') and were constantly briefed on maps, models and aerial photographs in preparation for Operation, OVERLORD.
On the 5th June 1944 45 Commando R.M. moved by troop carrying vehicles to Warsash where they embarked in 5 Landing Craft Infantry. Then at 17.00 hours the craft slipped anchor and proceeded up the Solent to form part of the vast armada of craft that would shortly cross the English Channel.
It was to be Leslie's last ever view of England and home.
The crossing was uneventful but security, which up until then had been rigid, was broken as the men were told that at 9.10 hours, the following morning, they would be landing on Queen Red Beach some two miles west of Ouistreham in Normandy.
NORMANDY D DAY LANDINGS: OPERATION OVERLORD The Royal Marine Commandos were some of the most heavily laden troops that made up the first wave of assault.
Five RM Commando Units took part during the D-Day landings; No. 41, 45, 46, 47, and 48 and played a prominent role, manning two thirds of the landing craft.
The Commando units suffered heavily in the landings and overall the D-Day battle cost the Allied armies some ten thousand men, who were either killed, wounded or listed as missing.
The weather at the time was not good with heavy rolling seas and large waves, which caused severe seasickness. In many instances the landing craft were blown up by artillery, or could not reach the shore because of the bad weather conditions so men had to jump over the side and try and swim/wade ashore.
The RM commandos leaving the landing craft (above left) to make their assault on Sword Beach. (Photos by kind permission of the Ministry of Defence UK)
During the landings many men drowned before they had even reached the beaches through exhaustion, being weighed down by their loads, which could weigh anything from 60 to 80 lbs, or their inability to swim. Leslie, as a communications marine, would have had to carry a radio pack as well as his regular gear.
The beaches were also mined and covered with underwater obstacles. Plus heavy artillery, and small arms fire was also very active, killing many man in the sea and on dry land. (See photos opposite and below)
Just some of the obstacles awaiting the Allied soldiers on the beaches at Normandy.
Queen beach (Sword) as seen from above. (Photos by kind permission of the Ministry of Defence UK)
The 45 Commandos, as part of 1 Special Service Brigade, took part in the Sword Beach landing, which consisted of two narrow beaches at La Breche. (Codenamed Queen White and Queen Red) The beaches stretched some 8 km from Ouistreham to Saint Aubin-sur-Mer. The 45 took part in the assault on Queen Red, landing at Ouistreham, a small port. Their assault stared around 9am.
British troops landing on Sword Beach (Queen Red) Normandy during June 6th D Day 1944.
(Photos by kind permission of the Ministry of Defence UK)
Leslie was listed as missing, presumed killed on War Service with 'no known grave'
and that his character on discharge was 'Exemplary'. It is known that many casualties had to
be left on the beach and would have perished, drowned by the returning tide and up until a
few months ago we always thought that had been Leslie's fate. However, since writing this
account my investigations have put me in contact with three surviving 45 commando veterans who
told me that Leslie actually did make it ashore and would have reached Pegasus Bridge and
most likely died on the 7th June around the Merville-Franceville Plage area where the 45 commandos were
involved in heavy fighting to take control of German occupied territory.
Our family is extremely gratefully to these men who have helped to shed a
little light on how and where Leslie died. I am extremely grateful to Captain John Day,
Frank Burton and Bill Hopley (45 Royal Marine Commando veterans) who very able to tell me
more about Leslie's fate. Like Leslie, Frank and Bill were also signallers and Frank was actually
billeted with Leslie during the last few weeks before D-Day and remembers him well.
Leslie had just turned 30 when he died.
SUMMARY: The scroll above (left) was given to Leslie's mother after the war, as was the book (right); 'The Story of
the 45 Royal Marine Commando' which was published privately in 1946 for members of the Unit and their relatives. After having been asked about the availability of the book, which I know is almost impossible to find, I decided to scan it, a copy of which you can purchase and download by clicking here. Alternatively if you prefer to pay by cheque please
email us for details at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Leslie has no grave he is commemorated by name on Panel 92, column 1 of the Plymouth
Naval Memorial. He is also listed on the Roll of Honour (see below) in the above-mentioned book, along with all the other 109 brave 45 commandos who lost their lives during Second World War.
Within a nine-year period his mother, Elizabeth, had lost a husband and two sons. Leslie's death affected Elizabeth greatly and she never recovered from the loss. Fortunately by 1944 the two girls, Ivy and Minnie, were both married and my father, at 23, was old enough to step in and take care of his mother and only remaining brother, Lionel.
Leslie's story is just one amongst many thousands of ordinary British men (and women)
who died on foreign soil, fighting for their country, and our freedom. We owe it to them,
to remember their ultimate sacrifice.
I would be very interested to hear from anyone who knew Leslie.
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
* They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
Laurence Binyon: Soldier and Poet. Born Lancaster. 1869-1943 * The most notably and quoted forth stanza from 'For The Fallen (1914)' which adorns numerous war memorials.
MUSIC OF THE ERA
Before the war, Leslie would save enough during the year so he could go to Blackpool every Good Friday with his bestfriend Bill, and as he could play the organ it became a tradition that before he left the family would gather together and sing whilst he played Easter Parade, a song made popular by Bing Crosby, one of Leslie's favourite singers. (Click on the left button on the music bar below to hear a snippet) You can see one of Bing Crosby's wartime albums below.
Special Note for WindowXP users who have installed Windows Service Pack2: If you can not see the blue music load bars above you will need to alter your browser settings. Several of our webpages make use of ‘Flash’ and in order to hear the music you will need to: 1) Click on the Information Bar in the browser. 2) Click ‘Allow blocked content’
Song snippets. (Including some from World War 2)
Left to right: Vera Lynn, George Formby, Gracie Fields, The Andrew Sisters and Bud Flanagan.
White Cliffs of Dover: Vera Lynn
Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler: Bud Flanagan
Wish me luck as you wave me Goodbye: Gracie Fields
Our Sergeant Major: George Formby
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B: Andrew Sisters