D-Day To Bremen: A Huddersfield Book Launch Changing The Narrative

A remarkable history giving voice to spectacular men
Colin Petch
May 31, 2024

Dr Tracy Craggs is Head of Collections at Holocaust Centre North - the globally important West Yorkshire-based museum, archive, visitor centre and charity - located within the University of Huddersfield.

Aside from the crucial and sensitive work of her inspiring ‘day job’, Dr Craggs is also an accomplished military historian and her work capturing the testimonies of the officers and men from several Yorkshire Regiments, has quite-rightly led to her being adopted as ‘one of their own’ by the former soldiers and families of both The East Yorkshire Regiment and The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (West Riding).

On Sunday 2 June, as we approach the eightieth anniversary of the Allied Forces unparalleled amphibious operation that set in train the liberation of Europe, a very special free event takes place at Holocaust Centre North (HCN), as Dr Craggs unveils her new book D-Day to Bremenand talks about the experiences of some of the troops involved.

D-Day to Bremen represents the fulfilment of a promise made by the academic and historian to the men of 2nd Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment - to tell the story of their arrival amidst the chaos and carnage of ‘Sword Beach’ on 6 June 1944 - and their subsequent fight through mainland Europe, until the Second World War (in this theatre) ended in May 1945.

Tracy Craggs initially joined the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association seventeen years ago: “We had a lot of members in those days, mostly first-generation survivors and I worked with them on a variety of projects.

“In 2015 an idea started to gain momentum that testimony and artefacts from this community needed to be preserved and protected. I started working closely with the survivors [in a number of ways] who were ageing and might be struggling with certain everyday aspects of life. I would work with them individually - perhaps taking them shopping, or out for lunch, or to get their nails done. That was only a couple of days a week, but in the meantime I was always collecting material.”

Many of the First Generation survivors, together with their children were anxious that a resource be established to protect and safeguard families precious artefacts for the future. That became Dr Craggs’ area of responsibility and the results can now be viewed by members of the public at Huddersfield. 

“I’m Head of Collections for the charity and I'm on the road a lot. I'm out with the best job in the world: sitting with people looking at their material, looking at their photographs, interviewing them about their family history, and then ensuring that their possessions are going to be looked after and treasured for generations to come. 

“It's a complete joy. And many of those relationships have already been seventeen years in the making. We often digitise the collection so that families can retain scans, or we [HCN] have scans and the family holds on to original artefacts. It’s a long process and it's a joy that they all become friends of Holocaust Centre North, because we're not a big organisation and everyone is very important.”

Mag North magazine will definitely revisit Dr Craggs painstaking, hugely humbling - and no-doubt sometimes heart-wrenching work with the collections at HCN, but for now the connection between the liberation of Europe in 1945 - and the horrendous suffering of Jews and other groups at the hands of the Nazis is obvious. 

Burghead Bay, Where The 2nd Bn Trained For D-Day
Burghead Bay, Where The 2nd Bn Trained For D-Day

There is clearly a long-standing interest in military history - how did that first manifest itself?

“I started about 25 years ago, almost by accident. A good friend asked me to interview his dad, who was a D-Day veteran. Although his dad would speak [a certain amount] about his experiences, my friend felt that he would talk more openly to someone who wasn't his relative. I went and had half-a-dozen sessions at this man's home and then he sent me to another friend. 

“Then came yet another friend - and they welcomed me into their Veterans Group as an Honorary Member of the 2nd Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment. They were Wonderful. They welcomed me in. They fed me. I've met their families and I went along to their annual reunions in Bridlington and their services at Beverley Minster. I really was really welcomed wholeheartedly. 

“So originally when I got to know them a bit, I started to do a PhD looking at whether or not the unit had been successful in capturing its objectives on D-Day, because there was some conjecture about the subject. I promised I'd write them a book, but unfortunately (as it does) life got in the way. As time went on, I was really concerned that these cassette tapes [containing veteran’s stories] had just been sitting in a box - and could be lost - so finally, because they deserve a book (and it's for their relatives now, really) and because as a battalion and a regiment they were always overlooked in spite of being the only regiment to field 2 battalions [in the first wave on D Day] as initial assault troops. So that was an enormous honour. (The 5th battalion landed on ‘Gold’ Beach.)

Members Of The Veterans Group Outside Beverley Minster
Members Of The Veterans Group Outside Beverley Minster

“I was hopeful that my interviews might place their experiences on record - to put their stories into the public domain where they belong.” 

Proceeds from sales of ‘D-Day to Bremen’ will head directly to the Yorkshire Regiment Association, of which there is still a particularly active Hull and East Yorkshire branch.

But there's much more to Sunday’s event than a book launch: As discussed, the 2nd Battalion’s action on Sword Beach formed the basis of Dr Craggs PhD. 

“That was my platform to really argue their case, because secondary literature has portrayed them as digging-in on the beach and not heading inland - and therefore taking heavy casualties.

“Even in Cornelius Ryan's famous book,’The Longest Day’ the image of 2 East Yorks was just terrible for them actually - and I thought; ‘well, is this true or not’? 

Many of the interviewees were not aware how their June 6th efforts had been portrayed, but Dr Craggs' painstaking piecing together of events confirmed the battalion’s fortitude and efforts.

“It was understandable why, amongst all the confusion, carnage, noise - with everything that was going on, that elements of No.4 Commando [of which 2 East Yorks was a part] might have thought that they weren't doing what they've been told to do, but they actually were. I just felt I was putting the record straight. But really the book is their opportunity to tell their own stories. In their own words. I haven't changed anything. I've just transcribed them and linked them together. So it's their story.”

2 East Yorks landed approximately 480 men on Sword Beach in the initial assault. Of those, the first day in France left 65 dead and a further 141 wounded. 

Dr Craggs doctoral thesis was titled: An Unspectacular War? Reconstructing the History of the 2nd Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment during the Second World War’ but their bravery and contribution not only to the Normandy Landings, but throughout the following year was anything but ‘unspectacular’.

“Yes, it's far from unspectacular. They were a solid County Regiment, in fact, throughout the war they did as every other County Regiment did: Whatever was asked of them and by taking in hundreds and hundreds of reinforcements - they kept plodding through.” 

But the story for 2 East Yorks doesn't end in Bremen:

“The ones that weren’t wounded at that point (and there were still a handful of D-Day survivors among them) were advised they would be going to take part in the invasion of Japan. They all feared that greatly. They told me in their interviews that they felt that with Japan as their next destination, they thought they wouldn't make it home.”

But as we know, Oppenheimer’s Atom Bomb intervened - and thankfully the prospect of a vicious campaign in Japan was averted.

Instead, in what might be viewed as a cruel twist-of-fate, the battalion was subsequently deployed to Palestine, where their role was to prevent the same displaced Jewish survivors they had liberated only weeks earlier in Europe - coming ashore from the increasing numbers of refugee ships heading away from the camps and conflict, to the Eastern Mediterranean - and a new life.

While Western geo-politics and foreign policy was every bit as demented in 1945 as it is today, the men of 2 East Yorks were acutely aware of the plight of European Jewry - and that their Palestine tasking appeared to be at odds with the sacrifices they had made since 1939.

“The soldiers started to be replaced in 1946 and began coming home - and everyone in the battalion demobbed by 1947.

“And so they all came home to the sorts of jobs that they've left: HGV drivers, working in the mills, in breweries, driving buses - again the jobs that kept the country running - and they tried to settle back into civilian life. 

“It was very hard for a number of them who were surprisingly honest about the troubles they'd had trying to fit into a civilian world that had moved on. PTSD wasn’t understood as it is now, so they weren't really given the understanding and support that is available today. But in those days they would just get on with it basically. And some of them found that horrifically hard.” 

Sunday’s unique and important event is only an hour long, but will not only give those attending the opportunity to hear Dr Craggs read extracts from her new book, but also take part in a conversation more widely about the role of 2nd Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment in WW2 - together with the chance to explore the HCN exhibition space.

Dr Craggs: “What’s really important is that I want visitors to come and see our artefacts and to listen to something about D-Day - and they might realise what those D-Day veterans were fighting for.”

At Mag North we are consistently drawn to the efforts of the ‘underdog’ - and for a body of unspeakably brave young men to leave homes and loved-ones to fight tyranny - as the men of 2 East Yorks did - and then be categorised ‘Unspectacular’, is a travesty that thankfully Dr Tracy Craggs has corrected with her tribute to those same men who are no longer able to speak for themselves.


Header Image: RSM Palmer, Lt Robertson, Capt Crauford, Capt McGregor and Maj Bamford from 2nd Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment