This year's Big Battlefield Bike Ride has particular meaning for Tom Newton Dunn who is following the journey of his great-uncle, Major David Brooke MC, 75 years ago. He says, “David was killed in a village north of Caen on D-Day plus 3. Our family never talked about him because it upset my grandmother who never got over the loss of her only sibling.
"Three months ago, I resolved to find out more about Maj David Brooke MC and, I hoped, to pay my final respects. I've done all that, and the thing I still don't understand is that he didn't have to die. David could have got out of the whole ‘show’, as he called it, with a phone call to his uncle who was one of Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower’s deputies."
Then, there was the almost suicidal infantry charge he didn't have to lead in the last hours of his life. An artillery man attached to the Second Battalion, the Royal Ulster Rifles, David's job was near the rear, inside the safety of a Sherman tank. But he insisted on leading the charge, on foot, across 1,100 yards of open ground in full face of the enemy's howitzers and machine-guns.
The action was the second battle of Cambes, a fight on June 9 for a key village on the approach to the city of Caen in which a third of the 600 attackers were killed or wounded. Once the village was captured, the British had to hold it against a barrage from the retreating Germans. It was in this retaliatory barrage that David was killed, decapitated by a mortar round. He had been in the first wave ashore. He had also been at the massacre of Dunkirk in 1940. By June 9, 1944, David had seen enough horror to last a lifetime. So what made him repeatedly volunteer for more?
"I had been standing in La Delivrande war cemetery in the town of Douvres, lost in thought about my family's loss. When I looked up from David's grave, it occurred to me there must be a similar story for every one of the tens of thousands of graves in Normandy's war grave cemeteries.
From the comfort of 21st-century Britain, I am ashamed to find that thought, that sheer volume of sacrifice incomprehensible. Why did they all do it? I don't think my generation can ever really understand, but I believe it is really quite simple. Like the half-million other Britons who never came home from World War Two, David simply believed he was doing his duty.
In a letter to my grandmother shortly after Dunkirk, he wrote about his Military Cross and his battery commander, a Major Selby-Lowndes: ‘Selby said I had to keep on earning it.’ He did keep on earning it. And six feet under the soil of Normandy, he does to this day.”