Friday, February 24, 2006

Gunner Burnard and the Brigadier

Photo shows: Geoff Burnard ringed with Larry above to the right

I first met Geoff in March 1943 at Congleton in Cheshire.

I had been posted to his unit, the 228 Signal Training Rgt, to join a draft of Driver/Wireless Operators about to be sent to North Africa as re-inforcements to the British First Army.

Geoff stood out like a sore thumb, not because he was noisy or flashy, the reverse in fact, he was overly quiet and perhaps too well spoken for your average ‘squaddie’.

He also seemed much older than the rest of us, I would have guessed in his 30’ s as opposed to the early 20’s of his peers, it should have occurred to me then that he was probably a volunteer.

Sixty years later and trying to remember his accent, the nearest I can get to it is that it was like Brian Sewell’s, the renowned art critic. The beautifully enunciated vowel tones were certainly there and as an ex Londoner with a slight cockney accent myself, I was suitably impressed. Rumour had it that Geoff was a former bank manager and, somehow he never seemed at home in his uniform which, I noticed, he always kept immaculately pressed.

After our spell in North Africa and Sicily I next remember meeting up with Geoff again as our unit assembled for the forthcoming battle of Cassino. We were in this nameless field and had been watching with some interest a procession of French North African Gouams in their colourful uniforms, trudging along the nearby road with their heavily laden mules.

Suddenly , with a shriek of brakes, a Jeep pulled up and out popped a red-tabbed Brigadier. After checking our Div and ‘Tac’ sign by the roadside to make sure he had come to the right place he strode into our camp.

There was much saluting from all ranks, a flurry of activity from the BSM and an abortive attempt to call out the guard but the Brigadier insisted that he wanted no fuss.
He was, he said, only there on a personal matter and could someone find him Gunner Burnard ?

In the meantime our O/C, Major Mouland was peeping furtively from his tent-flap, obviously not wanting to be involved if it wasn’t an official visit and yet presumably slightly peed off that the Brigadier hadn’t actually asked to meet with him.

With much interest and amusement from all the onlookers, Geoff was warmly greeted and back-slapped by the Brigadier who, we later learned, was his brother-in-law !

I can’t remember any further sightings of Geoff and was to hear no more of him until April the 14th when we received the shocking news that whilst carrying out his normal duties as a wireless op he had been killed by a blast from a German mortar.

There is a footnote to this little story.
In 2005 the Heroes Return scheme reminded me that I had never been back to Cassino and I so I decided to visit the Commonwealth cemetery and pay my respects to the fallen.

I looked up the details of Geoff’s burial site on the CWGC website and discovered for the first time that his name was Reginald Geoffrey Burnard, he was aged 42, married and came from Somerset.

I’ve no doubt that when I visit the Cemetery I will find other men of the 49th LAA Rgt who fell at Cassino but it is Geoff that I will remember the most because he was the first and I believe the only Driver/Op of our group to be killed at Cassino and his death reminded us only too well that we all lived on borrowed time.

No comments: