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Gibraltarians at D-Day and the Battle of Normandy

By Lt Col (retd) Francis Brancato, Chairman of the Gibraltar Branch of the Royal British Legion

Today we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the D Day landings and the subsequent Battle of Normandy. The D-Day landings of 6 June 1944 (codenamed Operation Neptune) were the largest seaborne invasion in history. Along with the associated airborne operations, they marked the beginning of the liberation of France and Western Europe.

On the eve of the invasion, General Eisenhower, Commander of the Supreme Allied Expeditionary Force, exhorted his troops: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you”

In the early hours of D-Day, an assault force of more than 156,000 troops, in a 6,900-vessel armada, supported by 11,500 aircraft, came ashore on five beaches across a 50-mile stretch of Normandy coast. By the end of D-Day there had been 10,000 allied casualties. Yet this was only the beginning.

The ensuing Battle of Normandy (Operation Overlord) was to last into August and cost tens of thousands of lives as it defeated and repulsed the occupying German forces eastwards.

Taking part in this historic and decisive engagement were a number of brave and determined Gibraltarians. Amongst the first ones ashore was Lieutenant John Patron of 45 Commando, Royal Marines who landed at Sword Beach as part of the 1st Special Service Brigade. In the original landing plan, 45 Commando's task was to capture a heavily defended gun battery at Merville and then to advance and link up with the paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division who had captured the bridges over the Caen Canal.


Men of 45 Royal Marine Commando, passing through Colleville-sur-Orne, on their way to relieve forces at Pegasus Bridge.
Normandy, France.
(IWM B 5067 colourised by @colour_history)

After the landings, John and his troop were involved in continuous fighting for over 65 days as the Allies attempted to capture Caen and then break out through the difficult bocage terrain in Normandy. Later he took part in the Crossing of the Rhine and the capture of key bridges as the Allies took the war into Germany itself.
After the war, John became a Benedictine monk but after some time, left the Order and qualified as a lawyer joining the Gibraltar Bar.


Lt John Patron, 45 Commando RM

Albert Sanchez had always wanted to join the Navy but feeling frustrated that the RN Dockyard, where he worked as a carpenter, refused to release him from his civilian employment, he decided to join the Army instead.

In December 1939, Bert (as he was affectionately known) joined the Royal Engineers and after doing his basic training in Gibraltar was posted to the UK and West Africa. In 1942, Bert was sent to Scotland, to a unit that was developing and building the Mulberry docks to be used on the D-Day landings.

So it was that on D Day itself, Bert found himself landing at Juno Beach as part of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. The Canadians met stiff resistance from the enemy, suffering many casualties. Bert was pinned down on the beach and it was some time before he was able to move off. Later he was tasked to cut down the American parachutists that had been killed as they came down at St Mere-Eglise, and whose bodies were still hanging on the rooftops and church steeples.


Mulberry harbour in Normandy

Bert served for the duration of the war and enjoyed a full career in the Army, serving in Korea and reaching the rank of Sergeant.
On discharge he joined the Housing Department of the Gibraltar Government as a Foreman of Works and was awarded the BEM. In 1966, Bert finally became a sailor as he joined HMS Calpe, the local Royal Naval Reserve unit in Gibraltar where he served for 15 years, rising to the rank of Chief Petty Officer.


Sgt Albert Sanchez, RE

The Vaughan family had a strong connection to the sea, and at the outbreak of the war brothers Bernard and Joseph (Pepe) both joined the Royal Navy. At just 19, Bernard was the youngest sailor serving aboard HMS Albury, a Hunt-class minesweeper of the Aberdare sub-class assigned to the 4th Flotilla Group tasked with sweeping the path ahead of D-Day and in support of the US forces landing at Omaha and Utah beaches. The ship was the first to return to England laden with the dead and wounded from the landings.


HMS Albury

After D Day, Bernard served in the North Sea, the North Atlantic and in the Mediterranean onboard the frigate HMS Cardigan Bay.
Demobbed in 1947, he returned to Gibraltar where he worked in the Civil Service and later qualified as a lawyer opening up his own legal practice.


Bernard Vaughan (2nd from left) and shipmates

The invasion of Normandy started just after midnight 6 June 1944 with UK and US airborne units jumping behind the German lines with the task of securing key objectives. Amongst the first ones to do so was Lewis Stagnetto who was serving with 317 (Airborne) Field Security Section of the 6th Airborne Division. His task was to coordinate the activities of the local French Maquis fighters as well as SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents in the area.


Lewis Stagnetto - Intelligence Corps attached 6th Airborne Division

Lewis had enlisted in 1942 whilst only 18 in Glasgow where he was studying medicine. Initially serving with the Highland Light Infantry, given his proficiency with languages which made him especially suitable for intelligence duties, he was transferred to the Intelligence Corps.

After the Normandy campaign, Stagnetto remained with the unit as it fought its way into Holland and later crossed into Germany. It was as they were advancing into Germany that Lewis and his detachment, discovered the Concentration Camp at Bergen-Belsen and took the first pictures of the site, depicting the worst of the Nazi atrocities.

After the war, Lewis returned to Gibraltar and joined the family business of Lewis Stagnetto Ltd. He was commissioned into the then Gibraltar Regiment and became a Company Commander attaining the rank of Major.

Amongst his prized possessions were a Nazi officer’s ceremonial dagger and a complete parachute canopy which he kept hanging from his living room.

3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery had landed at Arromanches on 7 June as part of 7th Armoured Division (the famous “Desert Rats”) and by the 9 June were already involved in providing fire support as the Allies tried to break out from the area around Bayeux. It was into this cauldron that young James Vinales was thrown into as a gun layer on the 25-pounder field gun. In August, his unit was in direct support of the attack of two Canadian divisions in the break out through the Falaise Gap later that summer.


James Vinales – 3 RHA

After the breakout from Normandy, James and his unit took part in Operation Market Garden, supporting the US 101st Airborne Division, and later the Crossing of the Rhine. They were poised to support the assault on Hamburg when the war in Europe ended in May 1945.


James Vinales (2nd from left) with his 25-pdr gun crew somewhere in Germany

After the war, James remained in the Army and was posted to Burma and then onto India, where he was promoted to Sergeant and instructor at the School of Artillery at Deolali. He returned to Gibraltar to serve with 28 Coast Regiment, RA, but asked to be discharged and joined the then City Council, with whom he served for 33 years and was awarded a BEM.

Joseph Robba had been evacuated to the UK with the majority of other Gibraltarians and it was there that he enlisted in the Pioneer Corps in August 1941. Posted to No.1 Spanish Company, made up mainly from battle hardened Republican veterans of the Spanish Civil War, they had been employed in a wide variety of tasks such as camp construction and shoring up defences throughout the UK.

Joseph deployed to Normandy in August 1944 with the unit now tasked with clearing and improving the lines of communications – both road and rail.


Pioneers repairing the Caen Railway August 1944

Later the unit continued in the role of assisting the advance into Belgium and during the Battle of the Ardennes were temporarily under US command and poised to enter into combat itself. They then remained in Germany for some four months after the war had ended, clearing up bombed out sites and restoring communications.

Joseph was released from service in March 1946 and returned to live in Gibraltar.

Peter Brancato had enlisted in April 1941 in New York, where he lived after emigrating from Gibraltar in 1929 with the rest of his family (his father was my grandfather’s brother).

After initial training in the US, he was shipped out to the UK as part of the 3rd US Army in 1943 in preparation for the invasion of Europe. Pete, by then a Sergeant, was a commander of a Sherman tank in one of General Patton’s armoured divisions. Landing in July 1944, he participated in Operation Cobra, breaking out of Normandy as Patton slashed through France and enveloped the German Army in the Falaise pocket.

He fought in the Ardennes campaign and later crossed into Germany where he was injured and sent back to the States to recuperate in April 1945.

Pete and his two elder brothers, Joe and Frank, all voluntarily enlisted in the US Army for the duration of the war. They did so as British Citizens as they were not yet citizens of the US. After the war, he and his siblings (including four sisters) continued to live and prosper in the Greater New York area.

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