Photo Credit:
Roy Rogers in 1942 shortly before joining the Royal Armored (tank) Corps.

At first the returned exiles were conscripted for the Pioneer Corps, a non-combatant brigade that contributed to the war effort by building roads, clearing fields for airstrips and engaging in sentry and firefighting duties. Britain eventually opened its combatant units to these alien refugees provided they took a formal oath of allegiance. In total, over 10,000 German- and Austrian-born Jews were to don British uniforms, laughingly dubbing themselves the King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens. Rogers signed up for the Royal Armored (tank) Corps along with 215 other Dunera Boys.

He was drafted into the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, a regiment that had fought heroically in Britain’s past wars and was now destined for another noble campaign: the push into Nazi-controlled France. With his new regiment Rogers trained on the 40-ton Cromwell tank, a highly maneuverable vehicle that could reach speeds of 45 mph and bristled with a 77 mm cannon, two machine guns and a hydraulically powered turret. It normally carried a five-man crew – commander, driver, co-driver, gunner, radioman – and each man was cross-trained in all functions. In the Hampshire countryside in central England, Rogers and his battalion mastered skills of tank combat and maintenance, preparing for the next stage of the Allies’ war effort.

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In mid-May of 1944, the battalion set about waterproofing the tank, completely sealing the undercarriage. The vehicle was loaded onto a truck and transported to the village of Gosport on the south English coast. Here, tens of thousands of troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers had been amassed for loading onto the amphibious landing crafts that lined the nearby beaches.

The D-day invasion of Normandy, code-named Operation Overlord, began on June 6, 1944, but Rogers landed on “D-day + 7” – June 13. He and his crew were perched atop the tank as they crossed the Channel. They could hear gunfire and explosions but encountered no problem as they rolled onto the beach and regrouped with other tanks to begin their move inland.

The Hussars were at the spearhead of the Allied invasion, and over the ensuing weeks Rogers served as a gunner as his tank engaged in an exhausting push over Normandy’s hedgerows, orchards and scattered villages. Nazi Panzer tanks and infantry troops lay hidden in the countryside and periodically the Hussars’ advance was interrupted by terrifying clashes with the enemy. In one such firefight, near the village of Briquessard, four Hussars died and six others were unaccounted for and presumed dead. Fifty German soldiers were killed.

Amid the raging battle of Briquessard, the exhausted tank men sought to relax and take breaks in as normal a way as possible. One such break is immortalized in a photo featured on the cover of the book From Dachau to D-Day, which recounts the experiences of one of Rogers’s comrades in the Hussars, Willy Field.

In the photo, a refreshed and groomed Rogers is standing with a towel draped about his neck beside his dust-covered fellow comrades. When the book was published five years ago, he laughingly told his son the picture was snapped after a tea break near Briquessard. As they boiled water for tea, Rogers, fastidious about his personal hygiene, had dipped his towel into the pot so that he could clean himself of any accumulated grime. He was scolded for dirtying the tea water – but as his smiling face shows, he was unrepentant.

Nine weeks after Rogers landed in Normandy his tank was ambushed and disabled by enemy shellfire. Rogers and his comrades were immobilized inside as Germans outside shouted for their surrender. As the tank commander emerged from the turret there was a crack of gunfire. When Rogers and the rest of the crew climbed out they saw that the commander had been summarily shot.

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Ed Lion is a former reporter for United Press International now living in the Poconos.