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Henry 'Eric' Harden from Gravesend remember for heroic role in D-Day landings

By Chris Hunter

Earlier this month the country came together to mark 75 years since the Normandy Landings on D-Day - the start of the Allied invasion of Northern France and the beginning of the end of Hitler's Nazis. Among those that came ashore that day was Henry 'Eric' Harden, from Northfleet, whose portrait can be seen hanging in Gravesham Council's civic centre, and whose name can be seen on plaques in his home town of Northfleet and Brachterbeek in the Netherlands as Chris Hunter reports...

If you find yourself in the Netherlands over the summer it's worth taking a detour to Brachterbeek near Maastricht.

It might not seem much at first glance, but take a stroll along the road into the equally sleepy little town of Linne and you'll come to small bridge with a plaque bearing the name of Henry 'Eric' Harden - a butcher from Northfleet who became an army medic with No. 45 Commando Royal Marines and went on to win his country’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross.

Eric Harden was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his 'superb devotion' and 'courage'
Eric Harden was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his 'superb devotion' and 'courage'

Earlier this month we remembered the war heroes who embarked on the largest seaborne invasion in history, on June 6 1944, when the Allied troops came ashore under heavy German fire as they began a last-ditch push to liberate Europe from the grip of the Nazis.

And while that date is rightly remembered, it marked just the beginning of months of intense fighting as the Allies pushed the Nazis back into Germany - through small towns and country lanes, fields and woodlands, taking back the land, inch by inch through hour after hour of bitter fighting.

The beaches of Northern France stick in the collective memory, but it was through insignificant towns like Brachterbeek and Linne, and the flat anonymous land around them, that the heroes of D-Day walked, crawled, sprinted, and sometimes fell, on the long hard journey to victory.

And among them was Eric. Born on February 23, 1912, in a terrace house in Factory Road, Northfleet - where another plaque can be seen there bearing his name - he went to Lawn Road School and grew up a keen violinist and sportsman, excelling at tennis, football and swimming.

He began courting Maud Pullen, from Crayford, and eventually married her - and much of his life is recorded in the letters he wrote to her; letters which can now be found in the Imperial War Museum.

The bridge near Brachterbeek marks where Henry 'Eric' Harden was killed
The bridge near Brachterbeek marks where Henry 'Eric' Harden was killed

They tell tales of riding to Allhallows and Sheppey on a handmade two-seater bike, of growing roses in their garden, saving £50 to put down a deposit on a new house in Colyer Road, Northfleet.

They include rows they had after he struck up a platonic friendship with a married woman near his barracks, the making up, and discussions about having a family - all of which can be found collated in a book Commando Medic: Doc Harden VC, by Stephen Snelling, published by The History Press.

His last letter was written on January 19, 1945, in which Eric tells how his troop commander had been killed hours after having his photograph taken.

“The best always go like that don’t they....?” he wrote.

Four days later, on the morning of January 23, 1945, No. 45 Commando Royal Marines were given the order to advance towards Brachterstatie, a road just south of Brachterbeek, but when they were half way they were shot at with machine guns, records the website www.warcemeteries

A portrait of Lane Cpl Henry 'Eric' Harden who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross
A portrait of Lane Cpl Henry 'Eric' Harden who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross

The men took cover behind some houses, but a machine gun at the Linner Mill - which you can see from the bridge to this day - wounded some of the men in an open field.

Harden ran towards them from the headquarters at Stationsweg 7, reached the wounded and took care of them one by one.

He then went to marine Wheeler and lifted him on his shoulder and carried him to the headquarters, where he was told he shouldn’t go back to the other wounded and should wait for support of tanks and a smokescreen.

But Harden said the wounded would die in the freezing cold and he went out again with a stretcher and two other men, marines Haville and Mason.

They reached marine Wales, got him on the stretcher and brought him to safety, but Harden was slightly wounded by shrapnel on the way back.

A plaque in honour of Eric Harden in Factory Road, Northfleet
A plaque in honour of Eric Harden in Factory Road, Northfleet

After a short rest the three men went outside again to get Lieutenant Corey, who they put on a stretcher before running back to the headquarters.

But about 40 metres away from the headquarters Corey heard a sound, which he later described as "a click".

Harden fell to the ground - shot in the head - and both Haville and Mason stumbled, dropping Corye next to Harden’s motionless body.

Harden had been killed instantly, and Haville and Mason got up and brought Corey back to the headquarters.

When darkness fell Harden’s body was recovered from the field.

A portrait of Eric Harden in Gravesham council civic centre
A portrait of Eric Harden in Gravesham council civic centre

He left behind his wife Maud and their two children, Bobby and Julie.

For his actions Harden was awarded a Victoria Cross.

Harden was buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in Nederweet, Limburg, Netherlands.

For stories about our armed forces click here

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