Today, we fall silent to remember those who have given their lives in conflicts. But in a small village in the Netherlands, families honour the fallen Second World War servicemen who fought to free them in a different way – by dedicating their spare time to tending to their graves. Among their liberators, was a teenager from Sheppey, as Alan Smith reports…
George Victor Willoughby was just 19 when he died.
A private in the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment, he was the son of George Thomas Willoughby and Mavis Willoughby (née Tillett) and lived with his siblings Mavis, Jean and Kenneth at 33 Russell Street, Sheerness.
Aged 14, young George found himself involved as a witness in a court case. He had been sent to deliver a radio to a house, but was intercepted outside by the “purchaser” who said he would take it as he was locked out because his wife was out shopping.
George noticed the key was in the lock and became suspicious so reported it to his manager. The man was sentenced to six months in prison for this and other offences.
However, three years later, George, aged 17, was himself in the police court.
He and another boy aged 16 had broken into a shop and stolen cigarettes and cash valued at £20.
George actually fainted at the hearing and had to be carried out of the courtroom, returning a few minutes later having been revived. The boys went on to plead guilty to this and eight other offences and were sentenced to a young offenders institution for three years.
It may have been this that prompted George to enlist, as it was a regular practice at the time for boys sentenced to Borstal to be able to choose to join the Armed Services instead.
So it was that on D-Day – June 6, 1944, George Willoughby found himself landing on Sword Beach with other members of the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment.
They attacked and took the Hillman Fortress that day and afterward fought their way across France and Belgium, including severe battles at Chateau de la Londe and at Tinchebrai, before they arrived in the Netherlands, reaching Moelenhoek just below Nijmegen by October 1.
Swinging south the battalion approached occupied Overloon from the north.
Their aim, known as Operation Aintree, was to liberate the village. On October 12, the first day of the battle, they had taken up a position close by, though 10 men were killed and 57 wounded in the process.
During the night they were subjected to heavy shell and mortar fire.
When fighting continued the next day, George was one of a further five soldiers killed, while another 20 were injured.
Overloon was eventually liberated but at a large cost in British lives, and not until the village had been all but destroyed by artillery fire.
An In Memoriam message placed in the Sheerness Times Guardian a year after he fell, in October 1945, said: “In loving memory of George Victor Willoughby, reported killed in action on October 13, 1944, near Nyjmegen. Aged 19 years. Although one year has passed since we heard from you, we often speak of you and in silence remember always – Mum, Dad, Mavis, Jean and Ken. ‘Till we all meet again.”
His grave now lies in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Overloon, along with the 280 other Allied servicemen who gave their lives in the battle.
Each is carefully tended to by grateful Dutch villagers – but they want to know more about their liberators.
In 2020, the Overloon War Chronicles Foundation was set up by locals, with the aim of ensuring that the sacrifice made by George and the other soldiers was never forgotten.
They have established an adopt-a-grave scheme, whereby local families can take on the responsibility for the grave of a specific serviceman, visiting it on the anniversary of the death and the birthday of the deceased, if known, to lay flowers.
The grave of Roland Peen, a soldier from Chart Sutton near Maidstone, is being visited in this way.
Such occasions are used to remind children of the debt they owe.
The foundation is also compiling a chronicle giving the back-story of the servicemen. They are particularly seeking to source a photograph of each of the 281 men.
To date, they have no photo of George Willoughby, and would love to hear from any surviving relatives.
While George’s father, George Thomas Willoughby, died in the spring of 1980, and his mother, Mavis, in 1982, nothing is known of his siblings and their children.
Elaine Gathercole is a researcher for a local history group in North Yorkshire, and has been acting on behalf of the foundation in England, after they got in touch with her about a veteran they believed was from her village.
She said: “I was amazed that the people of the Netherlands are so grateful for us helping to liberate their country that they wish to find out about the men buried there.
“They place photos on their graves three times a year on key dates: May 4 – their liberation day, October 14 to commemorate the Battle of Overloon itself, and on Christmas Eve.”
“And they publish the photos and biographies on their website.
“Often quite young people – who can have no personal memory of the war – volunteer to adopt a grave.”
“It is even more amazing that this is happening in Overloon.
“After the American forces first tried to clear the enemy from Overloon, but failed in the face of too much resistance, the British realised they would need to use heavy artillery.
“As a result, the village was left with hardly a house left standing. Their church was in ruins, the people had to evacuate their homes and had little to return to after the war, yet the village was still grateful for being liberated and still remember the men who gave their lives to free them.”
Anyone who can help with research into Private George Willoughby can contact Mrs Gathercole by email on email@example.com
To find out more about the Overloon War Chronicles Foundation, click here.
Mrs Gathercole said: “My grandfather served in the Navy in the First World War, my father during the Second. I am here because they survived.
“These men at Overloon didn’t and their families suffered as a consequence – children with fathers they never saw, wives left with young families to look after – families where more than one son was killed – each story is unique.”