Eye war veteran tracks down grandchildren of his best friend decades after war ends
A celebrated Suffolk veteran of the Second World War had some special company alongside him when he laid a wreath in memory of one of his former comrades on Sunday.
Sonya Bailey and Kevin Wilkes joined 96-year-old Alan King at the National Memorial Arboretum site in Staffordshire to remember Louis Wilkes, who fought alongside Mr King in the D-Day landings that swung the conflict in favour of the Allies.
Having joined the war at the age of 18 in 1943, Mr King was assigned to the East Riding Yeomanry as a wireless operator before becoming part of a tank crew headed by Tank Commander Corporal Louis Wilkes, a veteran of the evacuation of St Valery-en-Caux in 1940.
“The crew were all strangers to each other at first but, with Louis in the lead, we became a band of brothers,” said Mr King, from Eye.
“Nerves got to us all as we approached Sword Beach early on D-Day morning but, with a pat on the back and an arm around our shoulders, Louis was a great support and example to the young crew.
“It was in the battle of Charnwood on July 6, 1944, when Louis climbed the turret to use the mounted machine gun, that he took a bullet to his head. He fell into the tank, and into my arms. He had looked after me on the landings and I just wanted to look after him, but, sadly, my efforts were in vain.
“We raced the tank back to the medical centre, but Louis could not be revived, leaving a wife, two young children and a devastated tank crew.
“I had to bury my best friend. It was so hard to leave him in the ground.”
In the years that followed, Mr King and his family attempted to track down the family of Commander Wilkes, but it was purely by chance that an annual trip to Normandy to lay a wreath at his friend’s grave would give rise to such an opportunity – some 70 years later.
“By chance, my wreath was seen by Kevin Wilkes and his wife, Lynn, who had been searching for his grandfather’s grave,” said Mr King, president of the Stradbroke and District branch of the Royal British Legion.
“He was intrigued to learn who had placed it there. Through his persistence, the power of the internet, and my friend, battlefield guide Ben Mayne, we were able to meet just four years ago.
“It was initially a shock to me to see just how much Sonya and Kevin looked like my good friend Louis.
“My best friend’s grandchildren had absolutely no knowledge, details, or stories of their grandfather’s service until we met.
“Last year, I met one of Kevin’s sisters, Sonya, who came to stay for the weekend with her husband, Steve. Sonya was able to fill many gaps in her family knowledge, and I was able to tell my stories of Louis.”
On Sunday, Mr King and his daughter, Joyce Cooper, were joined by the four family members and Mr Mayne at the arboretum.
“It was an incredibly special occasion for me when Sonya and Kevin joined me in laying a wreath,” added Mr King. “We watched the opening of the new memorial at Ver Ser Mere, Normandy, on a big screen, where their grandfather – my best friend Louis Wilkes – has his name inscribed.”