D-Day: Behind each grave is a story

The grave and photograph of Charles Martin Image copyright BBC / John Martin
Image caption Charles Martin was a career soldier who served all over the world before his death in France

At least 2,700 British soldiers, sailors and airmen lost their lives on the first day of the D-Day landings. They lie buried in cemeteries across Normandy. BBC News picked one at random and pieced together what had happened to the man buried there.

Ryes Cemetery lies three miles inland from Le Hamel. On 6 June 1944 the area was part of Gold Beach. Among the 594 graves is that of Maj Charles Martin.

The simple grave marker carved from white Portland stone could not be more appropriate - like him, it came from Dorset.

It shows that he was 27 and killed on 6 June while serving with the Dorset Regiment. He had also won the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

Charles Martin was born in the village of Rampisham on Boxing Day 1916. He was the middle of three children and had a privileged countryside childhood.

His brother John said: "It was just the absolute perfect life for growing up. We had the same interests - riding and shooting. We were very keen riders. We had a little MG, a Morris Eight, and he drove that and we got up to all sorts of nonsense."

After Pangbourne College, Charles attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and became an officer in the Dorset Regiment in 1936.

As a career soldier he spent time on the north-west frontier - now the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

He spent the early part of the war on the island of Malta, while it was under siege by the Germans and Italians.

Image copyright John Martin
Image caption Charles was the middle one of three children and had a privileged countryside childhood
Image copyright John Martin
Image caption Charles was picked to be second-in-command of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment

The allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 was the turning point in Charles Martin's career. He led a company of the Dorsets in a hazardous night-time landing on a beach. Thirteen days later he stormed a German machine gun position single handed. His efforts won him his DSO.

John said: "It was widely felt after it was seen what he'd done that he deserved something even more than his DSO. He should have got the VC because it was the sort of thing for which the VC was given."

The allied invasion of Western Europe was now imminent. By now promoted to Major, Charles Martin would be at the heart of it.

Christopher Jarry, author of The Story of the Dorset Regiment in War and Peace, said: "He was very experienced by the time we got to D-Day. He'd already led the assault on Sicily and he'd also played a part in the assault landing on the toe of Italy so his experience would have been very rare and of course he'd won a reputation by then for being very swift and brave and effective in action."

Charles Martin was picked to be second-in-command of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. The unit, along with Charles' old regiment the Dorsets, would be in the first wave at Gold Beach.

Nine days before D-Day, Maj Martin wrote one of his last letters home, from a camp in the New Forest: "It is incredibly lovely here today. It is very hard to realise that the world is in just about as bloody a mess as it can possibly be. Very often I feel that existence is quite pointless and then I reflect how really interesting life is and what tremendous hope there is for the future."

Image copyright Royal Hampshire Regiment Collection
Image caption Charles Martin was commanding a battalion on the opening day of the allied liberation of Europe

The landing, at 07:30 on 6 June, did not go as planned. Bombing failed to clear German defences. Two or three landing craft exploded on the run in. Others beached on sand bars. Some soldiers, having jumped off them, were then crushed as the craft suddenly became lighter and swept over them. There were not enough British tanks on the beach either.

Withering German machine gun fire and mortar bombs took their toll and the Hampshires began to take heavy casualties. The commanding officer was wounded.

Charles Martin's biggest moment as a soldier had come. He was commanding a battalion on the opening day of the allied liberation of Europe. But his time in charge was all too brief. Minutes after being given his orders and climbing off a landing craft, Charles was killed by a sniper. It is almost certain he did not make it off the beach. However the Hampshires did take all their objectives - at a cost of 180 casualties.

For many years on 6 June, John Martin returned to the church in Rampisham where there is a memorial to his brother. "He died that ye might live" says the inscription. Now aged 94, he finds it too difficult to make the journey from his home in Fowey, Cornwall. His brother is never far from his thoughts though.

"I think about him a tremendous amount because I have a very good photograph of him on my desk and we practically converse. He's there all the time as far as I'm concerned, in my room, in that photograph. I see him every day. I think of him every day. I've certainly missed him… a piece of my life dislodged and taken away."

Image caption John Martin keeps a picture of his brother on his desk so he sees him every day
Image copyright John Martin
Image caption Mr Martin believes his brother should have received the Victoria Cross instead of his DSO

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