Southland soldier landed on D-Day

THE EVIDENCE: Invercargill man Jonathan Tucker with his research intontebelieves he has found proof that New Zealander James Hargest landed on Gold Beach, Normandy.
THE EVIDENCE: Invercargill man Jonathan Tucker with his research intontebelieves he has found proof that New Zealander James Hargest landed on Gold Beach, Normandy.

"I accompanied him."

Three simple words that could rewrite New Zealand history.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the day when the Allies invaded German-occupied France during World War II. The landings involved 130,000 soldiers heading for the Normandy coast by boat, thousands more by plane.

But according to reports, historians and the internet, no New Zealanders set foot on Normandy shores on D-Day.

A Ministry for Culture and Heritage history website says, "no New Zealand ground forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, but New Zealanders like Jack Ingham were on the ships and planes that carried troops to France on 6 June - D-Day - and in the months that followed".

One Invercargill man disputes that and has the evidence to prove it.

James Hargest College teacher and playwright Jonathan Tucker has been fascinated by Southland Brigadier James Hargest's life for decades and even wrote a play about him.

The Mandeville farmer served in both World War I and World War II.

"I am just immensely proud that he went back to war and he was a Southlander," Tucker said.

But the more Tucker delved into Hargest's life, the more he found out, including the fact the farmer wrote in his diary that he did indeed reach the shores of Normandy on D-Day, despite what historians say.

"This is what spurred me on, the fact that I heard it on television and the radio that there was no one who landed on the shores of Normandy."

Tucker sourced Hargest's diary from the public records after it was brought back to New Zealand by a fellow soldier and found later by Major General Sir Howard Kippenberger.

"He was a copious diarist."

But in the midst of the pages are the words that have got Tucker fizzing.

Hargest describes in his diary being aboard HMS Bulolo, approaching the shores of Normandy and his general officer commanding, Major General Douglas Alexander Graham of the British 50th Division, ordering the two reserve brigades ashore to Gold Beach.

"At the same time he left Bulolo and made towards shore by motorlaunch ... which negotiated the obstacles and landed him at H+5 [five hours after D-Day began] hrs."

But the words that follow are the ones that make all the difference.

"I accompanied him."

Ministry of Culture and Heritage historian David Green said he was pleased to hear the information had come to light.

"If he says in his diary that he did, there's a fair chance. A lot of what we normally do is look at published stories and put together an agreed story."

However, the ministry was always happy to make corrections if new information surfaced, he said.

Professor of war studies Glyn Harper, of Massey University, said more than 10,000 New Zealanders were involved in D-Day but until now, no one had been recorded as landing on the beaches.

However, he did not doubt that Hargest was capable of it.

"Knowing Hargest, it could be quite likely that he did."

But it was likely Hargest was not there as a front-line soldier but in an observer role, he said.

"It was probably something he has done off his own bat."

Hargest's grandson, Jim Hargest, said there had never been any mention within the family of the brigadier reaching the shores on D-Day, but Tucker knew more about his grandfather's war efforts than him, he said.

"There's always been a little bit of conjecture about it."

But Jim Hargest said he had confidence in what Tucker was saying and believed his evidence would be true.

He was proud to hear of his grandfather's endeavours on D-Day, he said.

His grandfather was killed in Normandy on August 12, 1944.

Tucker said he understood some people did not care if New Zealanders landed in Normandy, but thought it was important that Hargest's efforts on that bloody day were acknowledged in New Zealand's records.

The Southland Times