Victoria Park event set to mark 80th anniversary of D-Day, Holy Roller’s role

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Members of London’s 1st Hussars regiment and others will gather Sunday at Victoria Park’s Holy Roller – a restored Sherman tank that landed on the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944 – to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day operations.

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Members of London’s 1st Hussars regiment and others will gather Sunday at Victoria Park’s Holy Roller – a restored Sherman tank that landed on the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944 – to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day operations.

“We’ll have a service of thanksgiving and remembrance,” said Ian Haley, retired lieutenant colonel and commanding officer with the 1st Hussars reserve armoured regiment based in London and Sarnia.

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Haley said the parade starts at the Delta Armouries hotel, former home of the 1st Hussars, and marches to city hall where a wreath will be laid. The parade will continue to the Holy Roller for a service and dedication of two new donated benches.

Following the service, those attending can explore a display of current and past military vehicles at the bandshell, and other displays. A concert will performed by the Windsor Regiment Band, Haley said.

“It will be quite interesting for those in the general public and those interested in military affairs and the regiment,” he said.

D-Day brought the allied forces together in what has been called the largest amphibious military invasion ever launched and ended in victory in northwestern Europe.

On June 6, 1944, the Holy Roller began an 11-kilometre advance from Juno Beach into Nazi-occupied France carrying members of the 1st Hussars in the first wave to hit French beaches. The Sherman tanks and their crews were critical in enabling infantry to escape from the deadly war zone. Some of the tanks swam ashore and some were launched from landing craft, he said.

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Holy Roller Sherman tank
The Holy Roller Sherman tank on display in Victoria Park in London. Photo taken on March 2, 2020. (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

“We’re credited with being the one unit that advanced farther than any other on D-Day,” Haley said. “The critical thing is that we were able to provide immediate support as soon as the infantry hit the beach.”

Twenty-one 1st Hussars were killed on D-Day and 17 were wounded, Haley said.

The Holy Roller was the only survivor of 350 tanks the regiment used in war time. It’s journey ended in northwestern Europe as the Canadians and other Allies pushed the Germans back across the continent. The tank survived through to Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945, and was returned to Canada after the war.

It stood for decades in Victoria Park, once the site of a British military garrison and home to other military monuments including the city’s cenotaph. But by 2022, time and the elements had taken a toll on the tank and the Holy Roller was restored at Fanshawe College.

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Led by the 1st Hussars, the rebuild took 8,000 hours of work and cost about $160,000. Last month, the memorial project was honoured by the Architectural Conservancy Ontario’s London region branch and Heritage London Foundation.

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The Holy Roller is one of only two Canadian tanks deployed on D-Day that were still intact at the end of the war nearly a year later. The second, from Sherbrooke, Que., is called the Bomb.

Riding in on the second wave, the Holy Roller survived 14 major battles and travelled 4,000 kilometres. It was so valued among its regiment that it was repaired before it was scheduled to be turned over to a tank-collecting point in the Netherlands at the end of the war on May 8, 1944.

“If we get a chance to show people the Holy Roller and explain it to them, they are absolutely amazed that five people went ashore in this thing, and lived in it and fought in it and survived,” Haley said. “These guys weren’t supermen; they were ordinary people who saw something that needed to be done. Holy Roller provides a touchstone for that.”

The last survivor of the Holy Roller’s D-Day crew died in 2020 at 97. London’s 1st Hussars lost 203 soldiers in the Second World War.

hrivers@postmedia.com

@HeatheratLFP

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