Victor R.H. Yarnell '51
Dunkirk, D-Day, Destiny
by Barry L. Kauffman 77
the ranks of World War II veterans continue to dwindle in numbers toward
their inevitable date with mortality, there is a renewed interest in the
stories of the generation that put their lives on the line to save the
world from tyranny. From December 7, 1941 to V-J Day, over 27,000 men
and women from Berks County lived experiences that resulted in amazing
tales of danger, intrigue, courage, survival and victory.
For one young man who was destined to become a civic and political leader
of Reading, Pennsylvania, December 7, 1941 was not the beginning of a
monumental conflict, but a day of relief and thanksgiving because much
needed assistance in the fight against Hitler was finally on the way.
For Victor R.H. Yarnell 51, future Reading mayor, a gunner in the ranks of His Majestys Royal Artillery, the war was already over two years old and the outlook bleak. He had already experienced the horrors of war, was lucky to be alive, and the worst was yet to come. This is his unique story.
Yarnell was born in Montreal, Canada on October 5, 1919 to an Irish father
and an English mother. In 1938, after completing his studies at a Bedford,
England boarding school the previous year, he joined the Bedfordshire
Yeomanry (British Equivalent of the U.S. National Guard). A year later,
World War II started with the German invasion of Poland. Following Great
Britains entry into the conflict on September 3, 1939, Yarnell found
himself on active duty headed for France.
Although he was the only Canadian member of his artillery regiment, young
Yarnell was following the proud military tradition of his family. His
father had served in the famous Black Watch Infantry Regiment of the Scottish
Highlanders during World War I, and two of his uncles whose names Yarnell
bore (Victor Yarnell and Robert Hewlett) had paid the supreme sacrifice
during that same conflict.
On May 10, 1940, Germany launched a massive attack on France. Yarnells
artillery unit, with its 1918 vintage guns designed for a different war
in a different era, never had time to fire a shot. The French and British
defenses, no match for the German Blitzkrieg, crumbled and began retreating
toward the coast before the advancing onslaught. Yarnell and four comrades
found themselves in the small French town of Saint Omer checking the contents
of barges floating on a local canal for evidence of German troops. The
evidence became overwhelming when they observed what looked like the entire
German army entering the other end of town and heading their way. One
step ahead of capture or death, Yarnell headed for the French coast and
the port of Dunkirk.
Forty miles of bad road lay between Yarnell and the beach where hundreds
of thousands of Allied troops were trapped. With no room for him on a
passing truck, an officer offered Yarnell the use of a motorcycle. He
had never before ridden on a cycle, but the fast approaching enemy gave
him the incentive to learn rather quickly. Man triumphed over machine
and they arrived at Dunkirk on Sunday, May 26, 1940. For the next four
days Yarnell hunkered down on the beach and waited. No food and little
water, along with constant bombardment and strafing by German planes,
made Dunkirk a living hell.
But, unknown to most of the trapped men British and French
at Dunkirk, there was a literal miracle underway. British
naval vessels were coming to try to save the British Expeditionary Force.
So, too, fortunately, was anything else that would float: fishing boats,
private yachts, motorboats, and sailboats, heading for the beaches of
Dunkirk. More than a few were skippered by women and children. Boats were
also dispatched from elsewhere along the coast, including Holland.
Finally, on May 30, Yarnells turn came to escape the carnage. He swam 100 yards to a Dutch fishing boat named Doggersbank, and 17 hours later, wet, cold, hungry, but alive, Yarnell arrived in Ramsgate, England. He had become one of 338,226 Allied soldiers to be rescued from the jaws of the Nazi Blitzkrieg. They would return.
The returning survivors of Dunkirk were reorganized, housed in tents,
and after two weeks of leave, assigned to coastal batteries where they
dug in and waited for the German invasion across the English Channel.
Fortunately, that attack never came. Yarnell spent over a year on Fort
Spitsand, a 60-man garrison in the Spithead, the body of water between
Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight where Yarnell served as a range finder
for their only defensive weapon, a six-inch naval gun. It was while he
was there that America entered the war.
As the Allies began planning the future invasion of Europe, Yarnells
future was taking shape as well. Following a tour of duty at what would
become General Eisenhowers secret headquarters in Portsmouth, he
volunteered to be a glider pilot, but was rejected because of his eyesight.
However, he had tested well and was offered the opportunity to attend
officers training school. In October 1943, Yarnell was commissioned
a 2nd Lieutenant in the 86th Field Regiment. He would remain with this
artillery unit, and after being promoted to 1st Lieutenant, return to
France as part of the largest invasion force ever assembled. He would
again struggle through the surf and sand of a French beach dodging hostile
fire, but this time his destination was Germany, not England. This time
the weapons he controlled were designed for their mission and he was trained
in their use. This time would be no Dunkirk.
The 86th Field Regt. hit Gold Beach on D-Day at H Hour plus 90 minutes
in support of the 69 Brigade of the 50th Division of the British Infantry.
The 86th consisted of three batteries of two troops each. Lt. Yarnell
was the Troop Leader of F Troop, in charge of four mechanized
vehicles called SPs (self-propelled field guns), each containing
a 25-pound gun. The 86th approached the beach aboard their landing crafts
(LCTs) that day with their 25 pounders blazing.
By the end of D-day, Yarnells guns were at Ver-sur-Mer, a village
within a mile of the beach. By H plus 24 hours, the infantry they were
supporting had established a beachhead eight miles inland and seven miles
wide. In spite of slugging it out against increasing resistance from German
Panzer units hidden in the bocage country where sunken roads and huge,
thick hedgerows offered the enemy excellent concealment, the Allied forces
continued to slowly advance. By August 20, 1944 the remaining German defenders
in Normandy were surrounded in the Falaise Pocket, and either captured
or killed. The battle for Normandy was over, but the war went on.
The 86th Regiments next objective was Antwerp. Crossing the Seine River on August 28 at Vernon, they supported British units advancing through France and Belgium at a rapid pace. Yarnells unit crossed the bridge into Antwerp behind the 11th Armored Division on September 4. There was substantial German opposition in areas of the city and several days of heavy fighting were required to subdue the stubborn resistance. The job was made easier with the help of the Belgium resistance fighters.
September 9, the 86th left Antwerp to participate in Operation Market
Garden, the huge airborne mission with the objective of capturing the
bridge over the Rhine River at Arnhem with paratroopers, and then advancing
a large army to link up with the airborne troops for the drive into Germany.
Yarnells batteries supported the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division in
this operation. Unfortunately, the objective failed and resulted in more
casualties than the Normandy invasion more than three months earlier.
This major battle was the subject of A Bridge Too Far, by Cornelius Ryan.
Following Market Garden, Yarnells regiment was given a much needed
rest, but by the middle of November, they were back in action again. In
December, when Hitler mounted the massive counterattack into the Ardennes,
beginning The Battle of the Bulge, the 86th was sent into
combat in support of the British 30 Corps that engaged the Germans east
of Dinant, the place where the Nazi counterattack sputtered and came to
a halt. The fighting was so intense that on Christmas day, the traditional
dinner had to be postponed until the action ceased. It wasnt held
until three days later.
Following the Ardennes action, the Allies began a steady advance into
Germany and the end of the war. The Bulge had taken much of
the fight out of the Germans. Yarnell crossed the Rhine at Rees on March
27, 1945, and by the time Germany surrendered on May 7, he was in the
German North Sea port of Cuxhaven. After serving in the British Army of
Occupation at Kiel until April 1946, Yarnell returned to England, was
discharged, and then repatriated to his native Canada. His war had finally
Dunkirk, D-Day, Falaise Pocket, Arnhem, Battle of the Bulge; for over six years, Victor R.H. Yarnell had been a player on the stage of world history. He was an active participant in, and a survivor of, major events that shaped the 20th Century and will continue to influence our future for generations to come. His subsequent life achievements, impressive though they may be, pale by comparison.
He immigrated to Reading in 1946. In 1949, he married Nancy Ahrens, a
young lady whose rich Berks County heritage matched Victors British
one. He became an American citizen in 1950, received a bachelors
degree from Albright College in 1951, and a masters degree from
The University of Pennsylvania in 1954. He taught government at Muhlenberg
Township High School for 12 years. His public career included serving
in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1963-64. He served as
Mayor of the City of Reading from 1968-72, and Director of the Schuylkill
River Greenway Association from 1979-97. He was also deeply involved on
the boards of the Reading Public library and the fledgling Berks County
Public Library System. He still serves on the board of the Reading Area
Community College (RACC).
Today, the bespeckled, mild mannered, octogenarian with his distinctive
sense of humor can be found in his favorite chair surrounded by mementos
of his and his familys service to the Crown and humanity. In 1994,
Yarnell returned to the beaches of Normandy for the 50th anniversary of
the D-Day Invasion. In 1999, he again traveled to Normandy and the village
of Ver-sur-Mer, liberated on the first day of the invasion. Ver-sur-Mer
had invited veterans of the 50th Infantry Division to the dedication of
a road named to honor their British liberators of so long ago. While there
were 12,000 of them in 1994, only a dozen, including Yarnell, were able
to attend the emotional ceremony 55 years later.
Yes, time has taken its toll on those ranks of heroes, but their accomplishments
and the spirit that drove them on to victory will never die if we document
their stories for posterity. That Reading, Pennsylvania had a mayor who
survived both Dunkirk and Normandy is a story unequalled by any other
American city, and should be remembered as a proud event in our long and
Yarnell remembers his service with obvious pride, but also with humility and self-effacing humor. When asked what power or cunning he employed to escape countless close calls and survive numerous hair-raising experiences during the Dunkirk evacuation, he replied by quoting Thomas Gray, an 18th Century English poet, Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise. Indeed! And Reading and Berks County are blissfully fortunate to be able to call Victor Robert Hewlett Yarnell one of their own.
Barry L. Kauffman 77, of Leesport, retired last year as a machine
tool distributor for his company, W.H. Jones Co., Inc. in West Chester.
He continues to serve the company as a consultant. Kauffman is also a
member of the Bern Township Zoning Hearing Board, superintendent of Alsace
Cemetery, and executive director of the Society for the Preservation of
Gruber Wagon Works.
This article appeared in the Fall 2001 edition of the Historical Review of Berks County. It was reprinted with permission.