Museum Highlights - August 2023

A Letter from Normandy

 In this month’s highlight we look at a letter written by a young officer of the 11th Hussars, whose first experience of war was the opening months of the Battle of Normandy. The letter, part of the museum’s archives, is a very frank account written to a childhood friend, and details the activities of the regiment but also his own, very honest, feelings.  This is also a chance to remember the author, Lieutenant William ‘Billy’ George Llewellen Palmer, who was sadly killed on 2 August 1944, 79 years ago, just a few weeks after writing the letter.

William 'Billy' Palmer, likely while at Eton School. Credit: Bob Fleming

Billy Llewellen-Palmer’s early life is still being researched as it is not well recorded in the regimental archives. He was born around 1924 and is believed to be the son of Helen(a) Rogozinska/Rogozinski who in 1925 married Brigadier-General George Llewellen Palmer CB.  Brigadier-General Palmer’s son from an earlier marriage was Colonel William Llewellen Palmer of the 10th Royal Hussars whose own sons, Peter and Julian, were both killed serving with the 10th Hussars in North Africa. It appears by the time of his death the two sides of the family had lost contact.

After the death of her husband, Helen Palmer purchased Earlswood Mount, a large mansion in Redhill, Sussex. Billy attended Tonbridge school and then Eton before joining the Royal Armoured Corps Officer Cadet Training Unit at Sandhurst on 26 June 1943. He is believed to have been married around November 1943, and on 1 January 1944 left Sandhurst and was commissioned into the 11th Hussars. By February he was in ‘D’ Squadron and on landing in Normandy was in No. 3 Troop under the instruction of Lieutenant Guy Hugo Newton, the Troop leader. 

The first party of the 11th Hussars, including D Squadron, landed at Juno beach on 9 June 1944 and soon after were engaged in the heavy fighting west of Caen. The 11th, as an armoured car regiment, were in the front and often the first to meet the enemy.

On the 19 June the regiment concentrated at St André, for four weeks in reserve. According to the war diary  they  ‘settled down for training and games. Much attention was paid to camouflage and we went as far as to put rabbit wire netting round the cars to hold on garnish.’

Here, in the shade of woods near the Chateau St André, Billy Llewellen Palmer of 3 Troop, D Squadron wrote to his childhood friend, Yvonne, of his first experience of war.   

He writes of the fierce fighting since landing in Normandy, and is very honest of his own feelings on war: 

‘11th Hussars P.A.O

3 Tp D Sqn

Dear Yvonne


I have had enough excitement out here to last me a lifetime. Shelled from Calais, bombed off the beaches, strafed in Leaguer, mixed up in a two day tank battle, knocked out two half tracks, shelled, mortared, machine gunned, sniped, cut off and surrounded and fought our way out with German infantry within 50 yards of us at times. That is just a few of the things that happened to me, – and frightened? I have never been so scared in all my life. And God how I have come to hate war and all that is to do with it. It is the most bloody, beastly and ghastly thing ever devised by the human mind. I don’t care if I never see another Hun for the rest of the war.’

Some of the events he records happened on 13 June 1944, a day of great success for his Squadron. No 3 Troop, D Squadron had been held up 2 miles southeast of Caumont when they came across a German armoured car next to the church at Cahagnes. Lieutenant Guy Newton then stalked the car to assess the situation, moving on foot across fields he got to within 20 yards. As he brought his troop round to cover the car a German half track armoured personnel carrier emerged from the hedges behind him. Fortunately, the gunner of his Daimler was quick on the trigger and knocked it out with the 2 pounder gun while Corporal Bullen, equally quick, killed three of the crew with a burst from his sten gun. Later in the day Sergeant Harry Addis also claimed a second half track.

Part of the letter, written on 11th Hussars headed paper, with the regimental cypher.
Field Marshal Montgomery and the officers of the 11th Hussars (PAO) at St Andre, 19 June 1944. Lieutenant William George 'Billy' Llewellen palmer is in the back row, standing, 8th from the right.

Billy’s letter continues:

Parked in some lovely woods belonging to a chateau. It all looks so much like a bit of England. In the next field we have some 6.2 (155mm) that keep us awake all night and by going off at unexpected times makes nervous wrecks of us. The percussion is terrific; it almost takes our livers away.

The French people in this part anyway seem far from starving as we have been led to believe and some of them don’t seem so hot on this liberation stunt. However, I was given flowers, bread and butter in a middle of a battle with bullets flying all around. That does say something for them anyway.

It is only when one sees papers out here that one realises what tosh they write. Vast pincer movements to places which we are nowhere near, their facts wrong, and a lot of callous rot. They calmly speak of passing a tank brewed up or a dead soldier, trying to glorify war. Little do they know of the tragedy and suffering that lies behind one dead man or behind a burnt-out crust of a tank.

On the maps we use it looks as if we have taken miles because they are such a large scale, but I took a look at a map of Europe at our positions and it is a mere nibble out of a vast hunk. I dread to think how long it will take unless the German Government collapses. That is why I hate the papers because I have always hated hypocrisy. I would always rather know the truth than be elated for a bit and then find the real truth.

The invasion has been going three weeks yet it seems like three months already. I wonder when I shall see England again. Will she ever be the same? Yes, a country fit for heroes to live in and it will take a hero to live in it.

… Well all the best to you, and they say a bomb never lands twice in the same place!
With my love,

Billy Palmer and Yvonne, the recipient of the letter, at Earlswood Mount, Redhill. Credit: Bob Fleming

During the night of 1/2 August 1944, while D Squadron were in leaguer near Cahagnes, they were hit by a German air raid. The War Diary records: 

‘During the night there was considerable bombing, chiefly AP’s [Armour-Piercing], which fell in hundreds out of canisters, and resembled hand grenades. 3 Troop were in the middle of the shower, two hits being scored on each car without effect. Three however fell in the ditch where some of the Troop were sleeping, wounding Lt Newton MC in both legs, 2Lt Llewellen Palmer in the neck, Troopers Harrison and Sinden slightly. Lt Palmer was very serious and was evacuated through 131 Brigade.’

Billy was quickly evacuated but sadly died shortly after of his injuries and is buried in Bayeux War Cemetery.

The headstone of Helen Palmer in Redstone cemetery, Redhill. Billy Palmer is also remembered on the stone (incorrectly recorded as a Captain). Credit/Copyright: The Imperial War Museum

When his mother, Helen Palmer, died in 1948 she left over £100,000 to Dr Barnardo’s Homes. Such a sum caused a stir in local newspapers, which reported that she was a Polish countess who had first married a Russian engineer officer but had fled to England during the Russian Revolution, before marrying the widowed Brigadier-General Llewellen Palmer. She was known locally in Earlswood as ‘The Duchess’ and was known for her generosity, as the Surrey Mirror of 15 July 1949 reported: 

‘Remembered she will be, most kindly, at the County Hospital to which she made many little gifts from time to time. And among the growing-up population of the Meadvale district there will be many who in years to come may spare a thought for the “French lady” who could almost certainly be depended upon to have a bag of sweets to give away.’

We hope you have found this month’s highlight interesting. We are extremely grateful to Bob Fleming for the photographs of Billy Palmer in younger life and also to David John Eason (ex-Royal Hussars) for information on his commissioning and schooling. If you have any more information on William George Llewellen-Palmer do get in touch with us! 

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