Comber author’s research tells woman how her dad died on D-Day

By Ruth Dowds

A COMBER author has uncovered a remarkable and previously unknown story about the D-Day landings, which has led to an elderly woman finally learning what happened to her father.

Mark Scott tracked down Sussex resident Doreen Fuller after discovering the fate of her father whose death, when Doreen was just nine months old, had been undocumented by history.

Doreen, now aged 80 years and nine months, knew nothing of what had happened to her dad, Edmund James Whitehorn (known as Jim), because her mother Emmy refused to speak about him.

Instead, Emmy, who died only recently at almost 100 years of age, spent her life waiting patiently for Jim to return from the Normandy invasion of 1944.

Mark believes that Doreen is another casualty of the D-day landings, having lived her life never knowing if she and her father had met or whether he was alive or dead.

Jim Whitehorn’s story is one of the highlights of Comber man Mark Scott’s third book, entitled We Fought on D-Day, Ulstermen in Normandy in Their Own Words.

It tells the story of a handful of members of the Second Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles, survivors of the D-Day invasion of France which marked a critical turning point in Allied fortunes during the Second World War.

The origins of Mark’s book and the veterans’ stories lie in a 2003 documentary by DoubleBand Films, entitled We Fought on D-Day.

Directed by Brian Henry Martin, the film featured interviews with eight Ulstermen who talked about the role they had played in the greatest invasion in history.

Mark and Brian had previously worked together on a project which resulted in Mark’s first book, The Man Who Shot The Great War, about a Belfast soldier who took his camera into battle during World War One.

That experience prompted Brian Henry Martin to offer Mark access to all the unused interview material from We Fought on D-Day, footage he had digitalised from the original Betamax tapes during lockdown.

Explains Mark: “Over the last two years I’ve gone through it all and written about what the guys have said and delved into the background of some of the things they’ve said and uncovered a couple of stories that haven’t been told up until now.”

In the documentary one of the veterans, Stanley Burrows from Castlereagh, alludes to the fact that not a single member of the Royal Ulster Rifles was killed on D-Day when they landed on Sword Beach as part of the second wave of the invasion.

Says Mark: “He said he had heard chat over the years that there was loss at sea but that he was there and as far as he was concerned no-one was killed.

“I looked into that and discovered there were 12 men from the Second Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles who were part of a detachment. The idea was that they would land on June 7 from a ship and make their way inland with lorries and re-supply the guys who had already landed the day before.

“This ship was struck by German coastal artillery off Dover at midday on June 6 when it was hit by two shells.

“One of the 12 Ulster Riflemen on board was killed, a guy called Jim Whitehorn who came from Stepney in East London.”

Due to the general chaos of the day and the way in which events were reported, Jim Whitehorn was, for a time, recorded as having died on two different dates – June 6 and June 12.

Says Mark: “Bearing in mind what Stanley Burrows the veteran had said, that no-one was killed on June 6, I started to look at what was going on, on June 12, and I couldn’t find any relevant incident then.

“I then found a piece of paper up in the Ulster Rifles Museum in Belfast and it was a list made by a captain containing names, roles, service numbers and another number alongside each name.

“I discovered that number related to a ship, the SS Sambut, and when I looked into that ship, I found the story of it being struck and I could prove that this man Whitehorn was on that ship on the morning of June 6 and was killed at midday.

“So, he did have a June 6 death day, but it had not been recorded.”

According to Mark the SS Sambut was a ‘Liberty Ship’ which was shelled just past noon on June 6 as the men on board were gathering in the mess deck for lunch.

As part of his research Mark discovered that at the time of his death Jim Whitehorn was married and had a nine month old daughter, Doreen, who he managed to track down 80 years later.

Says Mark: “I discovered that Doreen’s mother, Jim’s wife, refused to accept his death because of the nature of how he was originally recorded as missing.

“She held onto the faith that one day he would come walking through the door.

“Because of that she wouldn’t entertain any conversation about Jim with her daughter as she was growing up, so Doreen knew nothing about what had happened to her father until I told her, which was quite a thing to do.”

Mark had to break the news by phone and describes it as an emotional experience for both he and Doreen.

“She came out with a one-liner and it really took the legs from under me,” says Mark. “She said: ‘I don’t know if my dad even held me’.

“For her whole life she has never known that and because of the nature of D-Day and where he would have been, held in secret training in the build-up to the actual invasion, I couldn’t tell her if he would have or not.

“There’s no big list of men who have held their children.

“I was able to tell her that there were 136 men killed on board out of the 550 that were on it.

“Because they all had lorries full of ammunition and fuel for the reinforcement the ship immediately started to go wildly on fire when it was shelled and it appears Jim was killed during the initial artillery strike.

“So, the ship was abandoned, survivors were pulled out of the sea and the Royal Navy had to torpedo the ship and sink it because it was in the way of the invasion fleet.”

The incident was filmed by an army reporter from another ship in the same convoy, the SS Samarovsk, and the video footage can be seen on the Imperial War Museum’s website.

Mark was therefore able to tell Doreen that her father’s body lies at the bottom of the sea off the coast of Dover at Goodwin Sands.

He continues: “Doreen did say a little thing when I told her about the ship. She said 50 years ago when she was getting married she went shopping with her mum and they went into a shop in London.

“The guy behind the counter started talking to her mum and Doreen wasn’t really paying attention, but she assumed the guy knew her father and she picked up something about a ship and she didn’t think anything of it as she assumed her father died on land.

“It’s only when I told her what I knew that the penny dropped and that actually that was probably the guy behind the counter telling her mother what had happened to her father.

“Nevertheless, her mother still didn’t tell her anything, she still kept that to herself and would never entertain any conversation about her father.

“I look upon Doreen as a victim of D-Day although she was only nine months old and knew nothing of it.”

In another turn in the story Mark and his family met Doreen and her husband in London earlier this month, on June 3.

Mark presented Doreen with a copy of his book which features a picture of her father on the front cover.

“She is a lovely lady and we had a great afternoon,” says Mark.

“Jim’s whole story is in the book so she now has a written record of exactly what happened to her father and she was very appreciative of the work I had put into it.”

We Fought on D-Day, Ulstermen in Normandy in Their Own Words is published by Colourpoint Books and is available from Amazon, priced £11.99.