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Our favourite D-Day stories about sports people

Throughout World War Two, ordinary people from around the Commonwealth left their homes and families to perform extraordinary deeds in military service. Amongst their number were sportspeople, from keen amateurs to Olympians.

As the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings approaches, we look at the lives and sporting passions of some of those who fought on D-Day and beyond.

D-Day & Sportspeople

Rugby & Cricket Player Major Maurice Joseph Lawson Turnbull

Maurice TurnbullImage: Major Maurice Joseph Lawson Turnbull

Major Maurice Joseph Lawson Turnbull was born on 16 March 1906 in Cardiff Wales.

Maurice was born into a sporting family. His father was an Olympic Medal-winning field hockey player, while five of Maurice’s brothers played for Cardiff Rugby Club.

Rugby, cricket, and hockey were Maurice’s sports of choice.

As a cricketer, Maurice captained the Cambridge University team in his final year. This led to a 10-season career as captain of Glamorgan Country Cricket Club. Internationally, Maurice played nine test matches for England between 1930 and 1936.

Maurice’s rugby career was just as distinguished as his cricketing endeavours.

Beginning with playing for school sides, then the Cambridge side and Cardiff St. Peter’s, Maurice, a scrum-half, was called up to play for Wales in 1933.
Maurice succeeded his brother Bernard to play twice for the Welsh national team in the Home Nations Championship. Maurice’s first match came at Twickenham against England. The Welsh XV ran out 7-3 winners.

Maurice is still the only person to play international rugby for Wales and international cricket for England.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Maurice was serving as Major of 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards.

Maurice was killed during intense fighting for the French village of Montchamp, nearly two months after the D-Day Landings, on August 5, 1944.

Maurice’s body was recovered by one of his men, Sergeant Fredd Llewellyn Llewellyn. His personal effects were returned to his family, Elizabeth, his wife, and his three children Sara, Simon and Georgina.

He is buried in Bayeux War Cemetery.

Perth Footballer Serjeant David Laing

Serjeant David LaingImage: Serjeant David Laing

Serjeant David Laing was born in Perth, Scotland, growing up at Waterside Cottages, Huntingtowerfield, Perthshire.

In his civilian life, David worked as an electrician and was noted as a keen amateur footballer.

David served with the Black Watch during the Second World War, including serving as a Lance Corporal in the disastrous Dieppe Raid.

Alison Southern from Southampton had a personal connection with Sgt David Laing. Her 89-year-old mother, who recently passed, was aged 14 in 1944. Alison told us:

“Living in Southampton she told us the story of local people being asked to give board and lodging to the pre-D-Day troops. A young man of 30 years of age stayed with her family. His name was Serjeant David Laing from Scotland, and he was with 4 Commando.

“My mother remembered that he slept all day and would go off with his face camouflaged on night manoeuvres. All too soon he was gone, and my mother’s family never saw or heard from him again. Only in very recent years were we able to do some research on the internet."

“We found out that sadly he was killed in action on 10th June 1944, just four days after D-Day and is buried in Ranville Military Cemetery. We have visited his grave. It is such a very sad story, but he will always be remembered by our family."

“My mother had such a lot of memories of that period, Southampton had so much going on for the D-Day preparations.

“It is quite incredible that just laying that CWGC tribute has connected me to Perth Academy. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the photo of your tribute to the same person.”

Thank you to Dave Dykes and Alison Southern for this Evermore entry.

“Danny Boy” the Boxer - Serjeant Douglas George Lilburn Huddlestone

Douglas HuddlestoneImage: Serjeant Douglas Huddlestone during his time with the Coldstream Guards

The story of Douglas Huddlestone actually begins with David Brian Heath.

David was born on 20 September 1944 in Staffordshire, England. He was the illegitimate first-born child of Doreen Heath. Doreen had been discharged from the Military Police for becoming pregnant and disowned by her family.

For 76 years, David had searched for the answer to the question “Who is my father?”, only to discover the answer through a DNA test.

The results? David was the son of Serjeant Douglas George Lilburn Huddlestone

Douglas originated from Spilsby in Lincolnshire.

As a young man, Douglas served with the Coldstream Guards but was medically discharged after suffering from appendicitis.

Upon recovery, Douglas enlisted in the Territorial Army, before serving in the regular Army with 4th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment, continuing his career in 3rd Mortar Platoon.

Douglas married his wife, Violet Mary Digby in 1941, hoping to start a family at Hall End in Wrangle Lincolnshire after the war.

He served in Norway, and Iceland and undertook mountain warfare training in Scotland before his posted to Normandy. 

Not long after landing in France, he died on 25 June 1944, at the age of 26.

Douglas was killed in an orchard in Fontenay Le Pesnel. By his side, Captain Waters. A mortar bomb sadly exploded beside them as they shouted orders to their men whilst under attack.

He is buried in Tilly-sur-Seulles War Cemetery.

On the discovery of his identity, David desperately tried to locate his war medals, only to discover they had been sold for £60 on 25th March 1997 as part of Dr A W Stott's former collection, along with the letter of condolence that was sent to his family, at DNW auction house in London. 

These medals included 1939-1945 star, France and Germany Defence and War Medals.

Douglas was the son of a decorated hero in the First World War. In his own words 'Army life tamed the tiger inside him'. Douglas's passion was boxing, and in 1937 he fought at the Royal Aquarium at Great Yarmouth in the semi-finals of national boxing competition, organised by the Daily Mail. 

He hit his opponent so hard he knocked him out of the ring. "Danny Boy" as he was known in boxing circles was destined for a professional career in the sport, but the war put an end to his dreams.

Sonia Limm, David’s daughter told us:

“This year, 2024, 80 years after his death, my dad and I will take a road trip together to Normandy to pay our respects to the dad he never knew. On the 22nd of June we will retrace his last known steps and pay homage to him and all the fallen at his grave in Tilly-sur-Seulles war cemetery.

“Having nothing that belongs to his dad, we hope that we can learn more, through photos and his war records. We thank the historians who took the time to document and preserve his memory and would welcome information from anyone who may be able to share what they know with us.”

Rower Major Francis Bernard Courtney

Major Frank CourtneyImage: Major Francis Courtney

Major Francis ‘Frank’ Bernard Courtney was born in Reading, Berkshire, England but moved to Halifax, Canada at the age of two following the death of his father. 

A keen rower, Frank joined the Jubilee Amateur Club as a young man. He was skilled enough to be selected for the Canadian Rowing Team at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. 

Alongside Fraser Herman, Russell Gammon, and Henry Pelham, he competed in the coxless fours event. However, the team failed to qualify for the finals.

Beyond sport, Frank worked as an inspector for the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission. Ahead of his Second World War service, Frank was also a Captain with the Princess Louise Fusiliers of the Non-Permanent Active Militia.

When World War II broke out, he was transferred to the West Nova Scotia Regiment, promoted to the rank of Major, and sent overseas, earning commendations for bravery before being killed in France in the closing stages of the Normandy invasion in late August of 1944.

Remembering the stories of sports people on D-Day

The stories of these sportspeople serve as a reminder that heroism knows no boundaries. 

Whether they were boxers, footballers or cricketers, these athletes-turned-soldiers exemplified courage, sacrifice and resilience in the face of adversity. 

As we commemorate the heroes of Normandy and D-Day, we remember the sportspeople who played their part in shaping history.

Want to tell us about a relative, loved one or someone who is commemorated by CWGC around the world? Upload your story on For Evermore, our new online commemorative resource.

Tags D-Day Legacy of Liberation