Doncaster auctioneer ready for 1,800 mile tribute to D-Day hero dad
Doncaster auctioneer Richard Stoodley doesn’t expect an 1,800 mile bike ride he has planned for this summer to be easy.
But he reckons it will be a doddle compared to how it was for his dad when he made the same journey 77 years ago.
Richard, from Tickhill is retracing the journey his paratrooper father, Bob, from Chinley in Derbyshire, made as a 20 year old in 1944 after he had been captured by the Germans early on D-day.
RIchard, aged 60, is following the route his dad took, right from setting off from what was once RAF Harwell in England on June 5, all the way to the Stalag IV-B Prisoner of War camp in Muhlberg where he was taken by the Germans.
Back in 1944, Bob’s journey included being taken to a French chateau to be interrogated and tortured by a branch of the notorious Nazi SS.
Bob's story was featured by the BBC in 2014 when it marked the 70th anniversary of D Day. It tweeted updates throughout the day to track his progress through D Day in real time – before he appeared in the studio in the evening to reveal he had survived the war.
Richard has been invited to stay in the same chateau where his dad was interrogated. He plans to give the torture and interrogation a miss though.
His dad was a lance corporal in the parachute regiment in 1944, and now, at the age of 97, is the last surviving British member of the pathfinders – troops who were dropped behind enemy lines on the eve of the D-Day landings to mark the way for the main force of paratroopers following closely behind. He set up lights and radio beacons to guide them.
After the main force had arrived, Bob had to destroy the beacons. He did so – but it gave away his position and he was injured by enemy fire and then captured, starting the next phase of the journey he took which Richard is following.
In 1944, Bob was tied to the back of the armoured vehicle which was then fired on by the British. He was then interrogated by the SS at a French Chateau and then sent to a POW Hospital in Rennes for treatment then transferred to the main Rennes POW camp, still injured.
Along with about 600 other POWs, he was loaded on a train, not knowing where he was going, and transported in cramped and unsanitary conditions to Stalag IV-B – the biggest POW camp in Germany – just south of Berlin.
The trip took about 23 days, with the train mainly moving at night and often being targeted and fired at by allied forces thinking it was carrying supplies for the enemy, and many prisoners died.
Richard, the former organiser of the Tickhill cycling grand prix races that were once run in his home town, will make the journey on his bike, setting off from the airfield where he dad took off.
From there he’ll ride to the coast and hopes to take in any D-Day commemorations, and visit places that were associated with what his dad was doing. That will include the grave of one of his father’s friends who died on the mission, Paddy O’Sullivan, who was 20, and was the next soldier to jump out of the aircraft they travelled in.
He plans to follow his dad’s route as closely as possible, and has researched it with help from an American historian who also had a relative who was on the same train.
He said: “Although my route will mainly be by road, shadowing the train lines, there are sections where the old railways are now gravel paths and whenever I can I will aim to follow these tracks too.
“All in all the route will be about 1,800 miles and I aim to carry this out over about 21 days averaging about 90 miles per day.
“For the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, I rode down to Normandy through Belgium and France visiting the WW1 War Graves and the interest I got from this journey was huge.
“This is a much harder task and will also be emotional for my dad as I weave my way through France and Germany 77 years later.
“The riding itself will be demanding but not overly difficult, it’s more about the story and sticking to the route including, at times, dis-used railway tracks.
He said there are some important elements to the route that he knew for certain, such as the hospital in Rennes, and the chateau where his dad was interrogated.
Richard said the chateau is now home to a successful racehorse owner, who had invited him to stay there while he is on his trip.
"Dad thought it was grander than it is,” he said. “I will be there in very different circumstances to those in which my dad was there.”
He will also visit Colditz, where his father spent a night. He was not kept there permanently as it was only for officers, and only officers who had already tried to escape.
He has borrowed a bike especially for the route which will work well on the gravel former railway lines, borrowed from the former Milk Race winner Chris Walker.
He said: “I hope that this trip will help educate and remind others of just what these brave men and women did for us all those years ago and maybe help make people appreciate and reflect on how lucky we all are today.”
RIchard has only been cycling for nine years. He says he is not particularly fast, but keeps fit with his bike.
He will set out on June 5, coronavirus restrictions permitting, and plans to record his progress on social media. He will raise money for Support Our Paras. Log onto https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/RichardStoodley to donate.