This story and photos are shared by the Trust with kind permission from Fred's son, Barry Heeler and his wife Pauline Heeler
Fred was the youngest of 5 children, from the village of Astcote near Towcester, Northants.
The Heeler family. Fred stands on the far left next to his mother
His mother died when he was in his early teens so his eldest sister was then like a mother to him.
We don’t know how he came to actually meet, Eva but she was born and grew up in a cottage on The Green in Nether Heyford, a village not far away. Fred and Eva married on 16th September 1939 and lived at the same cottage on The Green with her family. Their son, Barry, was born on 11th February 1943 so was only 17 months old when Fred was killed.
Fred and Eva on their wedding day
Fred joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in April 1940 and we still have the letters he sent home to Eva during those war years. Eva was absolutely devastated when Fred was killed and said throughout her life that he was often in her thoughts
Fred was the batman to Captain Alastair Bannerman. He landed on D-Day and was killed on 24th July 1944.
We have a press cutting in which Fred's death was reported. It mentions that he attended Pattishill School, played football for Kislingbury Football Club and worked in Towcester. It appears he also played for Astcote Football Club in 1933-1934 as we have a team photo of with him in it.
Fred, sitting 2nd left middle row, with Ascote FC
Eva married again in 1948 and had another son, Peter, so Barry was brought up with a step-father and half brother. Pete and Barry have always got on well and we are still close to him and his family.
Details about Fred's military service were hidden away until after his widow, Eva, died in 1989. Among them was a letter to her from Captain Bannerman, who had been captured just after D-Day and held till the end of the war. He sent it after he was released from captivity to say how sorry he was to hear that Fred had died, what a help Fred had been to him and that he hoped to meet Eva one day.
Dear Mrs Heeler,
I know there are no words of mine that can possibly console you for the loss of your husband, Fred Heeler, who was my friend & batman for so long! But having very thankfully myself just returned from being a prisoner in Germany, & hearing for the first time that he had been killed, I felt I must write & offer you my very deepest sympathy with your great loss. I was very distressed to hear of this cruel piece of luck, as one of the things I had specially looked forward to, was to visit him & you and Barry in happier circumstances. We had been together in so many places & all sorts of weathers, & he was always helpful & never let me down.
If a few words of mine can give you any comfort I would like you to know how highly I valued & appreciated all he did for me & for the platoon at all times. He was an excellent gunner & one of the sweetest men in the platoon, & would have made a good NCO because of his intelligence. But he seemed to prefer to remain with me as batman, & I shall never forget his loyalty, & his sense of humour which helped us to laugh in all sorts of conditions.
In those last weeks in England we often talked about you & Barry, and Mrs Bannerman & Andrew & Richard , & he was so proud of your photographs. Mrs Bannerman and I will always remember the happy days when he was with us in Purley & Ripon.
We both sailed on the invasion in the same landing craft he was very cheerful & hopeful, though neither of us were very good sailors. After we had landed at 10.30 a.m. on “D day”, I was rather busy, but he was always fairly close in his detachment with his friend Foster. The attack when I was captured was the last time I saw him. He was calm & cheerful, & doing very well. I went on ahead down a road to Caen, with another detachment (who were all captured with me) & we ran into a Panzer Division. I hoped the others well behind might have enough warning to get out, & evidently Fred got back alright this time. I don’t know any more details of him or his platoon. I saw one letter he wrote very kindly to my wife when I was reported “missing”.
In all ways he was a very fine person with very high standards, & I cannot say enough how deeply I feel the loss of one of my best friends in the Battalion. At a time like this when the news is so good, it is doubly hard for you. But I hope you don’t mind me writing, & if at any time I or Mrs Bannerman can be of any help, please do not hesitate to write to either of us. If I am ever near Northampton I shall certainly come & see you if I may. I hope Barry is fit, & if he grows up like his father, he will do well.
We treasured this letter and also a pile of letters that Fred had sent home to Eva from his years in service which we still have.
To our surprise, on the 50th anniversary of D-Day , we were watching a BBC programme on tv which showed footage of Capt Alastair Bannerman and his wife, Elizabeth coming out of their cottage in Beaminster to walk up to a service at their local church just up the road!! We remembered the address as being the same one that the letter to Barry’s mum had been sent from 1945 so we wrote to Capt Bannerman who phoned us up soon after. We went down to their cottage and had tea in their garden, on our way to France to visit Fred's grave for the first time.
Barry with Alastair and Elizabeth Bannerman and our son and daughter
It was great to hear so much about Fred’s life with his Captain and after that we kept in touch till sadly ill health caught up with Elizabeth and Alastair.
Elizabeth had kept a letter Fred had written to her after Alistair was reported missing soon after D-Day. Elizabeth had kept it and then sent it on to us after we got to know them in 1995. The letter is written in pencil. He begins, "I hardly know how to start this letter to you, but I feel I must write a few lines to you to say how sorry I am over Capt Bannerman I feel all anyhow over it myself & I know you must feel very grieved too, but try not to look on the black side of things, because myself I think there is a good chance of Capt Bannerman being a prisoner, I only hope & pray he is for your, Andrew's and Richard's sakes".
Letter Fred wrote to Elizabeth Bannerman, Capt Bannerman's wife, after he was reported missing in action
Later on in the letter Fred explained why he wrote in pencil, "I hope you will excuse me writing in pencil, but I lost all of my kit the same as a lot of our lads did, we have had a re-issue of course, but not my 'ink' and all I have is what is in my pen & I want to keep that for addressing my envelopes..." He asked if Elizabeth could send him news of Capt Bannerman once she heard anything. He ends the letter "I haven't a lot to write about but as I've said I felt it my duty to do so because after all I've been with Capt Bannerman nearly 3 years & we always got on well together..."
We have managed to visit Fred’s grave in Banneville-la-Campagne British War cemetery near Caen on several occasions too.
Army • LANCE CORPORAL
Royal Warwickshire Regiment
DIED 24 July 1944
SERVICE NO. 5343373