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REME soldiers honoured to help return WWII altar 50 years after it was lost

An historic altar salvaged by troops from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) in 1945 has been rededicated in a ceremony at Talbot House, West Flanders, Belgium, having been recently rediscovered following its disappearance 50 years ago.

In 1944, the British soldiers uncovered the simple wooden altar in the ruins of a bombed-out Normandy church and subsequently gifted it to a soldiers’ club called Talbot House the following year. The altar went missing in 1965. 

To be part of this historical event over the VE weekend marked a very special occasional and it was a privilege to be able to return the Dunkirk Altar back to Talbot House,” Corporal Steven Holt, Armourer

More than half a century later, the recently rediscovered alter has been blessed during a short ceremony upon its return to Talbot House. The altar was delivered by a WWII Dodge Jeep, from Brewery Feys where it was found, 15 kilometres away.

It was met by serving REME soldiers Corporal Steven Holt and Corporal Ryan Morrison and Padre Captain Nia Williams, of the European Joint Support Unit, who blessed the altar during a short service in the garden of Talbot House, which is now a museum at the former rest and recreation centre used by British forces during both World Wars.

“It is a great honour to attend any historical or remembrance event as a serving soldier, but it has greater meaning when it’s your own cap badge involved,” said Corporal Steven Holt, an Armourer at the European Joint Support Unit SHAPE, based in Mons, Belgium.

“To be part of this historical event over the VE weekend marked a very special occasional and it was a privilege to be able to return the Dunkirk Altar back to Talbot House,” he said.

George Sutherland, a famous local WWII veteran who was a member of the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders in 1945, was also welcomed to the ceremony, which saw historic vehicles and reenactors taking part.

Talbot House

The renowned West Flanders ‘home from home’ for British soldiers during the First World War, was occupied by German Forces for much of World War Two.

Germans occupiers arrested the British chaplains and the Belgian wardens were forced to leave the house. But, not before all the artefacts and treasures were hidden away by the local board members and volunteers.

In July 1944, troops from the REME set up three advanced workshops in Caen. One of them, the 22nd Advanced Base Workshop, was specialised in tank maintenance. In the bombed church of Saint-Étienne-le-Vieux, they salvaged the altar, which they used for their chapel.

Corporal Holt said: “History shows that it would have been a very difficult period for REME soldiers based around the French city of Caen. Along with the high workload of repairing equipment, they were also having to cannibalise and salvage parts of wreckages whilst witnessing Caen being bombed in the backdrop.

“Being under siege and working all hours to keep the punch in the Army’s fist really showcases the REME esprit de corps.”

When the soldiers moved to Lot near Brussels in March 1945, their Chaplain Padre Richard Tuesday received the altar as a gift for his new chapel. The connection with Talbot House came about - after the German occupiers had moved on - through visits by the British soldiers to the club. Services would be held in the chapel in an upstairs room.

When the British soldiers left Lot, they donated the altar to Talbot House “as a memorial to our comrades who gave their lives in the battles of Normandy and Germany, June 6, 1944-May 8, 1945”. The altar became known as the Dunkirk Altar in memory of the evacuation in 1940 and the Battle of Dunkirk in 1945.

Following its rededication, the altar will be renovated and put it back on display in the museum.