Today marks the 80th Anniversary of D-Day.  That day, all those years ago – it was a Tuesday – was the turning point in WWII.  It was the day the Allied forces broke through occupied Europe – reclaimed occupied Europe – saving her from the jaws of Hitler and changing the course of history forever.  For it was on the 6th June, 1944 that the air, land and sea forces of the Allied armies were deployed across the beaches of Normandy to establish a foothold ashore in the then Nazi-occupied France.  A total of 4,414 Allied troops were killed that day, 1,475 of them under British command.  Less than 40 veterans remaining now, this commemoration will be the last enabling us to hear the words of those who lived it.

The British Normandy Memorial site, near the village of Ver-sur-Mer and overlooking Gold Beach, was only opened in 2021.  Until then, there had been nothing to commemorate the thousands under British command who died there, never returning home.  It was the vision of a veteran, George Batts.  He was only 18 when he landed on Gold beach that morning.  A Sapper, he was tasked with clearing mines and booby traps but, miraculously, survived the ensuing horrors unlike many of his friends and comrades.  Sadly, George is no longer with us, but he lived to realise his dream – seeing the memorial completed – and, on the day of its opening, he explained what it meant to him: ‘We left a lot of mates behind and now I know they will never be forgotten.’

I was reminded of the beauty of the Memorial; a beauty gleaned from its simplicity.  For, it is that simplicity which enhances, only, the poignancy of the site; one which sits at the top of a little hill offering unbridled views down over Gold Beach and across to the remnants of the Mulberry Harbour of Arromanches.  Boasting the brilliant white of the French Massangis stone, the Memorial was designed by British architect, Liam O’Connor; he of the Bomber Command Memorial in London’s Green Park and the Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.  Of the 22,442 servicemen, under British command, who died in Normandy, the names of those who were lost in the days following the 6th June, 1944 are inscribed – in chronological order of death – on the 160 columns, simple but beautiful in their white stone, which draw one down to the D-Day Wall of the central Memorial Court.  Here are the names of those who fell on D-Day, itself.  Central to the wall are two huge ‘windows’ to what lies beyond: a magnificent bronze sculpture, courtesy of David Williams-Ellis, depicting three soldiers coming ashore, Gold Beach their backdrop.  The thought.  The genius.  There could be no more fitting tribute?  Perhaps, only, the sight of the 1,475 silhouettes in the wild meadow fields surrounding the Memorial.  Fields, for now, awash with daisies as though in memoriam.  At once, incredibly eerie and incredibly moving, each silhouette – part of the Standing with Giants installation entitled For Your Tomorrow – represents one who fell that day.

Each silhouette, a life.  Each life, a story.’   Nicholas Witchell, Journalist.

Lest we forget …

As the sun shone, enhancing the blue of the skies and sea, the mediterranean white of the Memorial seemed ever more brilliant.  I was lost in the poignancy of it all: the sight of the few remaining veterans, so proud and yet so pained – most now centenarians and in wheelchairs – being pushed by their loved ones.  Their many medals pinned to their blazers, glistening in the morning hues, stark reminders of the horrors they witnessed – and their unfailing courage.  For eighty years ago, they were just boys.  Just boys.

I don’t care what people say.  I wasn’t a man.  I was a boy and I didn’t have any idea of war and killing …  I was lucky.  I had lots and lots of luck.  So why would I come back?  Well, this is the last and only opportunity for me, the last there will ever be and it’s because of the lads.  I want to pay my respects to those who didn’t make it.  May they rest in peace.’

The words of veteran, Joe Mines, 99 – read by actor, Martin Freeman.  Joe landed on Gold Beach, eighty years ago, age 19, and has never been back.  He broke down in tears as he stood on that very beach, once again, and remembered.

I’ve got a hankie somewhere …’ 

John Dennett, a Royal Navy veteran, was only 17 on that day, eighty years ago.  He spoke to the interviewer, so proudly dressed in all his finery, but I caught these words as he turned away.  It would break one’s heart.  The human story.  All those young boys who bravely enlisted to fight for their country, only to face untold horrors.  Those who made it home – represented by Joe, John and the few who remain now – buried the pain.  Never speaking about it, they led their lives; lives forever scarred; forever changed.  For they have never forgotten those they left behind and, today, we saw the reality.  Yes, there is great pride – and deservedly so – but that pride pales beneath immeasurable sorrow.

I’ve had eighty years on this earth since that day.  My friends have remained under the earth for that time and it is so important to me that we share the same earth once more, here in Normandy.’

The words of Ron Hendrey, 98 – a Royal Navy veteran who was a mere 18 on the 6th June, 1944 – delivered (not read) so movingly by actor, Douglas Booth.  I jotted down what he said of the privilege …

These veterans are like precious pieces of art that need to be passed down.’

Precious pieces of art.  Priceless.  Selfless human beings who were incredibly brave and to whom we owe an immeasurable debt.

Where did the tears come from – mine?  I grew up with parents who lived through WWII; who revered the armed forces.  They never missed Trooping the Colour, Remembrance Sunday, nor any opportunity to pay their respects.  Both my grandfathers fought in WWI …   I have always cherished these ‘precious pieces of art’.  Witnessing them, today, returning to Normandy for the last time – and sharing their stories, some for the first time – I saw my father again, my grandfather.  Tears streaming down my face, I mourned the loss of a generation I was proud to know and the likes of whom we shall never see again.

Arthur Oborne, 100, was determined to stand; determined that his voice be strong and clear as he recalled being shot in the lung by a sniper.  He was only saved by his friend, “Gummy” Gummerson, who strapped him up and got him back to a field hospital.  “Gummy” was killed in action the next day along with 26 others in the 49th Division of The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, 6th Battalion.

I wish I could tell him that I have never taken his sacrifice for granted and will always remember him and our friends …  So, “Gummy”, thank you, my old friend.’

He knows.

This was the veterans’ Last Post.  Their very last chance to return to Normandy – and remember.  To recall those memories – for so long, desperately, buried – of the friends and comrades killed by their sides.  Those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.  Lives stolen.  Just boys.  Forever young.

Lovingly remembered
Keepers of the flame
We must never forget
Each soldier has a name.

Lovingly remembered
All who gave so much
Faces they’ll never see
Hands they’ll never touch.

Cloak of sorrow
I wear with regret
Lovingly remembered
We must not forget.

Bonds that will not break
Lovingly remembered each day
Is the pledge we make.’

Lovingly Remembered, Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

Written especially.

This is Trish, signing off.