Picture the scene … The decade is the 1940’s. The Second World War has been going on for a few years, but as a soldier all you have been doing is constantly training at your base in England. Spring 1944 comes around and you notice a change in atmosphere. Your training has been more intense recently, but no-one really knows why.
In May you are told that all leave has been cancelled, but again you aren’t given a reason. On 4th June you are told that tomorrow is D-Day – the invasion of France. You are later told that bad weather in France means there will be a postponement of 24 hours.
At 00:16 on 6th June the invasion of occupied Europe begins with British gliders landing less than 50 meters from the bridge at Bénouville in what would be renamed Pegasus Bridge.
In the background you can see a crashed glider, showing just how close the pilots were able to get to the bridge.
It’s now 3am on 6th June. You board a landing craft for the journey to France. The average age of your friends to your left and right is around 22. Not only are you faced with a journey in an uncomfortably warm landing craft for over an hour, once there you are told you have a survival rate of around 50% or 60%. At Utah and Omaha, the first wave of attack had a survival rate of 20% to 30%. And that is if you even make the beach. Once there you will face “Hell on Earth”.
The below picture is entitled “Taxis to Hell – and Back – Into the Jaws of Death”
You are faced with a seemingly impossible task … take control of a beach when your enemy is on top of cliffs in concrete bunkers. The beach provides no good cover. You are told to get to the sea wall. You could choose not to go – but you don’t. You are one of the 160,000 Allied troops taking part in “Operation Neptune” – the Liberation of Europe. D-Day began the long hard slog to Berlin, a task that would take just over a year.
By the end of the 6th June 1944, 12,000 Allied soldiers were dead, dying or captured. I have heard of one such Platoon at Omaha that landed on the beach with 80 soldiers – 6 reached the sea wall, 4 made it off the beach. That is a survival rate of 5%. But by the end of D-Day, the five sectors of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword were in Allied Control.
The type of soldier who was willing to give their life for their country came from all across the Commonwealth. They served so other people didn’t have to. Their families were incredibly proud of them – even though they knew that their loved ones may not return. And this trend has continued to this present day.
Many people complain today about trivial things, like they can’t sleep for worrying about something insignificant. These veterans still can’t sleep at night due to the horrific scenes that they have witnessed in war zones. If you watch a WW2 veteran talking about that conflict, it still upsets them to this day.
The below photo was taken in Portsmouth as part of the 75th anniversary commemorations. The veterans of D-Day who are still alive continue to live with the horrors of what they saw.
I always remember the words of a Northern Ireland veteran going to Normandy for the 65th commemorations – “Some things you remember, some things you don’t remember, some things you just don’t want to remember.”
Harry Billinge, an 18 year old Sapper with the Royal Engineers, landed on Gold beach that morning. On the 75th anniversary, when the BBC’s Naga Munchetty called him a hero, he quickly corrected her: “Don’t thank me, and don’t say I’m a hero, I’m no hero I was lucky, I’m here; all the heroes are dead and I’ll never forget them as long as I live”.
Captain John C Raaen was only 22 when he landed on Omaha beach in total command of Headquarters Company of the 5th (US) Rangers. For his actions over the three days after D-Day he was awarded the Silver Star. He retired as a Major General but he summed D-Day up well – “Very few people who are called ‘heroes’ believe themselves to be heroes. Most of know that that was what we had to do, and we did it as best as we could.”
One of the ‘best’ war poems that I have read is by Alfred Edward Housman, entitled ‘XXXIX’:
“My dreams are of a field afar
And blood and smoke and shot.
There in their graves my comrades are,
In my grave I am not.
I too was taught the trade of man
And spelt the lesson plain;
But they, when I forgot and ran
Remembered and remain.”
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. When you go home, tell them of us and say: that for your tomorrow we gave our today.”
Lest we forget.
The new memorial at Ver-Sur-Mer near Gold Beach will form part of Normandy Memorial