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27 Apr 2009

D-Day +65years: personal connection

This year’s 65th anniversary of D-Day is a couple of months away, and sadly, will probably be the last significant anniversary where there will be more than a handful of survivors able to attend. My own father is 88 this year, and there are now only one or two of his former comrades from the RAF still around.
He will be coming to Normandy, as usual, this summer for a visit. He did not land in Normandy in 1944, but in the south of France in August, near St Tropez, in what was called the D-Day of the South, but which is now almost entirely overlooked. He had been fighting in Corsica before, so it was an obvious outcome as the northern invasion was making progress. It was no easy trip: landing on a beach under fire. His best mate beside him was shot dead as they ran; could have been him.
As the participants fade away, the facts become increasingly lost in the fog of Hollywood films and inventions. Few people, for example, seem aware of the tremendous importance and breathtaking innovation of the floating Mulberry harbours, which made the invasion possible, or know that of the five landing beaches only one was not an immediate success.
For the 60th anniversary of D-Day, we took my father to the extraordinary and moving Memorial museum at Caen. This is dedicated to peace not war, and puts the emphasis on the people and not the hardware. When the staff knew he was an ancien combattant (veteran), we were all given free admission, and the constant help and attention of the incredibly soignée hôtesses who are the guides and attendants.
At one point, one of them kneeled beside him – he has to use a wheelchair these days – and said ‘Merci, merci pour tout vous avez faites pour la France – thank you for everything you did for France. As she said it the other people around were in tears, she was in tears, and though he tried hard not to let it show, so was my father. Later he said that this was the first time anyone had ever thanked him personally, and it was the first time he had realised that no one ever had.
Many of the exhibits in the museum are around the occupation, not just D-Day and its aftermath, with documents such as death sentences for resistance members, photographs of events, people and hardship – everything from death to starvation, and the resistance. My father also said later that this was the first time he had ever had to think about the occupation and the lives of the people they were invading, effectively to rescue.
We now rarely think of the reality of those days, or of the people, particularly civilians, who died during the occupation and the liberation. The photo at the top of this page is of the war memorial at Ouistreham, where all the western crossing ferries now land. It is outside the wonderful Romanesque church that you can see at the end of the road to the centre of the town as you drive out of the port. The names are categorised: soldiers, deported to the concentration camps, shot, and just ordinary civilians killed (this group of names is continued on the other side of the memorial).
I hope that those who visit Normandy for the anniversary will see the events for what they were, and not just the raw material for another wretched shoot-em-up computer game. There were no second lives, no-one got up and had another go. The dead from the invasion and the war overall are still dead.
The Caen Memorial is off junctions 6 or 7 of the peripherique nord, the northern ring road, and there are good public transport links from Caen. It is imperative if you want to understand the reality of war and D-Day.
My father has written his memoirs – not badly, as it happens – and there are copies in the Imperial War Museum and the RAF Museum. The memoirs  have been published on Kindle as an eBook from Amazon, and more details including chapters to read on this website.

1 comment:

py2ny said...

Very nice. We are going Normandy for 2nd time now (2004 was the first) and I can remember the time before, talking with a lot of veterans and giving them "thanks". We don´t have this kind of consideration about our own WW II Veterans in Brasil - and I am friend of old pilots from "Senta a Pua 1st Fight Squadron that fought at Italy skies in 1944/1945...
Congratulations about your father...