I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the D-Day landing beaches and the site of the artificial harbour set up at Arromanches, and also to visit Auschwitz, Babyn Yar, the Warsaw Ghetto and a number of other sites right across Europe which remind us what the people who landed in Normandy 75 years ago this week were fighting against. But I wish so much that I’d had the chance to do that with family members or friends who’d actually fought in the war, and to hear their stories. A recent study by Ancestry showed that most D-Day veterans never felt able to speak about their experiences, and that most people don’t have a clear idea of what their relatives’ part in the invasion – those in the Armed Forces and those who played a part in so many other ways – was. The youngest of the remaining veterans are in their 90s now, and some of them have been speaking to the media to mark the 75th anniversary of the invasion. Please let’s listen to them, and thank them whilst we still can.
My visit to Normandy also included seeing some of the war cemeteries where those, and there were thousands of them, who died during Operation Overlord are buried. The Ancestry study showed that most survivors didn’t feel able to talk about their experiences because it was too painful to remember the loss of so many of their friends, as well as the horrors they witnessed. These weren’t even professional servicemen: they were just ordinary blokes from all walks of life. My grandad had a letter from D-Day, which came from Buckingham Palace, wishing the men good luck. There must have been zillions of those letters printed, but, when I was a little girl, I didn’t realise that – I thought the King must have written directly to Grandad!
But, like most people, he didn’t talk about it much. Nor did my other grandfather, nor my great-uncles – only one of whom is still with us; the others are all gone. When I was a kid, there was a stereotype of old men who talked about the war ad nauseam – think Percy Sugden in Coronation Street, or Uncle Albert in Only Fools and Horses. I don’t know where that came from, though, because, as the study’s shown, most of them found it too difficult to speak about at all, never mind in detail and all the time. But some of them are speaking about it today.
I’ve talked about “servicemen”, but obviously many other people also played a crucial part in the events of 75 years ago. The BBC interviewed two ladies who were in the Forces at the time, about their role and their memories, and also showed pictures of the work going on in factories around the country, and talked about how even schoolchildren were drafted in to help pack up the equipment needed for the invasion. And, of course, about the weather forecasters! And amongst the servicemen were the engineers who built the Mulberry harbours at Arromanches and Omaha Beach: one of them told the BBC about the incredible work they did. Two ladies who’d been involved in intelligence at Bletchley Park, something that now attracts a lot of interest but which hardly anyone knew much about until recently, also spoke about their wartime experiences, and how at the time even they didn’t realise just how important the work going on there was.
Viewers were also reminded of the roles played by Special Operations Executive and French civilians. Random comment – the new show court at Roland Garros, in use during the French Open for the first time this year, is named after Simonne Mathieu, who won the ladies’ singles there in 1938 and 1939 and then became the head of the Corps Féminin Français, the women’s branch of the Free French Forces. British and French people who’d been children during the war spoke about the work done by their parents, aunts and uncles in Occupied France and beyond. Particularly touchingly, we also heard from the man in charge of maintaining the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Bayeux.
Once the actual commemorative event at Portsmouth began, extracts from letters and diaries and other personal accounts were read out too. I rather liked the way they’d got people with the right accents to read out each one! I had to smile at the letter from an American GI who’d written to tell his mum and dad that people in the UK were always offering him cups of tea … but nearly cried over the last letter of a French Resistance fighter who was captured and executed at the age of just 16. Another letter was from a man to his wife, saying how much he longed to be with her and their children but knew that he had a job to do. He didn’t survive.
The things you don’t really think about, too. Again, the problems caused by the unpredictable British weather! And coping with the seasickness, something you just can’t train for.
And there was music and dancing. Songs like “Roll out the barrel” were obviously familiar, and there was a French Resistance song, “Le chant des partisans”, sung by Sir Willard White, a man with a wonderful voice. There’s always music associated with wars.
Towards the end, a 99-year-old veteran came on to the stage, spoke about how he’s never forgotten his comrades, and said that “We must never forget”. He was the last person to speak before the Queen spoke of the resilience of the wartime generation, her own generation. I could have done without some of the world leaders taking photos on their phones whilst the Queen was speaking, but that’s 2019! (And I was slightly worried that Theresa May’s rather strange hat was going to blow off, but luckily it didn’t!) The Queen’s been meeting some of the veterans during the course of this afternoon – and it is all about the people who were involved, in whatever capacity, in the D-Day landings. The music and the flypast were all great, but the most important thing was hearing the accounts of those who were involved. There aren’t many of them left now, and so many stories have already been lost. Let’s listen to those who are left, to everything they’re able to tell us. And give them our thanks, because what the world would be like without what they did for us doesn’t even bear thinking about.