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Veterans honoured in ‘revival of remembrance’

13 June 2014

Gavin Drake reports from Normandy on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings


Joseph Cauch, a veteran from Toronto, collects a shell from Juno Beach

Joseph Cauch, a veteran from Toronto, collects a shell from Juno Beach

THERE were many ceremonies in and around Normandy last Friday, and many moving moments. But the biggest applause - and, indeed, a standing ovation - went to a D-Day veteran who took centre stage at the end of the main international ceremony at Ouistreham, on the beach codenamed Sword.

Johannes Börner was a German paratrooper who was sent with a company of 120 men to fight against the Americans at Saint-Lo on the night of 7 July 1944. Only nine of those 120 survived the battle. Mr Börner's war ended on 21 August when he was captured by Canadians.

In front of the Queen, David Cameron, President Obama, and heads of state and government from around the world, including the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, actors dressed in drab grey and black outfits played out the battle for Normandy using interpretative dance. Firework cannonades and flame throwers added to the atmosphere of doom.

The jubilation of liberation was marked by dances in colourful, free-flowing outfits, before the drama moved on to post-war reconciliation. There was, perhaps, an overtly political message being played out, too. The "concrete" props used throughout the sequence were overturned and placed together to form the yellow-on-blue stars that are symbolic of a united Europe; and here stood Mr Börner, shaking hands with a French D-Day veteran, Léon Gautier.

The message of a Europe reconciled was no accident. In a briefing to journalists, the French President, François Hollande, said that the "exceptional event" was for the "18 nations allied during the war, or since reconciled. France will not only pay homage to its liberators: it will celebrate with all the represented countries the enduring relevance of the struggle to build a more peaceful and fraternal world."

The international service at Ouistreham was the largest of the events taking place on the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings. National ceremonies and services of remembrance took place at Caen for the French, Colleville-sur-Mer for the Americans, Urville-Langannerie for the Polish, Courseulles-sur-Mer for the Canadians, and at Bayeux - led by the choir of St John's College, Cambridge - for the British.

Bayeux, the first town to be liberated after the landings, is home to the largest British war cemetery in France. Here, the British political leaders put aside their party differences to unite in commemoration of the fallen. Also present were senior military officials, families of veterans, and veterans themselves - together with many French people who remain grateful for their liberation.

Before the service began, the Queen's arrival was marked by a low-level fly-past of two Spitfires, a Lancaster bomber, and a Dakota transport plane. Their arrival was unexpected by many in the crowd, who thought that the growing rumble was a helicopter. There were cheers as the planes emerged over the trees.

During the service, the Queen laid a wreath, as did the Prime Ministers of Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. The exhortation "They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old" was read by the national chairman of the Normandy Veterans Association, Eddie Slater.

He was one of about 1000 veterans from Britain, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere who had come to Normandy for the anniversary. It was the seventh large-scale commemoration since France was liberated.

Nevertheless, "The number of veterans has diminished greatly," Prebendary John Richards, chaplain to the Plymouth branch of the Normandy Veterans Association, said. "The 50th was a huge one, with 400 coaches. This has got a sadness about it, because the veterans are no longer there.

"But it was an excellent parade, and the younger generations are being pulled into things. . . Remembrance is reviving, I guess, with the increase in international tensions that we have now."

In the British souvenir programme, the Queen wrote: "On 6 June 1944, after months of planning and training, the largest amphibious assault in history was launched to secure freedom in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of servicemen made the journey across the Channel by sea and air, and through their brave actions and dogged determination, established a vital foothold in Occupied Europe. This immense and heroic endeavour brought the end of the Second World War within reach."

She said that the commemorations would provide the veterans and the people of Normandy with "an opportunity to reflect on their experiences, and the incredible sacrifices that were made".

The gratitude of the French has not waned. Houses and streets throughout Normandy were bedecked with French, British, American, and Canadian flags, as well as the occasional Belgian, German, and Australian one. Handwritten messages were posted in windows, saying simply, "Merci" or "Thanks".

Earlier in the day, the Prince of Wales dedicated a new bell, Thérèse-Bénédicte, "for peace and freedom" in Bayeux Cathedral. The bell, which had been sponsored by the Queen, was consecrated by the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, at an ecumenical service in which the former Bishop of Manchester the Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch, who is national chaplain to the Royal British Legion, preached.

The bell is named after St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, one of six patron saints of Europe. A Carmelite nun, born Edith Stein, she was executed in Auschwitz in August 1942.

In a message to the RC Church in France, Pope Francis said that people must continue to "express their full recognition to all those who made such a heavy sacrifice" to liberate Europe from "Nazi barbarism", while also remembering the German soldiers who were "dragged into this drama".

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State who wrote the letter, said that Pope Francis wanted the commemoration to "remind us that excluding God from the lives of people and society cannot but bring death and suffering".

The day concluded with a final British service, attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on the beach at Arromanches, code-named Gold.

One 89-year-old British veteran, Bernard Jordan, sparked a police hunt when he went missing from the Pines Nursing Home in Hove, Sussex. But Mr Jordan, who had been told that it was too late to book an accredited D-Day visit, had simply caught a coach to Normandy, wearing his medals under a jacket.

Sussex police expressed their support for the veteran in a tweet: "90-year-old veteran reported missing from care home. Turns out they'd said no to him going to #DDay70 but he went anyway #fightingspirit".

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