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Angela Tilby: WWII fight for freedom is not over

31 May 2024


The Normandy Memorial Wall at the D-Day Story Museum, Southsea, in Portsmouth

The Normandy Memorial Wall at the D-Day Story Museum, Southsea, in Portsmouth

D-DAY is important here in Portsmouth. This year’s 80th anniversary will draw world leaders to Southsea Common to remember the start of the Allied invasion of northern France, which would eventually bring about the end of the Second World War.

At Portsmouth Cathedral we are preparing for a BBC live broadcast on Sunday. Looking forward to this, last week I visited the British Normandy Memorial, conceived just a decade ago. Its almost completed visitor centre is due to be opened by the King on 6 June. It is built in fields overlooking Gold Beach, and within sight of the Mulberry Harbour, off Arromanches. It took a winding route through the Normandy countryside to the village of Ver-sur-Mer to find it.

The memorial is approached along a gently climbing pathway flanked by six carved panels that describe the events of D-Day and the subsequent battle for Normandy. The names of the 22,442 men who fell on 6 June and the following days are inscribed on the 160 limestone pillars of Memorial Court.

During my short visit, I witnessed a dramatic fly-past by a veteran plane, an address by the broadcaster Nicholas Witchell, founding trustee of the Memorial Trust, and the solemn commemoration of a young Belgian soldier.

Unlike the British war cemeteries elsewhere in Normandy, and in contrast with the village crucifixes near by, the Normandy Memorial has no Christian imagery: no Bible references, no crosses. Memorial Court is inscribed with quotations from Sir Bernard Montgomery, and from the broadcasts of King George VI, General de Gaulle, and Winston Churchill. I couldn’t help remembering that Churchill, although not a conventional believer, recognised the Second World War as a struggle for the survival of Christian civilisation.

It all left me moved, but a little uneasy. We can hardly claim today that the fight against aggressive totalitarianism is over. The freedom that we still enjoy depends on a view of the worth of individuals which comes from a blend of Christianity and Enlightenment humanism. These values are not shared in Russia, China, or Iran, or by Hamas and other militant groups. They are also coming under threat in the West, where increasing numbers seem to see virtue in “strong-man” politics.

Our uncertain future was captured for me on my Normandy visit by David Williams-Ellis’s dramatic bronze sculpture on the seaward side of Memorial Court. Three British soldiers are charging forward from the shoreline, their backs to Gold Beach, their heels flying. The leader points his gun in expectation of what is to come. Their faces are determined, but apprehensive. The struggle for them lies ahead, and, at the end of the day, many will have fallen.

Perhaps the struggle for us also lies ahead, as we attempt to assert the value of human freedom to a generation that has lost its spiritual roots.

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