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Sacrifices of the D-Day fallen must not be forgotten

by
04 June 2024

Nicholas Witchell describes his efforts to establish a national memorial to the servicemen and servicewomen who died in Normandy 80 years ago

BBC

Nicholas Witchell at the British Normandy Memorial

Nicholas Witchell at the British Normandy Memorial

THEY waited in line to board the ships and aircraft of the greatest invasion force ever assembled. Behind lay months of planning. Ahead lay a task of almost unimaginable importance. Upon the shoulders of those young soldiers, sailors, and airmen rested the fate of Western Europe and the hopes of the free world.

As the Allied forces set off in the early hours of D-Day, they received a message from the commander of all D-Day Land Forces, Britain’s General Bernard Montgomery. It contained these words: “To us is given the honour of striking a blow for freedom which will live in history; and in the better days that lie ahead men will speak with pride of our doings.”

That blow was struck. It does live in history. Freedom was restored to Western Europe. And, in the eight decades since the end of the Second World War, we have spoken with pride about what that indomitable wartime generation achieved.

And yet speaking about it isn’t enough. If we are to be true to the memory of the many thousands who lost their lives opposing tyranny in Europe, we must surely do everything that we can to ensure that new generations not only know what was done, but that they understand its significance to our lives today.

 

NINE years ago, in the summer of 2015, I was contacted by a Normandy veteran, George Batts. I had met him the previous year in the course of my then BBC duties as the radio commentator at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

George explained that, for years, he had been trying to engage the interest of politicians and British companies in building a national memorial, in Normandy, to those young servicemen and servicewomen who fought and fell on the beaches and in the fields of Normandy.

He had got nowhere. Every plea had been ignored.

How could this be, I wondered, that the UK was alone among the principal Allied nations of the Second World War not to have a D-Day memorial in Normandy?

Partly, I think, it was because Britain was essentially bankrupt by 1945. There simply wasn’t the spare cash to build a national memorial. Neither was there the will to do it. As is often stated: “People just wanted to get on with their lives.”

But the fact that the absence of a memorial could be understood did not make it right. As a result, I set up the Normandy Memorial Trust, and set about bringing together the people who could, with a bit of luck, realise the dream that had eluded George Batts and other Normandy Veterans.

 

WE SUCCEEDED. The British Normandy Memorial now stands on a hillside above Gold Beach, which our architect, Liam O’Connor, and I founded in September 2016 (Comment, 31 May). On its walls and columns are inscribed the names of the 22,440 men and two women in British units who lost their lives on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy.

His health permitting, on 6 June — the 80th anniversary of D-Day — the King will lead the nation’s tribute at the memorial. The ceremony will be broadcast live on BBC Television.

After the ceremony, the King will open our new education centre — the Winston Churchill Centre — where the Normandy Memorial Trust will hope to ensure that those new generations not only remember the sacrifice of so many, but that they understand what the UK did for Europe, and why it matters.

On 6 June, the great majority of people will, I believe, speak with pride about, and recall with profound gratitude, what those young men and women did on behalf of every one of us in the summer of 1944.


Nicholas Witchell, a former BBC royal correspondent, is founder and trustee of the Normandy Memorial Trust.
www.britishnormandymemorial.org

D-Day 80: We will remember them will be broadcast live on BBC1 on Thursday, 6 June.

Radio 4’s Sunday Worship broadcast a live service to mark the anniversary. Listen here.

Also on Thursday, 6 June, the Daily Service, on Radio 4 Extra, will broadcast a service of thanksgiving and remembrance, led by Lord Dannatt, a former Chief of the General Staff in the British Army.

He will say: “On D-Day, I myself will be at the three-year-old British Normandy Memorial, which stands just outside the village of Ver-sur-Mer overlooking Gold Beach, one of the two beaches where British forces landed on D-Day. It records the names of all those under British command who lost their lives in Normandy between 6 June and 31 August 1944.

“In my new book, Churchill’s D-Day, is recorded Winston Churchill’s nagging fear — expressed in a note to his wife on the eve of D-Day: ‘Do you realise that by the time you wake up in the morning, twenty thousand men may have been killed?’

“Mercifully, his fears on D-Day itself were unjustified, although some four thousand did lose their lives in the beach landings, the airborne assault, at sea, and in the air. However, in the fierce fighting over the next two months, 22,442 service men and women under British command did lose their lives in the campaign. We must always remember their sacrifice as they fought to bring peace and freedom to Europe again.

“And, later today, the Winston Churchill Centre adjacent to the Memorial will be opened, we hope, by the King. The purpose of this Centre is to tell the story of Normandy to future generations, and Britain’s role in restoring democracy and civil society to Europe.

“We must learn the lessons of history. There were five Victoria Crosses awarded during the Normandy Campaign — one on D-Day itself to CSM Stan Hollis of 6th Battalion the Green Howards, whose first action of personal gallantry was just yards from the new British Memorial.

“It is fitting that our highest national award for valour is a Cross — itself the symbol of the Christian faith, reminding us all that Christ gave his life on the Cross that others might have life — a purposeful life in this world and life in the world beyond.

“Those who died in Normandy gave their lives so that others might live in peace and freedom in this world. The Cross encompasses them all. We will remember them.”

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