Keeping alive the memory of the greatest generation
PUBLISHED: 15:24 12 November 2017 | UPDATED: 15:24 12 November 2017
Today, we will pause to remember those who have fought for our country as part of the Remembrance Day commemorations. Stacia Briggs discovers why Andrew Wright believes it's important to do more than just remember and reveals the war hero who inspired him to help so many others.
For the vast majority of us, today will be the only day of the year when we take the time to reflect on the sacrifice made by those who gave their tomorrow for our today.
But for Andrew Wright, who lives near Lowestoft, the act of remembrance is far more than just an annual two minutes of respectful silence.
He is at the forefront of the push to never forget those who fought for our freedom and has dedicated huge swathes of time to helping veterans, their families and the people they fought for – and against – to find answers, peace and acknowledgement.
Through his worldwide Facebook group Normandy Veterans Family and Friends, and through his own painstaking research, Andrew has helped to organise trips for veterans to go back to the battlefields, villages, towns and cities where they fought in order to pay their respects to their brothers in arms who never came home and has brought old soldiers back together, either in order to share a handshake and memories, or by a graveside to pay their final respects.
And all of it - the hard work, the dedication, the mission to ensure everyone remembers - is due to one man: his father, Frederick Wright, a D-Day hero and Desert Rat who passed away in 2013, but whose memory is kept alive through his son’s determination to honour him.
Andrew, 62, whose family have been involved in the haulage trade since 1921, knew little about his father’s involvement in the war effort when he was growing up – although he was close to his father and mother Margaret, it was a subject which was never spoken about.
“I knew a few bits – Dad had a blazer with a Royal Engineers badge on it – but he never, ever spoke about the war when I was growing up and as a kid, you just accept that. I never asked, it was clear that the subject was closed before it was even opened,” he said.
In the late 1980s, Andrew’s daughter Lisa was learning French at school and asked if the family could visit France for a holiday. Andrew told his father, who lived next door, that the family had booked a holiday village in Normandy for the first week of June.
“Dad said to me ‘I landed there during the war’. It was the first I’d known of it,” said Andrew, “He asked me whether I’d visit Arromanches and Bayeux and told me about the parades.
“When we were there, it was impossible not to be interested in D-Day and the landings and, of course, we were there on June 6, so saw the parade with all the veterans marching and the French waving and applauding.
“At home, I made the mistake of saying to my father that he was missing out by not going back to Normandy to be part of it. He was absolutely furious – he thought I was making light of it, saying that going back would be like a holiday for him. We never talked about it again.”
It wasn’t until 2003 that the subject of Frederick’s Normandy campaign raised its head again. Andrew’s mother Margaret – who herself had served as a Vickers Predictor Operator on gun batteries at Lound and Hastings - was succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease and Frederick had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was worried about the future.
Andrew spoke to his father and realised he had ghosts to lay to rest regarding his time in combat: with the help of Lisa, he got in touch with Jack Woods, of the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans’ Association and found out when the veterans met.
Fred wasn’t initially keen to join, but agreed to attend a meeting, where he met fellow veteran Bill Fisher and found a kindred soul. Several months – and meetings – later, and early on a Sunday morning in April 2004, Andrew was woken by an insistent knocking on the door – when he opened it, he saw his father, who was crying: “He said: ‘There’s one thing I’ve got to do before I die: I’ve got to go back.”
With a little over a month before the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, finding somewhere to stay proved to be almost impossible. At the eleventh hour, lodgings became available at the holiday village where Andrew had stayed on his first-ever visit.
“The first visit was a bit strange and overwhelming for Dad, but he was over the moon with the reaction and it felt like we’d turned a bit of a corner,” said Andrew.
“Two years later, we went back. It was still low-key. People would ask him his stories and he wouldn’t say much, but when we visited two schools in Normandy and the children asked him questions, they always got the truth.
“We knew there were things that he couldn’t forget, but that he wished he could. Things that he’d seen, things that he’d been through, things a young man should never see.”
Andrew remembers a day when his aunt visited his father to cook him a meal. After dinner, Fred fell asleep at the table.
“Suddenly, he was almost shouting – my Dad never swore but he was cursing, saying ‘Kill them! Kill those b*stards!’ We had to wake him up – I’d never heard him like that although my Mother had told me about his night terrors.
“When I spoke to him about it, he said to me: ‘You must remember I was a butcher before the war and blood doesn’t worry me. I didn’t sleep until the late 1970s and now I’ve forgotten about it, I sleep. There are things I don’t wish to remember.’ I was shocked,
it showed me the depth of what he was hiding from us all to protect us.”
In all, Andrew and his father made the pilgrimage to Normandy in the faithful Mercedes eight times and were planning their ninth trip in June 2013, a year before the fanfare of the 70th anniversary. Tragically, Fred developed pneumonia a few weeks before the trip and was being treated in hospital. On April 27, he died, at the age of 92.
“He was my hero and without him I felt lost. When he decided that he was ready to speak about Normandy and to go back, it gave us something new to do together and it meant I got to know a whole different side to him,” said Andrew.
“I went back to Normandy as we’d planned the year he died and I was numb. I was completely devastated, but even then, I knew that I couldn’t just walk away from the veterans that had come to mean so much to me. Ask anyone who has been back with the veterans and they’ll tell you that they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else on June 6. Not when there are veterans who are still returning and even beyond that, I can’t think of where I’d rather be in that week.
“Going back is bittersweet these days but I have found a way to channel that by trying to help other veterans in different ways. Some need help to find the graves of the boys they fought with, some want to go back to places that are important to them.
“I found that lots of the veterans always went back with an idea of something they needed to do, but found it hard to do it, and that’s where I tried to help.
“Sometimes it’s been about bringing two sides back together – we have German members in the group and who we meet every year and there is no bad feeling whatsoever. They all had a job to do, it was a case of kill or be killed. They were just like our boys - they all loved their mothers.”
One Norfolk veteran, Norman Taylor, asked Andrew to help him find a friend who had died in August 1944 as they fought in the Normandy campaign. Private Ronald Miller, 25, from Coventry, was killed outright and Norman had never known how to find him in order to pay his respects, until Andrew was able to find the grave in Lisieux Cemetery, and take him to it.
“When he laid his cross on the grave and stepped back, it meant as much to me as it did to him that he’d found his friend,” he said.
Andrew also reunited his father’s veteran friend Fred Harris with the young lieutenant whose life he had saved in Normandy, 70 years earlier.
Army driver Fred, then 21, jumped from his vehicle as bullets flew overhead to save injured and bleeding comrade General Sir Hugh Beach during a gun battle at La Bassee. After hearing Fred’s story, and piecing together several strands of evidence, Andrew was able to put the pair in touch with each other and, after corresponding, the pair met for a pint at the Victory Services Club in Marble Arch in 2014.
Fred said at the time: “I said to him that it’s a shame I didn’t know what he had achieved since our last meeting because I could have dined out on this story!”
And he helped veteran Alan King find the chateau where he took shelter in the heat of battle and as helped students with their projects (Ben McGregor, whose school work has included projects which Andrew has assisted with, said: ‘Andrew does an outstanding job in honouring the greatest generation’).
He recently facilitated a trip to Holland for six veterans who returned to the towns they helped to liberate amongst a litany of kindnesses that make a world of difference to veterans, their loved ones and the perpetuation of remembrance.
“It’s very difficult to explain, but when you get involved with the veterans and get to know them, it’s impossible to walk away – they get into your heart,” he said.
“When I go back to Normandy now – in Dad’s old car, of course – it’s like he’s coming back with me in a small way. I am there for him, for me and for the other veterans. I took my granddaughter this year, which was really special.
“Although my father is no longer with us, it’s a way to connect to him through them – I hope I would be making him proud and he is in everything that I do. All of this, really, is just my way of saying ‘thank you, Dad, I’ll never forget you. I love you.’”