Norfolk D-Day veterans take part in national and local commemorations

Norfolk Veterans with some poppies. From left, David Woodrow, Jack Woods, Neville Howell, and Alan K

Norfolk Veterans in a Normandy poppy field on a previous trip in 2014. From left, David Woodrow, Jack Woods, Neville Howell, who sadly passed away in 2020, and Alan King. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

For many of Norfolk’s D-Day veterans it was their first outing since the beginning of the pandemic, a chance to catch up with old friends and remember others.

The Royal British Legion and the Normandy Memorial Trust invited around 100 veterans unable to travel to France due to Covid travel restrictions to a commemorative event in Staffordshire.

Norfolk’s Harry Bowdery, who served with the Royal Navy and David Woodrow from the 652 Air Observation Squadron, Royal Air Force and Suffolk’s Alan King from the East Riding Yeomanry, 33rd Armoured Brigade, were among them.

Close to the town of Ver-sur-Mer, from its lofty vantage point the new £30 million memorial gazes over peaceful beaches and calm seas that were transformed 77 years ago into the bloody battlefield of Gold Beach.

The service for the Normandy campaign veterans at Colleville Montgomery, next to Sword Beach. Norfol

David Woodrow, centre (photograph also shows Neville Howell and John Utting). Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

It was here where Corporal Woodrow’s war began, where a boy from Blofield became a man, wading through 4ft deep seawater, heavily laden, into a hell of steel and fire.

He was at the official ceremony in 2019 to unveil the first part of the memorial and was invited to the National Memorial Arboretum to see a live broadcast of the official opening of the newly-completed British Normandy Memorial.

“If you ask any of us whether we think that we’re heroes, we’ll all say no,” he said.

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“We were here because we needed to be here. We did what anyone would do to look after the people we love.”

A field of poppies

Remembering the fallen on the 77th anniversary of D-Day - Credit: SB

Designed by British architect Liam O’Connor, the memorial records the names of the 22,442 servicemen and women under British command who fell on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944.

The veterans watched as the memorial was unveiled and at 11am, the Last Post was played, ushering in a two-minute silence.

British and French wreaths were then laid in front of the D-Day Wall in France to the sound of bagpipes and the RAF’s Red Arrows flew above in formation.

The memorial bears the name of Corporal Sidney “Basher” Bates of the 1st Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Bates, 23, held Perrier Ridge in Normandy in the face of two German divisions and, fearing his section would be overwhelmed, grabbed his fallen colleague’s gun and repeatedly charged forward despite being shot three times.

Even when mortally wounded, he kept firing from the ground and forced the enemy to retreat. He died two days later.

Up until 2019, Norfolk and Suffolk veterans who were able had made the annual pilgrimage to Normandy to pay their respects to their friends and colleagues who made the ultimate sacrifice. Some hope to be able to return in 2022.

In Norwich Lord Mayor Kevin Maguire and Sheriff Caroline Jarrold joined a small memorial to mark D-Day.

Fred Fitch at the D-Day memorial service held at Norwich War Memorial on June 6 2021

Fred Fitch at the D-Day memorial service held at Norwich War Memorial on June 6 2021 Pic: SB - Credit: SB

Fred Fitch, who was part of the first wave on Sword Beach on D-Day as a landing craft operator, was at the gathering at the Norwich War Memorial opposite City Hall to mark the 77th anniversary of the invasions.

“The anniversary is always hard because I think about the men who are no longer here – I am the last of my crew,” he said.

“I can remember everything about that day and seeing their faces as we landed. The air was yellow and you could smell the explosives.

“All you could hear was shouting and screaming. All around people were being killed or hurt and you just had to keep going, try and get through it.”

Unable to return to Normandy for years due to painful memories, Fred finally returned in 2019 for the 75th anniversary and said he hoped to be able to return next year if sanctions are lifted.

“It took a long time to be able to go back, but I’d love to be able to go again,” he said, “I think about my friends all the time. At least I know that when it’s my time, they will be waiting for me.”