Norfolk and Suffolk’s D-Day Veterans are preparing to return to Normandy for a bittersweet reunion in June
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019
It's been almost 75 years since Allied forces landed on Normandy's beaches and began to push Hitler's army back to Germany. But for D-Day veterans in Norfolk, the fight goes on to return to the beaches where history was made.
They are the young men who once nervously waited for the signal to move forward on D-Day, the men who helped changed world history, the men who went to hell and back on the longest day to fight for our freedom.
Today, those young men are in their 90s, but they still remember the long summer that followed June 6 1944 when men from all over the world came to fight in Normandy and France will always be grateful to the brothers-in-arms who fought together, the heroes who risked or lost their lives for freedom.
And, every year, amongst them are Norfolk and Suffolk's Normandy veterans, diminished in number but still as resolute as ever in their desire to keep the memory of their comrades alive and to never forget the sacrifices made.
'D-Day and the Battle of Normandy rank with such as Trafalgar and Waterloo,' said Jack Woods, secretary of the Norwich Normany Veterans' Association which each year arranges a return to France for those veterans able and willing to travel, their family, friends and supporters.
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'While we can return, we will. As ever, the spirit is willing but our age is against us and we know that every trip we take back to Normandy could be our last which makes each trip even more special: this could be our swansong and we know it better than anyone else.
'For us, it's a duty, something we do for those that didn't come back to make sure that they are never forgotten. There's a great deal of attention this year because it's the 75th anniversary, but most of us have been coming back to France, quietly, for decades.
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'When you're back you remember what it was like to be in the middle of it all, you remember the friends and the comrades who didn't make it, you remember the ridiculous nature of war and you remember why we can never allow this to happen again.
'In June 1944, we were young men. We were fighting for our country and we had been whipped up into almost a frenzy of hatred for the Germans – when I first went over, I hated them. Then I saw my first dead Germans and I realised: 'they're just like us'. Being taught to kill does something to you, and we shouldn't ever forget that.'
This year, veterans will make the journey on June 4 and return home on June 9 after a whirlwind of commemorations to mark the 75th anniversary, a landmark date which will see them and Normandy under the media glare for days.
Those who survived the Normandy campaign are still scarred by memories: even those who escaped death or injury couldn't escape unscathed - these men experienced the very worst and the very best of times on an overcast day when soldiers appeared on the beaches like a surprise storm.
For each of our D-Day veterans who will return this year, there will be a different trigger: although more than seven decades have passed, their memories are still painfully fresh and can still cause tears to spring to the eyes of these old soldiers who were young men on the morning of June 6 1944.
It might be looking out over a beach packed with holidaymakers on a glorious summer day and remembering being seasick with the swells and sickened with fear under the full moon of 75 years ago. Or the moment they were reunited with an old friend lying in Normandy soil, a comrade who never grew old.
For each of them it will always be remembering the darkest moments of the longest day and being overwhelmed by the welcome and the heartfelt gratitude from those who live in the villages, towns and cities that were freed from German occupation by the veterans and their comrades.
Blue-blazered Normandy veterans no longer parade through the streets of France in their hundreds before a ceremony or a service, their numbers drop every year and the newest battle is to preserve the memories of those who were there on D-Day before they are lost forever.
On June 6 2019, the official international ceremony celebrating this major anniversary will take place on one of the landing beaches and will be attended by many Allied Heads of State - in 2014, President Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and Prince William were all in Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary, along with many world leaders and dignitaries.
For the heads of state who will visit the Normandy beaches that once ran red with blood, the dignitaries who will step in the footsteps of the soldiers who fought for our freedom and for millions who will watch the D-Day commemorations, there will be no personal recollections of June 6 1944.
But for those who were there, the memories of the Longest day burn brightly: history was written on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago in June - the final chapter of the war in Europe had begun. At least five veterans from Norfolk and Suffolk will be on French soil, in the last few days they have been making plans for their itinerary in Normandy - we will follow their journey before and during their trip.
Norfolk Normandy Veteran David Woodrow summed up the reason why the old soldiers return: 'As long as the comradeship continues amongst us we will never forget those we left behind. We just aren't ready to give up and I don't think we ever will be until we physically can't keep going any longer.'
* Until the last minute, the place of invasion – Normandy – was the most heavily-guarded secret on the planet. Even the units conducting the initial assaults didn't know the precise locations of their landings.
* The Germans had 55 divisions in France – the allies could transport no more than eight divisions on D-Day morning.
* Around two million soldiers, sailors and airmen were involved in Operation Overlord including British, Americans and Canadians.
* Planning had begun for the June 6 1944 assault in 1943 – a phantom army of dummy camps, planes and tanks had been constructed in Kent and Essex to deceive Germans into thinking the invasion would be at Calais.
* The naval operation involved an armada if 6,939 vessels. At 3am on June 6, 1,900 Allied bombers attacked German lines dropping seven million pounds of bombs.
* Around 50,000 German troops opposed the landing forces: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was celebrating his wife's birthday in Germany on June 6 and Adolf Hitler was asleep when word of the invasion arrived.
* The heaviest losses were on Omaha beach where American forces lost 2,000 men. In the first hour, the chance of becoming a casualty was one in two. Total Allied casualties were around 10,000 with 4,572 killed, including 1,641 Britons. The Germans lost around 9,000 men.