Norfolk veterans gather on Normandy beaches to remember D-Day’s fallen
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016
Stacia Briggs and photographer Denise Bradley joined Norfolk's D-Day veterans on the beaches of northern France to remember one of the bloodiest days in British history.
The Normandy landings on June 6, 1944 took three years of meticulous planning by the Allied forces but their impact has lasted a lifetime.
The events of June 1944 are still within living memory, but every year the chance to hear at first-hand the stories from those who participated in an event that changed the course of history lessen – it's why going back with Norfolk's Normandy veterans is so very important.
Yesterday in Arromanches, those who were willing and able to return to northern France 72 years after they first clambered to shore from serried ranks of landing craft gathered together to remember those no longer able to make the annual pilgrimage to the beaches and those who lost their lives in a campaign which marked the beginning of the end of the war.
Members of the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans Association, their families and their friends were amongst those who bowed their heads at mass as their bravery was commended and as the fallen were honoured. The numbers of veterans had visibly dwindled from last year, the march of time taking its toll on those who took part in the brutal battle for freedom.
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The Allied invasion of Normandy was the largest amphibious assault ever launched, involving an invasion force of more than 156,000 soldiers – in total, British and Commonwealth casualties on D-Day numbered around 4,300. Thousands more died in the ensuing Battle of Normandy that opened the Allied march to Paris.
Photographer Denise Bradley and I joined five of our D-Day veterans, who have returned to Normandy thanks in part to kind donations from EDP readers three years ago, in the beautiful seaside resort of Arromanches which 72 years ago yesterday was at the centre of an invasion which changed the world.
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Alan King, from the East Riding Yeomanry, 33rd Armoured Brigade, landed there. Every time he returns, he finds himself facing the sea, comparing the town to the one he first saw as a young man, thinking back to the wild weather conditions that hampered his progress as he waded ashore.
Beside him, Jack Woods, from the 9th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment, 31 Tank Brigade, Neville Howell from the Queen's Royal Regiment, 7th Armoured Division, David Woodrow from the 652 Air Observation Squadron, Royal Air Force and Len Fox, Despatch Rider, Royal Service Corps – a band of brothers, united by one day more than seven decades ago.
They are both ordinary and extraordinary men, quiet heroes whose stories are fascinating, harrowing and vital: without them, and men like them, the history books might have read very differently, and the French are well aware of their heroism and sacrifice: in Normandy, the veterans are treated like royalty.
Yesterday, there was an open-air mass in the Place du 6 Juin followed by a French and British ceremony in the presence of several hundred veterans at 4pm before a flypast of vintage planes, a parachute jump and an air show.
Last night, the sky was set ablaze with the annual fireworks ceremony preceded by raucous singing (last year we were serenaded by a veteran who had been on the Arctic Convoys before his Normandy duties and whose sea shanties were somewhat fruity) in the pubs around the town square.
While the celebrations are welcome and spectacular, the reminders of what happened 72 years ago are ever-present: the Mulberry artificial harbour at sea, for one.
In all, there were 6,939 vessels involved in D-Day: 1,213 warships, 4,126 landing craft, 736 ancillary craft and 864 merchant vessels gathered south of the Isle of Wight in preparation for landings at five Normandy beaches along 50 miles of the coast, at Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history.
By 12.10am, the first pathfinders had jumped over Normandy in advance of the airborne assault to mark drop zones for paratroopers and landing paths for gliders, two bridges over the Caen canal were captured to secure the route for troops landing at Sword Beach and to prevent the Germans coming west. Norfolk's David Woodrow was part of the airborne mission to find safe places for Allied troops to land.
Norfolk's North Creake airfield had a vital role in D-Day with No 199 and No 171 Squadrons of No 100 RAF Bomber Command taking part in radio counter-measure missions intended to conceal the true position of the main Allied bomber thrust and create confusion among German radar operators. By using airborne radio transmitters called Mandrel, German early-warning radar was jammed while aluminium strips or chaff, known as 'window', was dropped by crews flying Stirling IIIs and Halifax IIIs.
Through the night, paratroopers landed and the first wave of bombers left Britain to attack targets close to the beachheads. By 4am, the first town in France was liberated, Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
Merville Battery was captured by the British 9th Parachute Battalion, including Norfolk's John Walker, one of the Red Devils who survived a daring mission at the outset of Operation Overlord which helped save many lives on the Normandy beaches. The late Mr Walker is represented in Normandy by his family, daughter Karen and grandson Ian.
The bombardment of the beaches began at around 5.30am with seven battleships, 23 cruisers and 103 destroyers pounding the shoreline.
Alan King, who yesterday stood on the beach where he first landed 72 years ago, was part of the initial assault on Sword Beach just after 7am: 'The sea was wild on D-Day, we were deployed in numerous attacks aimed at containing German Panzer units. We moved on to the area around Cambes-en Plein and that was the first time we faced up to the enemy. That's when we grew up. Kill, or be killed. Somebody once said to me: 'How do you remember so much?' When you're sent to meet your maker, you don't forget the journey.'
At 7.30am, the British 50th Division landed, among them Reg Burge, from Norwich, whose widow Kitty will lay a wreath in his memory this week.
Speaking to me in 2012, he told of the moment he drove his Bren Carrier off the landing craft at Gold Beach and straight into a scene of utter carnage.
'Everybody was frightened and anyone who says otherwise is a liar,' he said. 'We didn't know what we were going into. I lost all my mates on those beaches, all of the lads I joined up with, gone. My friend Tom Theobald died on the beach beside me – he joined at the same time as me but had never left England until D-Day. He was killed by a sniper. I saw my mates fall, but we weren't allowed to stop and pick up their bodies, we had to keep pressing on. I had to try and put aside what I'd seen and keep going.'
By the end of June, the Allies had seized Cherbourg, landed around 850,000 men and 150,000 vehicles and were poised to continue their march across France – two months later, Paris was liberated, the Allies were pushing towards Germany to meet Soviet troops moving in from the east. The tide had turned against the Nazis.