60th Commemoration of the Normandy Invasion – 2004
Day 1: May 27th Thursday: Travel via Portsmouth to the Ibis Hotel in Caen Centre
Day 2: May 28th Friday: Visit Caen Town Hall for medal presentations, then Sword Beach
Day 3: May 29th Saturday: Sainte Croix-sur-Mer church service and B3 Typhoon Memorial; Sword beach & Arromanches
Day 4: May 30th Sunday: Tilly-sur-Seulles Cemetery and Noyers Bocage
Day 5: May 31st Monday: Trouville and St Desir de Lisieux to visit British Allied & German Cemeteries
Day 6: June 1st Tuesday: Free day in Caen
Day 7: June 2nd Wednesday: Return home
This was our first introduction to the pilgrimage that the Normandy veterans undertook on an annual basis, as we (mother, husband, daughter & myself) joined them for a short period because of work commitments. We arrived late on Friday evening, having travelled after work, and were welcomed into the group in the friendly, inclusive manner that they embrace all into their company. We stayed with them for 4 days, and at the end of that time I recorded in my diary: So many stories. Where do I start?
Below is a snapshot of some of those stories:
o Percy Redfern, the branch Secretary who gave a very modest account of how he was selected to be awarded the Legion d’Honneur by the French ambassador at a ceremony in London (“I really don’t know why I was selected“). The medals were the first of 70 awards being made by France to British veterans ahead of the 60th commemoration of the D-Day landings and Percy had literally received the award a week before his pilgrimage to Normandy.
o Flo Viggars, whose husband Bert had been President of the Stockport & District NVA and had organised the 60th anniversary tour but who had died, aged 80, in March. Flo was brave and quietly stoic, although a tear was shed as she received Bert’s medal at the ceremony in Caen.
o Three veterans (Tim Donaghue; Phil Greenhalgh and one other) had been at Dunkirk and not only survived but escaped back to England, to be sent to Normandy 4 years later. Phil told the story of being injured at Dunkirk, with a head injury, and he struggled to rejoin the British troops with a comrade carrying leg injuries. They reached the beach with the help of a motorcyclist soldier balancing all 3 of them on the bike and as an injured amn he was given priority on getting on to a Navy vessel. He spent 6 months in hospital when he got back to England.
o Arthur Whelan, now wheelchair-bound, who had been in a tank which was blown up. His driver was killed instantly and when colleagues pulled him out they smashed his hip and his legs in the urgency to rescue him before the tank blew up.
o Mike Davies, the 6 feet 2½ inches Standard Bearer who is a veteran RAF/ Fusilier whose wife June was the Normandy veteran as a field nurse
o Wally MacKenzie, who at 4 feet 7½ inches claims to be the smallest soldier in the army. He served as a cook in the Infantry and has his own 40s style band, playing at tea parties and wartime commemoration events.
o John Flanagan, a Royal Engineer whose wife died 6 years ago. He has a photograph of Nanette, a French girl he met in Normandy, which provides an interesting story.
o Freda & Bill Ward who are so welcoming to our whole family
o Mary & Jack Williams whose A Motor Mechanic’s Memories of the Second World War are recorded in Stockport Library as part of The People’s War archives. As well as being a retired director of the Manchester car dealer, Jack was a Police Special for 25 years.
o Mary Tooby, a lovely 90 year old Catholic woman with such a positive view on life (she died at 104 years old in March 2018) who had lost both her husband and her daughter within months of each other in 2000. She always asked Father Vin to say special prayers at the grave of unknown soldiers, because she feels such pity for the mothers who never knew what had happened to their sons.
o Joyce Whaite, whose husband John Albert had died recently, and whose son Stephen had come along to replace (and represent) his father. Their visit to Sword beach, where Albert landed, was very emotionally charged.
o Alan Henshaw, whose claims that because his overlarge guns had put out a German tank that the officer gave the crew a bottle of champagne may have seemed extravagant, but later investigation proved that this is, in fact, recorded. We nicknamed Alan ‘the flirt’ because he liked to steal kisses.
o Rose Kelsall, whose husband John was a veteran & whose family (like my mum’s) had come out to support her
o Audrey Chambers, whose husband Eric was a veteran, with her daughter Lynne Given & friend Val Jones, offered such support to Joyce Whaite as she struggled with the emotion of the visit.
o Jim & Tess McHugh who wanted to visit Hermanville because Jim’s brother John (who had been injured on 6th June and died on 7th June from his injuries) was buried there.
o The veteran who told the story of being in the Territorial Army (TA) and spending the evening with his girlfriend on 23rd August 1939. He left her at 11 pm and at 2 am a telegram arrived which the telegram boy insisted had to be delivered to him personally. He was instructed to report to his depot IMMEDIATELY in full uniform. He had been called up a week before WW2 was declared.
But perhaps for us the most memorable event of the visit was the chance meeting with two coaches of German veterans at St Desir de Lisieux. This was the first encounter of German veterans in all the group’s visits to Normandy. The Germans were just about to depart in their coaches as ours arrived and when they realised that we had also come to pay our respects to the fallen, they joined us in the British cemetery and asked if we would go into the German Cemetery – which had always been our intention. The veterans were led by a Peace Officer, who played Fallen Comrades on his bugle. The veterans talked and there was a shared sense that they were the men who were required to fight – to follow orders – rather than any animosity between them. For all of us there were moving stories: the twin brother and sister who had come to search for their father’s grave (he had been killed before they were born) since this was their first visit to Normandy. As East Germans they had ever had the chance to visit until after the unification of Germany in 1990, and they had decided to make the 60th anniversary their pilgrimage. A bell was tolled and as we left the German bugler played Amazing Grace. I don’t think there were many dry eyes at that moment.