Today a number of commemorative ceremonies will take place in Normandy, the biggest of them attended by tens of world leaders and dignitaries, in honour of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
I have three personal second-hand memories of that fateful invasion to share.
Firstly, in the early 1990s, I went on my first visit WW1 cemeteries in Flanders, joining a select private coach tour organised in September every year by a guide who ordinarily worked for Holts Battlefield Tours. Also on the tour was a former prep-school chum of my father’s and his wife.
At one point said chum told us of his D-Day experiences, which began on Day 3 of the landing, whilst serving in a cavalry regiment.
It should have been Day 2, but as the landing craft filled with his unit’s armoured cars approached the beach, there was a cock-up. The experienced skipper of the landing craft announced that, because of the slope of the beach, he could not go in any further. Overruling him, the unit’s commander announced that nothing was going to stop his unit going into action and insisted that the ramp be lowered. As soon as it was, his armoured car went forward … pitched into the water, which was slightly too deep for the purpose, and was left stuck between the landing craft and the sand at an angle of about 60 degrees – sadly, in escaping from the armoured car, one of the crew then drowned. The vehicle couldn’t be moved, with the result that the remainder of the unit on board had to wait until the tide had gone out the following morning before finally going ashore.
In the weeks that followed, during which the story teller had won his MC, there were some very hairy and harrowing engagements with the German defenders of northern France.
Secondly, sitting at a bench on the lawn of my father’s sailing club I once fell into conversation about WW2 with an elderly lady who had just given up sailing due to frailty, much to her disappointment. She had served in the Wrens, piloting a pinnace-type motor launch that had spent most of its time in the waters around Portsmouth dockyard at night, dealing with incendiary bombs etc. dropped by the Luftwaffe that landed on ships in the area. Of all things, when D-Day was postponed for 24 hours before of the dreadful weather, she and her crew were ordered to go out and do a tour of the waiting landing craft moored nearby out in the Channel. They were told to wave at the soldiers etc., in an effort to boost morale amongst the poor landlubbers on board who, unused to being tossed about in heavy seas, might nauseous or worse.
Thirdly and lastly, I once asked my aunt (now 92), another Wren during WW2 who served right at the centre of the planning of D-Day, her most vivid memory of 6th June 1944. She chose being on duty at Exbury House on the Lepe estuary in Hampshire, watching hundreds of US landing craft setting off to cross the Channel with the tears streaming down her cheeks, knowing that so many of those young soldiers on board were likely never to return.