Tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of D-day, perhaps the last major day for remembering the Second World War alongside veterans. As a bit of a history geek I have always taken an interest in World War 2 – the politics, the social impact, the everyday reality, and the sacrifice. It can be really hard to imagine what life was like during the Second World War – the fear of invasion and tyranny, the struggle to survive, the hope for victory, the concern for loved ones, and – of course – the continuation of normal life. Friendship, love and work stop for no war!
D-day was the largest single naval invasion in history – hundreds of thousands of soldiers all heading towards an unknown fate. There were landings on 5 major beaches, with glider forces landing over night (most famously at Pegasus Bridge) and fake evidence had been fed to distract the Germans. This included inflatable tank forces on the East Coast, tin-foil making a radar trail similar to the invasion force between Dover and Calais, and mis-information being spread suggesting alternative landing locations. The military history is certainly riveting, but the sheer number of participants can easily mask the human stories.
10 years ago I travelled to Normandy to witness the 60th anniversary. It was a sobering experience, and a few experiences stick out in my mind.
Firstly, we took a ferry from Portsmouth to Le Harve overnight (5th into the 6th), almost exactly mimicking the D-day sailings. This in itself was sobering, but I learnt the next day that one of the veterans had fallen ill during the night. When told the ferry would turn around, he told the crew that he owed it to his departed friends to carry on, and then passed away in the night.
The next day, at Pegasus Bridge, I was swept up in a parade and ended up in the central enclosure for a remembrance service. I was sat next to veterans and assorted dignitaries, and as a 14 year old teenage boy I felt completely out of my depth. When the last post played I looked into the eyes of those around me: liberators and liberated. For these people, the Second World War wasn’t a history lesson, but a major part of their lives.
And one final image sticks with me to this day. As we had walked from the car, I had seen a solitary roadside grave, marking the place where an allied soldier had fallen. On the way back, I saw a veteran knelt by the grave, talking quietly to his long-gone friend.
For me, the anniversary of D-day is about a lot of things. Yes, it is about the ending of fascism and the struggle against tyranny. Yes, it is about the fight for a new world order (witness the NHS, the EU, Human Rights legislation etc.). But we must never forget that it is about people. People who loved, laughed, and lost. For them, we must never forget.