2013 - 69th Anniversary

Sunday 2nd to Sunday 9th June 2013

After all the usual late changes in the run up to departure, our two coaches set off from the North West of England at around 10 o’clock on Sunday morning. The group from Liverpool was treated grandly, with a big fuss being made by the Lord Lieutenant of Merseyside and the Lord Mayor of Liverpool. The press was widely represented and many veterans could later read about themselves as new celebrities.

By comparison, the other coach slipped out of Ellesmere Port with a cheery wave from assembled relatives. There were a number of stops en route to Portsmouth, taking the opportunity to pick up veterans and companions joining from Stoke, Nottingham, Birmingham, Derby, Hull and Witney near Oxford. It was during our lunch stop at the Peartree Services near Oxford where the two Royal Marine veterans were introduced to each other. Jim Baker DSM and Patrick Churchill had both landed on Juno Beach but had not met before. It was a challenge to separate them so we could continue the journey!

It was simply a day of easy travelling, with a relaxing evening at two hotels in Portsmouth. As we all enjoyed a hearty breakfast on Monday morning, the party was made complete by the addition of two serving Royal Marines who joined from HMS Bulwark by special MoD arrangement. The total group finally consisted of 50 veterans, 2 Royal Marines, 35 companions, 4 professional medics, 1 piper and 8 helpers.

Map Room Southwick House
Retired Colonel J T Green OBE talks to the veterans about the historic Map Room at Southwick House

The first engagement was a visit to Southwick House in Portsmouth. As Eisenhower’s wartime HQ, this was a fitting start to the week. Once the coaches were cheerfully waved through by the Gurkha gate guards, we spilt into two groups to more conveniently suit site facilities. In turn, we were treated to guided tours of the Museum of Military Police and the celebrated Map Room in the main house. Special thanks go to Colonel Jeremy Green for his knowledgeable presentation of Southwick House history; it was especially enjoyed by a number of veterans when Colonel Green thanked them for enlightening him on some detailed aspects of D-Day. Thanks also go to Dame Mary Fagan DCVO JP, the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire, who spent an hour chatting to the veterans. As Her Majesty the Queen’s official representative in the County, her interested and animated involvement was much appreciated.

It was a short road journey to the Ferry Terminal where we boarded the Brittany Ferries vessel for the 2.45pm crossing to Ouistreham. It was a comfortable crossing in good weather. As usual, a wreath laying ceremony was arranged with the Ship’s Captain as the ship approached the French coastline. The ceremony was very well attended by most passengers aboard and conducted mainly by the Royal Navy veterans within the Party.

Wreath laying at sea
Veterans gather on the deck of the ferry to lay a wreath for those comrades lost at sea

Refreshed from a good night at the Caen hotel, the group visited Cambes en Plaine and Ranville cemeteries consecutively for wreath laying ceremonies. This was followed by a packed lunch stop at the Merville Battery Museum which is operated by a local charity. The veterans were all made very welcome and some went inside the Dakota which is there on permanent static display. One of the veterans in the Party was involved in the taking of this strategically important battery in the early hours of D-Day morning, so it was a poignant visit for him. After lunch, the coaches made the journey inland to the small town of Thury Harcourt where we were all given a splendid welcome by the children of the Paul Herault Primary School. Once off the coaches and led by the ceremonial Piper, the veterans formed a parade and marched up the short pathway into the school courtyard. Seated in warm sunshine, assembled veterans were treated to a charming welcome speech by the Head Teacher, followed by one from Monsieur Paul Chandelier, the Town Mayor. On behalf of the 50 Normandy Veterans in attendance, John Phipps made a presentation of a historic invasion map which had been signed by all the veterans during the Channel crossing the previous day. Each of the veterans had signed his name and included a brief note of service history – regiment, date of landing and of course a few comments. This was well received by the Head Teacher who promised to fix it on prominent display in the school.

D-Day veterans visit Normandy school
British veterans watch local school children sing "God Save the Queen" at Thury-Harcourt

Generously invited by Monsieur Chandelier to the Town Hall, there was a drinks reception. It was here that two extraordinary things happened leading to great enjoyment and creating some lasting memories.

The Mayor had spotted Royal Marines Veteran, Jim Baker, at the school. It was only when Jim entered the Town Hall Veterans’ Room that he was astonished to see a massive photograph of himself. It was explained the Town had purchased this seeing it as a symbolic representation of a British Veteran of the Normandy Landings: the Débarquement and the ensuing liberation of their town. It was clear they never expected to meet the actual veteran! There was a great deal of fuss made of Jim Baker, a Veteran of the Régiment de la Chaudière who initially landed at Juno Beach but also took part in the Omaha Beach landings.

Royal Marines D-Day Veteran
The Mayor of Thury-Harcourt is surprised to find veteran pin-up, Jim Baker, amongst our group!

As the group settled down and enjoyed the treats of local apple wine, Monsieur Chandelier made his speech of welcome. Then, prepared with prior knowledge of those in the veterans’ party, he called forward Gordon Drabble for special attention. Since 1945, the town has established strong links with the 59th South Staffordshire Regiment for their part in the Liberation. Gordon has served as a 19 year old Lance Corporal with the Regiment. After his landing at Gold Beach, Gordon had been in the fighting through to 12th August 1944. Severely wounded that evening, Gordon could not be part of the town’s liberation the next day. But here we were in June 2013, 69 years later and Gordon’s first proper return to Thury Harcourt. To celebrate a first meeting with one of their Liberators, the Mayor presented Gordon with a certificate of honorary citizenship; he also received a commemorative tie, a medallion and a book of the town’s history. It is fair to comment that Gordon and his wife, Vi, were quite overwhelmed with the surprise ceremony. After a later wreath laying ceremony at the town’s memorial which is situated on a difficult road crossing, Gordon quipped that he would exercise his new authority and arrange a road widening scheme to improve coach parking!

Normandy Veteran in Thury Harcourt
59th Division Veteran, Gordon Drabble, is proud to be given the freedom of Thury-Harcourt.

In keeping with tradition, the 5th June demanded a visit to Pegasus Bridge and its Museum. We spent a couple of hours here during the morning, and included a wreath laying ceremony on the old bridge itself. With quite a few Para Veterans in the party, it was a fitting tribute.

D-Day Veterans Cafe Gondree
Paratroop veteran, Tony Huntbach, shares a joke with a group of serving soldiers at Café Gondrée

Once some strays were rescued from the grip of Madame Gondrés Café, the group went to the nearby small town of ‘Rots’ for a pre-arranged lunch. Upon arrival, we joined up with Normandy Veterans from the Surrey & Norwich NVA (organised by Veteran Jack Woods) for a wreath laying ceremony at the Town Memorial.

As we waited for all to assemble, the Chairman of ‘D-Day Academy’, Jean-Pierre Benamou, explained the history of the town’s liberation. We learned that it was primarily the Royal Marines who eventually took the town, yet only after a hard fight resulting in destruction of the church tower and many casualties, both civilian and military. It was a little later when Pat Churchill, one of the Royal Marine veterans in the ‘D-Day Revisited’ Party sheepishly confessed that he fired on the church tower from his Centaur Tank in order to clear it of enemy snipers.

normandy veterans visit Rots 2013
Jean-Pierre Benamou explains to gathered veterans how the town of Rots was liberated by the Royal Marines

All the veterans enjoyed lunch together in the historic Dimes Barn (Grange aux Dimes). In response to a request during the planning stage from Para Veteran, Ivor Anderson, all veterans and companions were offered the option of taking part in the late evening celebrations to be held at Pegasus Bridge. This takes place each year, culminating in a firework display to coincide with the exact time of the first landing at 00:17. Surprisingly, over 50 people wanted to be included so a full coach left the hotel later in the evening to arrive at Pegasus Bridge in good time for the film presentation which commenced at dusk. There was a distinctly busy atmosphere of celebration, with hundreds enjoying the evening. Piped Bands paraded back and forth over the new road bridge and the Café Gondré was heaving with those who were clearly delighted to be back after exactly 69 years. Ivor and the other Para Veterans – Len Buckley, Lance Rooke and Alf Bradshaw had a particularly enjoyable evening. Madame Gondré was very pleased to introduce the veteran Free French Commando, Léon Gautier, who had landed with Kiefer’s Brigade which fought its way through Ouistreham to Pegasus Bridge. It was a great evening, thoroughly enjoyed by all in the group even though we didn’t get back to the hotel until after 01:30 – tired but happy.

fireworks pegasus bridge 6th june 2013
An impressive firework display began at Pegasus Bridge as the clock struck midnight 5th of June

D-Day the sixth of June is of course the big day of formal ceremonies. We started with a visit to the Bayeux Cathedral for the Service which started at 10:00am. Each year the French Police seem to be increasingly helpful, recognizing the need to park as close as possible to the Cathedral.

After losing 10 minutes extricating RAF Veteran Larry Taylor DFC from the Mayor’s reception, both coaches took the short journey to the Bayeux British Military Cemetery for the formal Veterans’ Parade and Service. As the Ceremonial Band did not turn up, we saved the day as our Piper, Andy Patton, led the Parade down the main aisle to the Memorial. He was formally thanked by the Padre who went on to valiantly lead the hymn singing without accompaniment.

Our TA helper, Eamonn Cowan, carried the RAF Standard which was much appreciated by the RAF Veterans – Larry, Chris Hart, Eric Reedman and Paddy Black. It was a grand gathering, leaving some mindful of the inadequacy of the English Language. It seems improper to say that a cemetery visit is “enjoyed”, yet it was clear to see that all the veterans came away from the event feeling good about all its features. There is the usual growl that veterans are left to wait behind the dignitaries before they can lay their own wreaths but such is unfortunately the fixed protocol of such ceremonies, typically mistaking the fact that it is the veterans who are the true VIPs on such occasions.

D-Day veterans Bayeux Cemetery
D-Day Revisited 2013 Group at Bayeux Cemetery

Behind the ceremonies there was a personal moment of discovery for Cliff Ennis, the Senior Medical Officer. Whilst walking around the rows of headstones and noting the orderliness and the well-kept condition of the lawns and borders, Cliff came upon the grave of his Uncle. Although from research at home he had an idea of where to look, he was clearly emotionally moved by this family reunion which forged for him an even closer link with the whole Normandy Event.

Perhaps more poignantly, veteran Ken Wright and his wife Lilian were able to visit the grave of Ken's favourite brother. Corporal Wright of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was killed on the 14th of August. He was 22.

Bayeux War Cemetery
Veteran Ken Wright lays a poppy cross at his brother's grave in Bayeux Cemetery

Fortified by a packed lunch en route, the Party made the short trip over to Arromanches for the afternoon of relaxation, wandering this tourist town and joining in the fun of the big day – ice creams, tea/coffee and the occasional glass of beer or wine. The weather was kind this year and we all strolled in the summer sunshine, as the veterans are treated as visiting celebrities by the townsfolk, visiting tourists and the increasing number of re-enactment enthusiasts. Veteran Arthur Sharkey commented that he had been unable to walk more than a few yards before each interruption to have his photograph taken. He and his wife, Dorothy, certainly felt like visiting celebrities.

D-Day veterans Arromanches
From left to right: Ron Black, Les Stuart, Bill Lloyd, John Dennett and Paddy Black at Arromanches

During the afternoon, we carried out a brief but fitting wreath laying ceremony at the Royal Marines Memorial which is situated alongside the Museum. Accompanied by the Piper, our Royal Marine & Royal Navy veterans conducted the proceedings with Ron Black, veteran of Dunkirk and Normandy, laying the signed wreath.

On Friday we started with a visit to the coastal battery at Longues-sur-Mer where everyone was able to just wander around the derelict artillery emplacements. Royal Navy Veteran, Richard Llewellyn, explained that it was his ship, the Light Cruiser HMS Ajax, which engaged and neutralised this battery during its bombardment in support of the Gold Beach landings. This visit was followed by a couple of hours at the American Colleville Cemetery. Upon arrival, the Party was welcomed by the Museum Manager and given permission to conduct a wreath laying ceremony at the central Memorial. Those who are familiar with this cemetery will know that it has a commanding view over Omaha Beach and is the last resting place to more than 9,000 men who were killed during the Landings and the ensuing Normandy Campaign. Afterwards back at the coaches, all enjoyed a packed lunch as we made our way over to St Mère Eglise to continue this day in the American Sector.

As always with these ‘D-Day Revisited’ pilgrimage trips, St Mère Eglise is rather like an American version of Arromanches, without the sea front. It is a tourist town much liked by D-Day enthusiasts and battlefield tour parties. Once again for our Party it provides a welcome opportunity for relaxation in welcoming surroundings. The town is of course famous for being the first liberated and still features the dummy parachutist hanging from the church steeple in memory of John Steele’s unfortunate arrival with the American 82nd Airborne in the early hours of 6th June 1944.

Veterans Sainte-mere-eglise
Veterans pose at C47 Cafe with Ellwood von Seibold and charity secretary Victoria Phipps

It has become a ‘D-Day Revisited’ tradition for the last evening at the hotel to include a convivial final dinner, with votes of thanks for those in the Party who had made the week run so well. This year each of the Helpers, including Medics and Royal Marines were presented with a Certificate of Appreciation from the Organisation. Each person’s certificate had been signed by a selected Veteran who had formed a particular connection. For example, the two marines were pleased to see their certificates signed respectively by Royal Marine Veterans, Jack Quinn and Pat Churchill, in this way connecting them directly with those who had served so many years before. Eamonn’s was fittingly signed by Birmingham Veteran, Tommy Dutton, having spent so much time together for the past few days since Tommy’s legs became too tired to carry him. Included in the main speech was the reading of three letters which had been received; these were all well-wishing for this pilgrimage week in Normandy. Out of the three – from Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour Party Leader Ed Milliband and Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard, it was pretty much unanimously agreed by all in attendance that Julia Gillard’s letter was outstandingly the best.

RASC Gold Beach Veteran, Alan Henry, had invited on old friend to the dinner. This was Lillian Merle, a local resident. We were delighted she could join us once again, especially as it helped to develop a perspective of the Normandy history from one who was on the receiving end of the D-Day Landings. Over the years many have come to think of Normandy having settled comfortably into the routines of being occupied for those four years since the surrender of France on 25th June 1940. Listening to Lillian that evening made the true situation clear as she explained the harsh oppression by the occupying forces and the seizure of citizens for forced labour. Herself a teenager at the time, Lillian explained she helped out in a small shop and recalled her own contribution to resistance when she would let the tyres down of bicycles used by German soldiers. She knew that even such a token act of resistance would be punished severely.

normandy veteran reunited with wartime pen pal
Normandy veteran, Alan Henry, reunited with his old friend Lillian Merle

Warming to her subject, Lillian told us they all knew the members of the Resistance and that most people kept wireless sets. What is striking to British people is to realize how vitally important it was to those living under occupation to hear BBC broadcasts – to prove there was still a Free World out there and that salvation was at least possible. With tears in her eyes, Lillian mimicked the familiar radio announcement from those days: “ici Londres….ici Londres”. She said they all knew the different sounds of aeroplanes passing overhead and took great pleasure in the noise of the British ‘planes, being reassured that a battle was being waged. Despite both her Grandparents being killed in the devastating Allied bombing of Caen, Lillian confirmed this was the only way forward and that French people accepted their casualties as part of the cost of Liberation. Her presence during that evening at our Caen hotel was a delight, and the recollections very moving to those of us fortunate to be at that table.

This brought us to the final day. After check-out, the two coaches took us down to the Sword Beach front at Colleville-Montgomery. Already the massed Piped Bands were gathered in readiness for the ceremony of unveiling the new statue of Piper Bill Millin. This was the culmination of four years of fund raising and planning by the Piper Bill Millin Trust working in conjunction with John Millin and his family. ‘D-Day Revisited’ had played a small part in support of these efforts and, from keeping in touch with the Trust, our Party was welcomed and seated front and centre with all those Normandy Veterans in attendance. Quite correctly, the Piper Bill Millin Trust insisted all along that the unveiling must be primarily a Veteran Event, ensuring that all veterans were seated at the front and partaking in the proceedings.

Piper Millin Statue
Royal Marine Veteran Pat Churchill speaks about his friend Bill Millin

The senior Normandy Veteran, Brigadier David Baines, gave a fitting speech on behalf of the veterans and Royal Ulster Rifles Veteran, John Shanahan, gave the Exhortation. Royal Marines Veteran, Pat Churchill, had been a lifelong friend of Bill Millin and delivered a speech in fitting tribute to the Bill Millin, the Scottish Piper who has become a memorable symbol of the spirit of Normandy and perhaps even to the occasional eccentricity of the British Military. Despite the War Department forbidding playing of bagpipes in combat areas, Lord Lovat took the selective view this English ruling did not necessarily include the Scottish. Accordingly, he instructed Piper Millin to play his pipes along the shoreline to encourage those Special Force Commandos landing in that first wave. Amazingly and happily, both Lord Lovat and his personal Piper, Bill Millin, survived these battles to both reach old age.

Veterans of the Sword Beach Landings were called forward to join together in unveiling the new bronze statue. These included John Shanahan, Ray Lord, John Dennett, Richard Llewellyn and Bob Barker.

The ceremony was punctuated all the way through with various suitable and memorable tunes played by the assembled Pipe Bands. It was later reported there were over 400 Pipers from 21 different countries present at the grand ceremony. For the Millin family it was naturally a very moving moment, with John Millin giving a fine speech explaining his father’s conditions for accepting a statue of himself – that it must be precisely authentic and that it must be for all Normandy Veterans so that historic landing could be remembered by all who might visit the statue in future years.

normandy veterans reunited at unveiling of millin statue 2013

Piper Millin

Son of legendary Piper, John Millin, stands proudly beneath his Father's statue

After the Spitfire flypast, there was a loud and convivial reception in and around the marquee; all this within a suitable closeness to Sword Beach itself. Frankly, the veterans were reluctant to leave. When eventually we decided to head off into Ouistreham for a quick lunch before boarding the Ferry, it was Vera Hay who firmly asked to stay a bit longer. Vera is a distinguished veteran of the Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC); who could refuse such a request? So, Vera and her daughter, Vivienne, remained at the party and we collected them later.

A moment of tension suddenly developed in realisation that we had lost a veteran! It was discovered that Paddy Black had decided to take himself off to visit the local Church to offer a last prayer before leaving France. Wondering how we could find him, he arrived out of the blue in a 1940s Willeys Jeep, driven by a group of smart looking re-enactment troops who had kept a watchful eye on him.

Arriving at the Ferry Terminal in ample time, some of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines asked if it would be possible to carry out a wreath laying ceremony at the nearby memorial erected by the Landing Craft Association. This was swiftly arranged, although a new barrier had been put in place making access a little more difficult. Nevertheless, RN Landing Craft Veteran, John Dennett, led the tribute accompanied by other Royal Navy Veterans including Ron Black, Les Stuart and Richard Llewellyn.

Once boarded onto the Ferry, everyone settled down to a few hours rest although it was a bit choppy for most of the crossing. We entered Portsmouth Harbour just as the light was fading. After disembarkation it was a very short drive to the hotel where a welcome was ready with hot drinks and an open bar.

It was a hearty breakfast followed by a few hours on the road – then home for a well-earned recovery.

Special thanks to:

St John Ambulance for their valuable support without which we could not manage such a pilgrimage of veterans. Each anniversary we are all a year older, with trips & falls more likely. The Medics are provided with all the necessary modern equipment to handle first response to any medical emergency. A very special thanks to the very enthusiastic personnel - Cliff Ennis, Lyndsey Sutcliffe, Russell Wills and Michelle Gillespie.

Thanks also goes to Julie Phennah, who acted as a Medical Attendant in support, and also to the Royal Marine Commandos: Callum Tacey & Tom Genaway. Additional thanks go to Kate & Kevin Rossin of Depict Photography for helping Victoria Phipps to document the event in photographs.

D-Day veterans Normandy
Piper Millin Statue Unveiling
WWII Veterans reunite
Sword Beach
British veterans Sainte mere église
American Cemetery Colleville
HMS Ajax Normandy
D-Day veterans Rots
Pegasus Bridge
British veterans in Normandy
WWII Veterans visit french school
Normandy veterans visit school
WWII Veterans Pegasus Bridge
Ranville Cemetery
D-Day Revisited Thury Harcourt
Normandy veterans

"Thank you for a very memorable an enjoyable trip to Normandy - it gets better every time!"

"Your organisational skills are spot on and the way you nurtured us all was wonderful. It was a privilege to be there and join in all the commemorations - it means so much to us."

"The volunteers were so kind and helpful and the medical team so considerate; we cannot thank you all enough for making the whole event so wonderful."