Planning for the 71st anniversary was obviously a great deal easier than for the grand event the previous year. Without the Royal family and all those Heads of State, it was reasonable to expect that every aspect of our week in Normandy would be quieter. Although very much appreciating those senior tributes and the close attention of the world media in June 2014, the veterans and their families were all looking forward to a more personal experience.
After returning to Blighty last year, Victoria conducted a straw poll of veterans in an attempt to gauge opinion for continuing these annual trips to Normandy. Is it still wanted? The NVA had announced its closure, sensibly acknowledging the grand finale of the 70th anniversary, most veterans just delighted to have reached that extraordinary milestone. For those of us in the next generation, it was fair to ask the question... do you want to continue with the group visits to Normandy in celebration of the anniversary or is it time to say “enough”?
Response was enthusiastic for a continuation. Several in the regular group did wonder if perhaps this was a good time to stop, but admitted that some of this was in grateful recognition of the effort made by others to make the journey possible. In a sense there were a few veterans who flipped the question, asking if the organisation remained keen. Once this was promptly confirmed, then the decision was unanimous – let’s keep going!
Royal Navy Veterans John Dennett, Richard Llewellyn & Frank Diffell share a joke on the ferry
That takes us to the 71st Anniversary in June 2015
This year, the group consisted of 50 Normandy Veterans, including a stray Para Arnhem Veteran who was just a mite too young for Pegasus Bridge, 44 wives/companions and 11 helpers. Included amongst the helpers were 4 medics led as usual by the redoubtable Cliff Ennis and we had a new Piper, Bill Cumming, who joined us from Edinburgh in bonny Scotland. To assist a group of veterans from Stoke, the former NVA Branch, an arrangement had been made for a small 16 seater coach to join the D-Day Revisited party.
This being our seventh pilgrimage to Normandy, logistics are well set and were followed largely unchanged from previous years. Veterans and their wives, companions, family members set off early on Wednesday 3rd June from St George’s Hall in Liverpool and Ellesmere Port near Chester. The road journey progressed with convenient pick-ups along the route, stopping at Knutsford, Stoke, Warwick, Oxford and finally arriving into Southampton at about 15:30. Quite a few veterans and companions met the main party at the hotel, this being more convenient for those who live near the south coast.
Continuing the extraordinary record of including those veterans who are joining the group for a first time return to Normandy since 1944, we were delighted to include Frank Diffell and Joe Vango. Frank is a good pal of veteran John Dennett and both served on Landing Craft; in fact Frank was one of the Royal Navy crews who took the US Army across to Omaha Beach. Joe had served with the Royal Berkshire Regiment and landed on Juno Beach a couple of weeks after the initial landings.
With everyone checked in, rested and changed, the coaches set off for Southwick House. We first visited the former SHAEF HQ in June 2013 and the event was instantly judged by all to be a great success. The venue is of course perfectly themed to suit the occasion – the largest group of Normandy Veterans beginning their pilgrimage week, poised to embark the next day for the cross Channel voyage to France.
D-Day Veterans Albert Williams, Joe Vango & Don Reynolds pose for a photograph in the Map Room
As always everyone enjoyed a pre-dinner drink in the Eisenhower Bar near to the D-Day Map Room, which is a diverting attraction provoking much discussion amongst veterans and enthusiasts alike. This year many of our returning guests were mindful of the ceremonial dinner enjoyed here on the 70th Anniversary and it seemed a perfect opportunity to show special appreciation to the resident Chef, Andrew Kitchen. We presented a framed group photograph of all the veterans who had visited the previous year. This was signed by three Normandy Veterans representing all three Services: Bernard Morgan – Royal Air Force (Gold Beach, coded signals), John Shanahan – Royal Ulster Rifles (Sword Beach assault on D-Day) and John Dennett – Royal Navy (Landing Ship LST-322 onto Sword Beach D-Day). All the veterans were enthusiastic to show their appreciation to Andrew and his kitchen staff. By his response, it was clear that Andrew was moved by the gesture.
John Dennett presents signed photograph to the resident Chef at Southwick House - Andrew Kitchen
Some trouble had been taken to ensure this was a special occasion for the Normandy Veterans. Each table was named after senior figures from the D-Day story. Such names included: Major General Richard (Windy) Gale, Winston Churchill, Field Marshall Montgomery, General Miles Dempsey, General Henry (Harry) Crerar, Air Marshall Arthur Tedder and of course Field Marshall Alan Brooke (CIGS). Each name included a photograph with a brief ‘D-Day’ history. These were quite popular and taken as souvenirs.
The After-Dinner speech was given by Colonel Jeremy Green OBE. Unfortunately Jeremy had been suddenly taken ill last year so we invited him again. We didn’t want to let him get away a second time! Colonel Jeremy’s speech was certainly very much appreciated by all in attendance. His theme was of the change being presented by modern historians, shifting from the established critical view of Montgomery’s planning and conduct of the Invasion. Jeremy used many references to the subject of which he had accomplished command, offering examples of a new generation of writers who are much more positive about the period.
Letters had been received from various senior well wishers. Victoria took the opportunity to read out the 2014 letter sent by Julia Gillard, then Prime Minister of Australia. This was such a hit with the Normandy Veterans that it was decided to be worth a repeat hearing.
Rear Admiral Neil Rankin CB CBE then read the Royal ‘best wishes’ letter personally composed by HRH Prince Harry. This was received with great delight from all guests, setting them perfectly in mood for the forthcoming visit to Normandy.
After breakfast & check-out, the following morning both coaches took the short journey from the hotel to the Portsmouth Historic Naval Base. Veterans were graciously invited to visit HMS Victory, the Mary Rose Exhibition and the other museums. After the tours the group gathered in the PNBPT restaurant for a lunch graciously provided by the Trust. This was a welcome relaxation and provided veterans with the opportunity to meet cadets and RN trainees. A final and very welcome gift was a small bottle of Glenfiddich Single Malt for each veteran.
WWII Veterans and their wives visit various British Warships at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
After thanks and goodbyes, the coaches left for the short run to the Brittany Ferries Terminal where all were checked in and boarded ready for the 14:45 departure. The crossing was comfortable in reasonably fine weather. As usual, it was a welcome period to relax after the previous busy day and the morning’s exertions. By agreement with the Ship’s Captain, a wreath laying service was conducted on the rear deck. This was timed to coincide with the final approach to the french coast. All veterans mustered on deck and the Piper played a lament. Most of the passengers assembled at the railings to view the ceremony as the contingent was called to attention. John Dennett gave the Exhortation as fellow Landing Craft Veteran Frank Diffell (Omaha Beach) threw the wreath over the side to land on the water. All went well in a fitting tribute to those troops and seamen who lost their lives in the water during the D-Day Assault.
Veterans gather on the ferry deck to remember those lost at sea during the Invasion of Normandy
After a short road journey to the Caen Hotel, all were checked in and settled down for the first night in France. The following morning, breakfasted and refreshed, the group visited the small inland town of Thury Harcourt where a grand reception was waiting at the 59th Division Memorial. Here we met our good friend the Mayor, Monsieur Paul Chandelier. The school children had all been gathered to join the ceremony which is a familiar inclusion in the itinerary for D-Day Revisited. The road was temporarily closed whilst the veterans debussed and assembled. Those veterans of the 59th Division were brought forward to present the Exhortation and carry out the wreath laying. These were Bob Laverty, Gordon Drabble and Bert Bamford, all aided by Piper Bill Cummings.
Veterans of the 59th South Staffordshire Division lead a ceremony of remembrance in Thury-Harcourt
This more military ceremony was followed by a gathering in front of the memorial for civilian casulaties of the battle to liberate Thury-Harcourt which is situated alongside the church. Officials, French Veterans, local residents and the children all formed up together alongside the British Veterans. Thury Harcourt was liberated by the men of the 59th South Staffordshire Division on 14th August, more than two months after D-Day. Now with a population of around 2000, the people have never forgotten their liberation during which 75% of the town was destroyed. To overcome a determined defence, the South Staffs suffered a casualty rate in excess of 80%. This shared tragedy experienced by civilians and the liberating troops has left an enduring bond. Most importantly, the citizens strive to ensure the memory is passed to the children, making the most of these visits and recognising the veterans will not be able to visit for much longer.
After the wreath-laying the children first sang our National Anthem in English, always so impressed to see the veterans stand to attention. They followed with the Marseillaise, in french of course. This year fully matched the welcome of previous visits and the efforts shown by townsfolk, and particularly the schoolchildren, is always hugely appreciated by the veterans. Everyone had a wonderful time as relationships were rekindled from our last visit and the close bond was firmly re-established. It was just a short walk from the Church to the Mairie (Town Hall) inside which everyone assembled. Seats were provided for all veterans and guests as Monsieur Chandelier made a speech on which he officially and warmly welcomed the veterans to the town.
Children of Thury-Harcourt thank British Veterans for liberating their town 71 years ago
During his speech, Monsieur Chandelier recalled his visit to Portsmouth for the 70th Anniversary last year and the ITV filming of the veterans’ visit to Thury Harcourt. His emphasis of course was on the enduring affection between the townsfolk and all the British Normandy Veterans. It is always a source of amusement to draw attention to Veteran Jim Baker DSM as the Mairie features a huge larger than life poster photograph of Jim – to the townspeople he is a typical veteran and they treasure the image, especially now they have met Jim in the flesh!
The Mayor of Thury-Harcourt welcomes British Veterans and thanks them for their sacrifice in 1944
A grand lunch was provided for the whole party. The wine and apple cider flowed and a very convivial time was enjoyed by all. When the time came it was difficult to say goodbye so we persuaded Piper Bill to attract attention and help to get everyone back onto the coaches.
Para Veterans lay a wreath at Pegasus Bridge
Now off to Pegasus Bridge, it was not a long coach journey and the two coaches arrived just a little late at around 2.30pm. Mindful of the late arrival, it was decided to split the group so that a few could head down to the mooring alongside the new bridge: this was to meet up with Peter Goodship and Neil Rankin where they had the HSL-102 ready for boarding. In small groups, veterans were welcomed aboard and enjoyed a trip up the Orne River towards Caen. The High Speed Launch is a wartime heritage vessel, part of the Squadron owned and operated by the PNBPT. Many veterans took part in a wreath laying ceremony on the original Pegasus Bridge, joining Peter & Neil afterwards for their turn on the HSL. It was a novel trip for many of the veterans, perhaps especially for the Paras who find that particular area so meaningful in their memories of D-Day. On behalf of all the veterans, a big thank you goes to Peter, Neil and all the crew from the PNBPT.
Veterans of the Normandy Campaign take a trip up the River Orne on HSL-102
Many members of the group took the opportunity to visit Café Gondrée. This is of course a favourite place for the Paras, famous for being the first house in France to be liberated. Madame Arlette Gondrée was present and made all the veterans very welcome, as always. It was a sunny afternoon and many enjoyed a relaxing time sitting outside the Café. Although some were satisfied with tea & coffee, others seized the opportunity to enjoy a glass of Calvados. As luck would have it, a small group of sailing boats passed through, causing the road bridge to be raised for a time. Naturally this allowed a longer stay in the Café as veterans were unable to return to the coach on the other side!
Once finally back on board the two coaches, there was enough time to pay a respectful visit to the Ranville Cemetery before returning to the hotel. The Para Veterans of the group arranged a wreath-laying service at the memorial in the centre of the Cemetery. After the ceremony, many took a moment to make personal tributes amongst the graves.
Normandy Veterans gather at Jerusalem Cemetery to pay their respects
On the morning of the 6th most of the group elected to attend the Cathedral Service of remembrance in Bayeux, whilst some others preferred to visit the small Jerusalem Cemetery at Chouain. After the Cathedral Service all came together at Bayeux Cemetery as the bands and officials gathered in preparation for the commemorative Service.
The Service was conducted in good weather with the usual ceremonial program led by the Chaplain, followed by wreath laying in traditional order of rank. D-Day Revisited had arranged for the Jedburgh Pipe Band to be present and they played themselves forward to conduct a circular tribute march around the central monument, closing the ceremony. This provided a stirring finale to proceedings, much appreciated by all in attendance.
The Jedburgh Pipe Band play at Bayeux Cemetery on the 6th of June
There was ample opportunity for private and personal time before boarding the coaches where a pack lunch was distributed to all en route to Arromanches for a free ‘tourist’ afternoon. Before scattering to their favourite bars and cafés, there was a group ceremony at the memorials for the Landing Craft Association, Royal Engineers & Merchant Navy. With our Piper attracting quite a crowd of onlookers, John Dennett led the wreath laying ceremony. Arromanches is a favourite place for all British Veterans so on hearing the Pipes many others flocked to join in the ceremony.
Richard Llewellyn & Jack Quinn lay wreathes at the Landing Craft & Royal Marine Memorials in Arromanches
The rest of the afternoon was clear for personal time. All the veterans and their companions enjoyed the fine weather and were celebrated by the townspeople and visitors. With the anniversary falling on a Saturday, the seaside town was very busy. Veterans were welcomed into the Museum and the Office de Tourisme where they were awarded vouchers to the value of €100 to spend in the town.
Later in the afternoon all boarded the coaches for the journey back to the Caen Hotel. After a long day full of events of such variety, everyone in the party enjoyed a relaxing evening. After breakfast the following morning, the coaches took everyone to the town of Colleville-Montgomery on Sword Beach. Once again we met up with the Jedburgh Pipe Band as we gathered in preparation for a commemorative and celebration service at the Piper Bill Millin Statue.
D-Day Veterans parade in Colleville-Montgomery
For D-Day Revisited this has become a regular and important event in our Normandy itinerary. Since taking part in the unveiling of the statue in 2013 and meeting there at the end of the Millin-Montgomery Voyage of 2014, a visit to Colleville-Montgomery is now established as an annual event. John and Dorrie Millin greeted everyone as the Mayor of Colleville-Montgomery showed the veterans to the seats which had been prepared for them. Plenty of residents of the town and surrounding area were present, welcoming the veterans with enthusiastic applause as they took their places.
John Millin stands beneath the statue of his father in Colleville-Montgomery and pays tribute to the Veterans
Right on time at 10 o’clock the Jedburgh Pipe Band, including our own Piper Bill Cumming, paraded into the square facing Sword Beach, playing a medley of Millin favourites to begin the ceremony. John Millin made a speech, most particularly paying tribute to the Normandy Veterans. John emphasised how his father always wanted to dedicate this Statue as being truly representative for all Normandy Veterans and to form a central space for local people and visitors alike to prompt their memory towards what happened at this exact spot on 6th June 1944. Chairman of D-Day Revisited, John Phipps, responded to this address and included a section in french, albeit somewhat faltering, in an effort to respectfully engage more directly the townsfolk present. This appeared to be much appreciated, and most likely caused a little amusement amongst the fluent French! Finally the Mayor, M Frédéric LOINARD, made his speech which enthusiastically welcomed the Normandy Veterans, paying tribute to their valiant contribution to the liberation and inviting them to return every year.
The speeches were followed by a formal wreath-laying at the foot of the statue. Two Sword Beach veterans were called forward to lay a wreath on behalf of D-Day Revisited, this being laid alongside the Millin family wreath and that laid by the Mayor.
After the formalities there was time for some personal chat and mingling amongst the assembled group. Some other Normandy Veterans had joined the gathering and introduced themselves. Clearly many still make the pilgrimage as a family and these ceremonies happily present a valuable opportunity to meet other veterans. As this was the last full day in Normandy, it was necessary to press on. We waved goodbye to the people of Colleville-Montgomery as the coaches made their way to the main Canadian Cemetery at Bény sur Mer. This was a first for D-Day Revisited and was certainly appreciated by those veterans who had landed amongst the Canadian troops on Juno Beach. This included James Baker DSM of the Royal Marines and Tony Huntbach of the Royal Ulster Rifles.
RAF Veteran Chris Hart lays a wreath at the Canadian Cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer
We left Bény-sur-Mer and pack lunches were distrubuted as both coaches headed off for the American Sector. Several veterans within the group were keen to pay a flying visit to Juno Beach which we were able to do. Already quite moved after seeing the Canadian Cemetery, Jim Baker was thrilled to have the opportunity to drop in at Canada House and see his old friends. This is an annual tradition for Jim and which we were pleased to be able to help him continue.
Royal Marine Commando Veteran Jim Baker DSM outside Canada House on Juno Beach
There was heavy traffic as the group arrived into St Mère Eglise. Although this small town is held dear in the memory of some British Veterans who served nearby, others preferred to head straight for the Chateau d’Isle Marie. Since time was getting on, this was a sensible choice and allowed the large group to be helpfully broken up for chateau tours. Meanwhile those who went into the town headed for the C47 Café to be met by Ellwood Von Siebold and the new owner. All were invited into the private rear garden for a treat of drinks and cakes. Once again blessed with fine weather, the veterans group enjoyed the Café hospitality whilst lounging in the enclosed garden.
Following this there was time for a few photographs and a tourist potter around the town square before setting off for the Chateau. The visit was especially enjoyed by RAF Veteran, Chris Hart, and his wife Betty. In June 1944 Chris had landed onto Omaha Beach and had then been based nearby at Picauville with the Mosquito Night Fighter Squadron.
Veterans are welcomed to the Chateau d'Isle Marie with a tour of the estate and a delicious evening meal
In simple principle, the idea for including the Chateau d’Isle Marie in the itinerary sprang from the previous year when Chris Hart and another RAF Veteran, Frank Ferguson, had briefly visited the nearby Chateau de Bernaville. Although it had not been possible to make contact with the owners at Bernaville, we were inspired to provide a more memorable, grander venue for the last evening before returning to Blighty. The Chateau d'Isle Marie was Field Marshall Rommel’s HQ in that region, so it was an interesting parallel to our evening at Eisenhower’s HQ in Portsmouth at the start of our journey.
The Chateau d’Isle Marie had also been a Wehrmacht Base and was steeped in the history of the Occupation and subsequent liberation – an ideal setting for this large group of Normandy Veterans. In readiness for this afternoon and evening’s event, arrangements had been progressed with the owner, Emmanuel de la Houssaye and his Personal Assistant, Katia. A large marquee was set up in the garden near the front of the Chateau, with all tables laid ready for the evening. Upon arrival, veterans and companions were given a guided tour of the historical ground floor rooms, noting many tell-tale bullet holes and other indications of the Chateau’s wartime experiences.
Veterans of D-Day Revisited's 71st anniversary group oustide the Chateau d'Isle Marie
The weather held fine and allowed pleasant wanderings of the gardens and various outbuildings. Pre-dinner drinks were enjoyed and the scene was well set for an enjoyable meal in these convivial surroundings. On behalf of the veterans, several guests were invited to join the dinner: John & Dorrie Millin and M Paul Chandelier (Mayor of Thury Harcourt) accompanied by his wife Catherine.
In the later part of the dinner, John Millin was invited to say a few words. He amused the party with an anecdote about his father meeting HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
“Ordinarily I don’t speak very much, but when someone asks me to speak about my father I go on for hours and hours. Generally Dorrie has to tug on my kilt to shut me up! The story that comes to mind is about the D-Day Embroidery at the Portsmouth Museum. There is a panel which depicts my father playing his pipes. Brigadier Lord Lovat commissioned the embroidery and it was executed by the Royal School of Needlework. When it opened at Whitbread House, what used to be the Barbican in London, the honoured guests were Lord Lovat, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and my Dad.
Now when they viewed the panels and they reached the one with my father in it, Lord Lovat became most annoyed; they’d stitched a steel helmet on my father’s head instead of a green beret. When Lord Lovat voiced his displeasure you can imagine how quickly that was rectified. At the end of the presentation everyone stood in line to be presented to the Queen Mother. When she came along and spoke to my father, she said: ‘In a thousand years’ time when they have forgotten all about us, they’ll still be talking about D-Day & the Mad Piper.’
Of course my father’s chest almost burst and he dined out on that story for many years. So, gentlemen, what the Queen Mother was saying is that you will never be forgotten. My father was the figure with the bagpipes but she was expressing her view that what you did on D-Day and afterwards was so important to the World and to Freedom that you will never ever be forgotten. Thank you.”
D-Day Revisited Chairman, John Phipps, pays tribute to all the volunteers who make these trips possible
This was followed by John Phipps who began with happy recollection of many highlights during the week. Naturally there was due recognition of this being the 70th Anniversary year of VE Day - Victory in Europe. For modern generations it is all so long ago, yet clearly in this special part of France there is a perennial welcome for the Normandy Veterans for the liberation. With each passing year it has grown to become much more than a welcome, also a grand festival in which the children of Normandy are so importantly included. During this speech, John mainly offered thanks to all the helpers. This was done on behalf of the organisation and of course on behalf of the veterans. Obviously, a pilgrimage such as this could not be made possible without the willing support of those who volunteer to cover medical needs, as well as those who generally assist and make sure that all is run smoothly, causing minimal inconvenience and stress to veterans and their companions. Inevitably there are a few with mobility challenges, yet quite often it is found that veterans outlast the helpers for stamina and staying power!
Special thanks were included to the four St John Ambulance medics: Cliff, Colin, Michelle and Vivienne. The two Carvers drivers, Alan and Lee, were thanked for their usual efforts above and beyond the call of duty. Others mentioned with gratitude were Bill Cummings, Scott Graham, Kate Rousseau and Eamonn Cowan.
Although a little late back to the Caen Hotel all ‘reported for duty’ the following morning for a hearty breakfast, followed by check out. The morning was spent at the Caen Museum where our large group was made very welcome and most took a full tour of the museum's fascinating exhibitions. Although many noted the 'Battle of Britain' seemed to have been completely omitted from the otherwise very comprehensive story of the Second World War! The route to Ouistreham provided an ideal opportunity for a lunch time stop at a Supermarket/Shopping Mall where all could spend time in making a few purchases before reaching the ferry terminal.
British Veterans spend their last morning in Normandy at the Caen Museum
Arriving in plenty of time for the 16:00 departure, many veterans took the opportunity to conduct a wreath laying ceremony at the Royal Navy memorial. This is a particularly favourite inclusion in the itinerary for John Dennett who was in attendance when HRH Prince Philip first inaugurated the memorial. Piper Bill Cumming played a suitable lament as a wreath was laid by RN Veteran Don Reynolds & RM Veteran Jack Quinn in memory of Royal Navy & Royal Marines who were lost in the D-Day beach landings.
It was decided not to conduct any ceremonies during the return crossing. The sea was quite choppy and everyone was clearly ready for a rest. It was a delight to see the welcome given to our veterans by many civilian passengers on the ferry. Indeed it was difficult for veterans to spend their own money as they enjoyed the willing generosity! A late evening arrival into Portsmouth saw a quick passage through UK Immigration for the first coach (and a slower one for the second, who were mistakenly locked into the ferry dock!) and then off to the Queen’s Hotel in Southsea. After a good night’s rest and a convivial breakfast, there were the goodbyes to those in the group who lived on the South Coast - then off on the final leg north.