2014 - 70th Anniversary

Sunday 1st to Monday 9th June 2014

In some ways the 70th Anniversary had started four weeks earlier for us on Sunday 3rd May, with the launch of the Millin-Montgomery Voyage at Spean Bridge in the Highlands of Scotland. Several of the veterans setting off for Normandy in early June had taken part in the voyage as it visited various ports along the coast of Britain, so the grand finale at Sword Beach on the 6th would prove to be one of the highlights of the forthcoming week.

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British veterans of the Normandy Landings on parade in Portsmouth to welcome Millin-Montgomery Pipes

Our sixth pilgrimage to Normandy began as usual in the northwest of England at around 9:30am on the Sunday morning, with two coaches and a minibus stopping to collect veterans who had travelled from all over the country on our route down to Portsmouth. With the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings widely considered to be the Normandy "Swan Song", all the veterans knew this year would be something special and they were very much looking forward to the week ahead! Two of the veterans in our 2014 group, Jack Brownlee and Steve Conyngham, had not returned to Normandy since they landed there in June 1944 and so were particularly apprehensive.

By the time we boarded the ferry to Normandy we were a group of 112; the largest british veteran group attending the events that week. Included in this figure were 56 Normandy Veterans and a stray paratrooper veteran of Operation Market Garden! We also had two volunteers from the Black Watch who not only became the veterans' personal Piper and Drummer, but were also quick to volunteer to help the veterans in any way they could. As always we had our dedicated support team of St. John Ambulance medics and volunteer helpers to assist the veterans throughout the busy week. Without their support these pilgrimages could not take place.

This special anniversary pilgrimage included two days in Portsmouth so the Queen’s Hotel Southsea was our home for two nights. Upon arrival we met up with the rest of the veterans and companions who were joining from the southern region and also with John Millin with his wife, Dorrie. Once everyone was checked in and all in order after the day’s travelling, Karl Wainwright, Ceremonial Piper of the ‘Millin-Montgomery’ Voyage piped everyone into Dinner where we were joined by the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Councillor Lynne Stagg.

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Lord Mayor welcomes Normandy Veterans to Portsmouth during evening reception at the Queens Hotel in Southsea

After the traditional hearty breakfast on Monday morning, the two coaches took everyone down to the Historic Dockyard where the main ‘Victory Gates’ were opened for our arrival. This visit to the historic Royal Navy Dockyard was such a grand and fitting start to the Normandy week. Once on the ground, our group of 56 British and 1 American Normandy Veteran were escorted over to meet a relaxed ‘Guard of Honour’ which included 20 American Normandy Veterans whose trip we were told had been sponsored by the White House. Beginning with this sort of reunion assembly of Allied Veterans and then witnessing the arrival of Millin-Montgomery Pipes on board the Dunkirk ‘Little Ship’ MTB-102 all knitted together to form a very memorable event. This section is described in more detail in Chapter 10 of the voyage story.

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British and American veterans come together to welcome Millin-Montgomery Pipes to Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard

After the arrival of MTB-102 alongside HMS Medusa and MGB-81, the whole party returned to the restaurant for lunch. It was a delightfully convivial time, with veterans sharing memories and stories of their time in preparation for D-Day exactly seventy years before. A speech of welcome was given by the Head of the Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust, Rear Admiral Neil Rankin CB CBE. This received a fitting response on behalf of the Americans by the United States Naval Attaché, Captain David Stracener.

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US Naval Attaché, Captain David Stracener, applauds the courage of allied veterans in their fight for freedom 70 years ago

With the lunch over, all the D-Day Revisited group of veterans formed up outside the restaurant and took part in a piped march back to the coaches. There was then a short road trip to Southwick House, Eisenhower’s wartime HQ. Upon arrival the group enjoyed a talk in the D-Day Map Room before we seamlessly slipped into a reception in the Eisenhower Bar. The Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire, Brigadier David Harrison, joined the party. He was joined by other distinguished guests who included:

Admiral Neil Rankin, Commander David Hilton from HMS Nelson, Captain David Stracener from the US Embassy (accompanied by his parents), Peter Goodship of the PNBPT, Hon. Lady Arabella Stuart-Smith (Granddaughter of Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery of Alamein), Ned Stuart-Smith, Paul Chandelier, Mayor of Thury Harcourt in Normandy (accompanied by his wife, Caroline), Patrick Churchill, Royal Marine Commando Normandy Veteran (accompanied by his wife, Karin), John & Dorrie Millin.

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British veterans visit the D-Day Map Room at Eisenhower's SHAEF HQ, Southwick Park

Special thanks go to Colonel Jeremy Green for his help in arranging the Southwick House event. Unfortunately Jeremy suffered a serious illness just before the day, so was unable to attend. He recovered afterwards and we keep in close touch. Also, thanks to the Southwick House Head Chef, Andrew Kitchen, for a perfect menu and service.

It was a late arrival back to the hotel but ending a very exciting and busy first day. After yet another hearty breakfast, the group checked out of the Queen’s Hotel and headed over to the Portsmouth D-Day Museum. Welcomed by the Curator, Andrew Whitmarsh, this was an excellent visit with lots of reenactment groups in attendance with displays of 1940s military vehicles and equipment.

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Veterans take a stroll down memory lane at the D-Day Museum, Portsmouth

Then mid-day saw a short road journey to the Ferry Terminal where we boarded the Brittany Ferries vessel ‘Normandie’ for the 2.45pm crossing to Ouistreham. Then – what a send-off! Although the largest group, ours were not the only veterans on board. Earlier consultations with Brittany Ferries and the Royal Navy in Portsmouth all come together perfectly and it was such a grand sight to see the RN Tugs escort the vessel out of harbour. With water cannons blasting, one tug each side led the Ferry past all the warships moored nearby – all with flags flying. A coastguard helicopter flew over with the crew waving and saluting the veterans through the open side. Meantime on the rear deck of ‘Normandie’ John Millin started playing “Amazing Grace” as we slipped away from the Terminal Building, starting this anniversary crossing to the D-Day Landing Grounds.

As we have done on previous crossings, a wreath laying ceremony was arranged with the Ship’s Captain as the ship approached the French coastline. The ceremony was fully attended by most passengers aboard and conducted mainly by the Royal Navy veterans within the Party, with John Dennett speaking the Exhortation and Charlie Barnes throwing the wreath over the ship’s side. Both men had served aboard LST-322 for the Sword Beach assault.

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Wreath laying ceremony led by Royal Navy veterans of LST 322 - John Dennett & Charlie Barnes

Once disembarked at Ouistreham, M & Mme Chandelier waved farewell as they made their own way home. For the veterans’ party there was a short road journey to the hotel in Caen. The next morning, Wednesday 4th, we visited the small inland town of Thury Harcourt. This is a favourite venue for the D-Day Revisited group, as usual made very welcome indeed. This year was somewhat noticeably different in that it seemed the whole town had turned out to meet their Liberators. In pouring rain, there was a wreath laying ceremony at the roadside South Staffordshire Regiment Memorial, followed by a walk up to the town itself. The Media cameramen were present in full force and Mayor Paul enjoyed an interview with ITV News. Later he was delighted to see some ITN newsreel of the troops in Thury Harcourt at the moment of the town’s liberation.

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French schoolchildren sing "God Save the Queen" for the British veterans

There was a second wreath laying at the town memorial alongside the church. This was accompanied by the schoolchildren singing the British National Anthem, in English, as well as the Marseillaise. The veterans found the whole scene so perfectly fitting for this 70th Anniversary; to meet the children and savour their appreciation of liberty.

The whole group was invited to the Mairie (Town Hall) where Monsieur Chandelier made a speech of welcome and John Phipps responded on behalf of the Veterans. Jointly, there was much talk of the ceremonies in Portsmouth and the Dinner at Southwick House. M Chandelier explained to the townsfolk how he and his wife had been privileged to meet senior officers of the Royal Navy, the United States Naval Attaché, and perhaps most excited of all his story of meeting Général Montgomery’s granddaughter, the Lady Arabella! Paul certainly felt that he had been very much part of the British celebration and enthusiastically thanked the Veterans for this.

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Local Mayor, M Paul Chandelier, thanks the veterans for the sacrifice they made to liberate towns such as Thury-Harcourt

Afterwards the Veterans and guests were treated to a grand luncheon, with wine, local apple cider and lashings of fraternité from the people of Thury Harcourt – a small French town liberated 70 years before.

Having made our farewells, the two coaches made their way over towards the small town of Lingèvres, where we conducted a small wreath laying ceremony in memory of those soldiers lost from the 50th Northumbrian Division.

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Veterans Neville Foote and Tony Colgan lead a small ceremony of remembrance in Lingèvres

Aware of the forthcoming road restrictions around Pegasus Bridge, it was decided to visit Ranville. This was a popular decision with all the veterans and allowed them plenty of uninterrupted time at Ranville cemetery. Ted and Will of the Black Watch Regiment conducted a moving ceremony of remembrance at the central memorial.

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RAF veteran Steve Conyngham takes a moment to remember his fallen comrades

Thanks to Kate Rousseau for creating this moving film of our visit to Ranville cemetery...

Thursday 6th started at Pegasus Bridge. With an early start we managed to get into the Museum by around 0900, in plenty of time for the ceremonies. There was a very fitting tribute to this successful assault by virtue of a parachute drop which included a Normandy Para Veteran in a tandem jump. Most veterans attended the various ceremonies whilst some sloped off to the Café Gondré where there was a huge reception for them from Madame Arlette Gondré, celebrating the Café as the first property on French soil to be liberated by the early hours attack on D-Day.

News Media personnel of many countries were obviously present. At Café Gondré Mark Austin of ITV News conducted an interview with Para Veteran Len Buckley as they both chatted with Arlette. Hundreds of veterans and re-enactment people were milling around so it was a very special scene. After this, the D-Day Revisited group assembled a little away from the crowds, just alongside the Orne River where the Powerboat Squadron was moored. This included the heritage vessels of MTB-102, MGB-81 and HSL-102.

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Royal Marine veteran Bill Lloyd shares a joke with serving Marines at Pegasus Bridge

This VIP Meeting is reported in Chapter 11 of the Millin-Montgomery Voyage. There were many special moments in this rather private get together. When introduced to Prince Charles, Frank Woods explained that he had received his DSM from the Prince’s grandfather, the late King George VI. Prince Charles replied that he would have been about 5 years old when his grandfather died but admitted that he still misses him. It was so good to see unhurried chatting and happy exchanges of greetings. Prince Charles also passed the language test when Veteran Vernon Parry addressed him in Welsh.

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HRH Prince Charles takes time to speak with British veterans of the D-Day Landings

Following this Royal ‘chat’ the group took the short road journey to Rots where we met with the Normandy Veterans of NVA Surrey & Norwich. There was a very convivial buffet lunch punctuated with two Spitfires of the BBMF flying overhead. The afternoon was spent at the premises of D-Day Academy where Jean Pierre Benamou took centre stage to distribute the 70th Anniversary badges issued by the French Government.

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Veterans are presented with their 70th anniversary badge at the D-Day Academy

Friday 6th June 2014 was fittingly “The Longest Day”. In compliance with the advice given by the authorities, our two coaches set off at 6am to the meeting point in the centre of Caen and inevitably became stuck in all the early morning traffic. A British Officer from 3 Div jumped on board our front coach and helped us through the traffic. Once we reached the official meeting point it became clear that time was running out for us to reach Bayeux Cathedral for the main service of remembrance. By this point we felt quite strongly that it wasn't appropriate to ask all the veterans to get off the coaches so that the vehicles could be searched by sniffer dogs nor did we have time to wait for police outriders who may or may not have been available to guide us to Bayeux. Instead we decided to get back on the road without a moment's delay.

We finally reached the dual carriageway to Bayeux which had been closed to all traffic except veterans and dignatries. Faced with an empty highway it was very upsetting to be told by the armed gendarmes that we could not be allowed to proceed because we did not have the required police outriders! This led to a fractious breach of the “Entente Cordiale”. With the veterans' best interests at heart, we were unable to take no for an answer. Victoria insisted: “I have promised Vera that we will get her into the Cathedral for the service, so that is what we will do.”

Despite more blockages we did reach Bayeux, although a little late. After overcoming final security restrictions to prevent access to the Cathedral as the service had already commenced, our valiant coach drivers brought us right up the Cathedral side road and we led all the veterans to their places inside this magnificent building. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were present on behalf of Her Majesty, accompanied by the British Prime Minister David Cameron and other leading French and British Ministers of State.

After the Service, all those in attendance made their way up the narrow streets to the British Military Cemetery. A cute but very sensible little road train was provided for those who couldn’t easily manage the walk up hill and that worked very well. The streets were lined with residents and members of the public who waved and cheered in gratitude to their ‘Liberators’. There was lots of kissing, clapping, cheering and back slapping – a wonderful tribute to the veterans and much appreciated by all of them.

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Members of the Royal family pay their respects at Bayeux cemetery on the 6th of June

HM the Queen accompanied by HRH Prince Philip arrived by helicopter. Along with Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, the Royal Party was escorted up the central aisle of the cemetery to a prepared seated area at the front of the main gathering. Alongside was a group which included the Prime Minister, Ministers of State and representative leaders of other political parties.

After the ceremonies there was much mingling as members of the Royal Family and senior politicians took the opportunity to meet and chat with Normandy Veterans. Refreshments were provided in a large marquee which had been set up by the Royal British Legion. Veterans were certainly well looked after. Our own party was provided with a pack lunch in case of any disruptions and to ensure there would be adequate time to make the road journey to Sword Beach for the following International Ceremony.

Of the D-Day Revisited party, Royal Ulster Rifles Veteran, John Shanahan, was chosen to be amongst the veterans introduced to the Queen whilst the then Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond MP, was introduced to Frank Woods DSM and Jim Baker DSM.

There was a sudden departure of coaches in convoy as all were rushed to the International Ceremony venue on Sword Beach. With police motorcycle blue light escort we arrived in good time and the veterans were helped to their seats. Quite a lot of time was taken as Heads of State arrived to be greeted by the President of France, François Hollande, who was of course the host for this grand event. Guests included: United States President Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Very distinctive from all the polite clapping, there was an immediate and very loud cheer across the board when Her Majesty the Queen arrived.

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The International Ceremony at Sword Beach marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day

The general comments about the ceremony were very positive. Some veterans found the dance interpretation a bit left field and a few cheekily remarked they didn’t recall any dancing during the beach landings seventy years before! The fireworks were very effective in their historic setting.

Fully loaded and heads counted, it was just after six o’clock when the two coaches took us down to the Sword Beach front at Colleville-Montgomery to the Piper Millin Statue. Here a large crowd of townsfolk were gathered. Arriving a little late, the ceremony was stopped to allow time for the veterans to be brought forward and take their places. The veterans were enthusiastically greeted by the Mayor of Colleville-Montgomery and scores of well-wishers from the local community.

D-Day Revisited had played a small part in support of efforts to establish the statue of Piper Bill Millin at Sword Beach and we were pleased to make this the final destination of the Millin-Montgomery Voyage which had started in the Highlands of Scotland 5 weeks earlier. In a speech to the assembled crowd of local residents and visitors, John Phipps explained the story of the voyage and the lasting link between Sword Beach and the training grounds of Scotland. This section is described in more detail in Chapter 11 of the voyage story.

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D-Day Revisited Chairman John Phipps shares a joke with Serge Mac Lewis and the Mayor of Colleville-Montgomery

The veterans were tired; it had certainly been a long day. After the ceremonies and speeches, the group was invited over to the Town Sports Hall where a meal had been prepared for them. Upon arrival, rows of tables had been laid out ready for 110 of us – quite a challenge in itself. As it happened most veterans spoke afterwards about this being the best meal they had enjoyed all week. It was a delightful end to the big day – veterans spending time amongst the French people who are always so welcoming and quick to express their gratitude. In this case it was the veterans who were grateful.

As the meal came to a close, there was a little bit of yawning to be seen. To catch the moment, the ceremonial Piper, Tosh McDonald, loudly piped into the Hall playing the Millin-Montgomery Pipes. When finished, he proudly handed the Pipes to John Millin as John Phipps on behalf of D-Day Revisited presented Mr. Millin with the Remembrance Voyage Plaque which listed all the ‘Little Ships’ used during the 1,000 miles voyage to Sword Beach. After a couple of brief speeches to mark this moment, the veterans and companions were pleased to board the coaches and make the weary journey back to the hotel in Caen.

On Saturday 7th we treated ourselves to a lazy start in the morning before setting off for the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. We were welcomed by the management, who were pleased to see a large party of British Normandy Veterans all gathered at the central memorial for a wreath laying ceremony. Naturally this was led by our US Army Utah Beach Veteran, Irving Locker, with John Grange reciting the exhortation. After this group ceremony of remembrance we took the opportunity to seek out the grave of a soldier of the 121st Engineer Combat Battalion, who had become known to us during the earlier stages of the Millin-Montgomery Voyage. This section is described in more detail in Chapter 12 of the voyage story.

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War graves stretch into the distance at the American cemetery, Omaha Beach

After an enjoyable pack lunch, the group visited the town of St Mère Eglise; always a popular venue for D-Day Revisited. 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. This year we were welcomed by the new owner of the C47 Café who invited the whole group into the rear garden of her house, which is believed to be the historic site of the first parachute landing of the US Airborne.

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D-Day Revisited - Class of 2014!

This was a tourist afternoon so veterans and companions were largely left to do as they pleased, although many found it a challenge to move around without being asked to pose for a photograph or sign their autograph! A small group was taken over to the Utah Beach Museum. This included Irving & Bernice Locker, Victoria, Kevin & Bill Lloyd and a few others. As this was the scene of Irving Locker’s D-Day Landing it was especially important to him, so meaningful too as this was his first visit since 1944.

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Utah Beach veteran, Irving Locker, signing autographs in the street at Sainte-Mère-Eglise

After the strenuous efforts of the long previous day, this was more relaxing with the pace slowed down. Back at the hotel, we had the final dinner which included the Chairman’s Speech – mostly an appropriate list of thank yous to the helpers and the two valiant supporters from the Black Watch Regiment. Each of the helpers was presented with a framed certificate to be signed by veterans present, providing a valuable record of taking part in this historic anniversary pilgrimage. Once again we were joined by Lillian Merle, a local resident of Caen who was a teenager during the German occupation. It was a treat to meet her again and to welcome her amongst the party; altogether a very jolly evening was enjoyed by all... with a few drinks in the Bar afterwards.

On Sunday morning we checked out of the hotel and made our way over to Arromanches. Along the way we stopped at Ver-sur-Mer where veteran Joe Cattini gave a brief history lesson of his experiences there after the landings. There was a British Tank set alongside the road in amongst a few displays telling the story of the men who liberated the town.

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Joe Cattini shares his experiences of landing near Ver-sur-Mer at the 50th Div TT tank memorial

From here we went into Arromanches where we began the visit with a wreath laying ceremony at the Royal Marines Memorial which is situated alongside the Museum. Accompanied by the Piper and Drummer our Royal Marine and Royal Navy veterans conducted the proceedings with John Dennett laying the signed wreath. The Mayor attended this ceremony and was afterwards pleased to take the veterans into the Museum where each veteran was given a voucher worth €100 to spend in the town.

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Royal Navy veteran John Dennett says the exhortation at the Landing Craft memorial in Arromanches

All were pleased to spend a couple of hours as tourists, pottering around the sea front and enjoying the sights. There was music in the town square and of course the visiting veterans are treated royally, very much as the celebrities they are in this historic D-Day town overlooking Gold Beach and the remains of the Mulberry B Harbour. Some enjoyed lunch or just tea/coffee, a beer, glass of wine but it was a normal sight to see a veteran in smart blazer and medals walking along enjoying an ice cream!

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All were naturally reluctant to leave Arromanches but it was necessary to make the journey over to the Ferry Terminal ready for the afternoon departure. Our american friends became slightly anxious about the timings, concerned about flights home the following day. Although the rest of us were more accustomed to the process, we know the Ferry won’t wait so we stayed in Arromanches as long as possible but with allowance for traffic delays and check in. Once we arrived at the Ferry Terminal some of the Royal Navy veterans asked if it would be possible to carry out a wreath laying ceremony at the nearby memorial erected by the Royal Navy & Royal Marines. This was swiftly arranged whilst Victoria and Eamonn looked after the passport check in arrangements.

Once boarded onto the Ferry, everyone settled down to a few hours rest. There were plenty of other veterans on board but we decided that ceremonies were finished and encouraged everyone in the group to relax, enjoy their evening meal with perhaps a couple of drinks and just take it easy for the duration of the Crossing. We entered Portsmouth Harbour just as the light was fading. After disembarkation it was a very short drive to the Queen’s Hotel where a welcome was ready.

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On Monday morning we said our goodbyes to all those who were travelling separately from there. Quite a few British Veterans were making their own way home from Southsea so the coaches were lighter as we set off North after the obligatory ‘hearty breakfast’ – off home for recovery and recuperation.

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 thank you goes to the very attentive personnel - Cliff Ennis, Lyndsey Sutcliffe, Russell Wills and Michelle Gillespie.

Thanks also go to Carver’s and the two drivers, Lee & Alan, who always go above and beyond the call of duty. We are grateful to the Black Watch Regiment for letting us borrow Ted and Will for a week and of course thank you to them for all their hard work in support of this historic pilgrimage event.

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"Ever since our visit to Normandy I have made a point of telling people of the amazing job that D-Day Revisited does. For the veterans it is like being part of a family - and that is so very special."

"I thank you and the team for the wonderful time you gave to us all. I have never been treated better in all my life. God Bless."

"This was my first venture with your organisation and I write to compliment you and your team on the overall success of the trip. Thank you so much for your commitment, warmth and generosity."