Today’s blog is from a British expat in France who wanted to share these memories of remembrance of D-Day on 6th June 2009. I was there that day and it was a day I will never forget, these old soldiers so proud, treated like stars – everyone shaking their hands and asking them questions, the warm welcome of the locals and the amazing sight of so many visitors dressed up in clothes from the 1940’s – it was a fantastic sight…
My Dad had become increasingly angry at the apparent refusal of the British Government to acknowledge the 65th anniversary memorial services and events that had been arranged in France to honour the veterans of D-Day. He wanted to go and be a part of these important observances and he particularly wanted to go to Arromanches, home of the Mulberry Harbour where more than 2.5 million men landed during war time operations. A parade by surviving veterans was to take place and all the old soldiers were to be presented with a medal.
Arriving in Normandy was like stepping back in time to 1944. There were hundreds, in fact thousands of re-enactors in full uniform filling Normandy’s towns. Jeeps and military vehicles of all sorts filled the country lanes and town squares. Walking into a café it was not unusual to bump into a British General and several American marines! It seemed that everyone wanted to be a part of these amazing remembrance events and put their heart and soul into it.
On the day of the parade in Arromanches, the town was packed with visitors and locals. Parking up on the cliff overlooking the town and looking down was an incredible sight – landing craft on the beach, trucks and jeeps lined the roads, thousands of people waiting to cheer on the veterans who were to march through the town.
We joined the crowds – it was a hot day and as the veterans lined up at one end of the long high street, bands played, the Foreign Legion soldiers aided the gendarmes to keep everything in order and security tight as we awaited the arrival of then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown who had been at the US cemetery at Omaha Beach with Presidents Obama and Sarkozy.
It started to rain. The veterans stood patiently. Prime Minister Brown was late and when he arrived was welcomed by boos from some in the crowd. Much has been written about this episode – it certainly wasn’t the veterans as has been implied but a few disillusioned people in the crowd. Mr Brown wasn’t the most popular Prime Minister Britain has ever had and it seems some in the crowd took umbrage that these dignified old boys were kept waiting.
The French Premier was very late indeed. Patience in the crowd and amongst the veterans was wearing thin.
The veterans were, despite their great age, a feisty lot. They were lined up and ready to march out in front of the bigwigs and the crowd – it seemed like hours that they had been standing there patiently in the hot sun and then the rain. They began to sing “Why are we waiting” – these old soldiers, some in wheelchairs, some with walking sticks and grandchildren to help them walk, all at a very advanced age. A flypast of Battle of Britain planes had been arranged and they were all excited to see it – timed to take place when they completed their parade – it could not be delayed. Time was running out for them to be in position and they were determined not to miss it.
Suddenly we heard a loud command to call the men to attention. There was a thud of feet stamping. The men stood straight and proud and the years seemed to roll back as bent backs became rods of steel, heads were held high and they stared ahead at their commander.
The gendarmes and soldiers on duty were alarmed. This was not planned. They must await the arrival of the French Premier. What about security? What about the plans, the time table?
The veterans were not in agreement. They did not want to wait and they started to march.
Everyone stood back and then cheers and clapping began and got louder and louder as the men continued to march down the high street.
The determination in their eyes, the looks of shock on the officials faces were an image we will never forget and may never see again as there are so very few veterans remaining.
The fly past took place as scheduled, the veterans had tears in their eyes as the old planes flew overhead and most of the crowd had tears in their eyes as these old geezers enjoyed their moment in the limelight.
A truly memorable and remarkable day…