The dwindling ranks of British survivors of the battle of Normandy, all of them now 95-plus, will watch this year’s events from home or at a shadow ceremony in Staffordshire.
What a pity for the survivors and their families. What a shame for the people of Normandy (including myself) who cherish the annual invasion of their surviving liberators (and not just for the pounds and dollars that they and the other visitors bring).
Join us for a historic moment at 10.30am BST Sun 6 June for the Official Opening of the British Normandy Memorial. Livestream from 10.00am with coverage of @PoppyLegion D-Day Commemorations at @Nat_Mem_Arb, followed by Opening Ceremony. Watch at https://t.co/f0dRIp4Ryo. #DDay77 pic.twitter.com/HZwyw9wK52
— British Normandy Memorial (@britishmemorial) June 2, 2021
It is doubly and trebly a shame that Covid has prevented them coming again this year. The remaining veterans – British, American, Canadian, Polish, French – have few Junes left to lose.
For the surviving British Normandy veterans and their helpers this is another reason for deep regret. This is a special year for them, even though it does not have a “zero” or “five” at the end.
On Sunday – 77 years on – Britain will finally get a grand and fitting, single memorial to the contribution that its soldiers, sailors and airmen and women made to the battle of Normandy from June 6th to August 30th, 1944.
There are, of course, scores of memorials littered all over the Norman battlefields: from the single grave of a Spitfire pilot in my own village in Calvados; to the exquisitely-maintained Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries; to the wonderful museum at Pegasus Bridge which tells the story of the British airborne troops.
What is absent, however, is a single symbolic place to commemorate and explain the whole British contribution to the largest seaborne invasion in history – something to match the haunting US cemetery on the cliff-tops at Omaha Beach or the Canadian museum at Courseulles-sur-Mer.
On Sunday, the British ambassador to France Lord Llewellyn, will open the British Normandy Memorial at Ver-sur-Mer on on the grassy slopes above Gold Beach. The memorial is the fulfilment of a €33 million British state and private investment and the realisation (with much help from others) of the dream, and the obsession of one man.
I will come back to that man in a moment. First the memorial.
I visited the completed site for the first time this week. It is a magnificent achievement, a place of great beauty. It takes the Lutyens-inspired, classical lines of the First World War memorials and transforms them into something less sombre and ponderous. It is neither triumphalist nor half-hearted nor apologetic.
The pillared arcades and courtyard, opening to the north and a great sweep of the invasion beaches, were designed by the architect Liam O’Connor. The centrepiece, a giant, bronze statue of three British soldiers struggling ashore, was sculpted by David Williams-Ellis.
The pillars are arranged in date order, from June 6th to late August. Each carries the names and ages of those who died on that day in Normandy under British command – more than 22,000 names in all.
— British Normandy Memorial (@britishmemorial) May 5, 2021
There will eventually be an educational, visitor centre. There is already a separate memorial for the 20,000 Norman civilians who died in the summer of 1944 (many of them killed by allied bombs).
Find the virtual tour of the memorial and survivor interviews HERE.
But why build this now? Are there not war memorials enough? Is this not just – as Max Hastings, the greatest historian of D-Day argues – another example of an unhealthy British obsession with Britain’s part in World War II?
By placing the memorial on the slope above Gold Beach will it not add to the widespread misunderstanding that the Battle of Normandy occurred purely on the beaches on June 6th, rather than in 85 days of bloody grind through the fields and hills of Calvados and Manche?
Also why the obsession with Normandy? What about the Britons who fought in Italy or North Africa or the Far East?
There are no easy or completely satisfactory answers to these questions. I will give my own.
The battle of Normandy was one of the great pivotal events of World War II. It was not decisive in itself but it did hasten and shape the outcome. The Russian-German battles on the eastern front were bigger and more murderous (although some of the tank battles in Normandy in July approached the same level of destruction).
The fighting in Italy and elsewhere should not be forgotten but Normandy – right or wrongly – has become the great symbol of the western, democratic alliance to defeat Nazism.
It is important to me because I live there and I am surrounded by the memories and scars of June to August 1944. My father also played the smallest of small parts. He arrived as an artilleryman a few days after D-Day and was injured in an accident almost immediately.
I detest – as do many veterans in my experience – the jingoistic and often ignorant obsession of some Britons and some British media with our part in the 1939-45 war. It often comes gift-wrapped with contempt for the European institutions which the war generated.
We should not abandon commemoration of the Battle of Normandy – or any other part of the war – to them alone. We should remember World War II as a terrible victory over brutality, racism and aggressive nationalism.
And now to George Batts, the man whose determination made the new memorial possible, He was an 18 years old engineer on Gold Beach on June 6th 1944. He was, until it dissolved in 2014, the national secretary of the Normandy Veterans’ Association.
I know him a little. I wrote about a couple of his campaigns in The Independent a few years ago.
The British Normandy Memorial is the result of his biggest and most successful campaign – carried through with the help of, among others, a former British ambassador in Paris, Peter (now Lord) Ricketts and the BBC journalist Nicholas Witchell.
I rang George, now 95, at his home in Kent.
“I just had this idea, an obsession really, that something was missing,” he said. “The Americans and Canadians had these grand places to commemorate their part in the Norman invasion. We had a scattering of places but no one focal point.”
“For years, I banged on about it. I was told I was mad. That I was wasting my time. That no new memorials were needed. My ideas were rejected by politicians. By senior military people. By some other veterans.”
“It all changed when I met the former Prime Minister, David Cameron at the 70th anniversary commemorations in 2014. He promised to help me and he did.”
The British government gave £27 million from the proceeds of the fines imposed on banks for their part in the Libor rate-fixing scandal. George and others who joined his campaign, including Lord Ricketts, raised another £3 million from private donations.
George Batts, defeated for once, has never seen the completed British Normandy Memorial that he largely created. He will attend the opening ceremony on Sunday in a separate, linked event at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire. Up to 400 surviving British Normandy veterans are expected to attend.
“It’s a great disappointment and shame not to be there,” he said.
“But we are planning a big visit to Ver-sur-Mer for veterans and their families in September. At 95, you can never plan too far ahead but I’m hoping nothing comes along to stop me this time.”