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OPINION & ANALYSIS

British Normandy veterans have finally got their own memorial, but cannot travel to France to visit it

Machine guns could not prevent them from coming ashore 77 years ago. For many decades age could not weary them, writes John Lichfield. The Covid-19 pandemic will, nonetheless, stop British and other veterans from invading Normandy this Sunday for the second D-Day anniversary in succession.

British Normandy veterans have finally got their own memorial, but cannot travel to France to visit it
The memorial at Ver-sur-Mer, Normandy. Photo: Philippe Wojazer/AFP

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).

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.

No more.

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.

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.”

Member comments

  1. Aren’t there enough memorials in Normandy as it is. I do hope none of my tax went to pay for it.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.

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