A small group of old men will gather on the beaches of Normandy today – a handful of the 3,000 survivors of Britain's own "Band of Brothers". Many hundreds of other veterans, such as Bert Bowden in Bristol, will spend the 64th anniversary of D-Day at home, unable to join the men, living and dead, who they still regard as their "own family."
As the Government faced new questions yesterday about how it pays soldiers who are serving in today's war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, in this corner of France on the D-Day anniversary, questions were being asked about how much Britain as a nation values its veterans of six decades ago.
Bert Bowden, 89, came ashore on Gold Beach on 6 June, 1944 and fought until he reached the German Baltic coast 11 months later. He is still physically and mentally strong. Like many of his surviving comrades, he is no longer able to afford a trip to Normandy. Like many others, he is unwilling to leave an ailing wife without a constant carer.
Only 150 British veterans have travelled to France for today's anniversary. There were more than double that number last year. Time has taken its toll of their numbers but so has the difficulty of living on a pension in Britain in 2008.
"We are reaching that age now – mid to late 80s most of us – that even our children are getting on," Mr Bowden said. "They do a lot already but we can't always ask them to do more."
This year's commemoration, the 64th, is not an especially important one. Next year's – the 65th – is very important. It will be the last time that survivors of the Allied armies who invaded Normandy will gather in large numbers on the beaches and in the fields where they fought. By the time of the 70th anniversary, in 2014, the D-Day veterans will be in their 90s – or no longer alive.
As things stand, very few British veterans will be able to afford to go to Normandy next year. The Government gave them a £330 "Heroes' Return" grant (and £220 for essential carers) to attend the large 60th anniversary commemorations in 2004. It was accepted at the time that it was a "final commemoration". The Government is, therefore, refusing to pay out again.
Four years later, far more Normandy veterans remain physically and mentally strong into their mid-80s than anyone had expected. Their dead comrades are "gone but not forgotten". The octogenarian survivors are forgotten but not gone.
Yesterday, the Normandy Veterans Association (NVA) – uniting 4,500 remaining British Commonwealth and European veterans – put out an appeal to the British people to step into the breach. It has set up a fund – only about £300,000 is needed – to help the 1,000 or so British veterans who are likely to want to travel to rejoin their Canadian and American comrades on the Normandy beaches 12 months from today.
The American and Canadian governments have already promised financial aid to their veterans. As things stand, the British veterans of D-Day and beyond will have to rely entirely on their own resources and those of their families.
Mr Bowden, a corporal and dispatch rider in the Royal Army Service Corps in 1944, said: "What perhaps people don't understand is that, in June 1944, we soldiers were all one family, not just friends but family. When you lose family members, you want, over and over, to visit the places where you lost them and the places where they are buried."
"To go back to those cemeteries and visit the boys we lost is a very emotional thing. It is also a kind of duty. We know that next year, for many of us, is likely to be the last time. There is a feeling that we ought to be there, that we owe it to our lost family to be there one final time before we go ourselves."
Peter Hodge, the honorary secretary of the Normandy Veterans' Association, who has launched the appeal, said: "The nation should be aware of their plight. All of us living in freedom, should take heart and pride in sending these men. We have approached the Government without success at the present time."
"This is not a complaint against the Government, and certainly not against Gordon Brown. As Chancellor, he did more than any other British politician has ever done for veterans. It was largely because of him that veterans received an allowance to come to Normandy for the 60th anniversary in 2004. We agreed then that would be a final commemoration. We accept it is difficult for the Government to go back on that and offer to support veterans again next year."
All the same, Mr Hodge and the NVA have not entirely given up hope of persuading Gordon Brown to chip in. "The Government has announced it is taking £150m from 'dormant bank accounts', mostly belonging to the deceased," Mr Hodge said. "This money is to be given to youth causes. Fair enough. We have no objection. But could a small amount of that money not also help D-Day and other Normandy veterans to go on a final visit next year?"
"Many of the people to whom this money belonged must have been from the Second World War generation. To support youth is fine but the Normandy veterans – and those who never lived to become veterans – gave their youth to fight the Second World War ... Their youth was spent facing conflict, danger, serious injuries and for many, mental disturbance."
About 150 British Normandy veterans began their 64th anniversary commemorations yesterday with a parade and service 200 yards from the Sword invasion beach, at Colleville-Montgomery. The service was also attended by family members and local French politicians, by representatives of the Surrey police and by a French bagpipe band. Fifty or so veterans were sprightly enough to march between the beach and the commemoration site. Military discipline was maintained, save for ribald complaints from some veterans when the equally veteran parade master got his instructions slightly wrong. "He was in the bloody navy," one old man told puzzled French bystanders.
The service took place in front of a statue of the Allied commander, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. The statue was paid for by NVA members when there were almost 20,000 of them still alive in the 1980s.
The NVA president, Major-General Tony Richardson, who was at yesterday's ceremony, said: "We need money and we also need government support. Do the British people want the beaches next year to be crowded with Canadian and American veterans and few British ones? It wasn't just the Canadians and the Americans who won the war."
Donations can be sent to: The National Treasurer, the Normandy Veterans Association, 1, Chervilles, Barming, Nr Maidstone, Kent, ME16 9JE
A defining moment in the Second World War
The Allied invasion of Normandy 64 years ago today remains the largest amphibious military operation ever attempted.
American, Canadian, British and some French troops assaulted five beaches along 40 miles of French coastline. By the end of the day, the Allies had landed more than 150,000 men.
They had suffered 9,000 casualties, of whom about one third were killed. This was a terrible price but far less than many military planners had feared and a triumph compared to some of the frontal assaults of the First World War.
It is sometimes forgotten that D-Day was only the beginning of the battle of Normandy. Fighting raged for 10 weeks, until 19-20 August, before the German armies in France were finally routed.
The battle of Normandy has been described by a French historian as the "Stalingrad of the west": the only prolonged, yard-by-yard fighting undertaken by the Allied armies on the western front. (Some British historians point to the battles in central Italy in 1944 as being almost as inhuman.)
After the defeat in Normandy – maybe after the successful landings on D-Day – Nazi Germany had lost all chance of winning the war. The Red Army had already thrown back the Germans on the eastern front in late 1943 and early 1944. Adolf Hitler remained convinced, however, that he could still win the war – or at least force an armed peace. He hoped to hold on long enough in the east to use his new super-weapons to hit London and Moscow.
Paris was captured five days after the final defeat of the Wehrmacht in Normandy. The German military had little left in reserve to prevent a rapid advance into Belgium and the Netherlands.
Something like 500,000 Allied troops served in the Normandy campaign. Of these maybe 150,000 were British.
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