The final battle: remembering D-Day's veterans

Help us make one last journey to the D-Day beaches in honour of the fallen, plead veterans

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.

John Lichfield

Click here to have your say

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Kellie Bright as Linda Carter and Danny Dyer as Mick Carter

EastEnders Christmas specials are known for their shouty, over-the-top soap drama but tonight the show has done itself proud thanks to Danny Dyer.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy
tvCall the Midwife Christmas Special
Sport
Laura Trott and Jason Kenny are preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow
sport
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth with Tess Daly in the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special
tvLouis Smith wins with 'Jingle Bells' quickstep on Strictly Come Dancing's Christmas Special
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there