Survivors of D-Day reacted angrily yesterday to what they claimed was a belated attempt to politicise and hijack a nine-month campaign to take British veterans to mark the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings.
A public appeal for funds to take 500 ex-service personnel to the commemorations in France, launched in The Independent on 6 June last year, has been assured of success for weeks. The Government had been criticised for not paying the travel costs, and for not planning to send Gordon Brown to the event – but yesterday it said there would be "appropriate British attendance" and that it would "provide support so veterans can participate".
As the Big Lottery Fund suddenly announced its contribution towards veterans' fares, the Prime Minister said he wanted to be "very much part of the commemorations", and that he hoped there would be a service in Westminster Abbey to remember a "great generation of heroes".
But Peter Hodge, secretary of the Normandy Veterans Association (NVA), said: "Ministers on the beaches is not really what we wanted or needed. We never complained about the Government not giving us money. We wanted this to be between the veterans and the British people. The public response to our appeal, first publicised in The Independent, has already been fantastic."
"We also wanted this to be mostly about the veterans themselves. If ministers go along, the extra security tends to mean that veterans are pushed into the background."
After reading The Independent's story about the appeal, the advertising executive Trevor Beattie took up the cause and helped Mr Hodge to set up a fund which has since received pledges of more than £175,000. This, and other sums raised by the NVA, is enough to take all 500 fit British D-Day survivors back to the beaches. Mr Beattie has donated £30,000, and the comedian Eddie Izzard has promised to make up any shortfall. For many elderly NVA members, the 65th anniversary will be their last chance to remember the sacrifices made on 6 June 1944.
Mr Beattie said: "Everyone who wants to support these magnificent men is very welcome. But it would have been courteous to recognise all that has already been done by Peter Hodge and myself and The Independent. Most of all I object to the clear attempt to hijack and politicise our campaign. This was never about attacking Labour or Gordon Brown. It was always about supporting our veterans in a practical way."
He added: "The job is already done. We already have enough money for the veterans to go to Normandy and probably enough to fund events, with live film links, for those who are not well enough to travel."
Mr Hodge wrote to every British newspaper last May asking them to highlight the plight of the veterans. In 2004, the Labour Government paid for veterans to travel to the 60th anniversary, and he said this was more than any previous government, Labour or Conservative, had done. The NVA accepted that the Government could not pay again, so it appealed directly to the public to help raise funds for a "last parade" of D-Day survivors in 2009.
The only national newspaper to respond to Mr Hodge's letter at the time was The Independent. "The truth is that it is rather too late to be raising funds now," Mr Hodge said yesterday. "We are talking about elderly people and that means you have to plan well in advance. Luckily, thanks to Mr Beattie and others, we already look like we will have all the money we need."