'Light-hearted' approach draws heavy backlash: Little was done to reconcile opposing camps arranging event

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MARKING the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings in which 37,000 allied servicemen sacrificed their lives for the liberation of Europe seems straightforward enough.

But less than a week after John Major invited the nation to 'mobilise' for three months of street parties and a programme of 500 'light-hearted' civilian D-Day events, the Government is under heavy attack from ex-servicemen, MPs and much of the public. Even the mild-mannered wartime sweetheart of the forces, Dame Vera Lynn, 77, has come out, guns blazing, attacking the events her boys consider a tasteless and insulting way to commemorate those who died.

Adding to his hapless image, Mr Major may go down in history as the Prime Minister who riled Dame Vera by supporting plans to mark the enormous loss of human life at the beginning of the end of the Second World War with a spam fritter cooking competition.

It is also certain that those most closely involved anticipated hostilities between the commemoration and celebration camps months ago and they did little to reconcile them. The Ministry of Defence began to make suitably sombre commemoration plans in 1992 after Brigadier Tom Longland was appointed to co-ordinate the department's efforts.

Four events were central. The RAF would mark the Battle of Britain; the Navy, the Battle of the Atlantic; and the Army, El Alamein. On D-Day, 6 June, the forces would join together for a ceremony in Normandy, where almost one- fifth of the 200,000 allies involved in the great offensive against Hitler died.

On 5 June, the Queen and President Clinton would attend the Drumhead Service at Southsea, expected to attract 500,000 people. The Royal Yacht Britannia would then head a flotilla bound for France.

The MoD thought the big public event should be on the 50th anniversary of VE Day next May. Its proposals, in consultation with the Royal British Legion and the Normandy Veterans' Association, have proved largely uncontroversial. The blame for the current debacle lies with the Department of National Heritage, which has been busying itself for months co-ordinating and initiating more 'light- hearted' civilian events.

According to the British Legion and the Normandy Veterans, the Department of Heritage did not bother to consult them about their pounds 1m programme.

Representatives of the ex- servicemen's organisations only heard what was planned at last week's launch and were not invited in for a chat until the subsequent row had erupted.

Centrepiece events like the Hyde Park family day which the veterans have demanded be postponed until next year were initiated by the department. There were to be street parties, tea dances and beer at 1940s prices; and the fuse of the spam fritter bomb was lit.

Those who, every 6 June, remember husbands, fathers and fellow servicemen who were slaughtered on the Normandy shores, understandly considered such plans a 'frivolous way' to mark such sacrifice. Lieutenant Colonel Phillip Creasy, the RBL's secretary general, said this week that ministers clearly had their years mixed up. Next year was the time for celebration.

Famous veterans like Lord Healey, the former Labour Cabinet minister, accused the Government of turning the deaths of 37,000 servicemen 'into a sort of TV game show'.

But officials at the Department of National Heritage are obstinate. Even when the row blew up this week they seemed rather annoyed that the veterans were trying to spoil a jolly time for the nation. There was no way the Hyde Park event would not take place, one official insisted.