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Last Normandy veterans mark comrades’ loss

John Lichfield hears some of thinning ranks of D-Day soldiers remember stories that could be lost forever

On D-Day in June 1944, Jim Ratcliffe and Anthony Colgan waded ashore side-by-side with the Durham Light Infantry. This week, aged 90 and 89, respectively, they walked arm-in-arm through the British war cemetery at Bayeux in Normandy, looking for the grave of their commanding officer.

“He was a right tough so-and-so but a popular CO,” said Mr Ratcliffe from Bolton. “He had a premonition he was going to die. He was killed in mid-June 1944, near Tilly-sur-Seulles when we lost 200 men in a couple of days. Tilly changed hands 20 times before we finally held on to it.”

Jim and Anthony soon found the last resting place of Lt-Col Humphrey R Woods among the 4,144 British graves at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Bayeux. His gravestone reads “Killed 14 June 1944. Aged 28.”

At the D-Day commemorations in Normandy this week, remembrance of young comrades killed nearly 70 years ago blended with a new, but resigned, sadness at the rapid erosion of the ranks of the old survivors.

“My own branch of the Normandy Veterans Association (NVA) has closed because there are hardly any of us left alive,” said Mr Colgan, from Knutsford, Cheshire. “There are many, many old friends who are not here in Normandy this year. It is like losing comrades in battle all over again. But at least the death of old men is the way things are supposed to be.”

Only 600 members of the NVA are still alive, compared with 14,000 a few years ago. This week, it launched an appeal, through The Independent, to ensure the voices of remaining veterans are not lost to future generations. Over the next year, if enough money can be raised, all British Normandy veterans will be asked to give filmed interviews of their memories. The footage will be edited into a DVD, or series of DVDs, which will form their last testament in time for the 70th anniversary of D-Day on 6 June 2014. The full interviews will be presented to a museum to form a permanent archive of Normandy voices – something many people wish had been attempted in time for soldiers who fought in the First World War. The initial reaction to the NVA appeal has been excellent, according to the association’s honorary secretary George Batts. About £50,000 is needed to pay the costs of filming and editing the memories of the remaining veterans. Details of how to make a contribution can be found below.

Alastair Dutch, a retired diplomat, is the voluntary executive producer. “The plan is to make the DVD tell a story, starting with the training in Britain, the crossing of the Channel and then the invasion itself and the fighting which followed,” he said. “We will edit interviews to fit the narrative and intercut them with footage from the time and the peaceful Normandy of today.”

Mr Dutch plans to ask the Second World War “forces’ sweetheart” Dame Vera Lynn and the actor Robert Hardy (who frequently plays Winston Churchill) to contribute to the DVD. The raw footage of the interviews with the veterans – at least 200 are expected to participate, maybe more – will be presented to the Imperial War Museum or the D-Day museum, Portsmouth.

The project has already attracted support from abroad. Fred Vogels, a Dutch composer, is appealing for contributions on his website devoted to D-Day, backtonormandy.org. He has also offered to compose the music for the DVD free of charge.

To support the appeal, send a cheque to George Batts, national secretary/treasurer, NVA, 1 Chervilles, Barming, Maidstone, Kent, ME16 9JE with “NVA Overlord Productions” as the payee. Or make payments directly to NatWest account number 48090379; sort code: 60-60-08; account name: “Normandy Veterans Association Overlord Productions”.