“In 1944 they welcomed us with an arm round the shoulder and by bringing the wine bottles out,” said Cecil Butters, 90, speaking 70 years after he landed on Sword Beach. “But this is a different kind of gratitude, because most of these people weren’t born in 1944. It is wonderful.”
There were many choking moments in yesterday’s coverage – the TV close-ups of veterans as they tried to keep their composure; their casual dismissal of extraordinary feats under fire; the mass singing of “Auld Lang Syne” and Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”; the honour guard of Normandy locals who applauded them all the way from Bayeux Cathedral to the cemetery.
The day’s most charming story was that of the 89-year-old veteran who absconded from his nursing home in East Sussex after staff said they couldn’t help him travel to France for the commemorations. On Thursday, Bernard Jordan, a former mayor of Hove, who served with the Royal Navy in Operation Overlord, left the home in a grey mack to go “for a walk”. Unbeknownst to carers, he wore his jacket and campaign medals beneath, and boarded a coach to Normandy to join events on the beaches.
Yesterday’s most significant meeting was between Vladimir Putin – there in recognition of Soviet Russia’s central role in defeating Nazism – and the new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. They jointly called for an end to the bloodshed and will discuss a ceasefire in the coming days.
The Normandy landings, in driving back Nazism in Europe, became the cornerstone of our societies and politics; the eventual victory helping to change attitudes to class, gender and democracy. We live in a much less dangerous world, although one in which we must guard against the complacency of peace.
As for the men of Normandy: united are they in death, and we in gratitude.