Nearly 70 years ago, Jim Ratcliffe and Anthony Colgan waded ashore side-by-side on D-Day with the Durham Light Infantry. This week, aged 90 and 89, they walked arm in arm through the war cemetery at Bayeux in Normandy, looking for the grave of their commanding officer (CO).
“He was a right tough so-and-so but a popular CO,” said Ratcliffe from Bolton, Lancashire. “He had a premonition that he was going to die. He was killed in mid-June 1944, near Tilly sur Seulle 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 – friends for seven decades – soon found the last resting place of Lt Colonel H.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 alive, compared to 14,000 a few years ago.
The Normandy Veterans’ Association this week launched an appeal, in The Independent, to ensure that the voices of the remaining veterans are not lost to future generations. Over the next 12 months, 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 that many people wish had been attempted in time for the soldiers who fought in World War One).
The initial reaction to the NVA appeal has been “excellent”, according to the association’s honorary secretary George Batts. Roughly £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.
A retired British diplomat, Alastair Dutch, is the voluntary executive producer of the project. “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 the 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 World War Two “forces’ sweetheart” Vera Lynn and the actor Robert Hardy (a frequent impersonator of Winston Churchill) to contribute to the DVD. The raw footage of the interviews of the veterans – at least 200 are expected to participate, maybe more – will be presented to the Imperial War Museum or the D-Day museum in 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, http://www.backtonormandy.org. He has also offered to compose, without charge, the music for the DVD.