60 years on, Britain's heroes of Salerno feel shunned by Government

Robert Verkaik
Monday 08 September 2003 00:00

On the morning of 9 September 1943 - three years after Hitler's all-conquering Panzer divisions had thrown the British Expeditionary Force out of France and back into the sea - Coldstream Guardsman Philip Gourd became one of the first British soldiers to regain a foothold on mainland Europe.

Guardsman Gourd was part of a small reconnaissance unit set down on the southern Italian beaches of Salerno three hours ahead of the main Allied landings, at the time the biggest invasion in history.

Without the Allies' success at Salerno, which cost the lives of 8,000 British and American servicemen, D-Day would have had to be postponed and the war extended beyond 1945. Tomorrow, Guardsman Gourd, 83, from Teignmouth, Devon, and dozens of his comrades will gather at a Salerno cemetery overlooking the landing beaches to mark the 60th anniversary of the battle.

But no government minister will be there to take the veterans' salute.

Next year it will be the turn of 3,000 surviving D-Day veterans to honour their fallen comrades on the beaches of Normandy.

But the Secretary of State for Defence will not be in attendance and neither will a senior member of the Royal Family.

For the soldiers of both campaigns, this is a bitter blow as they sense their place in history slipping away.

Guardsman Gourd, who was later promoted to Sergeant, says the Government's position represents a "terrible insensitivity. We expected something so much better, something that would really recognise the sacrifice of all those who are not with us now."

Most of the veterans of both these campaigns are in their 80s and the events will be their last chance to stand together at a major anniversary to honour their achievements.

But the Government has signalled that the time has come to scale down its support for such commemorations.

This approach contrasts sharply with that of the American and French governments. Washington will be sending high-profile delegations to both commemorations. President George Bush is expected to attend next year's D-Day event as part of his campaign for re-election, while President Jacques Chirac is to head the French celebrations of the liberation of France.

The best the British can manage in Normandy next year will be a single "junior minister", accompanied by two military bands.

In Salerno tomorrow, the veterans will be joined by a single bugler and perhaps the Rome-based British military attaché and the ambassador in Italy.

The veterans have been told that ministers are determined to give the events a much lower priority than they did the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the landings, and that funding has been reduced accordingly.

Instead, the Ministry of Defence wants to spend the money on three other famous battles of the Second World War - the Battle of Britain, the battle of the Atlantic and El Alamein - which they say have received less public support in the past.

Jeremy Lillies, the head of corporate affairs at the Royal British Legion, said: "This is the last time these elderly veterans will be able to go to an event to mark any major anniversary. It's a real pity that Salerno can not be marked in a more significant way."

The Imperial War Museum in London will mark the Salerno anniversary by hosting a reunion for veterans of the Italian campaign, who became known as the "D-Day dodgers" because it was perceived that they had been lucky to escape the invasion of France the following year.

But the casualties suffered in the Italian campaign were proportionately just as heavy as on D-Day.

Among the guests of honour at the museum today will be Lord Healey, the former deputy leader of the Labour party, Alan Whicker, from the Whicker's World television programme, and the military historian Sir Michael Howard.

Mr Whicker, a former Eighth Army soldier, is filming his own experiences of the fighting for a Channel 4 documentary to be called Whicker's War.

"I was an Eighth Army, myself, so went across at Reggio Calabria - but my opposite number and good friend Captain Harry Rignold was killed on the beaches [of Salerno]."

The Royal British Legion, which is accompanying the Salerno veterans to Italy and plans to charter a ship taking 550 D-Day servicemen to France next year, has taken the unprecedented step of writing to MPs to complain about the "inadequate" preparations.

In a letter seen by The Independent, the legion's secretary general, Ian Townsend, complains to MPs: "There is no mention of royal participation, although there are indications that France, the US and Canada are considering representation by their heads of state.

"It is said that only 25-year anniversaries are marked in this way by the UK, but nevertheless we were represented by the Queen and the Prime Minister on the 40th anniversary in 1984, as well as at the 50th in 1994.

"The country should be doing all it can to ensure that the veterans have their last big day, before they either die or become too frail to travel. The Dunkirk Veterans' Association and the Eighth Army Veterans' Association have already held their final anniversary events, and it is now the turn of the Normandy Veterans."

The British Legion and the veterans want the Queen or at least the Prince of Wales to attend but they have been told by the Government that this is a matter for the Royal Family. Buckingham Palace said it was discussing the sending of a royal representative with the Government but no firm conclusion had been reached.

An MoD spokeswoman said: "We are liaising closely with the French and the veterans helping to develop a full programme of commemoration in France to mark what will be a significant anniversary of one of the Second World War's most decisive battles."

But she said: "The focus for the funding will now be on other Second World War battles of equal significance which have not received as much support in the past. There will also be major funding to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2005, in which all the veterans can take part."

That does not placate the veterans. Said Mr Townsend: "Even the very youngest of those veterans will now be 77 and over 90 by the year 2019, which will be the 75th anniversary."

Neither does this impress Guardsman Gourd: "It is true that the landings at Normandy were bigger, but without the great sacrifice of Salerno, the landing on Normandy would not have been so successful."



'We expected something so much better, something that would really recognise the sacrifice of all those who are not with us now. The landings at Normandy were bigger, but without the great sacrifice of Salerno the landing on Normandy would not have been so successful'


'Surviving veterans of D-Day 1944 are looking upon the 60th anniversary next year as the last major event which they can be certain of attending, as in 10 and 15 years time their numbers will have rapidly dwindled. Even the very youngest of those veterans will now be 77 and over 90 by the year 2019, which will be the 75th anniversary'


Battle of Britain, Summer of 1940.

Casualties: 443 pilots lost.

Military Significance: An inferior number of RAF aircraft severely damaged the fighting capability of the Luftwaffe. Without control of the English skies, Hitler was unable to invade Britain. Winston Churchill called it 'our finest hour'.

El Alamein, 23 October 1942

Casualties: 13,500 men of the Eighth Army died, including Britons, Australians, New Zealanders, Greeks, French and Canadians

Military Significance: Symbolic tuning point of the war. Churchill said that before El Alamein there had been only defeats but after El Alamein there were only victories.

Battle of the Atlantic, 1939 to 1945

Casualties: An estimated 80,000 Allied servicemen and sailors died.

Military significance: Kept open supply lines to Britain from America and Canada. If the U-boats had prevailed, the western Allies could not have succeeded against Germany.


Dunkirk, 27 May - 4 June 1940:

Casualties: 30,000 British soldiers killed and wounded.

Military significance: 338,000 British and French soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk. But the troops ordered to hold the line outside the town and many waiting in the beaches suffered huge losses and all heavy equipment was left in France.

Arnhem, 17 September 1944

Casualties: 8,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded.

Military significance: Codenamed 'Market Garden'. Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein sent a vast force of allied paratroops to capture Arnhem and seven bridges on the Dutch-German border. He gambled that a narrow, penetrating assault would have greater impact than a classic advance along a broad front. If it had succeeded, it would have shortened the war.

Monte Casino, Fell, 18 May 1944

Casualties: 20,000 British, American and German dead and wounded.

Military significance: As the Allies pushed north through Italy, German resistance centred on the hilltop Benedictine abbey of Monte Casino. British, American, Polish, Indian and New Zealand troops failed to take it and the 1,400-year-old building was bombed. However, the ruins provided cover for the Germans before the abbey finally fell.

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