An ageing band of brothers will gather in the largest British war cemetery in Normandy today. There will be only 80 veterans at the commemoration in Bayeux this year – the smallest annual pilgrimage since 156,000 Allied troops, including 61,000 British soldiers, stormed the D-Day beaches 69 years ago.
The youngest of the remaining Normandy veterans is now 87 years old. Many are over 90. The pivotal western European battle of the Second World War is about to pass, like the First World War, over the horizon of living memory.
Visit the Normandy Voices campaign page for a selection of video footage and interviews
The Normandy Veterans’ Association (NVA), the organisation for British survivors of D-Day and the 10 weeks of vicious fighting which followed, once had 14,000 members. At the 65th anniversary four years ago, there were 3,000 members still alive. There are now fewer than 600.
The Independent today announces an appeal by the NVA, to ensure that the voices of the remaining veterans – the survivors of the survivors – 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. The full interviews will be presented to a museum as a permanent archive of Normandy Voices (something that many people wish had been attempted in time for soldiers who fought in the First World War).
Five years ago, The Independent asked its readers to help Normandy veterans return in large numbers to the D-Day beaches for the 65th anniversary. Largely thanks to our readers’ generosity, the NVA raised the money it needed.
We are not repeating that appeal this year. The NVA has already been promised National Lottery funding to take members to Normandy next summer for what will be their “last patrol”. The association plans to accept its inevitable defeat by time and age and hang up its banners after the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Instead, we are inviting Independent readers to support the NVA’s project to create a permanent archive of its members’ memories. The NVA hopes to raise £50,000 to cover the costs of the production company, and all help is welcome.
The production company will interview Normandy veterans from all over the UK. The raw footage will be edited, with additional commentary, to produce a DVD – or boxed set of DVDs – in time for the 70th anniversary.
The project is the “passionate hobby horse” of George Batts, the 87-year-old honorary general secretary of the NVA. Mr Batts came ashore on Gold Beach on 6 June 1944 as an 18-year-old Royal Engineer or “sapper”. He cleared mines before helping to build and maintain the artificial “Mulberry” harbour at Arromanches.
“Many of us were youngsters, only 18 or 19, but we grew up very quickly,” Mr Batts told The Independent. “There are 17,000 British servicemen buried in Normandy. Many of those are very young too. They never had a life. For their sake, as much as anything, I believe passionately that we should record for posterity what the survivors have to say.
“We must not repeat the mistake that was made with the First World War veterans, when no systematic attempt was made to record their experiences until there was only a handful of them left.
“I go to schools and talk about D-Day and the Second World War. I always tell the children that it is important that you remember so that you don’t repeat our mistakes. You must never allow another world war.
“That is why it is important to record the memories of these old men. To remember their bravery, yes. But also as a warning.”
Andrew Elmslie, whose production company will film the interviews, has already recorded the memories of four members of the NVA Hackney branch in east London. Completion of the project depends on sufficient money being raised.
“We will ask each veteran to speak for about 10 minutes and to think out carefully what they intend to say in advance,” Mr Elmslie said. “They will be asked to bring along their medals and any memorabilia they have.
“Unlike, say, a TV documentary production, we will not just keep the dramatic stuff, the gems, the acts of heroism, the storming of pillboxes single-handed. We will give a representative sample of veterans’ memories. We shall ask them to name and remember particular comrades that they lost.”
The resulting film will be presented to the veterans and sold to the public. All profits or surpluses will go to the Royal Star and Garter Homes, which provide nursing care for servicemen and women.
Not every minute of every interview can be included. That would amount to 2,000 minutes, or more than 33 hours, of film. It is the NVA’s intention to present the raw footage to a museum, possibly the Imperial War Museum or the Portsmouth D-Day Museum – to be preserved for historians, and future generations, as a permanent treasury of Normandy Voices.
The three sets of reminiscences published here are the result of interviews conducted by The Independent. They are not part of the project, but give a flavour of the kind of memories it would preserve.
Day of destiny: Why it still matters
The largest invasion fleet ever assembled landed 156,000 Allied troops on five beach heads in Normandy 69 years ago.
Popular memory focuses on D-Day itself but the fighting continued until 19 August. Some of the close combat, in and around Caen, or at the foot of the Cotentin Peninsula, or in the Falaise pocket, was as murderous as anything on the Eastern Front.
After their defeat in Normandy, the German forces in Western Europe were so reduced that the American, British, Canadian, Polish and Free French armies advanced to capture Paris by 22 August and Brussels by 1 September.
Casualties on D-Day itself were lighter than Allied commanders had feared. It is estimated that about 4,400 Allied troops, airmen and sailors died on 6 June, of whom about 1,500 were British. There are 17,769 British war graves in the whole of the Normandy battle zone.
How important was the Battle of Normandy? Post-war Western histories played down the immense contribution of the Russians to the downfall of Nazism. It is equally wrong to dismiss, or marginalise, the importance of the Second Front opened on 6 June 1944.
Without D-Day, Adolf Hitler could have deployed many more divisions to resist the Red Army. He would have had more time to develop, and deploy, his modern weapon of terror, the V2 rocket. The war might have continued for many years.
At the very least, the Iron Curtain, which was established in central Europe in the late 1940s, might have been built 600 miles to the west – between Britain and the Continent.
If you would like to support the NVA’s 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 pay directly into the following NatWest account: Normandy Veterans Association Overlord Productions; account number: 48090379; sort code: 60-60-08
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