Veterans say final farewell to beaches of freedom
Amazing story of British veteran who absconded from his care home to join old comrades on a Normandy beach marks extraordinary occasion
SEVENTY years after he endured the horrors of D-Day, a veteran summed up how much it meant to wartime heroes to honour their fallen comrades for what might be the last time.
Bernard Jordan, 89, was told by staff at his Hove, England care home that he would not be able to travel to France for the ceremony because they could not organise transport for him.
However, the Royal Navy veteran refused to take no for an answer. Showing all the determination that got him through the Normandy invasion, he pinned his medals to his chest, grabbed his raincoat and caught a coach to France.
After prompting an international missing persons alert and a police inquiry, he joined hundreds of his friends to commemorate the heroism and sacrifice of those who did not survive the largest seaborne invasion in history.
"I wanted to go to this show here today," Mr Bernard said as he was interviewed by ITV News getting on the ferry on his way back to the UK.
"That's the main reason I came over here and it's a first class show.
"It's a first class show because I have been here last year and I have been here obviously this time and I'm going to - touch wood I'm still with us - and I will be 91 then, but if I am still about I shall try next year's as well."
He agreed that nothing would have stopped him getting to the celebration and said he "didn't realise" how much interest his story had generated but that it had "definitely" been worth it.
When asked if he would be in trouble when he got back home the pensioner walked off and laughed as he said: "I might be, but I hope not." His act of gallantry encapsulated the spirit of a day that Barack Obama described yesterday as one that “decided not just a century, but shaped the security and well-being of all posterity”.
US President Barack Obama (right) and French President Francois Hollande stand during a joint French-US D-Day commemoration ceremony (DAMIEN MEYER/AFP)
The Queen and David Cameron joined Britain’s day of commemorations, in which veterans were cheered, applauded and thanked by the people of Normandy at every turn.
The Queen paid tribute to the “immense and heroic endeavour” of the soldiers who took part in the invasion before she met some of the men who were there on June 6 1944. Ceremonies at Sword Beach, in Arromanches, and Bayeux were attended by 650 British veterans. For many of them it was a last farewell to the land they so bravely liberated. The Normandy Veterans Association will be disbanded later this year, after its members decided too few will be alive in five years to make the 75th anniversary a major event.
If there was any measure of how much the day meant to them, it was surely the actions of Mr Jordan, a former mayor of Hove, who marched out of The Pines nursing home and landed in Ouistreham, where he booked into a hotel with some of his old comrades.
His disappearance prompted staff at the care home to raise the alarm on Thursday evening, with police searching the area and contacting nearby hospitals and bus and taxi companies.
The extent of Mr Jordan’s resolve to join his old comrades only became clear when another veteran, thought to be slightly younger than him, told police the missing pensioner had taken a coach to Ouistreham. Garry Dunn, a councillor and friend of Mr Jordan for almost 40 years, said: “It makes me proud to be British because he is a proud Briton.
“He was always very modest about the war. I know he was involved in D-Day but he would never talk about it. He is the perfect example of a generation who did their duty, but didn’t feel they had to tell people what they had done.”
The day’s events were already under way as the clock struck midnight yesterday morning. David Cameron joined veterans at Pegasus Bridge in Ranville, which saw the first fighting on D-Day as 181 men of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry landed in gliders at 12.16am to capture the bridge and secure the eastern flank of the Normandy beaches. A few hardy veterans braved the night-time temperatures to join the midnight vigil, a tradition started after the war by Major John Howard, who led the attack on the bridge.
Dvr Ted Bootle, 90, wrapped in a blanket, said: “Every time you come back you think of something else really bad that happened. I have been back five times, but this feels pretty special.”
After a few hours’ sleep it was on to Bayeux Cathedral, where the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall and Mr Cameron joined 400 Commonwealth veterans for a service of remembrance.
The Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, National Chaplain of the Royal British Legion, summed up the day in his sermon as “a time of profound emotion” typified by “that quiet moment when an elderly serviceman stands by the grave of a fallen comrade who in the mind’s eye is still young”.
In a message published in the order of service, the Queen said: “I am sure that these commemorations will provide veterans of the conflict and their families gathered here in France, along with their hosts, the people of Normandy, with an opportunity to reflect on their experiences and the incredible sacrifices that were made.”
After the service most of the veterans made the 10-minute walk to Bayeux’s Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, the largest in Normandy with 4,114 graves. With each step they were applauded by the people of Bayeux, some of whom told them “merci” and shook their hands.
Cecil Butters, 90, who landed on Sword Beach with 41 Commando, Royal Marines at 7.10am on D-Day, described the reception as “wonderful”. He said: “In 1944 they welcomed us with an arm around the shoulder and by bringing the wine bottles out. But this is a different kind of gratitude, because most of these people weren’t born in 1944.”
His grandson Michael Butters, 37, walking alongside him, said: “It’s overwhelming really. I’m so proud.”
Cecil, whose war was ended when he was shot in the back in Holland in February 1945, said: “It means the world to be here today. I’ve got mates buried in this cemetery and I’ll be thinking a lot about the day we landed and the friends I lost.”
David Cameron walked with the veterans and listened to their stories.
“It’s incredibly moving,” he said. “The sense of history, the sense of awe, but also for my generation the sense of humility – we haven’t had to do anything like what our grandfathers’ generation did to fight for freedom, to put their lives on the line.”
The Prime Minister, accompanied by his wife Samantha, said the veterans still had a “spring in their step and joy in their hearts about coming back here and remembering what they did”. At Bayeux cemetery the Rev Patrick Irwin, the Royal British Legion Chaplain to Normandy, told the congregation: “Here in this cemetery we are reminded of the true cost of D-Day.
“This is a British ceremony and most of the graves in this place are British but D-Day involved many nations and many nations are represented here.
“Men from many nations lie together united in death, and together, united in gratitude, sorrow and respect, we honour their memory – may they rest in peace.” Ken Scott, who at 98 was the second-oldest veteran to go to Normandy for the 70th anniversary, was another who simply refused to let age or infirmity defeat him. He insisted on being helped from his wheelchair to stand for Last Post.
He showed that time has not dimmed the determination that carried him up Gold Beach after he landed at 7.10am on June 6, 1944. His gallantry was just one of the many moments that moved others to tears yesterday. Mr Scott joined 400 other Commonwealth veterans at the open-air service in Bayeux military cemetery.
Those who were able went on to Sword Beach for the main international commemoration event of the day, while others made their way to Arromanches, home of the famous Mulberry Harbour.
In doing so they created fresh memories for the young generation who will be the last to hear first-hand accounts from those who took part in history’s greatest invasion. For those who witnessed Mr Scott standing for Last Post in Bayeux Cemetery, the sight of his dignified act of remembrance, dressed in an exact replica of the battledress he wore on D-Day, may be the memory that lingers longest.
Mr Scott was a 28-year-old sergeant with the Durham Light Infantry when he landed on Gold Beach on D-Day, already a veteran of El Alamein.
“We smoked ourselves to death on the Channel crossing because we were so frightened,” he said. “I was scared stiff when the landing craft ramp went down. The water was up to my knees and what I do remember … no, I shouldn’t tell you.”
After pausing to reflect, he said: “There were bodies floating in the water, some were injured, they had met the machineguns and we couldn’t help. They were crying out: 'Give us a hand buddy.’ Some were calling for their mothers. We just had to keep going, we pushed them to one side. We just couldn’t help them. It has been with me ever since.”
Mr Scott, of Calne, Wilts, became tearful as he said: “I’m coming near to the end of my life now and people should know what it was like.”
Mr Scott was helped to his feet for Last Post by Col Simon Hutchings and paramedic Michelle Byard, who also helped him lay a wreath to the Desert Rats at the end of the service. He was later presented to the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. “He just will not sit during Last Post,” said Miss Byard, who was on hand in case any veterans needed medical help. After the service the Queen, wearing a lime green outfit, and the Duke of Edinburgh met veterans including Ronald Elliott, 92, from Sheffield, who was part of the second wave of landings on to Juno Beach on June 6.
The Duke asked him where he landed and what it was like. He replied: “Well, apart from someone trying to blow my head off it wasn’t too bad.” Steve Garrard, 92, a former glider pilot who landed one of the aircraft at Pegasus Bridge in the first action on D-Day, was making his first visit to Normandy since 1944.
“I wanted to come because it will be the last time I get the chance,” he said. “It means everything to be here. I will be thinking about my best mate and co-pilot, who was killed at Arnhem on the same day as I was taken prisoner.”
Bayeux was the first town to be liberated during the invasion, an 80-day campaign that involved three million Allied soldiers and cost 250,000 lives.
On D-Day itself, 83,115 British soldiers landed in Normandy, including 24,000 on Gold Beach, 28,000 on Sword Beach and 7,900 by air.
A total of 4,413 Allied soldiers were killed, about a quarter of them British.
After the ceremonies in Bayeux, some veterans went by bus to Sword Beach for the international commemoration event, while others chose to go to Arromanches, making the reverse journey to the one they made in 1944.
At a service of remembrance in the town square — the third of the day for some veterans — the Duke of Cambridge described D-Day as a “great and terrible time – great because it signalled the beginning of the end of the tyranny of Nazism, terrible because so many lost their lives”. He stressed that the commemoration was also about the young, to make sure the sacrifice “is never forgotten”. It had been a long day, but not the longest – that epithet will forever belong to June 6, 1944.
At the end of the service in Arromanches, the veterans sang We’ll Meet Again. The famous old song has surely never been more poignant, given the imminent disbandment of the Normandy Veterans’ Association. In the words of Mr Scott: “This is the end. I can go home and relax and this can all go behind me now.”