History at our fingertips and we’ll never see the like again…

My friends with a U.S. Sherman tank at the Airborne museum in Sainte-Mère-Église.

My friends with a U.S. Sherman tank at the Airborne museum in Sainte-Mère-Église.

Earlier this week I walked in the footsteps of legends on a pilgrimage that millions before me have made.

In June of next year the places I visited with four friends will be rammed with tourists – that is when they are not entertaining heads of state.

The beaches, museums and towns of northern France will be filled with veterans, their families, and Armed Forces personnel paying their own tributes to those who fought and died on D-Day.

A few days ago my friends and I had these places, quite literally, to ourselves which was a genuine privilege.

At the age of 41, and as a student of military history, I’m just old enough to appreciate the significance of the Normandy Landings and their place in history.

As a child during the Seventies and early Eighties I was fascinated by black and white war films such as The Longest Day which were often shown on telly on a Sunday afternoon or around Christmas time.

Ask my mum and she’ll tell you I spent hours re-enacting battles with toy soldiers in our house and garden or drawing pictures of tanks, paratroopers, Spitfires and Messerschmitts.

My history teacher at Holden Lane High, Geoff Ball, had all sorts of militaria in his classroom which helped to bring the Second World War to life for me.

As each Remembrance Day came around I’d watch as the ranks of veterans in their mid-sixties would file past cenotaphs paying tribute to fallen comrades.

For me, the Second World War has always loomed large in my consciousness because my grandparents’ generation lived through it and I was able to talk to them about everything from rationing to Churchill.

I’ve lived through various conflicts – the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan – but nothing like the global war which engulfed Europe between 1939 and 1945.

I find it remarkable that in 1940 Britain stood alone against the all-conquering Nazis and that the world could so easily have been a very different place to the one we now know had it not been for the RAF, a certain Reginald Mitchell and his wonderful fighter plane, and a large slice of luck.

For me, the amazing thing is that you can still see and touch this part of our history.

You can visit our city’s Spitfire in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. You can still see some of the tanks and other period hardware at museums or vintage rallies.

Re-enactment societies dress up in 1940s clothing and dance the night away to big band tunes.

Television networks like HBO in America have produced exceptional series such as Band of Brothers and The Pacific which have portrayed the conflict like never before with true stories of those who fought in Europe and the Far East.

You can also do what me and my mates did and visit Normandy – a place where the landscape is still dotted with reminders of the greatest sea-borne invasion the world has ever seen.

Visit Arromanches (Gold Beach) like we did and you can see landing craft, pontoon bridges and the remains of the remarkable engineering feat that was the floating Mulberry Harbour which kept almost two million Allied troops supplied during their push into France.

Step into the D-Day Museum just off the beach and one of the first things you’ll spot on the wall to your left is a plaque dedicated to the men of the Cheshire Regiment who fought and died on June 6, 1944.

Visit the Arromanches 360º museum on top of the hill and watch a remarkable video presentation featuring archive footage from all nationalities involved in the conflict in glorious, evocative HD in a nine-screen circular cinema.

Drive past the sign for Omaha Beach where more than 4,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded in just a few hours as they disembarked from landing craft to be met with murderous machine gun fire.

Travel a little way in land, as we did, to the little market town of Sainte-Mère-Église – a key strategic objective for American paratroopers in the hours before the Normandy Landings began – and where a parachute and mannequin still hang from the famous church spire.

This is the town where you’ll find the inspirational museum dedicated to the men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne regiments – complete with an actual C47 Dakota aircraft and Waco glider which transported them across the Channel.

Modern-day Normandy is dotted with shrines, monuments and militaria such as gun emplacements and vehicles which have stood the test of time.

It is an area inextricably linked with the fight for freedom.

D-Day was an operation so large and ridiculously complex that the more you learn the more you come to realise it was astonishing that the Germans were caught by surprise.

These days as a nation we, quite rightly, pay due homage to the men and women of our Armed Forces who risk their lives daily in conflicts overseas.

When we lose one of them, as with the recent death of Warrant Officer (Class 2) Ian Fisher, there is a collective sense of grief and these sacrifices are mentioned in Parliament.

But in June 1944 those who went into battle did so knowing that it could be weeks before their loved ones back home would know of the success or otherwise of their actions – or indeed whether or not they had lived through D-Day and its aftermath.

The 10,000 plus Allied casualties on day one alone are unfathomable in today’s theatres of war where smart bombs, stealth bombers, drones and technology have mercifully reduced the numbers of dead and injured.

With each passing year the number of Normandy veterans grows ever smaller. Make no mistake we mark the passing of a special generation – the likes of which we will never see again.

*The Sentinel is planning a special 70th anniversary souvenir supplement which will include interviews with a dozen local survivors of D-Day. Tell us your stories of D-Day by emailing: martin.tideswell@thesentinel.co.uk or calling 01782 864412.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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