We’ll never see the like of our D-Day heroes again…

The Sentinel's D-Day 70th anniversary souvenir.

The Sentinel’s D-Day 70th anniversary souvenir.

We’ve all seen the grainy, black and white images. Most of us will have watched the Pathé news reels and limited film footage.

Many will have enjoyed, time and again, the classic war movie The Longest Day, Spielberg’s masterpiece Saving Private Ryan or the excellent Band of Brothers TV series.

A lucky few, like yours truly may have visited northern France and stood on the beaches, seen the remains of the Mulberry Harbours, touched a landing craft or a glider and seen the scars of that great conflict across Normandy.

But I’d venture to say that it’s only when you digest personal stories of the Normandy Landings or read news reports from the time that you get a genuine sense of what it was like for both those involved in D-Day – and, of course, the millions waiting anxiously for news back home.

There was no TV, no social media.

Millions huddled around radios or scoured newspapers such as The Sentinel for more information as the landings became public knowledge.

It is no exaggeration to say that much of the world held its breath on June 6, 1944, as the greatest seaborne invasion in history was executed.

Here in Britain, just a short stretch of water separated us from Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’ and people knew details of the landings announced 70 years ago today in Parliament by the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill represented a calculated gamble.

It had been made possible by years of planning and subterfuge as well as the combined efforts of the Russian armies in the East and the almost forgotten Allied armies slogging away in the Mediterranean who had greatly diluted the fighting strength of the Germans.

Success was still, however, by no means guaranteed.

Indeed, The Sentinel’s leader column of that fateful day ended with the words: ‘So, in quiet confidence, in the conviction of the righteousness of our cause and with determination to endure, we place ourselves in the hands of good Providence who has supported us all the day long of these troublous years’.

For several years Britain had stood alone against the might of Nazi Germany – Hitler’s impressive armies cutting a bloody swathe across the continent and staring hungrily across the English Channel.

First came the heroic retreat from Dunkirk. Then followed the Battle of Britain in which the Spitfire designed by our very own Reginald Mitchell, of Butt Lane, played a pivotal role.

Thanks to the bravery and skill of a small number of pilots and their ground crew, along with the indefatigable Royal Navy, Hitler was forced to abandon his planned conquest of our country – just as Napoleon had more than a century before. The people of these islands had put up with The Blitz and several years of rationing.

The country itself had been transformed into a lean society, fit to survive the travails of a war which impacted on everything from the food people ate, to the jobs they did, to the clothes they wore and even the time they went to bed.

(For the record, Black-Out time on June 6, 1944, here in Stoke-on-Trent was 11.17pm to 4.57, as you’ll see on your souvenir Sentinel front page in today’s special supplement).

It is almost impossible for us today, equipped as we are with technology linking us to people around the world, to conceive of what life was like for our ancestors during those dark days of the early 1940s.

The nation was united by a total war the likes of which we will never see again.

Ours is a throw-away society. Few of us make-do and mend. Most can’t darn a pair of socks. Many can’t cook. The thought of the Government telling us what we can and can’t do is a complete anathema to the social media generation.

Loose lips sank ships back in 1944. These days it seems many people can’t go to the toilet without telling people about it on Facebook.

There are a dwindling number of veterans, most of whom are in their nineties, and – indeed – people over the age of 75 who can recall the momentous events 70 years ago today.

Twelve months ago I suggested we set about tracking down our remaining D-Day veterans for the supplement you will find in the middle of today’s newspaper.

As well as telling their stories in print, I was keen to capture these ageing warriors on film and you can now watch them recall what took place by clicking on to our website.

They’re ordinary blokes from our neck of the woods who, in their prime, took part in a truly extraordinary crusade.

They are not boastful but their evocative words are imbued with an endearing honesty which is lacking in today’s politically-correct world.

My colleagues and I have been in genuine awe of them while putting together today’s 70th anniversary souvenir.

We are extremely grateful to them for giving us their time and sharing with us and our readers their memories of a remarkable moment in human history.

They are indeed the best of us. Thoroughly deserving of the tag of ‘the greatest generation’ having fought so valiantly to preserve the freedoms we enjoy in 2014.

Today we salute Bert, Albert, Ken, Herbert, Eric, Robert and all those who sailed, flew and marched with them on D-Day.

God bless them all.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Saving our Spitfire is the least we can do

There can’t be many blokes my age who didn’t have an Airfix model aeroplane hanging from their bedroom ceiling at some point during their childhood.

My guess is that, of those who did, most will have chosen a Spitfire over a Tornado or a Harrier jump jet – along with the obligatory Messerschmit ME 109.

Transforming those fragile bits of grey plastic into something vaguely resembling the fighter plane which saw off the Luftwaffe and turned the tide of the Battle of Britain was actually something of a challenge.

I recall I accidentally glued the cockpit hood on before realising I had forgotten to put the tiny pilot in his seat. A schoolboy error.

My painting wasn’t great, neither. It still looked pretty good hanging from the lightshade on a piece of black cotton, though.

After all, it was a Spitfire. Sleek lines, the curvature of those wings – one of the most iconic and important pieces of engineering the world has ever seen.

Perhaps not the one in my bedroom, like, but you take my point.

How proud I am – Indeed, how proud we should all be – to say that the man who designed this work of genius hailed from our neck of the woods.

Not only that, but our city is lucky enough to actually own one of Reginald Mitchell’s stunning creations.

As a youngster I remember visiting the ‘greenhouse’ which housed our Spitfire outside the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

In an age of simulators, jaw-dropping movie CGI, hand-held consoles and video games which are so life-like you have to pinch yourself, it is perhaps hard to explain to children and young people how an old aircraft can be impressive and inspirational.

This is worrying when you consider that there are millions of people in this country who have no link with anyone who lived through or fought in the Second World War.

When I was a kid we were still watching all those epic war movies made in the Sixties and Seventies.

Our grandfathers had fought against the Nazis. It all seemed relatively recent history and therefore still relevant.

Ask my mum and she’ll tell you how many hours I spent drawing pictures of battlefield scenes involving Tiger tanks and Lancaster bombers or playing on the back room carpet and in the garden with little toy soldiers who were my ‘Tommies’ and ‘Jerries’.

Present most children today with a pack of plastic soldiers and they will look at you as if you’ve gone daft.

The fact is it’s now almost 70 years since VE Day and the great generation who can remember those momentous times, and to whom we owe so much, are dying off.

Not long from now World War II, its commanders, battles and weaponry will be the stuff of dusty museums and the preserve of a minority of people like me who are fascinated by military history.

They will feel no more relevant to people in 30 years’ time than the Battle of Waterloo, the Iron Duke and the Baker rifle do to most people today.

Thankfully, we have an opportunity to ensure that here in Stoke-on-Trent, our Spitfire, along with its creator, are never forgotten and that the significance of their role in the fight against Hitler’s tyranny is properly explained to future generations.

Sadly, our plane – the Mk XVI Spitfire RW388 now housed at the Potteries Museum – is in need of a little TLC (about £50,000 worth to be precise) to prevent the old girl from rusting.

The Friends of The Museum have launched a major fund-raising drive to bring this amazing exhibit to life through an interactive display.

I wholeheartedly applaud this endeavour as I’ve felt for some time that our Spitfire is, at present, somewhat hidden away at the museum.

Indeed, when I visited the venue recently I talked with museum bosses about their plans to enhance one of their three unique attractions.

I even suggested they recreate the cockpit as part of the exhibition. Bugger Health and Safety concerns with the actual plane. I want to know what it was like to sit in a Spitfire.

During these austere times the city council was never going to throw £50,000 at conserving one museum exhibit.

Not to worry, I’m confident that we – the people of North Staffordshire – can come to the aid of our Spitfire in its hour of need.

I’ve made a donation to the appeal and I would urge everyone to support this very worthy cause.

If we all chuck in a couple of quid we’ll have the old girl scramble-ready before you know it.

I would suggest it’s the very least she, and Reginald Mitchell deserve, from their native city.

*To make a donation, visit: http://www.uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/spitfire or call 01782 232502.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

Hoard bid a golden chance to leave a fantastic legacy

Ever since it opened its doors in 1981 I’ve always thought we have been very fortunate to have the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery on our doorstep.

As museums go, I think it’s a bit special.

No, I don’t mean the decorative brick façade celebrating our industrial heritage… I’m talking about what’s inside.

For starters, the museum boasts the world’s best collection of Staffordshire ceramics.

But, at the risk of blaspheming, I’m not that interested in looking at cups, saucers, plates and vases – no matter how old they are.

However, Hanley’s museum does have a Spitfire. Now you’re talking. This is the fighter plane that turned the tide of the Battle of Britain and was designed by our very own Reginald Mitchell, from Butt Lane.

Find me a lad who isn’t impressed by the sight of this beautiful, deadly machine with its Browning machine guns and Merlin engine.

If that doesn’t float your boat then how about the local history section or the exhibits relating to ongoing archeological work taking place at Hulton Abbey?

Still not convinced?

How about some gold? To be more precise, artifacts from the largest ever find of Anglo-Saxon gold treasure – The Staffordshire Hoard.

From February 13 that’s what will be on show at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

To put the find in context, I will quote Leslie Webster, formerly of the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum.

He said: “This is going to alter our perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England… as radically, if not more so, as the Sutton Hoo discoveries. Absolutely the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospel or Book of Kells.”

Enough said.

As someone fascinated by the Anglo-Saxon period, I can’t tell you how excited I am.

Thus I was delighted to hear that Stoke-on-Trent City Council was putting in a joint bid along with Birmingham to buy the hoard and ‘keep it local’.

The authority is spearheading a major campaign to raise the £3,285,000 needed to buy the 1,800 gold and silver artifacts so that they can be kept and displayed in the region.

The council is asking for public donations and for local businesses to support the bid.

The catch is, we only have a couple of months to raise the necessary funds. At a time of great financial hardship, this request may come way down many people’s list of priorities but this really does represent a once in a lifetime opportunity.

It is a chance to bequeath upon future generations a wonderful archaeological legacy of worldwide significance.

The Staffordshire Hoard would undoubtedly also have a huge economic impact on the Potteries – attracting tens of thousands of tourists to a Cultural Quarter definitely worth the name.

To give you an indication of its pulling power, when 80 artifacts from the hoard went on display in Birmingham in September more than 40,000 visitors viewed the exhibits in under three weeks.

This is why I’d like to think that each and every one of us will get behind this fund-raising campaign.

Back in May I was banging on about the Wedgwood Museum, which had been short-listed for the £100,000 Arts Fund prize.

A month later the Barlaston attraction scooped the prize and I’m pretty sure Sentinel readers played their part in its success by voting in the nationwide poll.

We have all, at times, criticised the city council for its largesse and questioned the expenditure of public money on such things as art works.

However, if ever a local authority arts venture deserved our wholehearted support as we aim to celebrate the centenary of the Six Towns in style, then the bid for The Staffordshire Hoard is it.