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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Let’s hope Army bosses use common sense and spare The Staffords

The first paragraph of the correspondence from the nice man at the Metropolitan Police is wonderfully quaint and reassuring.

‘Hello Ma’am, Your application to deliver a petition by hand to the door of number 10 Downing Street has been booked in for Thursday, November 1, at 1.15pm.’

After months of campaigning Sentinel journalists including yours truly together with Staffordshire Regimental Association representatives will be calling in on the Prime Minister later this week.

We will be presenting a 17,000-name petition calling for the name of the name of our county regiment to be preserved amid brutal Army cutbacks.

Our campaign was prompted by the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) decision to remove 3 Mercian (the Staffords) from the Order of Battle (ORBAT) – thus ending the county’s 297-year link with the British Army.

It is part of a huge reduction in the Army which will diminish its fighting strength from 102,000 to just 82,000 over the next few years and place a much heavier reliance on the Territorial Army.

Of course, it isn’t just the Staffords who have the axe hanging over them and other proud units are facing oblivion too.

But here in North Staffordshire feelings are running high and veterans and their relatives, serving soldiers and their families and the general public have united to oppose the MoD’s proposal.

We can’t speak for other areas or other units, but what can definitely say is that the Staffords are hugely important to local people.

Since the beginning of July The Sentinel has published more than 100 stories detailing the courage and selflessness of those who have served with the Staffordshire Regiment from the Great War to the present day.

Of course, this newspaper has been able to trawl its archives for reports on the breaching of the Hindenberg Line in 1918, the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 and the infamous raid on the Al Jameat Police Station in Iraq on Christmas Day in 2006.

But the vast majority of the articles The Sentinel has published in recent months have been prompted by readers who have written in with personal stories to tell of their association with the Staffordshire Regiment.

Some were former Staffords telling of their service during WWII, in Northern Ireland or more recent conflicts.

But many more were relatives of those who wore the cap badge and distinguished themselves all over the world.

These tales have shown just how proud the people of North Staffordshire are of their links with the military and of the Staffordshire Regiment’s battle honours.

That’s why they were sending goodwill parcels to Our Boys out in Iraq as part of this newspaper’s Operation Christmas Cheer campaign a full 12 months before General Sir Richard Dannatt was asking the British public to better support our Armed Forces personnel.

We don’t need to be told around here, you see. We’ve been doing it for years.

It was one thing to have the North and South Staffords merged. It was one thing for the regiment to become known as 3 Mercian (Staffords).

It is another thing entirely for the name ‘The Staffords’ be scrubbed from ORBAT altogether.

No-one involved with our campaign realistically expects the MoD to do a complete about-face and retain 3 Mercian.

But by the same token they have shown that the name The Mercian Regiment, derived from an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom, means little or nothing to the people of Staffordshire.

It is a convenient construct which allowed Army chiefs to mash together the Staffordshire Regiment, Cheshire Regiment and Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters under one banner.

The truth is the people of Staffordshire and those with links to the Staffords have no great affiliation with the other counties or their respective regiments – and vice versa.

Any sense of pride for the Mercian Regiment relates instead to its antecedents, such as the Staffords, and their roles in various wars and conflicts over the centuries.

It is to be hoped that Army chiefs, when considering whether or not to retain the name The Staffords, and indeed the antecedents of The Mercian Regiment’s 1st and 2nd battalions, think long and hard about the consequences of making a clean break with tradition.

Let’s hope that common sense prevails and that future generations of young recruits from our neck of the woods will continue to want to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers and serve with The Staffords – rather than opting instead for another unit with no links to our patch but equally good or perhaps better prospects.

Readers have until tomorrow (October 31) to sign our petition by logging on to: http://www.saveourstaffords.com or calling in at The Sentinel’s HQ in Etruria to sign the forms.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel