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

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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