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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There’s nothing wrong with having a little pride in our country’s heritage

A section of the front page fromThe Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

A section of the front page from The Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

If there was a poll to find the most unpopular person in England right now then Education Secretary Michael Gove would surely be in with a shout.

As many of his predecessors have been wont to do, Mr Gove has made it his business to tinker…

He’s tinkered with the curriculum. He’s even tinkered with teachers’ terms and conditions.

Granted, it has felt at times during the past three years as though the Government has been constantly attacking the teaching profession.

The problem is that when a politician attempts to change the way children are taught this inevitably puts him or her on a collision course with teaching professionals (and their unions).

Politicians can bring in all the experts they want: All the professors, academics and even celebrities. It won’t make a scrap of difference.

They will still be accused of poking their nose in business they know nothing about, bringing the morale of teachers down to rock bottom and endangering children’s education for generations to come.

In 2007 the then Labour Government controversially took the decision to remove key historical figures from the curriculum – including Churchill and Hitler – leading to accusations of a ‘dumbing down’.

Now Michael Gove wants our Winston back in again – and a lot more names besides.

His new draft curriculum would see five to 14-year-olds learning about the Romans, the Vikings, the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the development of the British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World Wars and the creation of the NHS.

They would learn history up to 1066 at primary school and find out about the Norman Conquest during their secondary education.

Sound OK so far? Well, it did to me, but apparently not to some education professionals.

More than 100 teachers from a variety of schools have signed a letter to a national newspaper claiming the proposals amount to a breach of their legal duty to avoid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”.

They point to the ‘jingoistic’ way in which both Mr Gove and the Prime Minister have promoted plans to change the curriculum and claim certain sections of the community – “ethnic minority groups and girls even” – may feel excluded by the proposals.

It’s at this point that I rather lose patience with the letter writers.

I often visit my daughters’ schools and enjoy viewing all the work they’ve done on topics as varied – for example – as space travel, the Great Fire of London and Diwali.

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with any of them and my girls will often come home and proudly explain what they’ve learned on any given day.

As far as I can see, studying something like the Gunpowder Plot and its remarkable legacy or the wonderful annual Hindu Festival of Light is all part of the rich tapestry of our unashamedly multi-cultural nation.

At the same time I can’t help but feel there’s been a creeping change in recent years in the way in which certain subjects and topics have been approached and taught in our schools.

I’m not sure at what point it happened but, at some time during the past 20 years, it seems to have ceased to be acceptable to be proud to be English or British in a historical context or to be proud of our country’s heritage.

Certain colossal figures have been airbrushed from the curriculum and, as a nation, we’ve done an awful lot of soul-searching about (and apologising for) past misdeeds.

I’ve never really understood this desperate need to appease and to avoid offending any and everyone because I don’t see how we, here in the 21st century, can be held responsible for events which happened hundreds of years ago.

For example, I don’t want an apology from the good people of France for the Battle of Hastings. Honestly, I’m over it.

The fact is Great Britain had an empire and it was mainly run or administered by men and thus the majority of ‘great’ (I use this term advisedly) historical figures were blokes.

I don’t say this to alienate women or girls: It’s just a fact.

Thankfully, the role of women has changed dramatically in the past 100 years or so to the extent that historians of the future will include far more women in the lists of ‘great historical figures’ than history teachers could when I was at school during the 1980s.

It’s also a fact that in any nation’s history there will be good and bad – things to be proud of and to be appalled at.

These are historical facts and I can’t see anything wrong in highlighting both while, at the same time, giving young people a sense of pride and belonging.

Surely it’s better that they learn about and admire figures such as Shakespeare, the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale or Churchill than whichever
X-Factor winner happens to be on their iPod shuffle this week?

There will doubtless be a huge debate in the coming months about the way in which we mark the centenary of the start of the Great War and the Government will do that thing of trying not to upset our German friends.

I’ve already started ploughing through The Sentinel’s archive as we here at this regional newspaper plan our coverage.

It’s not about offending anyone. We take the view that it’s important to honour the men from our neck of the woods who fought and died in the mud at Mons, Passchendaele or Ypres – just as other media outlets will be doing for their ‘patch’.

To that end, I would argue that being partisan, in this case, isn’t a bad thing at all.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

This is why the Second World War generation was so special…

I’m always moved by the death of an old soldier such as Dunkirk veteran William Brindley whose funeral was reported in weekend editions of The Sentinel.

It goes without saying that the passing of Bill represents a great loss to his family and friends.

Sadly his death also further erodes our links with a tumultuous period in this country’s history.

With the passing of each such individual then the risk of us losing perspective on what happened 70-odd years ago increases just a little.

You see, warfare has changed beyond all recognition in the last 40 years – both from the point of view of the combatants themselves and the public left mithering over them back at home.
I would argue it actually changed for us here in the UK back in 1982.

In a week or so we will be in reflective mood as we mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands Conflict.

It was all over in 74 days but the ‘war’ had a profound effect on the psyche of our nation.

For the first time, we didn’t have to just rely on national newspapers for updates on how ‘Our Boys’ (and girls) were doing.

Nightly television news bulletins beamed pictures into our living rooms and we viewed the horrors of war in full colour – albeit a heavily-edited version of the actual events.

We learned about the heroics of 2 Para and Lieutenant Colonel H. Jones’ at Goose Green.

We discussed the fall of St. Georgia, the battle for Mount Tumbledown and the strategic importance of the airfield at Port Stanley.

We marvelled at the Harrier Jump jet’s vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) ability and gave due respect to Prince Andrew for flying the Royal Navy’s Sea King helicopters into the danger zone.

We came to know that ‘the Argies’ had Skyhawk jets and French-made Exocet missiles. We watched the Sir Galahad burn. We watched HMS Sheffield sink.

The Falklands may have been almost 8,000 miles away and we may never have heard of them before April 1982 but for a couple of months that year we all lived and breathed the battle for those islands.

These days, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, any conflict anywhere in the world seems immediate, close and personal and we now take for granted up-to-the-minute television news updates.

Take, for instance, the reporting on the life or death clashes in Iraq or Afghanistan – which has been made so much easier thanks to the internet and satellite communications.

Wars and conflicts these days – while no less bloody or tragic – are better scrutinised, better explained and better understood.

What’s more, the advent of ‘smart bombs’ (or precision-guided munitions to give them their correct term), aerial drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) and more and more powerful and clinical weapons means that the art of warfare itself has changed radically. It’s simply no longer a case of who has the most troops, tanks and heavy artillery.

This certainly isn’t warfare as Bill Brindley and his mates in the North Staffordshire Regiment would recognise it.

Of the 1,000 men in the regiment who went to France with Bill only half of them returned. Let us stop for a second and just think about that: 500 men from just one regiment.

That’s more than the total number of deaths suffered by the UK thus far during operations in Afghanistan.

Our Bill lied about his age to get into the Army and signed up when he was just 17.

During the British Expeditionary Force’s evacuation from Dunkirk wounded Bill’s hospital ship was hit by a torpedo and sunk.

He was fished out of the water by a civilian in one of the many small boats which took part in the operation to rescue allied troops from Hitler’s encircling armies.

He then returned to the fray with the 8th Army – serving in North Africa, Italy, France and finally Germany.

This is Boy’s Own stuff – it really is. But the truth is, Bill’s story was fairly commonplace back then because it was a time of ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things.

These days the media analyses the minutiae of every tiny skirmish to the nth degree.

Just imagine what Sky News would have made of the Dunkirk evacuation – an event so momentous and powerful that we still refer to it to this day when referencing a never-say-die spirit.

Bill’s generation is special because they fought in a global war which threatened the sovereignty of our nation and shaped the very history of the world.

I dare say that never again will we see conflict on such a scale and with so much at stake for so many.

Bill and his comrades sailed and flew overseas not as global policemen but as genuine freedom fighters knowing that defeat meant their loved ones would suffer.

They were our last line of defence and their relatives and friends back in Blighty had absolutely no idea how the war would pan out or what fate would befall their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers.

Without the Bill Brindleys of this world who knows what Britain in 2012 would look like.

The Second World War generation may be dying off but we will remember them because we should remember them.

What’s more, it’s up to us left behind to instil in future generations the importance of the sacrifices they made and the debt we owe them.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday 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