June 6th 2009 was the 65th Anniversary of the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches, to free the continent of the Nazi German occupation. I had not been back since 1944, and I now had the urge to pay a pilgrimage, to pay my respects to the soldiers killed on those beaches. But how do I go?
I spoke to a friend who was a security guard to an American named Robbie Wilson, who was a collector of German helmets and other memorabilia and was the proprietor of the ‘Wilson History & Research Centre’. He was going to France and asked him if I could join his party. Robbie immediately agreed.
On 23rd May my friend and I flew to Paris, where I was introduced to Robbie and his party which included Robert White and Jim Muir, whose wife Ann-Marie joined us later.
From there we motored to Normandy.
Our first visit was to the invasion beaches Utah and Omaha (American), Gold, Juno and Sword (British and Canadian). On 6th June 1944 those beaches were stained with the blood of dead and dying soldiers. Omaha suffered the worst with some thousands killed and injured. Today those beaches are clean, although evidence is still there with German gun emplacements & bomb craters. Out to sea are the remains of the Mulberry Harbour, a vital part of the invasion.
On another day we visited Saint-Mere-Eglise which was freed by American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. It was here that a paratrooper landed on the roof of the church. It is still remembered by a parachute hanging on the roof. There is a wonderful museum here and Robbie donated an airworthy Piper Cub reconnaissance aeroplane. In Normandy there are several museums where children are encouraged to attend and learn the history of that time.
On another day we flew by helicopter along the coast over Mont Saints Michel where we could see how well the coast was defended by the Germans and was able to see what a difficult task those brave soldiers had to overcome.
On 28th May I visited the British Military Cemetery at Bayeux. In this cemetery are 4,655 soldiers and on a wall of Remembrance are the names of 1,803 soldiers missing with no known grave, known only to God. And as I walked between the crosses and read the names and ages thereon, it brought to mind that each name was a mum’s son, a brother, a nephew, a husband or dad. I also visited the American cemetery at Colleville- Sur- Mer, where there are 9,356 soldiers with 1,557 missing.
On 4th June I visited the city of Mont-Saint Michel where on the town square were paraded German and American soldiers and dignitaries of the town. It was here that Robbie and I received the freedom of the city, presented by the Mayor (See photo).
On the 6th June I attended an emotional service of remembrance attended by hundreds of local people. From 6th June to 25th August the Americans suffered 124,384 casualties. The British and Canadians 82,309. Let us also remember the hundreds of French civilians who also died. But the war did not finish there. The war in Europe continued until the 8th May 1945 with so many more casualties buried in various cemeteries.
If ever you visit France, take time out to visit one of these cemeteries and give thanks that those young men who gave their lives that we can enjoy the freedom they won.
Let us repeat with honour and passion these two prayers dedicated to those servicemen and servicewoman and civilians who gave their lives.
These two prayers are recited all over Britain on Armistice Day. There is also another prayer not often mentioned.
Finally, I would like to remember the ‘Unknown Warrior’ entombed in Westminster Abbey and who symbolises all those thousands of soldiers missing in the First World War, and gives hope to those who lost a loved one. That the warrior interred therein is their warrior.
Sadly, Robbie Wilson has died. Without him I would not have been able to make my pilgrimage in 2009. I also wish to offer my sincere thanks to Ann-Marie and Jim Muir who sent me a diary of my visit to Normandy. These two wonderful people still communicate with me and send me birthday and Christmas greeting cards. Thank you both and God bless.