Saturday, 6 June 2009

We will remember them ... 65 years on

They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
'For the Fallen' by Laurence Binyon.

Fifteen years ago this morning I was in France with my dad. We needed to get to Caen for the 50th anniversary celebrations, but when we reached the motorway we found the access closed and guarded by a gendarme. He explained that the motorway was closed as the President and Prince Charles would be using it to reach Caen.

In my schoolgirl French I explained that was where we were going as my dad was part of the celebrations. The gendarme leaned into the car, saw my dad proudly wearing his Para beret, tie and medals, and saluted. He then said in French, "For you, sir, the motorway is open," and lifted the barrier and again saluted us on our way.

The previous day we had been shopping in Deauville, and when we got back to our car, complete with GB sticker, there were four youths lounging on a bench next to it. They looked just the sort to cause trouble here in Britain, so I braced myself as I opened the car doors.

One of the youths said, rather accusingly, "You English?"

I answered "Non, je suis Ecossaise!" (Scottish), which is usually a smart move in France!

Then he asked if we were there for the celebrations, so I explained my dad had been a Para, who was one of the first to jump into France just after midnight on D-Day.

At that the youths leapt to their feet and saluted my dad. They all shook him by the hand, and said that they would not have been there if it hadn't been for him.

It was such a moving contrast to the attitude of so many British people today.

One thing we found really interesting was that the veterans and families regarded the anniversary as a 'commemoration', while the French call it a 'celebration', and celebrate they did!

Every day - and we were there for five days - we were invited to a different village. Once there, the old Paras would parade behind either the Regimental band, or the band of the SNCF [the French railways], to the village or town's memorial.

At the memorial the mayor of the town would address everyone, thanking the Paras for the town's liberation, and remembering those killed, then on to a celebration.

These ranged from Kir and Calvados [LOTS of it] and dancing to the SNCF band in a farmer's barn that had been specially cleared for the occasion, to a full-scale banquet for the Paras and the whole town in a huge marqee, from where we watched the midnight fireworks at Pegasus bridge.

On a country lane near their DZ [Drop Zone] the Paras were paraded and presented with Normandy medals specially struck by the French Government, and I was very honoured to receive one on behalf of a batallion member who had become too ill to attend.

Another day we attended a very splendid ceremony in, I think, l'Abbaye aux Dames, in Caen, built by the wife of William the Conqueror. There my husband received a medal on behalf of his cousin, now living in Australia, who had been a glider pilot on D-Day.

And it was there that we ended up chatting to a charming American lady, and her son - who later turned out to be a CIA agent!

On another occasion we visited one country cemetery - not one of the massive war cemeteries that stretch across northern France. My dad wanted to find the grave of one of his batallion friends - a Jew - who had been shot and killed while he was still hanging from his parachute during landing. As we were about to leave the cemetery a large BMW with German plates drew up behind our car, and two men got out. They came into the small cemetery, and we all eyed each other suspiciously. Then my dad and one of the men stepped forward, and they shook hands. Nobody said a word, and we turned and left, leaving the Germans to find the grave of their compatriot.

Although my dad is no longer with us, the memories of that time we spent with him in Normandy, meeting his friends, seeing the Normandy countryside through his eyes, and understanding just how much we owe to people like him, will remain with me for ever.

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