For decades, the UK was the only allied nation without a national memorial in Normandy.
Thanks to a dogged campaign by surviving veterans – supported by the Daily Mail and its generous readers – that was eventually put right.
Then the coronavirus pandemic struck. So when the British Normandy Memorial was officially opened on June 6 this year – 77 years to the day after D-Day – our old soldiers and sailors could not be there in person to see it because of travel restrictions.
But yesterday, finally, the first organised visit by veterans to the magnificent memorial to the 22,442 British troops who fell in the Battle of Normandy took place.
On a poignant day at the 50-acre site in Ver-sur-Mer overlooking Gold Beach, the eight who made the journey sought out the names of comrades they knew among the 160 pillars on which the names of the dead are cut in chronological order.
Yesterday, finally, the first organised visit by veterans to the magnificent memorial to the 22,442 British troops who fell in the Battle of Normandy took place and the eight veterans who made the journey sought out the names of comrades they knew
Among the veterans was 96-year-old Harry Billinge, from St Austell, Cornwall, who single-handedly raised more than £40,000 for the memorial, partly with his collection tin in Par market, and inspired many others to donate tens of thousands more.
As he saw the completed monument for the first time, he said: ‘Words cannot explain it. I’ve never been overwhelmed like I am today. I thank God I’m able to be here to remember such great and wonderful men – may God bless them all.’
Harry was an 18-year-old sapper with the Royal Engineers when he landed on Gold Beach at 6.30am on June 6, 1944, as part of the first wave of troops.
Yesterday he told how he had found on the monument the name of Joseph Neades, 22, a Lance Corporal in the Royal Engineers, who had ‘died in my arms in Caen’ during the Battle of Normandy.
‘He died, with me, and I think I died a bit that day,’ said Harry, who recalled saying a prayer for Joseph as he held him in his final moments.
‘My greatest wish has been to see this memorial built in my lifetime.’
Never forgotten: Harry Billinge, 96, from St Austell, Cornwall, yesterday, finds the name of his comrade Lance Corporal Joseph Neades who died in his arms in the battle of Normandy
Pictured: Joseph Neades, 22, a Lance Corporal in the Royal Engineers, with his wife and son, Alan, in 1944, a few months before D-day
Joe Cattini, 98, drove up Gold Beach on D-Day in a three-ton ammunition truck loaded with 25lb shells and dozens of cans of petrol.
The great-grandfather, from Southampton, spent five days in hospital with Covid in August. After learning why he was feeling ill, such is his indomitable spirit that he told his daughter Fran Bradshaw: ‘Thank goodness I’m not getting old – it’s only Covid.’
Yesterday he said: ‘I’m very excited to see the memorial. I felt very sorry for the young infantry who landed on the beaches on D-Day.
‘I think of the ones that didn’t come back – they are the heroes, the ones that gave their lives. I don’t class myself as a hero – I was lucky, I had a good guardian angel who saw me through the war.’
Frank Baugh, 97, is a former Royal Navy signalman whose landing craft took a direct hit at Sword Beach on the morning of D-Day, returned to Newhaven with wounded troops from the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and then returned the next morning after being repaired overnight.
Yesterday at the monument Frank, from Doncaster, South Yorkshire, said: ‘It’s terrific. The Americans had one, the Canadians had one… we’ve waited so long, for years and years, to have our own memorial and now we’ve got it.’
The monument, in Ver-sur-Mer overlooking Gold Beach, took six years to complete and cost a total of £30million to build. The project was in part made possible thanks to £1million in donations from thousands of generous Mail readers
The monument took six years to complete and cost a total of £30million to build. The project was in part made possible thanks to £1million in donations from thousands of generous Mail readers.
The Treasury’s Libor Fund, made up of penalty fines from errant banks, provided the lion’s share of the funding with a £20million grant. Philanthropist Michael Spencer also made an individual donation of £1million.
Yesterday Lord Dannatt, chairman of the Normandy Memorial Trust and former head of the Army, and Nicholas Witchell, the BBC reporter who was a founding member of the trust, welcomed the veterans, seven of whom travelled to the site on a trip organised by the Spirit of Normandy Trust. The Normandy Memorial Trust arranged Harry Billinge’s visit.
There followed a short but emotional service of remembrance at the memorial, also attended by Henry, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, the grandson of the great wartime Allied commander Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery.
‘Grandfather would’ve been pleased that it’s been done and very impressed by the monument,’ he told the Mail earlier.
Another of the Normandy veterans, Mervyn Kersh, 96, from Cockfosters, London, who served with the Royal Ordnance Corps and was responsible for ensuring tank transporters were always serviceable, said: ‘It’s a relief that at last the memorial’s here after all these decades. I’m pleased to be able to see it. It’s taken a long time but it’s worth it.’
Alan Harris, 97, from Horncastle, Lincolnshire, who was in the Royal Navy and part of a shore party that landed on Gold Beach and was later moved to Sword Beach, said: ‘It makes me think of the friends who didn’t make it.’
Jack Quinn, 96, a former Royal Marine from Mapplethorpe, Lincolnshire, who was coxswain of a landing craft that crept in to the Normandy shore on the night of June 5, 1944, to take in frogmen who were to blow up obstacles ahead of D-Day, said: ‘It’s absolutely fantastic. It’s been a very long time coming.’
Len Hobbs, 97, from near Chelmsford, Essex, who was on HMS Fernie on D-Day escorting the first convoy, said: ‘I’m amazed by it. I’m pleased to see that at last it’s here. It was a bit hard that the British never had their own memorial before.’
Henry Rice, 95, from Guildford, Surrey, was a signalman on HMS Eastway, a landing ship that was used to supply men and equipment to the various beaches from five days after D-Day.
‘It’s an emotional day,’ he said. ‘I’m very impressed by the monument.’
The Normandy monument costs £400,000 a year to maintain. The British Government is not providing any funding for its long-term maintenance.
You can help to protect and maintain the memorial by becoming a Guardian. Further funds will also be needed for the next phase of the project, which is building an education centre.
Visit www.britishnormandymemorial.org/guardian or phone 0800 4701002 for more information.