D-Day 75

75 years ago today, on 6th June 1944, Allied forces landed on five beaches in Normandy, Northern France. Overnight, gliders and paratroopers had landed further inland. The landings represented the first phase of Operation Overlord – the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe – with the aim of bringing World War Two to an end.

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Men of the 16th Infantry Regiment, US 1st Infantry Division wade ashore on Omaha Beach on the morning of 6 June 1944

The Allied forces of US, British and Canadian troops also included Australian, Belgian, Czech, Dutch, French, Greek, New Zealand, Norwegian, Rhodesian [present-day Zimbabwe] and Polish naval, air and ground support. Up to 7,000 ships and landing craft were involved, delivering a total of 156,000 men and 10,000 vehicles to the shore. By the end of the day, 4,400 troops died from the combined allied forces. Some 9,000 were wounded or missing. Total German casualties on the day are estimated as being between 4,000 and 9,000 men. Thousands of French civilians also died.

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Map of the Normandy landings

But, by midnight of 6th June, the Allies had secured their beachheads (codenamed Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah) and begun to push further inland. Within eleven months, Nazi Germany was defeated and the war was over. 

D-Day marked the turning point in the Second World War. It was a remarkable military, technical, logistical and physical achievement, made possible by international cooperation, driven by a shared belief in the importance of defeating the oppression and horror of the Nazi regime.

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Lt. Jim Hildrew, Royal Navy, c. 1941

The anniversary of D-Day is always a special one to me. My grandfather, Jim Hildrew, was in the Royal Navy during the Second World  War. He supported the Allied invasion of France from the English Channel, working on Operation PLUTO (Pipe-Line Under The Ocean) which was designed to supply fuel from England to the Allied armies in France by laying flexible pipes all the way across the seabed. I am proud to think that he made his contribution to the freedom that we all enjoy – and perhaps take for granted – today.

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Supply landings at Omaha Beach, mid-June 1944

He was one of the lucky ones who came back alive after the war, returning to teaching as the Headmaster of Grasmere School in the Lake District. Many were not so lucky: by the time Paris was liberated in August 1944, 200,000 of the Allied troops who had landed in France were dead, wounded or missing. On the anniversary of this important day in history, we should all take time to remember those who gave their lives so that we could live ours in liberty.

Remembrance 2018: #ThankYou100

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Remembrance Day is always special, but this year’s is unusually significant in that it marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. The two minutes’ silence is always a profoundly moving experience, in which we reflect on our connections to those who made sacrifices so that we could live in freedom today.

Lt. Jim Hildrew, Royal Navy, c. 1941

On November 11th, I always think about my Grandfather, an officer in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, who served in the Arctic convoys and captained a minesweeper, before working on the Pluto programme to supply fuel to the beaches on D Day. After the war he returned to teaching as Headmaster of Grasmere school, where he worked until retirement. Sacrifice is not always about death. We remember the fallen but also those who were – and still are – prepared to risk their lives to defend our society. We can learn a lot from their individual sacrifice for the collective good.

For this year’s #100years remembrance, I was impressed by this tribute from England’s men’s and women’s football teams to the sacrifices made by footballers during and after the First World War:

Just as we honour those who gave their lives, the sacrifices made by others in other ways are also significant, and just as worthy of remembrance.

Finally, each Remembrance Day, I reach for poetry. There are great works by Sassoon, Owen, McCrae, and countless other war poets, but in recent years I have always come back to Mametz Wood by Owen Sheers. This poem is so resonant and powerful in its description of the uncovering of the remnants of the battle of the Somme in peacetime as farmers plough. Sheers has spoken eloquently of the inspiration for the poem as he visited the site:

Walking over that same ground, now a ploughed field, 85 years later I was struck by how remnants of the battle – strips of barbed wire, shells, fragments of bone, were still rising to the surface. It was as if the earth under my feet that was now being peacefully tilled for food could not help but remember its violent past and the lives that had sunk away into it. Entering the wood, a ‘memory’ of the battle was still evident there too. Although there was a thick undergrowth of trailing ivy and brambles, it undulated through deep shell holes. My knowledge of what had caused those holes in the ground and of what had happened among those trees stood in strange juxtaposition to the summer calmness of the wood itself; the dappled sunlight, the scent of wild garlic, the birdsong filtering down from the higher branches.

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As we remember the Great War it is our duty to reach back into the collective memory of our violent past, to thank those who came before us for their sacrifice, and hope with all our hearts for a peaceful future.

Mametz Wood
by Owen Sheers

For years afterwards the farmers found them –
the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades
as they tended the land back into itself.

A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
the relic of a finger, the blown
and broken bird’s egg of a skull,

all mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white
across this field where they were told to walk, not run,
towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.

And even now the earth stands sentinel,
reaching back into itself for reminders of what happened
like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin.

This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,
a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,
their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre

in boots that outlasted them,
their socketed heads tilted back at an angle
and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.

As if the notes they had sung
have only now, with this unearthing,
slipped from their absent tongues.

(Source)