On this night seventy five years ago (approximately 2330 5th June), my grandfather, Corporal Jack Carter, 1st Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, his friends and thousands of others just like them ,would have been preparing for the beginning of the invasion of northern Europe. He was 21 years old and was part of a mortar team who, in the early hours of 6th June 1944, landed as part of the first assault wave on Sword beach.
I have visited the Normandy beaches, have walked the ground that my grandfather and thousands like him fought over and it is a sobering experience. Even now, over seven decades on, the remaining bunkers, strongpoints and gun battery emplacements present an ominous picture of just what these young men faced.
Sat here in my home safe and living in, for the most part, a continent of peace, I am contemplating the bravery, not only of the soldiers, seaman and airman, but also of the families, loved ones and friends of those who took part in the invasion.
What dread must have gripped the hearts of those who said goodbye in the days approaching 5th June as they kissed and hugged their loved ones, quite possibly for the last time. I think of the parents, wives, sweethearts and children of those men sent to fight and can only wonder at what they must have felt as they heard the heavy aircraft flying over head in the early hours of 6th June. Most, I am certain, would have been praying for the safe return of their family members, loved ones and friends.
I try and put myself in the place of my grandfather but of course I cannot. I can only imagine how it might have felt crossing that rough sea, cramped, scared and not knowing if I was going to survive even the first moments of landing on the beach, let alone the whole war. They must have been absolutely terrified, yet for family, for each other and for themselves, they did it anyway. That, to me at least, is true courage.
Around three hundred veterans of the D-day landings are now, as I write this, travelling by ship over the channel following almost the same route they travelled on 6th June 1944. What memories that trip must conjure.
Every anniversary of D-day is of course going to be emotional for all of the veterans. However, I imagine that this year in particular, with the world watching on, will perhaps be the most poignant of all. I am certain that they will remember their friends as they were in life and of the happy times. But I also imagine they will be mourning their friend’s birthdays never celebrated, experiences never shared and dreams never fulfilled.
I hope they find peace in their memories and know, I mean really know, that we appreciate what they and the rest of their generation sacrificed to enable us to live in peace.
My grandfather did survive. He was wounded in action in Caan two weeks into the offensive and was evacuated back to England. He never spoke about the war, at least I never remember him doing so. But I do remember even as a boy and young teenager occasionally catching him with a distant gaze as he sat in his comfy chair. It was never angry, never happy but never sad, it simply seemed to be the haunted gaze of distant memory. It’s only now I’m an adult that I really appreciate what he might have been remembering and the significance of those memories.