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‘Magnificent seven’ Normandy honour comrades in return to the beaches

11 November 2021
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Seven Normandy veterans returned to the beaches and bocage to honour their comrades thanks to a team of volunteers.

Covid restrictions prevented the Spirit of Normandy Trust and its volunteers – including Warrant Officers Baz Firth (RN Leadership Academy) and Glenn Carter RM (Commando Helicopter Force), plus Baz’s son James who’s an RAF Cadet – accompanying veterans back in June.

But come autumn, with borders reopened, the commemorations of the 1944 campaign could take place – in much quieter circumstances, permitting private tours of some of the key sites such as the Pegasus Bridge Museum.

At nearby Ranville cemetery James paid tribute to his great uncle Elwyn Davies, one of those who seized the bridge in the first hours of D-Day, but was killed in action 12 days later.

The group also honoured a promise to 97-year-old Billy Ness to remember his comrade; Billy took part in the 75th anniversary commemorations in 2019 but recently succumbed to cancer.

In Coleville-Montgomery (Sword Beach in 1944), veterans – including former sapper Harry Billinge who’s become a TV regular over the past few years – received special medals and a book each from the mayor and met former French commando Léon Gautier.

On June 6 1944, sailor Frank Baugh watched Léon, his comrades, and the commandos led by Lord Lovat storm ashore.

The former landing craft crewman asked the Firths to be taken to the water’s edge to remember shipmates.

“He gave us a first-hand account of what he experienced. As he described the scene it was truly humbling indeed,” said Baz.

Being able to share the time with our VIP Veterans was simply such a humbling opportunity.

Warrant Officers Baz Firth

“He then walked to the edge of the lapping sea and laid a cross in the sand and stared out over the sea for a few minutes before returning in tears. He apologised and we asked what for and he explained that he can't ever forget those mates that never came back, his abiding memory is of his friends, face down in the sea and knowing there was nothing he could do for them.

“We explained he didn't need to apologise for anything.”

Other emotionally-charged events included a memorial service at the new British Normandy Memorial – dedicated this year, but on a much smaller scale than planned due to the pandemic – and a VIP reception in Caen’s city hall hosted by the deputy mayor of Caen.

There were further acts of remembrance at Bayeux Cemetery, a look around the panoramic 360⁰ cinema in Arromanches and a private tour of the Juno Beach museum, remembering Canadian forces especially, sealed a moving week for the veterans and the volunteers.

“Being able to share the time with our VIP Veterans was simply such a humbling opportunity,” said Baz.

“I commend it to anyone if the opportunity should arise to take part.

“To think that after 77 years that it still has such a huge effect on them really hammers home what they witnessed and endured for us so we may enjoy our freedom today.

“Their quick wit, excellent sense of humour, pride, humility, iron grip, politeness and respect for each other makes me wonder if the generation they represent will be lost forever once they have sadly left.”

Pictures by Arthur Edwards and WO1 Baz Firth.

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