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Naval veterans start 100-day countdown to D-Day commemorations

The memorial wall at the DDay Story museum
27 February 2024
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Five major events on both sides of the Channel will mark the 80th anniversary of the greatest naval invasion in history as plans to commemorate D-Day were announced today.

One hundred days to June 6, D-Day veterans Stan Ford and John Roberts – aged 98 and 99 respectively – were invited to Portsmouth to add their names to a large memorial wall on Southsea’s seafront honouring those who were involved in the ‘Great Crusade’ in the summer of 1944.

The two former sailors had never met before, but quickly struck up a rapport in front of a host of cameras recording the occasion for posterity.

Both said adding their names to the wall of honour was both humbling – and would remind future generations of the sacrifices made by everyone involved in the effort to liberate Europe in 1944.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a pleasure,” said Stan as he was presented with a plaque bearing his name to be added to the wall.

“What we did was a necessary evil. I hope that young people learn about the exploits and sacrifices made in 1944 and together we make sure that it doesn’t happen again. That is my wish.”

Mr Roberts hopes that his great grandchildren – and their contemporaries – will see his name, and others, on the wall “and learn about those who gave their lives for a free world”.

The former sailors’ names were two of 13 from a dozen allied nations symbolically fixed on the wall at the D-Day Story museum to mark the milestone countdown.

Come June 5 – as it was in 1944 – Portsmouth will be the hub of activity on this side of the Channel, hosting a national act of commemoration – similar in style and content to the 75th anniversary event in 2019, with a purpose-built stage hosting an event featuring D-Day veterans, music from the era, serving personnel and tributes from special guests. Proceedings will be broadcast live on TV around the globe and will feature a sail past by Royal Navy warships and fly pasts by the Red Arrows and WW2 vintage aircraft.

Across in France on June 5, the Royal British Legion is leading a service of thanksgiving at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Cemetery in Bayeux.
And on June 6 itself, for veterans, family members and the public who wish to pay tribute but are unable to make it to Normandy, there will commemorations at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

And in Normandy, commemorations will be concentrated at the new British Normandy Memorial in Ver-sur-Mer and at Bayeux Cathedral.

These are likely to be the last formal events at which veterans of the Normandy campaign, now all in their late 90s at the youngest, will be present in numbers. As Stan succinctly put it: “There are not that many of us left now.”

 

As a 19-year-old gunner he was one of 38 men rescued when HMS Fratton – an armed boarding vessel – was sunk by German ‘human torpedo’ just a week before the liberation of Paris.

Stan has worn leg callipers ever since due to the injuries he sustained after being blown into the Seine Bay by the blast.

“There are 31 reasons that keep me going back to Normandy – the 31 shipmates who never came back,” he said.

Destroyer HMS Serapis was more fortunate despite spending the first 11 days of the invasion on the gun line, pounding German positions.

Sub Lieutenant John Roberts, aged just 20, was one of 180 souls aboard on D-Day as Serapis arrived off Sword Beach at 7.30am – during the height of the landings – to hammer the defences. After the war he went on to become a fighter pilot, flew a Sea Fury in Korea, captained aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and headed the Fleet Air Arm, retiring after a 40-year career in the Service in 1978.

He continued: “I will never forget D-Day, and I’m proud to know that the British people won’t forget either. I hope that the commemorations in June will help a whole new generation understand the sacrifices made on their behalf.”

The Royal Navy’s involvement in June’s commemorations – details will be announced in due course – will be overseen by Portsmouth Naval Base Commander Commodore John Voyce.

He said given the history – Eisenhower’s headquarters at Southwick Park just outside the city, the huge build-up of forces in the port and surrounding area – Portsmouth was the obvious choice for the main event on this side of the Channel 80 years on.

“We have a really exciting event planned with Portsmouth the focus of national commemorations,” Commodore Voyce said.

“We can already see the public really getting behind the 80th anniversary with wonderful projects such as ‘the longest yarn’ knitting initiative.”

He continued: “For me, the opportunity to talk to those who were there has been both humbling and inspiring, hearing the stories, learning about their experiences.

“I don’t think anyone who speaks to a D-Day veteran can fail to be inspired by what they did 80 years ago.”

Further details about anniversary events can be found at: https://dday80.campaign.gov.uk/

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