THEY had seen off Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, so Covid was unlikely to hold them back.
A small party of D-Day veterans finally paid homage in person at the British Normandy Memorial yesterday after it had been unveiled via video link in June.
Some a little frail and all in their nineties, this diminishing band of warriors had tears welling during a moving service to remember fallen comrades.
The visit came as the Royal British Legion launched this year’s poppy appeal to help support our brave former servicemen and women.
D-Day veteran Harry Billinge, 96, who raised more than £40,000 for the monument, revealed: “I’ve never been so overwhelmed as I am today.”
Harry, of St Austell, Cornwall, was an 18-year-old sapper with the Royal Engineers as he joined the first wave on to Gold Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Yesterday he searched among the names of his fallen brothers in arms etched into the £30million monument on a ridge above the same beach.
On Column 138 he found the name of Royal Engineers Lance Corporal Joseph Neades, who died in Harry’s arms aged 22 in Caen, Normandy
“He died with me and I think I died a bit that day,” the veteran said.
“I thank God I was able to be here to remember such great and wonderful men. May God bless them all.”
Just eight veterans headed to Ver- sur-Mer for the ceremony after Covid rules finally allowed travel to France.
Royal Marine Jack Quinn, 97, from Mablethorpe, Lincs, gazed at the memorial and said: “I don’t see the names, I see the faces.”
Emotions were high as he placed his hands on the name of his dead pal, 22-year-old Cyril King.
Great-great-grandfather Jack, who holds the Croix De Guerre Silver Star — the French equivalent of the Victoria Cross — revealed: “It’s taken decades but Cyril and all the lads deserved this.”
The Last Post echoed through the 160 sandstone pillars carved with the names of 22,440 men — and two women — from 38 nations under direct British command who died in the Battle of Normandy.
‘LUCKY I STAYED ALIVE’
Royal Navy signalman Frank Baugh, 97, said of braving the pandemic for the occasion: “I was lucky I stayed alive on D-Day and believe I’ll be lucky again with Covid.”
Great-grandfather Frank’s craft was the first to land on Queen Red Sector of Sword Beach at 7.25am on D-Day.
The boat took a direct hit from German artillery. It managed to land 200 men from the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry but was marooned on the beach for four hours.
“It was hellish,” Frank, from Doncaster, recalled. “Bullets were ricocheting off the mast. I didn’t dare put my head up.
“The Shropshire lads didn’t need any urging — they ran up the beach like greyhounds. If any man says they weren’t frightened, they must be stupid.”
Frank added: “It was fantastic to finally see the memorial. We’ve waited so long for it.”
Another veteran, Joe Cattani, 98, from Southampton, was in hospital with Covid for five days in August.
He shrugged off the disease, joking: “I said, ‘Thank goodness, I thought I was getting old but it was Covid’.”
The soldier drove a truck packed with petrol and explosives on tramlines through mines on Gold Beach.
The great-grandfather said: “Today was very peaceful, not like when I landed when machine guns and mortars were firing.”
'COMING HERE WAS A PILGRIMAGE'
The memorial — which took six years to build — is the culmination of years of campaigning by UK veterans.
Commemorating the largest seaborne invasion in history, the 50-acre site’s centrepiece is a stirring bronze D-Day statue of three soldiers charging inland.
Those present included General Lord Dannatt — former head of the Army — and Henry, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, and D-Day commander Field Marshal Bernard “Monty” Montgomery’s grandson David.
In June around 100 veterans watched the monument being unveiled via a live broadcast from the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.
On D-Day, some 160,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches, codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold, carried by 7,000 boats. Then the Battle of Normandy raged for almost three months.
Sprightly Mervyn Kersh, 96, from Cockfosters, Herts, said of the memorial visit: “Coming here was a pilgrimage and very moving.
The Jewish father-of-three — a private with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps — said of the battle against Nazi Germany: “For me, it was personal.
"I later witnessed the poor people leaving Belsen concentration camp in a terrible state. And they were the healthiest ones who could walk.”
Len Hobbs, 97, from South Woodham Ferrers, Essex, was on HMS Fernie on a convoy across the Channel to Normandy on D-Day.
On a second journey he helped rescue the wounded from a shelled ship.
The former Navy rating said: “I’m just pleased I lived to see the memorial opening. A lot of poor devils on D-Day never even got ashore.”
Collectors back after pandemic KO
POPPY sellers are back on our streets from today after the Covid pandemic hit last year’s Royal British Legion appeal.
And Prince Charles and Camilla met the oldest and youngest as the legion yesterday launched its 2021 Poppy campaign.
More than 40,000 collectors will be out selling poppies to raise at least £40million for our ex-servicemen and women.
Last year, 12,000 elderly collectors were ordered to stay at home to shield from Covid.
And in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, the second UK lockdown landed and all collectors were forced to stand down — resulting in £20million in lost donations.
It would have been even more if readers had not backed The Sun’s Poppy Stars appeal, which was supported by celebrities including David Beckham.
The charity, which marks its centenary this year, hopes the return of face-to-face poppy sales will see donations climb back to normal at around £40million.
Among the 40,000 sellers will be the country’s youngest and oldest collectors.
Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall met Maisie Mead, ten, who has been selling poppies since she was four after her dad James was medically discharged from the Army having injured his back.
In 2018, Maisie began putting poppies on lamp posts in her street in Plymouth. Now she turns the road into “Poppy Street”.
She said: “I’ve been thinking about all the soldiers who have been helping with Covid.
“I will be decorating my street and my school again this year and raising as much money as possible to help those in need.”
The royals also met 95-year-old Jill Gladwell, who still sells poppies in her home town of Rattlesden, Suffolk, having started aged 14.
Her father Ernest was left seriously ill by a gas attack as a medic in World War One.
Jill said: “My father followed the Legion’s motto ‘Service not self’ and I’m so happy to be back out collecting.”
Charles said: “The significance of the poppy is as relevant today as it ever was, while our Armed Forces continue to be engaged in operations overseas and often in the most demanding of circumstances.”
RBL fundraising boss Gary Ryan said: “The impact of Covid 19 continues to leave some members of the Armed Forces community in urgent need of our help — and your support is as crucial as ever.”
How to donate
Look out on your High Street for poppy collectors who will also be in 12,000 stores and shops around the UK.
Please give them your spare cash.
There will be city poppy days in London, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol.
Donate online at rbl.org.uk/poppyappeal or buy poppies in the post to sell
to friends and neighbours
- Find out more at britishnormandymemorial.org
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