The Snug18th August 2014

WWII Veteran Les Birch attends DDay70

Returning to the Normandy beaches 70 years after his D-Day landing, Les enjoyed an intimate return.

by Les Birch

Millions of people watched the television coverage of the events commemorating the 70th. Anniversary of the DDay landings on the 6th. June 1944. There was an interdenominational service at the magnificent Bayeux Cathedral on the morning of 6 June 2014 followed by a moving service at the nearby British Military Cemetery and then an International Event at Ouistreham attended by many heads of states, including our own Queen and other members of the Royal Family, President Obama and of course the French President, Francois Hollande.

I was in Normandy from late on 4 June until 10 June, accompanied by my daughter, who did all the driving, and my son in law, who did all the wheelchair pushing. But, surprisingly to many people, we attended none of the big commemorative events mentioned above, spending much of 5 June and all of 6 June in the seaside village of Asnelles sur Mer which lies a couple of kilometres to the east of Arromanches. The reasons for this will become clearer later but essentially it was because of the close relationship I have established with the local council and the villagers over the past 20 years or so. It also happens to be close to where I landed in the early hours of 7 June 1944, where I lived for the following three months and where incidentally the only Welsh regiment to land on DDay, the 2nd Battalion of the South Wales Borderers, came ashore at 2.30pm on 6 June 1944.

The events started in Asnelles early on the morning of 5 June when the children of the village decorated with flowers all the street names, which commemorate the regiments who landed there, some of the officers killed and so on. Then at 11am they did their own re-enactment of the landings.  They came running up the beach inside camouflaged boxes waving Union Jacks, jumped out and were greeted by other children waving their French tricolours. They sang a couple of Resistance songs then read accounts of the landings from the memories of people who were their age in 1944. At the end they all crowded round me, each one shaking my hand and saying “Merci” followed by their parents doing the same.

We had a quick but good lunch in Asnelles (sole meuniere, washed down with a bottle of Sancerre) and then had to dash off to the Prefecture in Caen where I was being presented with the medal of the Legion d’Honneur.  Unfortunately there were so many others, Poles, Norwegians, Australians, Canadians and British, being similarly honoured that there was no space in the room for the families to see the actual presentation. All surviving Normandy Veterans are now to receive the award but I was rather pleased that I had been successfully proposed for it well before the general announcement.  But then, if I deserved it, so did all the others.

Asnelles was the most westerly point of the British landings on 6 June 1944, 231 Brigade (Hampshires, Dorsets, Devons) coming ashore first at 07.30 hours, followed by 47 Royal Marine Commandos at 08.30 and by the South Wales Borderers at 14.30. For the past few years RM Commandos have re-enacted their fight from Asnelles to Port en Bessin, which they liberated on 7 June, by walking some 20 kilometres over the route of their battle. This year they put a troop of serving Commandos into a landing craft from HMS Bulwark and re-enacted the actual landing.  Unfortunately, as happened often enough on D Day, they struck a sandbank and when they came off the ramp they quickly found themselves neck-deep in water. But, being Marines, they carried on and during the subsequent commemorative service at their bunker memorial stood soaked to the skin.  I think they dried off pretty quickly in the very warm sun. They had 5 surviving Marines from 1944 in their party but as they had all gone to the service in Bayeux Cathedral I was asked to take a part in their service by reciting the exhortation from Binyon’s poem To the Fallen. A good few civilians accompanied the Marines on their subsequent walk.

Later in the morning we had the service at the monument to the South Wales Borderers in Asnelles.  This was only erected in 1994 and after the solemnity of its unveiling I recall being present at a really splendid dinner put on by the Council. The last surviving borderer, Bill Evans now living in North Wales, who had been a constant visitor to the village for the annual D Day commemorations, was sadly too ill to travel this year and so I was the only veteran present at the wreath laying. The Mayor of Asnelles laid his first, and I followed with one from the South Wales Branch of the Normandy Veterans Association, of which I have been Chairman now for 20 years. A daughter of a deceased borderer, wearing a striking dress of red poppies, then laid hers and the service ended with the playing of the Welsh and French national anthems.  Fortunately there were some ‘re-enactors’ present, dressed in the full 1944 Borderers’ uniforms, even including our little life-belts, who were able to give their voices to the Welsh hymn.

The afternoon was devoted to two further ceremonies in the village, the first the unveiling of a plaque on the promenade to the liaison officer to the Brigadier commanding 231 Brigade. He was a man born in France to an English father married to a French lady. In 1940, at the age of 18, he had escaped to England with his parents via Bordeaux and had subsequently, because of his complete bi-lingualism, been appointed Brigadier Sir Alexander Stannier’s liaison officer. He later became a Times correspondent, serving in many places around the world, and wrote a book, in French, of which I have a copy, describing his experiences during the landings. He was present at the unveiling but, sadly, having been invited to say a few words, could not be stopped and the council officials had the greatest difficulty in retrieving their microphone!

The second ceremony was the wreath laying at the 231 Brigade memorial followed by the traditional vin d’honneur at the local community centre. Unfortunately we had to leave this a little early as we were due at the 80th. birthday party of my golfing friend’s mother in Bayeux. She was, obviously, 10 years old when we landed and always proudly displays a Royal Engineers cap badge given to her by one of my (unknown) corps colleagues.

On the morning of the 7th. we went first to Evrecy, a small town to the west of Caen, to lay a wreath at the memorial there to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers who suffered severe casualties in the area which is close to the notorious Hill 112. The Fusiliers lost over 100 men in just one night and my late President, who was a fusilier, would never go back there because of the horrors he had experienced.

We returned to the coast at Port en Bessin for the annual commemorations by the Royal Marines. They have 3 memorials there, one being at the top of a cliff overlooking the town and adjacent not only to the remains of a German bunker but also to a bunker protecting the 6th green of one of the courses at Omaha Beach Golf Club. The main ceremony, which I had been invited to attend, was held at the quay side and very impressive it was too. The Commandos who had been soaked the previous day were again on parade together with their 5 surviving veterans of 47 Royal Marine Commando. After another superb lunch we returned to our hotel for a brief rest before attending yet another birthday party, this time in the village of Rots just west of Caen.

And it was in Rots that we spent most of the 8th June. The village had been liberated after fierce fighting by the Canadians and 46 Royal Marine Commando. Three surviving Canadian veterans had made the trip and I had been invited to attend their memorial service by the mayor of the village and a councillor, both of whom were old friends. It was inevitably a solemn occasion but afterwards we were treated to a generous vin d’honneur and a reasonably sumptuous lunch. Some 1940s entertainment, in the shape of Andrews Sisters impersonators, followed but we did not stay too long as we were once again out for dinner, this time at my golfing friend’s house.

For our last day, the 9th June, we decided to get away from the beaches, from memorials, from parades, from wreath-laying  and so we spent the day at Honfleur.  This is a picturesque port at the mouth of the Seine, much favoured by artists, where the harbour is surrounded entirely by restaurants and tall narrow houses.  With so much competition the food everywhere is quite incredible and we were not disappointed. I was much in demand for photographs and handshakes and at that time of the year there is really no escape for a Normandy Veteran.

Article by Les Birch

posted in Deaf Lifestyle / The Snug

18th August 2014