A D-Day to re­mem­ber

AS THE NA­TION PREPARES TO MARK THE 75TH AN­NIVER­SARY OF THE NOR­MANDY LANDINGS, LIND­SAY SUTTON PAYS A VISIT TO WHERE IT BE­GAN

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YOU have to re­spect those who took part in the D-Day landings – and my dad was among them. Like so many of his gen­er­a­tion, he didn’t dwell on it. Not for him, rows of medals and des­per­ate sto­ries of his ‘war ex­pe­ri­ences’.

He wasn’t mil­i­taris­tic by na­ture, but he knew there was a job to do, and he did it. Then, like so many, he closed the book and moved on.

The ex­pres­sion ‘or­di­nary peo­ple do­ing ex­traor­di­nary things’ was made for him and his ilk.

Bill Sutton joined up early, be­fore he was called up of­fi­cially, and be­came a tank com­man­der with the Guards.

Re­cently, I fol­lowed in his war-time foot­steps from Portsmouth, stand­ing on the very spot where he set off across the English Chan­nel to land on a beach-head in Nor­mandy, fac­ing Hitler’s At­lantic Wall de­fences and the wait­ing Panzer di­vi­sions. A York­shire boy from Bin­g­ley fac­ing the might of Field Mar­shall Er­win Rom­mel.

On Thurs­day June 6, the British peo­ple will re­mem­ber what was done for them, by their own.

I know the coun­try will show its ap­pre­ci­a­tion on the 75th an­niver­sary of the big­gest seaborne in­va­sion in his­tory, the turn­ing point of the Sec­ond World War. But I won­dered whether, in years to come, the fourth gen­er­a­tion on will re­mem­ber the les­sons of his­tory.

Will they be able to com­pre­hend the dan­ger and fire­power the peo­ple of my fa­ther’s gen­er­a­tion faced?

Hav­ing vis­ited the mov­ing and ex­cel­lent D-Day Story centre in Portsmouth, I feel a lot more con­fi­dent that they will.

A British school party was joined by a group of French young­sters while I was there and their in­ter­est and ap­pre­ci­a­tion was ap­par­ent.

I wasn’t happy, on the other hand, with an ‘older gen­er­a­tion’ vis­i­tor, who was rude and ill-in­formed as he told ev­ery­one: “The only thing the French did was put up the white flag.” I told my fel­low coun­try­man a few home truths. He was not best pleased.

Never mind the semi-circle of French troops around Dunkirk to al­low the British evac­u­a­tion to take place. Or that the cit­i­zens of Dunkirk were bombed, strafed and slaugh­tered be­cause their town was cho­sen for the mass ex­o­dus.

Or the fact that the the British Ex­pe­di­tionary Force had been rolled back by the Nazi on­slaught, along­side the French troops.

Never mind the brav­ery of the French Re­sis­tance. Or the suf­fer­ing of French fam­i­lies un­der oc­cu­pa­tion and dur­ing the Bat­tle of Nor­mandy af­ter D-Day.

I found it heart­en­ing that The D-Day Story centre is far more dis­cern­ing in its ap­proach, telling hu­man sto­ries, and mov­ing on from end­less dis­plays of tanks and guns.

In­stead, it fo­cuses on three el­e­ments – Prepa­ra­tion; the D-Day landings and the sub­se­quent Bat­tle of Nor­mandy; and fi­nally, the Over­lord Em­broi­dery, a mag­nif­i­cent piece of work, telling the story Bayeux Ta­pes­try-style.

The D-Day Story has more than

500 arte­facts and quirky ex­hibits to bring or­di­nary, ev­ery­day as­pects to life. There’s the pen­cil that signed off the or­der to launch Oper­a­tion Over­lord, the of­fi­cial ti­tle of the D-Day oper­a­tion.

Then there’s Betty White’s Coat, which has scores of army badges sewn on it. Young Betty col­lected the badges as sou­venirs from al­lied sol­diers as they walked by her Gosport home, ready to em­bark.

A need for anonymity was seen as vi­tal. There’s tes­ti­mony to Gus­tav the Pi­geon, who was released with the first D-Day des­patch, the aim be­ing to keep ra­dio si­lence.

The Prepa­ra­tion sec­tion shows how im­por­tant the weather was to the oper­a­tion, which was delayed be­cause of stormy con­di­tions.

A true-to-life, film screen brief­ing of of­fi­cers can­didly ad­mits that the se­cret of success would be ‘force,’ not sur­prise. An aide to US Supreme Com­man­der Gen­eral Eisen­hower de­scribed the oper­a­tion as “the big­gest gam­ble in his­tory” – but it worked.

The lo­cal pa­per in Portsmouth didn’t pull any punches when it re­ported: “Out of the mouth of Hell passed tens of thou­sands of men who ap­peared doomed to de­struc­tion or to be cap­tured.”

Although there is lit­tle glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of war, there is room for the rec­ol­lec­tions of vet­er­ans who served there, and who sur­vived. Record­ings tell of their fear and their sea sick­ness, just as much as their feel­ing of com­mon cause and cam­er­aderie. One fel­low says: “We shared ev­ery­thing we had: co­coa, laugh­ter... and heart­break.”

It’s all there, graph­i­cally de­picted, but with a hu­man touch.

Like the dread felt by sol­dier Harry Brack­in­sell, who flung him­self down on the beach un­der fire, only to feel some­thing metal­lic press­ing into him. Think­ing it was a mine, he care­fully felt the ob­ject un­der his body, to find it was a sau­cepan. From then on, he used it every day to heat the wa­ter for his morn­ing shave.

But lest we for­get, an­other survivor says can­didly: “There were 40 of us who started out. A year later, half were dead.”

I re­ally didn’t ex­pect to be ex­cited by the Over­lord Em­broi­dery, but I was moved by the un­fold­ing drama of the work, de­signed by artist San­dra Lawrence and stitched by mem­bers of the Royal School of Needle­work. It is beau­ti­fully done, shows true pro­fes­sional ap­pli­ca­tion, and is fas­ci­nat­ing.

Every facet of the story is in­cluded, from the re­ceipt of call-up papers; chil­dren wear­ing gas masks; the hor­rors of the Bat­tle of Britain and the Blitz; the Civil De­fence mea­sures; work on the land to feed the na­tion; the landings and the Bat­tle of Nor­mandy.

You don’t have to rel­ish war to ad­mire the hu­man spirit be­hind the piv­otal turn­ing point of World War Two. The D-Day Story is well told, and I think my fa­ther would have ap­pre­ci­ated it.

Fit­tingly, I stayed at Portsmouth’s Royal Mar­itime Club. My ini­tial thoughts of it be­ing very ‘stuffed shirt’ were soon dis­pelled. The club and ho­tel was orig­i­nally a sailor’s home to give ‘safe, re­spectable com­fort’ to re­turn­ing sea­men.

Since it is run as a char­ity, it is rea­son­ably priced, has high stan­dards, won­der­ful and friendly ser­vice and ex­cel­lent breakfasts and din­ners.

My three-day, two-night visit took in Portsmouth His­toric Dock­yard, with Ad­mi­ral Nel­son’s Vic­tory berthed in dry dock there, along­side Henry VIII’s war­ship Mary Rose, raised from the depths in 1982 and now painstak­ingly pre­served.

There’s the orig­i­nal steam-sail war­ship War­rior to visit, and you must go up the sail-shaped Spin­naker Tower to take in the mag­nif­i­cent views of Portsmouth Har­bour, Old Portsmouth, neigh­bour­ing South­sea and the Isle of Wight.

My fa­ther only once told me the un­fold­ing story of his war – and he told me not to frighten my mum with any of it. He waited un­til I was 15 years old, never be­fore men­tion­ing the events that took him from Portsmouth to the beach at Ar­ro­manches in Nor­mandy, on through Belgium and Hol­land and into Ger­many.

Only now do I un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of his in­volve­ment – tak­ing the bridge at Ni­jmegen, but be­ing un­able to reach the air­borne land­ing troops at Arn­hem; back-track­ing to help cover the Amer­i­cans in the Bat­tle of the Bulge; cross­ing the Rhine, then rac­ing up to Lubeck on the Baltic Sea, where his war fin­ished.

There were el­e­ments of hu­man­ity, in­sight, even hu­mour, in his story. When he told me of the push to get to Bayeux af­ter D-Day, I asked him if he man­aged to see the fa­mous ta­pes­try. He smiled and said qui­etly: “No, we had a pre­vi­ous ap­point­ment with Gen­eral Rom­mel and his Panzer Divi­sion in the Falaise Pocket.”

Years later, while we were en­joy­ing ham and eggs at a York­shire Dales farm­house, I asked him what was the best meal he had ever had. He told me it was a three-course meal put on for him and his crew by a lib­er­ated farmer and his wife near Ni­jmegen.

“Every course was ap­ple, be­cause that was all they had, but it was served with such love and grat­i­tude,” he said. My dad never cried in front of his sons, but he very nearly did then.

In Ger­many, his bri­gade lib­er­ated two ‘camps’ – I worked out later that it was Belsen and Lit­tle Belsen – and he told me how he lifted 6ft-tall men onto trucks, vir­tu­ally us­ing only one hand.

He added: “If any­one ever asks you if the Jews de­serve a home­land, tell them your dad says there are six mil­lion rea­sons why they do.”

Fi­nally, he told me how Field Mar­shall Mont­gomery ad­dressed them on the Luneberg Heide, south of Ham­burg, with the words: “Gen­tle­man, Ad­mi­ral Doenitz is go­ing to ac­cept un­con­di­tional sur­ren­der, but you still have one job to do. Take your tanks, and get to Lubeck on the Dan­ish bor­der with Ger­many. Your mis­sion is to stop our friends and al­lies, the Rus­sians, from tak­ing Denmark.”

Betty White’s coat

Spin­naker Tower looks over Portsmouth

Com­man­dos come ashore on June 6, 1944

The Over­lord Em­broi­dery

The Union Jack flag used by the Beach Group Com­man­der in the Bat­tle of Nor­mandy

HMS Vic­tory

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