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'We are eternally in your debt'

Published: 06 Jun 2024

D-Day veterans received a standing ovation – led by Their Majesties the King and Queen – as Portsmouth hosted the principal commemoration to D-Day, 80 years on from the landing.

A six-gun salute in tribute fired by frigate HMS St Albans was timed to perfection as a 90-minute ‘show’ – part celebration, part commemoration, part concert – ended on Southsea Common and the Red Arrows and a solitary RAF Typhoon flew directly overhead.

But it was the appearance by those who were there on June 6 1944 which brought an 8,000-strong crowd in a specially-constructed amphitheatre to its feet at the beginning and end of what might be described as an ‘homage to D-Day’, hosted by Dame Helen Mirren.

Veterans Eric Bateman, who served in HMS Erebus off Utah Beach, and former tank crewman Roy Haywood, who lost both legs below the knee three weeks into the battle for Normandy made near identical pleas: honour the legacy of their comrades and ensure their stories and deeds are never forgotten.

Fifty-two sailors volunteered to form the naval element of the Royal Guard for this and other D-Day commemorations this week.

They were drilled into shape over the past two weeks by a team under Warrant Officer Glynn ‘Moffs’ Moffat, the Royal Navy’s State Ceremonial Officer – but the training has focused on more than just military precision.

“We had a pep talk this morning and the analogy I used was… 80 years ago there was probably a warrant officer giving a brief to individuals about going into war,” he explained.

“My brief to them wasn’t so severe but it was absolutely about them recognising those who did do that 80 years ago. It’s all part of that sense of duty.”

With D-Day veterans becoming fewer with the passing of time, the anniversary becomes increasingly poignant.

“It’s not lost on us that this could be one of the last major events. It makes it even more important that we give it everything we have,” WO1 Moffat said.

“That’s to instil in the generation we have now how much was sacrificed for our freedoms and it’s even more important to articulate that now.”

Leading Communications Technician Craig Jackson, a 28-year-old Liverpudlian said all members of the guard had “loved being a part of this – it’s a great experience.

“The veterans are unbelievable, an incredibly humble group. They keep referring to us in uniform as heroes, but really compared with what they went through, we’re not.”

Among those forming the guard, Merlin helicopter Air Engineering Technician Joshua Carter, at 21 two years younger than his great uncle… killed on D-Day during an operation by airborne forces to seize a bridge over the River Dives – and thus prevent German armour reaching the invasion zone.

Henry Matthew Carter, a 23-year-old private in the Parachute Regiment from County Durham, is today at rest in a cemetery Troarn, east of Caen.

The family never really talked about the tragedy, so participation in 80th anniversary events has allowed Henry’s young descendant to appreciate what happened to him.

“I cannot imagine how anyone could put into words what they went through – my family couldn’t. My great uncle is a bit of mystery. I find it impossible to put myself in his place, although it’s obvious whatever he did, it took incredible bravery.

“To be involved in the 80th anniversary event is pretty special. There’s a lot of responsibility resting on us to make this event look spectacular.”

And it did. From the opening DC-3 flypast to a wartime swing numbers, a rendition of We’ll Meet Again which turned the makeshift auditorium into a sea of moving small Union Jack flags and heartbreaking last letters and diary entries of participants brought to life by actors, the event was as much carnival as commemoration.

The King, Prince of Wales and Prime Minister all performed readings with His Majesty calling upon the nation to “always remember, cherish and honour those who served that day and live up to the freedoms which they died for. We are eternally in their debt.”

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key, who is crossing to France in a P2000 patrol craft to take part in tomorrow’s international commemorative events in Normandy on D-Day itself, praised the “skill, endeavour, bravery and ingenuity of hundreds of thousands of people” committed to a single goal: victory over tyranny.

He continued: “The feats were phenomenal, humility and humour are an inspiration. They set an example to us all and we should not take for granted in our times what it took to achieve in their pasts.”

Tonight commemorations continue with a simultaneous light show in Portsmouth and Bayeux (9 and 10pm local time respectively) before the focus shifts to remembrance and thanksgiving in Normandy tomorrow, 80 years to the day of the invasion.



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