D-Day 70th Anniversary Commemorations in Bayeux 02–07 June 2014

2014 saw the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the code name for the Battle of Normandy that launched the successful invasion of German-occupied Western Europe during World War II.

D-Day, 6 June 1944, with the Normandy Landings. A 1,200 aircraft-strong airborne assault preceded an amphibious assault involving more than 5,000 vessels. Almost 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on D-Day, and more than three million allied troops were in France by the end of August.

The 2014 events were the last ever large-scale commemorations to be held in Normandy, and having volunteered for an opportunity posted on the RAF Manning website, I had the immense honour and privilege to be able to play a small role in the proceedings as part of the RAF contingent in Bayeux.

The intrepid team of 20, including two from RAF Waddington, and ranging in rank from SAC to WO, assembled at RAF Northolt in the afternoon of Monday 2nd June for a brief from RAF Ceremonial prior to travelling by coach down to Portsmouth to catch an overnight ferry to Caen. The terminal was bustling with fellow travellers heading to Normandy, both civilian and military, and included a large number of enthusiastic WWII  re-enactors in full period dress.

From Caen we continued our journey to Bayeux, where we headed for Camp Quebec, an impressive tent city for 300+ people, expertly set up by 32 Regiment Royal Artillery “The Wessex Gunners” at a site provided by the French, complete with field kitchen. Our initial brief was that we were to be utilised as ushers, although once on the ground, flexibility was most certainly the key.

We spent three days carrying out multiple rehearsals of the highly detailed event, not just on the ground but also using a cardboard scale model of Bayeux laid out on the floor of a marquee in the Veterans’ Village complex! It was crucial that everything ran with military precision on the day, principally for the Veterans and their families, as it was their day, and also because of the large numbers of VIPs and VVIPs which included HM the  Queen, the Prince of Wales, Commonwealth heads of state, British & French politicians and many others.

The weather during the week had been fairly poor, with a lot of rain, wind and general greyness; everyone was keeping their fingers crossed that on the D-Day anniversary things would improve, and we were blessed with blue skies and temperatures of 25°C on the day itself. I was based at Bayeux Cathedral, where a service was held for the Veterans before the main event at Bayeux Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. Following the service the Veterans moved by various means up to the Cemetery. Led by the VIPs, a surprisingly large number of Veterans chose to walk the almost 1km and I was very honoured to accompany a former RAF SNCO by the name of Christopher, who was a Mosquito pilot on D-Day. The streets were lined all along the route by local people who were applauding, cheering and passing their messages of thanks to the Veterans as they walked past, which was a very humbling experience. Although the events took place such a long time ago, for many of the Veterans the memories of that day were still very fresh, and at times emotions were raw.

The service at the CWGC Cemetery was extremely poignant, and was followed with a flypast by the BBMF. I made a particular effort to seek out and hear the stories of as many RAF Veterans as I could; I could have listened to them all for many hours. For me, these brave men were true heroes and I will always have very fond memories of this event that I had the honour to attend. For the Veterans, however, the true heroes are their comrades who made the ultimate sacrifice and who didn’t return home from Normandy all those years ago.

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