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Despite the rain wreaths were laid at the city War Memorial remembering those who were lost 76 years ago in Normandy on D-Day. From left, Steve Freeman-Pannett, representing the Royal Signals; Neville Townsend, Royal Naval Association and the Forces to Canaries; and Stuart Fidler, Parachute Association and Royal Naval Association. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY
Copyright: Archant 2020
A quiet but dignified fanfare for Normandy veterans in Norfolk as all official D-Day 76 anniversary events are cancelled in the shadow of COVID-19.
When 150,000 troops swarmed on to beaches in northern France in the early morning of June 6 1944, they were facing a deadly enemy: the Nazis.
Seventy-six summers have passed and Norfolk’s Normandy veterans are facing an invisible but equally deadly enemy in the form of COVID-19: this year there will be no official ceremonies for the anniversary of D-Day, just quiet moments at home.
For the first time in 75 years, D-Day veterans and their supporters have been unable to travel to the beaches of Normandy to mark the anniversary of the allied landings.
And at Norwich’s War Memorial outside City Hall, no parade or official ceremony could take place: instead, wreaths will be laid throughout the day to ensure strict social distancing.
Steve Freeman-Pannett of the Royal Signals, Neville Townsend, chairman of the Royal Naval Association and Forces2Canaries and Stuart Fidler of the Parachute Association and the Royal Navy Association all laid wreaths on the city memorial.
Another wreath was laid on behalf of Lord Mayor Councillor Vaughan Thomas.
In France, there will be a limited gathering of representatives of nine countries, including the British ambassador to France, for a short ceremony.
“Since 1945, every year we have paid homage to the men who fought for our freedom,” said Jean-Marc Lefranc, the president of the Comité du Débarquement (D-day Landing Committee), “this year, for the first time it will not be open to the public.”
Normandy villages and towns have been asked to decorate their homes with allied flags and there will be a peal of church bells at 6.44pm, in a nod to the original date of the landings. Other allied countries will also join the bell-ringing tribute.
A contingent from the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans’ Association were due to have travelled to France this week to take part in the annual D-Day anniversary services but the trip has been postponed until next year.
Last year, more than two million remembrance tourists descended on Normandy including a loyal band of brothers from Norfolk and Suffolk who returned to mark a day that none of them will ever, or could ever, forget.
It began just after midnight on June 6 1944 as troops dropped behind the intended invasion beaches to disrupt German communications and then, at dawn, the sea turned black with boats and thousands of men swarmed on to five Normandy beaches.
Today marks 76 years since an armada of 3,000 landing craft, 2,500 ships and 500 naval vessels crossed the narrow strip of sea from England to German-controlled Normandy and the Allies D-Day invasion of France began.
Years of planning came down to one brutal morning: seasick soldiers groggily making their way down landing ramps and jumping, wading, swimming or crawling to shore and making their way off the exposed beaches.
Young men, some not even 20-years-old, dragged up to 80lb of equipment on their backs as they faced a sodden race to safety, German machine-gun fire raking the sand, wounded soldiers dying in the sea, unable to keep their heads above water, others dying before they could even get their feet wet.
More than 4,000 Allied troops died on June 6 1944 and another 420,000 would die in the Normandy Campaign which followed. It is difficult to comprehend the scope of Operation Overlord, the decisive battle which sounded the death knell for Hitler’s dream of Nazi domination – the largest air, land and sea operation undertaken before or since 1944, it heralded the beginning of the end of World War Two.
A Norfolk soldier’s D-Day story
Len Fox, now 95, remembers June 6 1944 with crystal clarity. It was the day that transformed an ordinary 19-year-old lad from Norwich into an extraordinary hero, a battle where a short stretch of sand felt like a boundless desert to exhausted troops.
“On the way over we were all sick due to the rough sea. On arrival we were offered food by the ship’s crew but none of us could eat as we looked at the most awesome sight and sound imaginable,” said Len, who landed near Arromanches in Normandy on D-Day.
“Warships, troopships, barges, landing craft, inshore rocket craft, planes overhead, barrage balloons, all hell being let loose, the noise bursting my ear drums.
As a 19-year-old it was the nearest thing to hell I’d ever seen, and that’s where I thought I was.
“The big warships out to sea were pounding targets further inland with heavy shells which sounded like an express train going through a station and a continuous line of barges and landing craft were making for the beach, some of them catching their hulls on underwater obstacles and blowing up.”
When he received his order to disembark, Len climbed down a rope ladder and soaked to the skin, he watched as the ramps on the barges were lowered and the trucks drove on to the French beach.
“Mines were exploding everywhere and one of our trucks was blown up, killing one of the lads from our platoon. While all this was going on, Jerry was stonking [shelling] the beach with mortar and artillery fire,” said Len.
“We knew that there were going to be casualties but we never realised what it would be like. It made a boy into a man overnight.”
Len and his company rendezvoused in a nearby orchard overlooking the beaches where they quickly ‘dug in’ under constant shelling.
“We were all in the same boat, basically, all of us were scared, wondering what would happen to us. None of us were brave, we had a job to do and we got on with it as best we could,” he said.
“I remember looking down at the coastline and there was a red line all the way across as far as you could see. Along the edge of the beach there were body parts on the sand and floating in the sea, the tide was red with the blood of those lads that didn’t make it. It made me feel quite sick.”
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