Just over three years ago I received from my mother’s estate one of my most treasured possessions. It has no financial value at all but is a letter that my father write to my mother over the run up to and during D-Day. It was a long letter written over 4/5 days on any bit of paper that he could find. Old signals; bits of exercise book – you name it he wrote on the back of it.
It was fascinating as a 58 year old to read the words and thoughts of my father when he was in his early 20s. I am not absolutely sure what he did but he was in the RAF and specialised in radar. My understanding is that he was on one of the first ships to leave the Southern ports to go out into mid-Channel to provide radar support to fighter and bomber commands.
His letter tells of his fear of dying but his pride in the massive assembly of men that surrounded him. He tells how he could feel the vibrations of hundreds of planes passing by overhead and seeing ships returning within hours full of soldiers of all nations who were wounded. He spoke of what he thought of the “Jerries” (very impressed by them as individuals as it happens) and how he loathed the Nazis who had taken ordinary men and made them into a ruthless machine.
He never spoke to me about this neither did my Uncle who fought in the Army in Italy and received a gallantry award. They came home and got on with their lives after doing extraordinary things.
I thought of this some weeks afterwards when I addressed a service at Liverpool, Parish Church to welcome home TA soldiers (men and women) who served in Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick. “You have been tested, as were my father’s generation, in a way that most of my generation in the Western world have not been tested. Because there is no need for mass conscript armies in the modern way of war there will never again be mass conscription. We fight using big bad weapons; we fight wars by proxy arming other people in other nations. Fortunately for us our fighting is being done by small groups of people in our armed services who are still prepared to answer the call of duty.
I listened the other day to a discussion about bravery. It seems that people who have been incredibly brave were not in any sense fearless but in fact quite fearful. However, when the need arose and they saw a need or an opportunity they overcame their fears and concerns and stepped up and did what was required. The adrenalin flowed; they moved forward and took responsibility for the situation they and their comrades were in.
Some did this in a concerted and violent action. Some did it in secret month after month in occupied territory. The heroism of Nurse Edith Cavell who calmly faced a dawn firing squad for saving people’s lives is rightly commemorated. She saw the need – she acted – she quietly and compassionately paid the ultimate price.
Inevitably I wonder whether I would have risen to the challenge like my Uncle and my Dad. Well most people did. The Tommies who fought in the trenches endured appalling deprivation yet very few of them didn’t ‘go over the top’ when the whistles blew at dawn. Whether it was the stoker or engineer trapped in a ship when it was torpedoed or the Fighter Command aces who won the battle of Britain they all rose to the occasion. I hope that I would have been one of them. I am not a pacifist. I believe that wars should be fought if there is no other solution. I was bitterly opposed to the war in Iraq but feel that both World War I and II had to be fought and won. I totally reject the UK having nuclear weapons but believe that our armed forces should be properly equipped to enter the theatres of war that the politcians place them in. You cannot believe these things without being forced to take arms when the needs arise.
This 70th anniversary of D Day is unique. It is the last when so many veterans will straighten their backs and go behind their flags with their hearts full of sadness and pride to remember fallen comrades. The Veterans Associations and will now be wound up and their flags laid to rest and honoured in Churches throughout the Country. But we must never forget their struggle; their sacrifice and their bravery. If we don’t learn from history we are condemned to repeat it. If we don’t listen to our past we cannot comprehend how to cope with the dangers and scares of the present.
Twice last week I was at a ceremony to add to the official war memorial to Liverpool World War I dead in the Town Hall. After alomost 100 years I was proud to be present to recognise those from Liverpool whose gallantry had not been previously been recognised officially by their home city. For these heroes and all our heroes and heroines I repeat these words, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning we WILL remember them”.