James Sunderland writes for The House Magazine.
At a remarkable event on 05th June 2019, the world came to Portsmouth for the D Day 75 Commemorations. In what hardly seems two summers ago, this proved to a very special remembrance occasion and one that I will not forget.
As one of the lucky few to be present, I had been invited as a member of the Army Engagement Group to host the dignitaries and to play my small part in honouring our World War Two veterans. These living legends had travelled back to the Solent in their hundreds, proudly representing the allied nations who had sent thousands more to land in Normandy on that fateful day in June 1944. Many of course did pay the ultimate price 75 years ago and many more had since fallen at the final hurdle without getting the chance to come to Portsmouth, but their magnificent old friends were still there in force.
To my shame, I had anticipated the event to be little more than another public duty, but I was blown away by the occasion and completely overcome by the privilege I felt at being there. Nothing in my years of military service had prepared me for the emotion of that day and nothing has ever come close to the pride I felt at being amongst true heroes, either before or since. Lest indeed we forget that we may never see their like again or fail to honour them.
Under blue skies and beautiful sunshine, those fantastic veterans stood out like burning gold. Sitting tall in their magnificent rows, resplendent in their ageless uniforms and with faces contorted by emotion, there was not a dry eye in the audience as the formalities began. Sentimentality raged unabated as wartime memories, songs, sketches, and poems were projected from the stage. Gifted actors spoke movingly about the painful decisions that Eisenhower had taken to launch the invasion in poor weather. Theresa May spoke hauntingly about Captain NWG Skinner, a member of my own Corps, who had died on Sword Beach just after writing a heartfelt letter to his wife. And how many in the audience could fail to feel the hairs on the back of their neck during the RAF fly-past? As someone who was there, I would have defied anyone not to have wobbled with emotion as the veterans themselves climbed onto the stage to poignant applause, a grateful audience reaching out to every single one.
But there they were, superbly dressed and impossibly smart, with straight lines on their trousers, immaculate black shoes, old Regimental ties, embroidered blazers and their perfectly polished medals glittering in the sun like diamonds. Some were in wheelchairs, some were walking with sticks and a few were able to move unassisted, but all had beautiful, beaming smiles in the knowledge that their efforts had not been in vain and had not been forgotten, at least for that special day. And my own heart went out to them as never before.
Years earlier as those brave men attacked the Normandy beaches on 06th June 1944, they could not have conceived the perils that lay ahead or how long the war would last. So, as we approach Remembrance Sunday, please spare a thought for those who gave so much to protect our freedoms, both for those who came back to the families and more poignantly, for those who did not.
So please do wear your poppy with pride, put your Sunday best on, polish your medals if you have them, worry not if you don't and get on parade! Why not go to Church and shed a tear, march alongside our military heroes or why not pause in reflection to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the freedoms we now enjoy? Or if you are so inclined, just spare a thought for our ancestors during the 2 minutes silence at 11am or simply clap our heroes, as we have rightly done for so many of our brilliant key workers over the past wretched 18 months. Our veterans from every conflict deserve our humble thanks and we will see them proudly wearing their splendid uniforms in every Church, singing loudly and parading along our streets. But those who are still with us from the time of D Day and VE Day are very special indeed. And if you are lucky enough to meet them, please go and say hello.