ON Thursday, the nation’s attention will understandably be focused on the General Election and what it means for our future. But despite that, on Tuesday, we should take a moment to remember our past. Because for me, whatever else is happening – June 6 will always be D-Day.
D-Day has a huge significance for everyone who has served in our Armed Forces; not least because the term ‘D-Day’ is still used to plan military operations. Ask anyone who has served in our Armed Forces and they will have their personal ‘D-Day’ memories. For me, they are a helicopter flight up the Kacanik defile into Kosovo in 1999, the long drive through the desert into Iraq in 2003, and the many D-Days I experienced in Afghanistan.
But there’s a reason why the D-Day that began at 6:30am on June 6, 1944, stands tall amongst them all. It was five years since the beginning of the Second World War and four years since the allies had withdrawn from mainland Europe. If the British victory at El Alamein in 1942 marked “the end of the beginning” of the Second World War, it was D-Day that marked “the beginning of the end”.
“Operation Overlord” was the largest amphibious invasion in history. More than 158,000 men were carried by over 4,000 ships and thousands of landing craft. With gliders, planes and parachutists all supporting from the air.
Try for a moment to imagine what it must have felt like for the young men who made that journey. The moments of calm before the chaos of war. The moment when you look deep inside your soul and steel yourself for what is to come. This moment has not changed throughout history. Whatever training you’ve done, nothing can really prepare you for when the door opens and it’s time to go. That is a moment which stays with you.
For thousands of young men, that moment 73 years ago began with a ramp lowering in front of them. Some would arrive on beaches that were unopposed. Others would immediately be struck down by a hail of machine-gun fire.
I remember talking to one D-Day veteran in Barnsley who had spent 40 hours in a boat. He told me that the crossing had been so hazardous that when they finally arrived at the Normandy beaches they were barely in a fit state to fight. But they didn’t want any fuss and they just got on with it.
It’s such an important day in Yorkshire’s history that, on their formation in 2006, The Yorkshire Regiment (14th/15th, 19th and 33rd/76th Foot) chose it for their ‘Regimental Day’. When you look at the contribution of their antecedent regiments that day, it is easy to understand why.
Two battalions of both the East Yorkshire Regiment and the Green Howards landed that day. The East Yorkshires were the only regiment with two battalions in the first wave of attacks and along with the 6th Green Howards, formed half of the British Infantry that took part in the first wave of attacks onto ‘Gold’ and ‘Sword’ beaches.
The 5th Battalion the East Yorkshires took heavy losses yet managed to advance five miles inland and capture the villages of Villiers-le-Sec and St Gabriel Brecy. Whilst the 2nd Battalion overcame heavy mortar and machine gun fire to break out from the beach head, advanced and cease the village of St Aubin d’Arquenay.
The Green Howards also endured heavy fire before successfully capturing the Mount Fleury battery; a vital crossroads near the villages of La Riviere and Crepon; and the villages of Creully and Coulombs. Of note is the outstanding bravery of the Green Howard and Yorkshireman Stan Hollis, who received the only Victoria Cross (our country’s highest award of gallantry) awarded as a result of D-Day.
His citation read: “Wherever the fighting was heaviest...[he]...appeared, displaying the utmost gallantry... It was largely through his heroism and resource that the Company’s objectives were gained and casualties were not heavier...he saved the lives of many of his men.”
We have the benefit of hindsight now. But to understand the mix of desperation and hope that people felt you have to recall just how uncertain it was at the time. By 1944 the war had weakened Yorkshire as it had the whole of our country, and its outcome hung in the balance.
The mission was so crucial that Winston Churchill famously wanted to join the invading forces himself. He was only talked out of it when King George VI told the Prime Minister that if he was going, then he’d be coming along too!
But despite the huge significance of the landings, the battle for Normandy did not end on June 6. The Germans would counter-attack and there were many more hard battles fought over the following 80 days.
The human cost of that victory can still be seen today at the 27 war cemeteries dotted along the Normandy coast, containing the remains of more than 110,000 dead from both sides. I’ve stood in front of those graves and felt both humbled and inspired.
Despite everything else that is going on at the moment, it is these people, and this spirit, that we in Yorkshire should take a moment to honour on June 6. We must always remember the unity and purpose that generation showed, and what they achieved. That, much more than our differences, is what should still define us today.
Dan Jarvis is a former soldier who is seeking re-election in Barnsley Central as a Labour MP.