6th June 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy, the largest amphibious assault ever launched. As the people of Britain and France prepare to commemorate the momentous event and remember those who were lost, ferry company Brittany Ferries is also getting ready to play its part.
Brittany Ferries has linked Portsmouth with the Normandy town of Ouistreham, near Caen, since 1986, and for many of its customers, the route carries an unmistakeable symbolism. In 1944, Portsmouth was one of the key strategic locations across the south coast where thousands of Allied troops left for Normandy. Meanwhile, Ouistreham sits on the edge of Sword Beach, the easternmost of the five Normandy landing sectors where on D-Day 150,000 men came ashore. Over 4,000 of them were lost. Nowadays, for the 900,000 passengers who use the Portsmouth–Caen route annually, these historic beaches are their very first and last glimpse of France.
Fittingly, this June, both towns will play a key role in the remembrance of 1944. Portsmouth will be a focal point for national commemorations to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, with a number of events including a drumhead ceremony attended by the Princess Royal. Across the Channel, the eyes of the world will be upon Ouistreham as veterans and world leaders including the Queen, US president Barack Obama, and French president François Hollande gather for the key international D-Day ceremonies. The wider Calvados area will be holding 27 official ceremonies and an incredible 1,090 special events to mark the occasion.
The surviving veterans are of course central to all these ceremonies and events. And although their numbers are dwindling with many now in their late eighties or nineties, Brittany Ferries already has hundreds booked aboard its ferries to Caen, Cherbourg and Le Havre as they travel to Normandy during the first week of June to pay homage to lost comrades.
The company is making preparations to carry these VIPs by providing extra staff at its ports and on board to welcome and look after them. It is also liaising closely with the authorities to ensure that both veterans and their families enjoy the smoothest possible travel experience.
Those departing from Portsmouth International Port’s passenger terminal will be able to trace former comrades as they check-in, thanks to a special veterans’ reception centre set up by Portsmouth City Council. The terminal building will also host a special commemorative exhibition created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, giving departing customers details of key war cemeteries and memorials across Normandy.
Meanwhile on board, Brittany Ferries is laying on an appropriate welcome. Its ships will be dressed with flags to honour the involvement in D-Day of the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and France. With so many veterans travelling, customers can naturally expect a special, nostalgic ambience. But there will also be a few added touches. Several ships are hosting D-Day-themed exhibitions and talks, whilst bunting and wartime music will lend a distinctly 40s feel to the onboard bars and lounges. Some veterans have chosen to hold special on-deck remembrance ceremonies as they approach the Normandy coast, with Brittany Ferries’ captains slowing their vessels to allow wreaths to be laid at sea.
For some of these returning heroes, the Channel crossing will mark the end of a much longer journey. Many are expected to fly into the UK from as far afield as the United States and Canada before heading to France. Among these is a group of 40 American veterans who will sail from Portsmouth to Cherbourg on 3rd June, remarkably making their very first return to Normandy since they took part in the invasion 70 years ago.
Adding to the colour of the commemorations are several large-scale military re-enactments, and Brittany Ferries’ ships will transport dozens of vintage military vehicles to Normandy to participate. And on 2nd June, 100 parachutists will cross from Cherbourg to Portsmouth before travelling to Daedalus airfield in Gosport. There, they will board a fleet of vintage DC-3 Dakota aircraft before taking off for Normandy where they will recreate the airborne assaults of 1944.
Mike Bevens, Brittany Ferries’ commercial director comments: “Our ships link the UK with Normandy year-round, making us ever-mindful of the special, historic bonds between the two. But each year in June, when the veterans step aboard, it really hits home. The numbers that still travel with us each year in spite of their advancing years are quite humbling.”
“It’s an honour for us to carry these brave and special men as they make such an important journey, and our staff and crew enjoy the privilege of meeting them – over the years many friendships have been struck. We’re looking forward to welcoming them back this June, and are doing as much as we can to ensure that their crossings to and from Normandy are both enjoyable and memorable.”
“As well as the veterans, each year thousands of sightseers and holidaymakers sail with us to Normandy to take in the huge range of historic sites and museums spread across the region, including the beaches themselves. Happily these numbers include more and more school children and young people, so I’m confident that even as the veterans themselves become fewer in number, the memory of their bravery and sacrifice will live on.”
Key events in Portsmouth
Portsmouth is planning a week of commemorations from Monday 2nd to Sunday 8th June, with the major events taking place on Thursday 5th June.
§ 1100: A drumhead service on Southsea Common on 5th June featuring Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Band Portsmouth, and attended by veterans, members of the armed forces, and senior representatives including the Princess Royal.
§ 1205: An impressive amphibious landing demonstration will take place on Southsea beach undertaken by Royal Marines deploying from HMS Bulwark in the Solent.
§ 1330: A full-scale aerobatic display by the Red Arrows
§ In the afternoon a flotilla of ships will set sail for France for the international commemorations.
§ 1930: Sunset concert for Heroes on Southsea Common, featuring Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
Key commemorative events in Normandy
Normandy will be hosting hundreds of ceremonies, with an emphasis on ‘passing the baton’ from the veterans to young people. The key international commemorations will take place on 5th & 6th June.
§ Ceremonies at Pegasus Bridge and the Pegusus Bridge Museum to mark the airborne landings in Horsa Gliders by troops from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and 249th Field Company Royal Engineers
§ A mass parachute drop by 16 Air Assault Brigade to mark the liberation of Ranville, the first French village to be liberated, by the British 13th Parachute Battalion.
§ A ceremony for UK 3rd Division veterans at the British Garden of the Caen Memorial museum.
§ A memorial service at Breville-Les-Monts for members of the 12th Parachute Battalion, a company from the 12th Battalion Devonshire Regiment and the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, who suffered heavy losses in an attack on 12/13 June 1944.
§ A memorial service to mark the attack on Merville Gun Battery on 6 June 1944 by 9th (Eastern and Home Counties) Parachute Battalion.
§ A midnight celebration at Pegasus Bridge to mark the actual moment of the airborne landings.
§ At 11pm, firework displays all along the Normandy coast will celebrate freedom.
§ A service of Remembrance at Bayeux Cathedral organised by the Royal British Legion, at which The Queen will bless the new Bell of Peace and Liberty.
§ A ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Bayeux, organised jointly by the Normandy Veterans’ Association and The Royal British Legion.
§ An international ceremony at Ouistreham organised by the French Government.
§ A march past and service of commemoration held by the Normandy Veterans Association at Arromanches-les-Bains.