by Dan Jarvis, Mayor of the Sheffield City Region
June 6th 1944 was a day marked by immeasurable courage and unspeakable tragedy. It will forever live in our national consciousness.
This week, communities up and down our country will come together in remembrance and reflect on the sacrifice made by the veterans of Normandy. At a time when our very existence was under threat, they answered the call – some would never return home, many would have their lives irrevocably changed.
We are privileged that a number of veterans are still with us today. For many, the seventy-fifth anniversary will be the final time they will gather together.
As their stories move slowly from memory to the pages of history, it is incumbent on us to ensure the legacy of all those who made that voyage across the Channel seventy-five years ago today, will stand for all time.
As someone who served and saw friends fall, the act of commemoration is particularly important to me. Not just because of the respect I have for the sacrifice made in northern France, but because I hope that in seventy-five years’ time, the sacrifice made by my friends and comrades will also be remembered.
On D-Day, more than 150,000 men deployed, carried by over 4,000 ships, thousands of landing craft, with gliders and planes supporting from the air and laid siege to 30 miles of heavily-fortified French coastline.
They did so at a time when the Second World War and the fate of the continent hung in the balance.
It was a mission unlike any other. Operation Overlord was the largest amphibious invasion in history. It is a story of bravery, determination and ambition. There has been nothing quite like it before or since.
It is hard to imagine what it must have felt like for the soldiers and personnel from every corner of Britain, the Commonwealth, America and beyond who made the journey. As they received their final orders the night before; as they boarded their landing crafts and planes – they did not know when or indeed whether they would return.
The result of their collective efforts would ultimately lead to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of fascism. We should never forget, however, the tremendous price at which this breakthrough came – it is estimated Allied Forces suffered 10,000 casualties, including 2,500 dead on this day alone.
The Battle for Normandy did not end on June 6th. Many hard battles would follow. The human cost of that victory can still be seen at the 27 war cemeteries dotted along the Normandy coast, containing the remains of over 110,000 dead from both sides. Nothing can prepare you for that pilgrimage. I’ve stood in front of those graves and walked over those beaches and felt humbled and inspired by their courage.
As well as reminding us of our past, the act of remembrance is an opportunity to be mindful of the present, and think of those who have fallen in more recent conflicts around the world.
It is in that spirit I will be reflecting not just on the heroes who went into battle seventy-five years ago, but all those who have served in our Armed Forces since. Not least because the term ‘D-Day’ is still used to plan military operations. There were ‘D-Days’ in Korea, the Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and countless other conflicts.
Ask anyone who has served and they will have their personal ‘D-Day’ memories. Though few will be as ferocious as 6 June, in their own way they are days that will stay with those who lived through them forever.
There’s a reason though why the D-Day that began at 6:30am on June 6th 1944 will forever stand out – it’s one of very few moments from history where it’s possible to pin our national story to a single date in the calendar.
The men we commemorate today were family, friends and neighbours. In turn, they were joined by tens of thousands of strangers from America, Canada and Poland, all serving under one banner, to free a country most would never have stepped foot on before D-Day.
Their experience of that day and the battles to follow would transcend culture, language and politics. It is a lesson in true solidarity, and one from which we could all learn.
In an era when historic alliances appear to be fracturing before our eyes, we should remember the overriding principle that drove us to victory in the Second World War was collaboration. By placing shared values above parochial interests we dragged ourselves from the nadir and laid the foundations on which a brighter future was built.
When the country falls silent, I will remember the past, respect the present and think about how to work toward a better and more peaceful future. Not celebrating, but commemorating, trying to understand what they went through, and standing with them in solidarity and thanking them for the precious freedoms we enjoy today.