D-Day was mind-boggling in every way. So how should we ‘remember’ it when we have no more firsthand witnesses?

With all the D-Day commemorations and talk of heroes of the past week, I have to think of my naval English grandfather. His contribution to D-Day was possibly a little less than heroic. He had been invited to give a naval lecture at his son’s prep school and somehow, failing to realise they were still under security wraps, told a room full of enthralled, wide-eyed boys about the Mulberry Harbours. It was only when he spotted two even wider-eyed parental marines in the audience that he realised the top-secrecy of the information he had just imparted. Convinced he would be court-martialled, he emerged from a sleepless night hugely relieved to find the allied landings splashed all over the morning papers’ front pages.

I have to admit I have been profoundly moved by the commemorative ceremonies of D-Day’s 75th anniversary. It’s of course a well-known story but the BBC’s live coverage of events, first by Huw Edwards in Portsmouth and then by Sophie Raworth in Bayeux cemetery, felt particularly fresh. With the help of original footage, the incredible story of Operation Overlord was brought to life by historians Dan Snow and James Holland and some of the 300 or so nonagenarian veterans who had travelled there for the occasion.

What struck me anew was the sheer scale of the invasion. It is unsurprising that it is still considered the most ambitious and biggest land, air and sea operation ever in history. Every aspect of the assault is almost impossible to imagine, not least the out-of-the-box thinking, off the scale planning and coordination that lay behind it. As one of my single father friends said, “organising a picnic for two is hard enough, so I cannot begin to imagine how they organised…” – and here I’ll give you a few facts – 7000 ships and landing craft, 10,000 vehicles and 156,000 troops to land on a fifty-mile stretch of French beaches within a tiny window of good-enough weather. For the ensuing Battle of Normandy, they had to design and construct two harbours the size of Dover and then somehow get them across the channel. 442,000 cubic meters of concrete had to be transported; breakwaters were created out of old scuttled transport ships and warships of allied countries; they had to build jetties for the millions of tons of supplies and the two million men that would be needed over the next months: an estimated 8000 tons of fuel per day, half a million tanks, gliders, undersea pipelines, self-heating soup cans, air-portable motorbikes…. it’s utterly mind-boggling.

Veterans at Portsmouth

But facts and logistics aside, if that’s possible, the focus of these two days of commemoration was undoubtedly on the raw courage of the men involved. Approximately 4,400 allied soldiers were killed in the Normandy landings of June 6th 1944 and a total of 22,442 men and women died in the subsequent months of the Battle of Normandy. Many of those who fought were mere teenagers; many were conscripts who didn’t want to be there; none of them had any idea if they would return. Seventy-five years on, the last witnesses were returning to the sites of their nightmares to remember their mates who didn’t come back. In spite of the rows of medals proudly displayed across their chests, most don’t see themselves, nor do they want to be seen, as heroes. “A hero is someone who does something they don’t have to do,” said one. “I just had a job to do and I did it.” Instead, it was the friend “who gave his most precious gift, his unfinished life” who was the hero.

Veterans lay wreaths in Bayeux Cemetery

We have followed many veterans over the past decades, but watching and listening to these men had more poignancy than anything I have ever seen in terms of remembrance. Shrunken by age and accompanied by young serving personnel, they tottered across stages or among gleaming rows of beautifully kept war graves to lay wreaths or share their stories. The emotion was tangible even through the television screen as cameras moved in on old faces of men staring into a far distance where the roar of battle still resounds, their usually stiff upper lips wobbling as they wistfully recall their friends or quietly re-live the memories of carnage and gunfire that have privately haunted them for the past seven decades. I can’t think of a more powerful tribute than seeing a 95-year-old veteran with tears in his eyes, saluting.

Veterans in Bayeux Cemetery

Through them, we can touch history. But what happens when they are gone? I already feel a sense of nostalgia for the old-school dignity, modesty and courage that defined them. And what about the lessons they implore us to learn: Keep away from war, resolve for it never to happen again and remember. This Channel 4 footage of two British and German veterans meeting for a beer makes it clear just how painful, to the point of impossible, it has been for some of them to extend the hand of friendship to their former enemy. But when they are gone, I think that kind of future-orientated reconciliation is precisely what our remembrance culture should focus on rather than past victory, heroism and ‘triumph over evil’. “Too much remembering is a dangerous business,” Simon Jenkins says here and I agree.

As is always so clear on such occasions, our current world war commemorations are also designed for the families of those who served. Every soldier or casualty of war is someone’s son or grandfather, wife or mother, so could we from now on extend the healing attributes of honour, gratitude, pride and remembrance to others beyond ‘our own’ and re-dress the imbalance of our history books by broadening our victor’s narrative to include a far bigger picture of what actually went on for us to win the war?

It’s good that the 40,000 French civilians shot for resisting were included in these celebrations. There was also acknowledgment of the occupied French living in daily terror of the Nazi regime and the vital roles of the millions of men and women working behind the scenes in factories, hospitals, Bletchley Park as well as all those who risked their lives to report on the front lines. But President Putin, who wasn’t invited, reminded us that the Russians are also worthy of remembrance and gratitude for the three years and gargantuan losses they endured fighting German forces both prior to and after D-Day. And American friends, whose grandfathers had fought just as bravely in Italian campaigns, told me they wanted them be given the same level of acknowledgment as the D-Day heroes.

Angela Merkel in Portsmouth

I don’t expect anyone to share my thoughts for German soldiers, but on this day I found myself imagining those young German men who woke up in their bunkers on June 6th 1944 to the terrifying spectacle of 1,700 enemy ships rolling towards them like a tsunami from hell. Many of them were conscripts and “just doing their job”; many of them didn’t want to be there; many had instant psychiatric breakdowns and up to 9,000 became D-Day casualties. Many of them will be the fathers and grandfathers of our German friends today.

Other articles on the subject:

It’s time to move on from these overblown commemorations of war | Simon Jenkins | Opinion | The Guardian

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75 years after D-Day we’re still astounded by the sheer scale of Operation Overlord