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Remembering D-Day 70 years on

As veterans gather in Normandy, the end is near for what Americans call 'the greatest generation'.
Last modified: 6 Jun 2014 11:53

It was, according to this week's Paris Match, 'le bel eté de 1944' - the sweet summer of 1944. The black and white photo on the cover shows US soldiers being embraced by smiling French girls.

Seventy years on from D-Day, the operation to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany, the atmosphere in Normandy is both festive, and heavy with nostalgia. Villages are gaily festooned with French, US, British and Canadian flags.

Amateur enthusiasts drive vintage open-top American jeeps down the country lanes, Glenn Miller blaring at full volume. Families have come from across Western Europe to camp by the military cemeteries and stroll along Normandy's beaches.

History, they say, is written by the winners. That may be true, but even after so many decades, the vast majority of people in North America and Europe still consider the men who took part in the invasion of France as heroes and liberators. The conviction remains that theirs' was a good war, fought for the right reasons.

"We thank them everyday", one local mayor told me, "they freed us".

For the West, there is a reassuring straightforwardness to the Second World War; it was a fight for democracy against Nazi tyranny. There's a poignant contrast with the ambiguity and regret associated with many more recent military adventures, from Vietnam to Iraq.

Of course, the Second World War wasn't quite that simple. I've spent much of the past two years researching the role of African soldiers who were taken by the British to Burma (now Myanmar) to fight against the Japanese, for a book to be published this September. 

'The greatest generation'

The brutal fighting in Burma's jungles has none of the moral clarity of D-Day. It was a struggle for control between a fading Empire (Britain) and one on the ascendancy (Japan). Indians, Africans, and the Burmese, found themselves caught up in a conflict that was not of their making, sometimes forced to choose between rival colonial masters.

All of which is not to deny the courage - or the achievement - of those men who ran onto Normandy's beaches 70 years ago today.

It was a pivotal day in the Second World War. There was much confusion, and many things went wrong. Some 5,000 men died on D-Day alone. But the Allies succeeded in opening a new front against the Nazis, and thereby hastened the end of the war.

Since 1945, Western Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity.

My grandfather was there on D-Day, and he survived. His letters home were censored, but he wrote of being sent on a dangerous mission to the post office in the town of Bayeux to see if it was booby-trapped, of dead cows lying bloated in ruined apple orchards, and of seeing local girls with closely shaven heads, done as punishment for having slept with the Germans.

These letters give little snatches of colour, but they don't begin to answer my many questions.

It's too late now- my grandfather has long since passed away. I missed an opportunity. And, inevitably, the numbers of veterans dwindles with every major anniversary. Several hundred have returned to Normandy this week, but most are in their 90s.

The end is near for what Americans call 'the greatest generation'. So let's listen to their stories carefully, while we still can.