In the 70th anniversary year of the Second World War, a memorial trip offers a moving insight into the events that shaped world history
This year the 70th year anniversary of D-Day and the 100th anniversary of the First World War have dominated the news agenda, as ex-servicemen and their relatives, historians, and those interested in their ancestry make the pilgrimage to the famous war sites.
One of the most poignant trips is to the D-Day beaches of Normandy where on 6 June, veterans and world leaders commemorated 70 years since the Allied landings. One such attendee was 94-year old Geoffrey Pyne, a veteran of Normandy who had served in the REME Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers Regiment.
On the eve of D-Day, Geoffrey’s regiment had been unaware of what was about to happen. They had been moved to Wanstead Flats to prepare for something mysterious, and given rifles, three-rounds of ammunition, three days food, some money and a picture of where they needed to get to. Later the troops were moved onto a barge and it was only when some of the soldiers went above deck for some fresh air that they realised that something significant was afoot: “All around me were aircraft after aircraft flying over,” said Geoffrey. “The sea was full of craft too so we knew something was about to happen.”
In June this year, Geoffrey was among a number of 48 who took part in a tour to Normandy for the 70-year commemorations organised by the Royal British Legion’s travel arm, Remembrance Travel. Thanks to the Legion’s connections they were able to gain special access to ceremonies and events over the commemorative week, including a meeting with Her Majesty The Queen, Prince Charles, The Duchess of Cornwall and the Prime Minister David Cameron.
The emotional anniversary tour began with a trip to Pegasus Bridge where a glider-borne unit of the British 6th Airborne Division, commanded by Major John Howard took the bridges intact and held them, playing an important role in limiting the effectiveness of a German counter-attack in the days following D-Day. There was also a visit to Sword Beach as well as the 70th Anniversary D-Day Service of Remembrance at Bayeux Cemetery as well as tours to the American Omaha and Utah beaches and personal visits to war cemeteries.
Geoffrey landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944 and travelled up the beach in a Bedford truck. He was later badly wounded and spent a month in hospital, but his very close friend, Thomas Gray, was sadly killed on 10 July 1944. On his return to Normandy, Geoffrey was keen to find his friend’s grave, but knew that it would be near-impossible to find. However as he wandered through the thousands of graves at the St Manvieu War Cemetery, Cheux, he came across his old friend’s grave: “I never believed he would be in this cemetery. I was so lucky as we had been past so many graves and didn’t have a clue where he was but we found him”, said Geoffrey.
Geoffrey had returned to Normandy twice before, but none of his previous visits had matched up to this trip. He says: “Everything was so well organised and they certainly kept us busy. We were all pretty tired at the end of it but it was definitely worthwhile. I met the Queen in a line-up parade and she shook my hand. I also met the Prime Minister too – it was all very good and very moving too.”
To find out about more upcoming Royal British Legion Tours, visit their tour operator at www.arenatravel.com
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