Last Post sounds for Normandy Veterans’ Association – but their memories will live on…JOHN LICHFIELD Friday 21 November 2014-The Independent
The Normandy Veterans are no more. At midnight last night, the Normandy Veterans’ Association (NVA), the main organisation for British survivors of D-Day and the vicious fighting which followed, ceased to exist after the veterans, most of them in their nineties, decided to disband it.
Their faces, voices and memories will, however, never fade. Thanks partly to the generosity of readers of The Independent, a permanent video archive will be created next week at the D‑Day Museum in Portsmouth; it will contain the recollections of 150 surviving British veterans of the Normandy campaign between June and August 1944. Eventually, the filmed memories of up to 200 veterans – double the original target – will be available to schools, the media and future generations of historians.
On 6 June 2013, and again this year, The Independent asked its readers to support a project by the NVA to record the voices and faces of remaining veterans – the survivors of the survivors – before it was too late. The plan eventually won the backing of the historical educational foundation Legasee and funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The national secretary of the NVA, George Batts – himself a D-Day survivor – says the archive “would never have happened” without the money sent by Independent readers (something like £15,000 in all).
“Without them, we would never have got the project going in the first place,” Mr Batts, 89, said. “They also helped us to keep it going at a difficult time. The result has been beyond my wildest dreams. My target was 100 short interviews. We have already recorded 150, some of them quite long, and I am sure we will eventually reach 200.”
Alastair Dutch, a retired diplomat and executive producer of the project, said: “What has been extraordinary is the reaction of the veterans themselves and their families. We have many interviews with veterans who have never previously wanted to record, or even recall, what they went through.
“Their families have obviously said to them: ‘Look, it’s now or never. You really should take part in this. For some of them the experience has obviously been cathartic, like taking a great weight off their minds. Some of the recollections are short and relatively uneventful. Others go on for 30 or 40 minutes and their accounts are quite horrific.”
The first 25 interviews will be formally presented to the D-Day Museum on Thursday. They will form a permanent archive as part of a plan to expand the scope and role of the museum in the next few years. Another 125 interviews have been recorded and will be added to the archive in the coming months. “We are not closing the door to latecomers,” Mr Dutch said. “We will continue to record as many interviews as we can.”
Legasee,funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is devoted to recording the memories of all veterans of the Second World War. The NVA’s archive of D-Day – probably the most extensive oral history of any campaign of the war – will be made available to schoolchildren of this, and future, generations.
“The idea is that this should be a permanent archive, which can be consulted by historians of the future and by the descendants of the veterans themselves,” Mr Dutch said.
The Normandy Veterans’ Association had 14,000 members at its peak. At the 65th anniversary, four years ago, that number was down to 3,000. At the final count, fewer than 600 members remained.
“Many of us are in nursing homes. Travel is becoming difficult. We thought that the 70th anniversary of D-Day was the right time to wind up the association,” Mr Batts said.
The NVA’s flags and banners were formally deposited at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, earlier this month. For the first – and last – time, NVA members, led by Mr Batts, headed the annual Remembrance Sunday parade along Whitehall on 9 November.
“We are old boys now,” Mr Batts said. “Some of us, while we can, will still be going to Normandy each 6 June but it was time, very sadly, to accept that the association had to come to an end.”
“That is why I am so delighted, absolutely over the moon, that this archive will be there to keep our memory alive.”