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Battle of Normandy: Witness by witness, memories of the D-Day landings are preserved

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An unprecedented D-Day film archive is taking shape, thanks, in part, to the generosity of readers of The Independent.

Over the summer, a dwindling band of British men and women started recording for posterity the part that they played, large or small, in the battle of Normandy 70 years ago next year.

In some cases, the veterans, now mostly in their nineties, have never before spoken publicly of their harrowing memories of 6 June 1944 or the 10 weeks of bloody fighting that followed.

Three months ago, The Independent publicised an appeal on behalf of the Normandy Veterans’ Association (NVA) to ensure that the voices of as many remaining veterans as possible – the survivors among the survivors – were not lost to future generations.

The appeal brought a generous response. As a result, 60 of the 150 interviews originally envisaged by the NVA have already been recorded. The D-Day Museum in Portsmouth has agreed to create a permanent archive of the footage, which could now run to 100 hours or more of film.

So many veterans have come forward – some of whom had never joined the NVA or previously given interviews  – that the project is growing. If sufficient money is raised, it is hoped that at least 200 interviews will be recorded before next June.

There is no precedent for an attempt to record the memories of such a wide cross-section of British veterans – ranging from soldiers who saw their comrades blown apart on D-Day  to a woman who took part in a front-line “concert party” in Normandy with the entertainer George Formby. 

Strong support has been given to the idea by the new  Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Houghton.

“I would urge all with an interest in the Normandy campaign to support this project to ensure that the memories of those who took part in the events which changed the course of history are preserved for future generations,” Sir Nicholas said.

The project is the “passionate hobby-horse” of  George Batts, the 87-year-old honorary  secretary of the NVA. Mr Batts came ashore on Gold Beach on 6 June 1944 as an 18-year-old “sapper” in the Royal Engineers. He cleared mines before helping to build and maintain the artificial “Mulberry” harbour at Arromanches.

“I can’t say how touched and delighted I have been by the response, both from those who have sent money and from the many veterans who have contacted me wanting to tell their story,” Mr Batts said. “I couldn’t have hoped for better. I wanted to avoid what happened with First World War veterans when no systematic attempt was made to record their memories until there were hardly any left.”

Like the 1914-18 war, the pivotal Western European battle of the Second World War is about to pass over the horizon of living memory.  The Normandy Veterans’ Association once had 14,000 members. At the 65th anniversary of D-Day four years ago, there were 3,000 alive. There are now fewer than 600, with an average age of 92.

The NVA has been promised Lottery funding to take members to Normandy next summer for what will be their “last patrol”. The association  has accepted its inevitable defeat by time and age, and plans to hang up its banners after the 70th anniversary commemoration

The “Normandy Voices” project is to be the association’s swan-song. An edited version of the filmed interviews will be made into a series of DVDs and given to remaining veterans and their families. Plans to sell the DVDs commercially have been dropped as impractical.

The D-Day Museum in Portsmouth has agreed enthusiastically to create a permanent home for the footage in which each veteran will record his or her memories for an average of 30 minutes. Dr Jane Mee, director of the D-Day Project at Portsmouth, said she was “delighted” to be offered such an “invaluable” archive. The intention is to preserve the first-hand accounts  as a resource for school parties, descendants of veterans and future historians.

The executive producer of the project, Alastair Dutch, a retired diplomat, said: “Some of the veterans have never given interviews before. They had always preferred, until now, to keep their memories to themselves.

“I think they grasped the value of this project and wanted to record their experiences before it was too late. Some of the accounts of D-Day itself, of the sea and beach covered with blood and body-parts, are extremely graphic and disturbing.”

Those interviewed so far also include sailors from the invasion force, a nurse who came ashore on 7 June and a woman who entertained troops at a concert party whose star act was the singer and comedian George Formby.

The NVA appealed originally for £50,000 to cover the costs of the production company which is already interviewing Normandy veterans in groups throughout the UK. That target has not yet been reached. A little extra will now be needed to reach all the veterans who have come forward.

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