Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Normandy heroes gave us the peace we take for granted

American troops land in France on D-Day (PA)
American troops land in France on D-Day (PA)

Editor's Viewpoint

As the D-Day commemorations continue, it is almost impossible for this generation to imagine the hell on earth that were the five Normandy beaches where the Allied troops landed to begin the push that finally defeated the horror of Nazism.

It is equally hard to imagine that the frail, yet surprisingly sprightly, veterans who made the journey back to those beaches had waded ashore into the jaws of German resistance in their youth.

For while it was a massive military exercise involving warships, landing craft and aircraft, ultimately it was the courage of each individual soldier, sailor or parachutist which won the day and ensured that today we all live in a part of the world free of the jackboot of oppression.

The Queen led the tributes to those who perished and those who survived, and expressed the nation's gratitude for their courage and sacrifice. As she rightly pointed out, the fate of the world depended on their success.

Yet it was a success gained at a terrible price. Some of the stories told by the veterans - many never spoke of their experiences - capture the horror of war more vividly than even the greatest poet, painter or author.

One soldier recalled tapping a colleague on the shoulder to ask for a light as they sheltered on the beach, before realising there was no head beneath the other man's helmet. Another spoke of his fear and others told how thousands of civilians died in France as the Allies bombarded German positions.

Northern Ireland - indeed the whole island - played its part in the liberation of Europe, and our stories of the part played by some soldiers demonstrate again how fortune, as much as planning, decided which individuals lived and which died. All that was required of them was that they were prepared to serve, and that they did with distinction.

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For too long the contribution of all the people on this island to the war effort was shamefully misrepresented. There was little acknowledgement within the nationalist/Catholic community of the role played by members of that community in the armed services, and little desire among the unionist community to highlight it.

The commemorations this week have brought about the largest gathering of heads of state since the London Olympics - apart from a formal summit. That in itself showed the magnitude of the war in Europe and the number of countries affected both by German occupation and Allied liberation.

It was the second world war in 20 years, and once again huge swathes of a generation were lost in the barbarity of the conflict. The material of war may have become more sophisticated in the intervening period, removing the trench warfare of the First World War, but the dreaded messages home of another lost life and then another and another, seemingly to infinity, did not change.

While the first conflict was supposed to be the war that ended all wars, the second was more successful in that respect. Europe has largely been at peace since 1945 - the Balkans apart - and the determination of the various nations to ensure peaceful co-existence is the legacy that was won by those courageous men who stormed the Normandy beaches.

Present generations may complain of many things that they see wrong with the world today, but they should be eternally grateful to their forebears, so many of whom gave their lives so that we could live in peace.

Belfast Telegraph


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