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‘D-Day has come’: My anniversary tour of Normandy, featuring Cecil Newton

“D-Day has come,” a special BBC broadcast proclaimed on June 6, 1944. And so has the 80th anniversary.

Last week, I joined thousands of tourists, veterans, re-enactors and heads of state of various nationalities on a pilgrimage to Normandy to commemorate the largest amphibious invasion in history and the 100-day Battle of Normandy that followed.

Normandy D-Day June 6 1944
A view of the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Public Domain

After years of planning and struggle, the Allies answered calls to open a second front in Western Europe, a step closer to defeating Nazi tyranny. We landed in the Pas De Calais region – where the Germans most expected an assault thanks to Allied deception tactics.

But before the seaborne invasion could begin, more than 5,500 paratroopers of the British 6th Airborne Division landed late on June 5 to capture key strategic targets. Our first stop was the Merville Battery, part of Hitler’s unfinished Atlantic Wall defences, built using slave labour under Organisation Todt.

Merville Battery Normandy 1944
The biggest of four casemates at Merville. Each contained a captured Czech Škoda 100mm Howitzer with a direct line of fire against Sword Beach. Credit: Mirek Gosney

The 9th Battalion, commanded by Lt Col Otway, was tasked with neutralising this battery, which had a direct line of fire on Sword Beach and the Allied fleet. However, due to complications, the force had been reduced to only 150 men.

But “failure was out of the question,” and the paratroopers stormed all four casemates, minutes before the assault on Sword Beach began – preventing a mass slaughter. By the end of the fighting, around 70 paratroopers remained. A large-scale replica of the battery was built for training at Inkpen earlier in May.

Merville Battery 1944
Memorial plaque at the Merville Battery. Credit: Mirek Gosney

Next, we arrived at Pegasus Bridge, a heaving hub of activity. Glider-borne troops of the 2nd Battalion of the British 6th Airborne Division, commanded by Major John Howard, seized the Bénouville Bridge, now called ‘Pegasus Bridge’, in 10 minutes, with only two British casualties.

Pegasus Bridge in Bénouville. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Pegasus Bridge in Bénouville. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Pegasus Bridge 1944
The original Pegasus Bridge. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Pegasus Bridge
Pegasus Bridge, captured by parachutists of the British 6th Airborne Division on June 5. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Pegasus Bridge 1944 1994
Tributes laid at the original Pegasus Bridge, removed in 1994. Credit: Mirek Gosney

But how to mark D-Day itself? I approached 100-year-old veteran tank gunner, Cecil Newton, who I had interviewed before. “If in doubt, head for Gold Beach,” he told me. And so, we visited the America and Gold Beach Museum, the remains of the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches and the British Normandy Memorial, where we learnt more about what Cecil had endured as a 20-year-old trooper serving in the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards.

Gold Beach Museum Normandy 1944
The America and Gold Beach Museum. Credit: Mirek Gosney

The British Normandy Memorial, unveiled in 2021, records the names of the 22,442 British servicemen who fell on D-Day and during the summer of 1944. New this year are the 1,475 eerie silhouettes arranged in the surrounding fields, representing the number of British soldiers killed on June 6.

British Normandy Memorial D-Day 1944 2019
D-Day sculpture at the British Normandy Memorial created by David Williams-Ellis, the centerpiece when the site was inaugurated by Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron on June 6, 2019. Credit: Mirek Gosney
British Normandy Memorial D-Day Sculpture
D-Day sculpture at the British Normandy Memorial created by David Williams-Ellis portraying three British infantrymen. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Standing with Giants British Normandy Memorial Gold Beach
'Standing with Giants' installations at the British Normandy Memorial. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Silhouettes Ver sur Mer Normandy
A total of 1,475 silhouettes standing in the fields at Ver sur Mer. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Nurses British Normandy Memorial 1944
Silhouettes of two nurses, Sisters Mollie Evershed and Dorothy Field, who died while saving 75 men from a sinking hospital ship. Credit: Mirek Gosney

More than 156,000 troops landed in Normandy, of which nearly 62,000 were British. Their ranks were supported by personnel from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand and South Africa.

Omaha Beach D-Day 1944
US troops wading through water and gunfire at Omaha Beach in Normandy, 1944. Public Domain

The invasion had been postponed from June 5 due to bad weather. Cecil’s regiment embarked from Southampton across the Channel, landing at King Green sector on Gold Beach in a Sherman Duplex Drive ‘Swimming’ Tank, modified with an inflatable screen and propellers to guide it to shore. About 60 tanks supported the British 50th Northumbrian Division during the assault, regarded as the most successful of the five landings.

Sherman Duplex Drive Tank 1944
Sherman Duplex Drive 'Swimming' Tank, similar to the one Cecil would have used. Public Domain

By the evening, Cecil’s regiment had linked up with Canadian troops of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles at Creully – a commune he still shares a special connection with. After attending the national service held at the British Normandy Memorial, Cecil arrived in Creully. But first, as a journalist, I paid my respects to the brave male and female war correspondents who occupied this idyllic setting for several weeks to transmit news directly from the frontline to listeners waiting anxiously back home.

Château de Creully
The 11th-century Château de Creully. Credit: Mirek Gosney

Under Frank Gillard, the BBC secretly installed a radio studio in Château de Creully's square tower, opposite General Montgomery’s headquarters at Château de Creullet – where the British commander held press conferences on the lawn.

The morning’s tranquility ended as hundreds of spectators, dignitaries and police gathered in the main square. A parade, fronted by Cecil and a contingent of Royal Dragoons, marched down from the Town Hall to the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards memorial at the foot of the imposing medieval castle.

Château de Creully BBC 1944
The Château de Creully, adapted into a BBC broadcasting station headed by seasoned war correspondent, Frank Gillard. Credit: Mirek Gosney

“This whole ceremony is for you, Cecil Newton,” spoke Mayor of Creully sur Seulles, Thierry Ozenne. The service then commenced. Cecil, an honorary citizen of Creully, read the Ode of Remembrance. Then schoolchildren from École Cecil Newton – a school named after him – each laid a poppy at the memorial and read the names of his fallen comrades – 193 in total.

4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards Memorial Creully
The 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards Memorial at Creully. Credit: Mirek Gosney
BBC 1944 Creully
Commemorative service held for Cecil Newton at the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards Memorial. In the background is the square tower the BBC broadcasted from during the Normandy campaign to the Home Front and resistance forces. Credit: Mirek Gosney

Silence fell over the packed ceremony, interrupted only by the gentle flow of the River Seulles – a stark contrast to the horrifying sounds Cecil must have heard that fateful day, I thought. A delegation from the Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust – partnered with École Cecil Newton – also attended the ceremony. Pupil, Jack Dennis, shared his thoughts on Cecil: “He seems like a role model. His story is quite inspiring.”

Cecil Newton Creully
Cecil Newton and his son, Paul, paying their respects at 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards Memorial. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Cecil Newton Royal Dragoons
Photos of Cecil's fallen comrades laid at the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards Memorial. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Creully 2024
The 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards Memorial at Creully, commemorating Cecil's fallen comrades. Credit: Mirek Gosney

In recent years, Cecil has marked D-Day at a private memorial in his garden. I asked him later what it meant to be back in Normandy. He replied: “I was glad I could return. But as always, it was with extreme sadness at the memory of my friends who were killed.”

The following day, Cecil attended a private reception at his school in Creully. Younger pupils greeted him with a song – in English – and presented him with cards; one even hugged him.

After, primary and secondary pupils presented Cecil with a signed book of all their names, a gift basket and a jar of sand collected from Gold Beach.

École Cecil Newton Creully sur Seulles
École Cecil Newton at Creully sur Seulles. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Cecil Newton Creully
Cecil greeted by primary and secondary school pupils at the school in Creully named after him. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Cecil Newton Creully
Cecil reading cards presented to him by primary school pupils. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Cecil Newton Gold Beach Creully 2024
A jar of sand collected from Gold Beach by Cecil Newton Secondary School pupils. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Cecil Newton Newbury Creully 2024
Mirek Gosney and headteacher, Jacinta Chaumeron, holding a copy of the Newbury Weekly News about Cecil Newton. Credit: Geoff Gosney

Cecil and his family donated a box of books to the school. All appeared to be over when the children suddenly burst into a chant of Cecil’s name – a moving display of Anglo-French harmony and the mutual respect between young and old.

We spent our last day visiting the Overlord Museum and Omaha Beach – immortalised in the opening scene of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Our arrival was delayed by a seemingly endless convoy of Sherman Tanks – a snapshot of life 80 years ago. We also noted the upside-down road signs around Normandy; not a homage to the disruptive tactics used by occupied citizens against their oppressors as we had initially thought, but the result of a national farming protest.

Bayeux War Cemetery Normandy Commonwealth
The Bayeux War Cemetery, the largest Second World War Commonwealth cemetery in France. Credit: Mirek Gosney

We concluded our visit at the Bayeux War Cemetery, which contains 4,144 Commonwealth burials, 338 unidentified. The young ages of the dead stand out most, a sobering reminder of the privilege of life.

Royal Berkshire Regiment Bayeux War Cemetery France
A soldier of the Royal Berkshire Regiment laid to rest at the Bayeux War Cemetery. Credit: Mirek Gosney

Cecil was medically discharged from the army in November 1944 after a deadly ambush in Germany. Nowadays, he spends his time painting landscapes at his Aldbourne home – some of his pieces hang in the back of The Blue Boar pub.

But what must veterans like Cecil think? As their dwindling number gather to remember the worst war of all time, far-right politics is on the rise in Europe. French far-right parties have just taken nearly 40 per cent of the national vote in the EU Parliament elections.

And a new war now rages on the other side of the continent. And what of how we treat our veterans? They draw crowds wherever they go. They are greeted by presidents and royalty. But they were just ordinary men and women once. The title of Cecil’s book – A Trooper’s Tale – suggests his story is just one of many.

Cecil Newton Mirek Gosney
Cecil Newton and Mirek Gosney. Credit: Geoff Gosney

Cecil is understood to be one of the last two surviving members of his regiment. I asked him how he views his newfound celebrity status. He responded: “If it helps to teach the younger generation the tragedy of those days...”

Cecil Newton Creully
Cecil Newton Primary School pupils greeting Cecil at Creully. Credit: Mirek Gosney
Cecil Newton Creully
Cecil inspiring the next generation. Credit: Mirek Gosney

And one need only see the adoring eyes of the schoolchildren he meets to know what he means. Maybe not now, but in time they will fully appreciate the sacrifice of people like him. Thank you, sir.

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