Denise Robertson: Moved by memories of our dwindling number of D-Day war veterans

The 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings will be especially poignant believes Journal columnist Denise Robertson

PA Wire Royal Marine Commandos moving off the Normandy Beaches during the advance inland from "Sword" beach on D-Day
Royal Marine Commandos moving off the Normandy Beaches during the advance inland from "Sword" beach on D-Day

When you’re reading this I’ll be standing on a Normandy beach interviewing a veteran of the D-Day landings.

He is 94; 24 when he went to Normandy and I’m interested in what he will recall of that momentous day. This 70th anniversary will be poignant.

By the time the 80th comes around it is unlikely there will be any veterans surviving – no one to tell us what courage it took to leave the landing craft and run towards enemy fire.

I went to those beaches three years ago. Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah and Omaha. The last two were the beaches where Americans landed.

I stood on Pegasus Bridge and touched one of the guns which escaped bombardment and was able to mow down men as they landed. What must it be like to survive and return 70 years later?

I’ve re­­searched Operation Overlord for novels. I know that men had to write a farewell letter to be given to their next of kin in the event of their death.

I know they were told they must not stop to help a comrade if he fell at their side.

They had to fill in the will form in their paybook. When you read of the anxiety behind the scenes over weather forecasts and the arguments over dates and strategy it was a marvel it ever succeeded, and the BBC could announce: “This is the greatest seaborne invasion in history.

“The sea is teeming with ships. Fast-moving torpedo boats, warships, merchantmen, minesweepers, landing craft and barges. This is an armada, and up above them the RAF are protecting the ships. History is being made this day.”

:: Last week I took part in television discussion with a mother who lost a dearly loved son when he was six years old.

Her grief was overwhelming: “I only knew him for six years but they were the best six years of my life.” She has assuaged her grief by having a photo of him digitally advanced using technology originally designed to aid the search for missing children such as Madeleine McCann and Ben Needham.

“I had to provide lots and lots of photos of my son, me and his dad and his sister so they could develop an image of him as he would have been at 11 years old.”

It has given her enormous comfort, although some members of her family find the image too painful to view. She will repeat the process in a few years to see him as a young adult.

It cost her £70 in 2010. I felt she was absolutely entitled to do what she did although I expressed a fear that, for some people, the process might become a kind of torture, reminding them of what they had lost. Her son’s condition was so rare that only four other children in the UK were suffering from it at the time.

The Bubble Foundation, of which I am patron, supports research into childhood ill health and is turning its attention to some of these rare conditions which kill too few children to make headlines but cause individual misery.

Thanks to the Journal’s recent campaign and the generosity of its readers, we are able to continue the research for the time being.

One day I hope there will be more mothers who can treasure their children and fewer who seek comfort in photographs, enhanced or not.

:: The BBC’s rolling news service is a godsend when you’re alone in a hotel room and you can’t sleep.

At 5am one morning last week I was watching the gardens of the Chelsea Flower Show being dismantled. I have often wondered what happened to all that splendour.

Now I know that each garden is lovingly taken apart and transported to a new destination. I watched one silver medal winner loaded on to a lorry and sent to a college for students with autism. Another was destined for a homeless shelter.

Nothing is wasted. Even the topsoil is dug up and recycled. But rolling news does exactly that. What goes around comes around. I watched the same gardens dismantled at six and again at seven.

By the time the car came to take me to the studio I was quite glad to say goodbye to Chelsea, at least until next year.

:: I’ve been widowed twice by the effects of smoking tobacco, so you can imagine how I welcome anything which helps people overcome smoking addiction.

I enthused over electronic cigarettes, have even bought them as gifts, and see them as a huge boon to public health.

The battery-powered devices release nicotine in a vapour instead of smoke and contain fewer
toxins.

The World Health Organization says tobacco kills nearly six million people a year.

On its website, however, it says smokers should be “strongly advised” not to turn to e-cigarettes until proven safe. I agree with the doctors and policy experts who are urging the WHO to embrace them as lifesavers.

However, I listened carefully to the BMA’s Dr Vivienne Nathanson when she pointed out that, as yet, we don’t know their long-term effects, and there is a danger that young people may take up smoking them in the belief that they are completely safe.

With tobacco smoke claiming a life every six seconds, I still think the tar-free, electronic alternative is the best thing at our disposal – but let’s keep an eye on them.

Once upon a time we welcomed cigarettes as a boon.

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