James Sunderland is the Member of Parliament for Bracknell.
At a remarkable event last Summer, the world came to Portsmouth for the start of the D-Day75 commemorations. In what barely seems a year ago, 5 June 2019 proved to a very special occasion, and one that I will never forget.
As one of the lucky few to be present, I had been invited as a member of the Army Engagement Group to host the dignitaries and to play my small part in honouring our World War Two veterans. These living legends had travelled back to the Solent in their hundreds, proudly representing the allied nations who had sent thousands more to land in Normandy on that fateful day in June 1944.
Many did of course pay the ultimate price 75 years ago, and many more have since fallen at the final hurdle without getting the chance to come to Portsmouth, but their magnificent old friends were still there in force.
To my shame, I had anticipated the event to be little more than another public duty, but I was in fact blown away by the occasion and completely overcome by the privilege I felt at being there. Nothing in my 26 years of military service had prepared me for the emotion of that day, and nothing has ever come close to the pride I felt at being amongst true heroes, either before or since. Lest indeed we forget that we may never see their like again, or fail to honour them.
By a quirk of fate, my colleagues and I found ourselves watching in awe as the largest gathering of world leaders in the UK since 2012 joined us for a late breakfast. Sensing that we may have been in the wrong place, it was nevertheless humbling to welcome Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, Scott Morrison, Angela Merkel and so many others to the VIP tent.
But it soon became clear that they were not the VIPs at all. Even when Her Majesty the Queen, the Prince of Wales, and President of the United States and First Lady quietly took their seats, attentions were firmly elsewhere and rightly so.
Under blue skies and beautiful sunshine, those fantastic veterans stood out like burning gold. Sitting tall in their magnificent rows, resplendent in their ageless uniforms and with faces contorted by emotion, there was not a dry eye in the audience as the formalities began. Sentimentality raged unabated as wartime memories, songs, sketches and poems were projected from the stage.
Gifted actors spoke movingly about the painful decisions that Eisenhower had taken to launch the invasion in poor weather. Theresa May spoke hauntingly about Captain NWG Skinner, a member of my own Corps, who had died on Sword Beach just after writing a heartfelt letter to his wife. And how many in the audience could fail to feel the hairs on the back of their neck during the RAF fly-past?
As someone who was there, I would have defied anyone not to have become filled with pride as the veterans themselves climbed onto the stage to poignant applause, a grateful audience reaching out to every single one.
Once the formalities had concluded, the assembled guests mingled like close family members on a timeless afternoon. With all men and women born equal, the veterans bashfully accepted their seats at lunch, as world leaders, politicians, celebrities, journalists, military personnel, and even royalty all took their turn to pay homage. Taking care not to compromise their obvious frailty, hands were tightly held as tales of daring and wonder were exchanged.
In the twinkle of their eyes, so many secrets and emotions lurked well beyond the reach of any of the guests. For some, these will never to be told, but for others, they were content to speak of their painful burden at being the lucky ones. Indeed, that strange combination of pride, humility and war guilt, however misplaced we might think it to be, is a raw human emotion that only a veteran would truly understand. And this will always stay with them.
But here they were, superbly dressed and impossibly smart, with straight lines on their trousers, immaculate black shoes, old Regimental ties, embroidered blazers, and their perfectly polished medals glittering in the sun like diamonds. Some were in wheelchairs, some were walking with sticks and a few were able to move unassisted, but all had beautiful, beaming smiles in the knowledge that their efforts had not been in vain and had not been forgotten, at least for the day. And my own heart went out to them as never before.
Years earlier, as those brave men attacked the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944, they could not have conceived the perils that lay ahead or how long the war would last.
So, as we approach the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe this week, please spare a thought for those who gave so much to protect our freedoms. Whilst we face a very different kind of enemy today in Covid-19, this will not prevent us from commemorating VE Day in the most public and gregarious manner possible. Indeed, adversity is nothing new for the British people and we will continue to adapt and overcome, even if we cannot enjoy the street parties, parades or concerts that would otherwise have been held.
So please decorate your houses, workplaces and cars; put up buntings and fly flags; get behind local schemes and make as much noise as you can. If you are so inclined, do spare a thought for our ancestors during the two minutes silence at 11am and raise a glass during the ‘Nation’s Toast to the Heroes of WW2’ at 3pm. And perhaps above all, clap our heroes for victory at 7.45pm until you can clap no more. Our veterans from every conflict deserve our thanks but those who remain with us from the time of VE Day are particularly special.
Back in 1944, British Forces set forth against a determined enemy and defeated it against all the odds. Over 75 years later, we face a very different, but no less dangerous foe. So, amid our battle against a hidden virus, please do commemorate VE Day 75 in style on Friday, in the same way that we will no doubt mark our future victory against Covid-19 in the streets again (not least by proudly celebrating our front-line workers).
As our magical war-time generation continues to prove, fortune always favours the brave.