By Tim Hepher
(Reuters) – English soldier Ken Hay was trapped behind German lines and captured while on night patrol in 1944, days after joining the Allied invasion of Normandy, a turning point in World War Two.
The ambush near the bitterly contested “Hill 112” came during weeks of fighting after the largest seaborne assault in history, which began the liberation of France from Nazi German occupation.
“Thirty of us went out, 16 including my brother got back, five of us got captured and nine got killed,” Hay said.
As many nations around the world commemorate last century’s wars and other conflicts during a weekend of remembrance, preparations are already under way to mark next year’s 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy.
Born in the English county of Essex, Hay took part in the early reinforcements of Juno Beach, which had been stormed under Canadian command on D-Day, June 6. He is now an active ambassador for the nearby British Normandy Memorial, overlooking Gold Beach in the UK sector.
Until two years ago, Britain was alone among allies on the Western front in not having a dedicated Normandy memorial.
An elegant rectangular colonnade now sits on former farmland chosen by veterans themselves at Ver-sur-Mer.
In total, 22,440 servicemen and two servicewomen of more than 30 nationalities who died under British command between June 6 and Aug. 31, 1944, are commemorated on 160 stone columns, as well as a ceremonial wall for those who perished on D-Day itself.
The 30-million-pound ($37 million) memorial was financed by fines levied on banks by the British government, as well as private donations.
Hay, 98, is helping raise funds for an educational pavilion in time for next year’s 80th anniversary, likely to be attended by Britain’s King Charles III and French President Emmanuel Macron.
With the average age of a dwindling number of veterans also 98, it will be the last major chance to gather some of those who helped their fallen comrades push back the Western front.
Unusually, the memorial is laid out by date of death.
“The fact that names are presented chronologically means you get an understanding of how the battle unfolded: the days that are particularly fierce,” said operations manager Sacha Marsac.
“When a whole unit is lost on the same day, their names are all next to each other.”
Neatly carved rows of names, ranks and ages can only hint at the personal stories. Four 16-year-olds presumably exaggerated their age to serve before the age of 18. The majority barely knew their 20s. The oldest: merchant seaman Thomas Hardwyre Milligan, 64.
Soldiers promoted unusually young, like a major of only 28, hint at heavy losses as their superiors were killed.
One name is honoured with special insignia. Corporal Sidney Bates posthumously received Britain’s Victoria Cross for “supreme gallantry” after repeatedly charging a critical German position with a light machine gun before dying of his wounds. He was 23.
A separate monument honours French civilians.
Veterans like Hay refuse to call themselves heroes, deferring to those who fell in battle. Yet many suffered hardship, injury and separation.
“I joined at the age of 17 in 1943, but they wouldn’t call me [to serve] until I was 17-and-a-half; they said I was too young to die,” Hay said in a recent interview.
For six days after capture, he and fellow prisoners were hauled in a cattle wagon to Stalag VIII-D prison camp, now in the Czech Republic. Later he was sent to work in a Polish coal mine.
Then, in early 1945, began a three-month march westwards as German captors moved their prisoners ahead of the advancing Soviet army.
In a forest near Regensburg, Germany, guns approached from the West and the German commanding officer accepted the war was over.
“That was April 20. From Jan. 23, we had done 1,000 miles,” Hay said. “I’ve got a good pair of feet.” ($1 = 0.8182 pounds)
(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Kevin Liffey)