The fallen and the frail
Seventy years ago today more than 150,000 men took to the shores of Normandy in France. They landed at beaches codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Wind threw the landing crafts off course, and gunfire rained down as the allied troops advanced.
Together with German forces and civilians, around 9,000 died that day.
D-Day was the culmination of almost a year's planning. Delayed first by the need for more landing crafts, and then again by high seas and fierce storms, in the early hours of 5 June General Eisenhower decided to launch the invasion.
That day at a birthday party in Cosham two unlikely people, Harold Checketts and Jean Farren, knew what virtually no one else did. Both naval meteorologists, they had come off shift having plotted the weather charts for the next 24 hours. They knew what was coming.
For days soldiers had waited in their forward positions along the south coast of England, prepared to move, but stalled from action. They had packed their bags, buttoned their tunics, oiled their guns and were stood down. There was a mix of fear, nervousness and anticipation.
As Cyril Cook, now 90, of the Parachute Regiment said: "People often ask: 'Weren't you afraid?' What a stupid question! Of course we were afraid, but it was a job and you just got on with it and it was the right job to do."
War is messy, it is ugly and it is hard. From my perch 70 years on, it is easy to skirt the valour and undermine the sacrifice. War is not something to glorify or celebrate, but it must be remembered. We also look on from history remembering the success, that D-Day was a decisive staging point on the way to victory.
As the world looks back in remembrance, frail men stand on sand once washed red. And one 89-year-old veteran recreates the parachute jump he took 70 years before.
Speaking at today’s commemorations Barack Obama said: “We come to tell the story of the men and women who did it, so it remains seared into the memory of the future world. We tell this story for the old soldiers who pull themselves a little straighter today for those who never made it home.”
When we think of the men who laid down their lives, when we, too, stand a little straighter in remembrance of men who gave it all so that we could have freedom, we can see that their deaths helped achieve something. But it wasn't always that way.
In the Church calendar we are between Ascension and Pentecost. Between when Jesus returned to heaven and when his Holy Spirit came to the disciples waiting in the upper room. They had travelled so far, they had walked with him through his ministry, watched him die and rise again, placed their fingers in the holes that scarred his hands. He promised he would send his spirit to be with them. And they waited. The anticipation and the nervousness. They were likely wondering: ‘what if those who opposed Jesus, who executed him, what if they come for us?’
We can look at their prayerful diligence and know that the Holy Spirit came, that thousands joined them and that the Church was born. Looking back we see what God was doing, but at the time doubt, nervousness and anticipation mix into a cocktail of uncertainty.
In my life I know I see clearly with hindsight and see how things worked out, and yet, I am often overcome by anxiety in the present. But unlike the soldiers who trod on the beaches in France 70 years ago we know how this story ends. Pegasus Bridge was a key target at the start of the invasion, and holding onto the bridge over the Caen Canal integral to the success of the campaign. Carl Beech from Christian Vision for Men reflects on the sacrifice men gave that day, and the ultimate sacrifice Jesus gave two millennia before.
We live in the in-between, as the disciples did between Ascension and Pentecost. Between the victory that Christ's death and resurrection assured, and the culmination of the coming of the kingdom of God that we still eagerly await. And like the soldiers on D-Day, we are not idle while we wait.