50th Anniversary of D-Day 6 June 1994
Philippa and I set off for Southampton on Saturday afternoon 4th June 1994. The weather was wet and drizzly all the way and not a very promising omen for the weekend. Arriving at the quayside, the disposal of the car to Andrews and embarkation went with minimal delay. Our cabin in C Deck was eventually found and had the necessary facilities plus a porthole.
The weather had cleared when we went on deck after dinner and we had a beautiful cruise down Southampton Water, past Fawley Refinery which shone with a thousand lights against the dark sky.
We woke on Sunday with Canberra at anchor in the Solent, in bright sunshine with a strong breeze. QE2 was nearby and the huge aircraft carrier USS George Washington likewise. Countless ships both Merchant and Naval were at anchor as far as the eye could see, together with very many light craft, of every size and shape, sailing about between the ships. Ships passing close by included HMS Edinburgh, a destroyer, and HMS Hecla a survey ship. Towards midday we were able to spot the Trinity House vessel Patricia, emerging for the direction of Portsmouth which we knew heralded the arrival of HMY Britannia. They made their way past us on the port side to proceed a little further and then return quite close on the starboard side. We had excellent views of Britannia as she passed. She was escorted by a swarm of small craft whose manoeuvrings in the very choppy water made us wonder how many collisions were avoided. Two police launches kept the way clear for Patricia and Britannia.
After HMY Britannia had disappeared to the southeast, we in due course up-anchored and proceeded in the same direction as did QE2 and others. We passed various ships including HM Sub Ursula flying a rear admiral flag. We had hoped to see a fly past but it didn't happen, or not when we were on deck, but we did see a well preserved Fairey Swordfish which flew around for a while.
We were now heading out for France and in mid afternoon there was a service of Remembrance on the top deck of Canberra, after which wreaths were cast overboard, in fact the very strong wind carried them away in the air for some distance, before finally falling into the sea. We felt sorry for the bugler blowing the last post, as possibly due to the windy conditions, he had great difficulty getting his notes. Sometime after this we had gone down to our cabin, when we heard the captain announce that the RAF Lancaster was about to discharge its load of poppies alongside the ship. We rushed up on deck too late to see the aircraft, but not too late to see a cloud of poppy petals descending into the sea and onto the deck of the ship. Later we went below again, only to be told that the Lancaster was about to make a further low pass. Up we rushed again in time - just - to see the aircraft disappearing, but - alas - not in time to photograph it! There were no further notable events until our arrival towards evening at Cherbourg, where we berthed near QE2 and where Silver Cloud and Seaborne Pride were also tied up.
As there were several different services in the memory of D-Day which people wished to attend, the RBL office had a considerable problem working out the allocation of people to the coaches, of which forty had been found. This was aggravated by numbers of people changing their minds as to their preferred destination. Lists of times and coach numbers were supposed to have been posted by lunch time on the 5th, but did not eventually appear until about 10 o'clock in the evening. We had booked a call for 5:00 am to be safe, but in fact 6:00 am would have sufficed, and we boarded our coach (no. 24) for Bayeux at approx. 7:15 am The service was due to start at 11:00 am, but we were commanded to be in place by 9:45. Traffic was rigidly controlled with police on duty at every intersection. It was a grey drizzly morning, but got no worse and we didn't use our umbrella, although it was a bit damp under foot. The cemetery, like all the others was beautifully kept, but I fear it will need a lot of care and attention to bring it back to it's original state after the many thousand feet which trampled over the grass that day.
We had rather a long wait before the VIP's started to arrive each with their entourage - Baladeur, Major and then eventually about half an hour late, Her Majesty and Mitterand. When Mr Major and his wife were passing down the aisle in front of us, a few chaps behind me raised shouts of "Chelsea"! The marshalling was done here efficiently by the Royal Engineers with the RAF at intervals keeping the central aisle clear. They were commanded by a very smart warrant officer who was however somewhat out smarted by the arrival of the commanding figure of the RSM 1st. Bt. Welsh Guards! whose photograph I took. In due course we had a short but moving service with a reading from Pilgrims Progress by the Duke of Edinburgh, which he did excellently. After the wreath laying and the departure of the VIP's, I decided to photograph the wreaths on the Cenotaph and made my way there through the throng. When I got there I saw a chap with gunner badges, including a small TT badge. I asked him which 50 Division Regiment he was with, to which he answered 90th. I said "My name is Oliver Perks and I was with 90th", to which he replied, saying his name, which I didn't remember, and saying "Here is Bill Arthy", pointing to a jolly little man, standing by him. Bill is the secretary of our Regimental Old Comrades Association and does a wonderful job keeping in touch all round, and circulating a regular newsletter. I had never met him but we have corresponded regularly. This was a most amazing and happy chance meeting among so many people.
We then went back to the coach (after a brief acquaintance of a french public loo!) and consumed our packed lunch and then set off for Arromanches. There were considerable delays here as Arromanches is a village with narrow streets and about 150 coaches were trying to get there and unload their passengers. Eventually we were waved into a big yard, a mile or so from Arromanches, to await our turn in the village. We were told where we would eventually be picked up after the parade.
The arrangements for the parade were made by the Royal Logistical Corps (new to most of us as it has only recently been raised by the amalgamation of the Royal Corps of Transport [our time RASC] and the Royal Ordnance Corps and others). They gathered us as we arrived into divisions of 200-300, regardless of service or regiment, and marched us ten abreast (or thereabouts!) on to the beach. At one stage we were given orders by a constable in the Metropolitan Police, who seemed an incongruous but authoritative individual. I believe he was one of the RBL standard bearers. We were told that when orders were given, we were Division Seven. Soon after this a CSM of the Welsh Guards took over and at once addressed us as Division Eight, at which, as one man, we all shouted back 'Division Seven!' He was obviously unused to this sort of insubordination, but he took it in very good part. We marched down onto the sand assisted by one of the bands which included the Royal Artillery, Royal Marines, Army Air Corps, Parachute Regiment and the combined bands of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment and Royal Anglian Regiment.
Marching in the sand was not easy and we were glad to have taken the RBL advice to wear strong shoes as it was very wet under foot. We formed up in an open square with the bands in the middle opposite to the Saluting Base and after a while a party of Royals arrived and proceeded to walk round and talk to individuals. Princess Margaret stopped to chat to the man in front of me and seemed interested, and to be enjoying the occasion. Soon we saw the Queen's helicopter fly over bringing her back from Omaha and soon she appeared from behind us in her open Range Rover with the Duke of Edinburgh, and took her place in the Saluting Base. Speeches followed by the Mayor of Arromanches and Her Majesty, both of which were exactly right for the occasion, and were applauded as such. At some stage a Royal Salute was fired from one of the warships offshore, but I can't say which. We then marched past in rather ragged order - keeping ten abreast marching on wet sand is not easy! However, it was a fantastic experience and quite unforgettable.
We marched back into Arromanches and fell out and, while waiting for Philippa to re-join me, I enjoyed coffee and a cake by kind permission of The Salvation Army, and chatted with three Chelsea Pensioners, who had marched in the column ahead of ours. At this stage there was some confusion, as the coaches filtered down from their holding point to pick up passengers with people shouting out coach numbers. Our Canberra coaches all had their numbers but - unknown to us - all the coaches had been given a number relating to this ceremony. It took us some time to discover that we were now 54! After a while, we were marshalled by our Goanese steward from Canberra, who had come to dish out the packed lunches, and a member of our coach party who obviously had staff experience. However, some hours elapsed before we regained our coach. Fortunately, the weather had improved throughout the day and at Arromanches it was bright and dry, becoming sunny towards the end of the day. We eventually got back to Canberra at about 10:00 pm and were served the usual excellent meal. Breakfast, we were told was 7:00 am, but we had the advantage that clocks went back an hour, to return to UK time. It had been a very long day but packed with interest, and surprisingly enough, fun!
The following morning, when we were alongside at Southampton, it was announced that newspapers were available. I thought I would get one, but Philippa said "What do you want one for now? There will be one waiting at home!" I said that for the sake of 30p, I would like something to look at until we were able to disembark. I bought a copy of The Times and found that the huge front page photograph (see above) showed our division marching past, and I was able to identify myself quite clearly!
P&O did us proud. The captain held a cocktail party on Sunday for all the passengers - in two shifts - and we were received and announced and hands shaken. He told us that Lord Stirling, the P&O Chairman was paying for our wine that night, which we greatly appreciated and every one was given a large commemorative paper weight.
We thought Canberra was a superb ship and could hardly believe that it was over 30 years old and due for replacement very soon.
The whole trip was a wonderful experience which we will never forget.
Oliver H. Perks