RNAS Yeovilton Base Warrant Officer returns to Normandy

Base Warrant Officer from Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Yeovilton takes 5 veterans to Normandy.

Our Base Warrant Officer (BWO) and a Trustee of the Spirit of Normandy Trust (SONT), Warrant Officer 1 (WO1) Baz Firth MBE travelled to Normandy with five Normandy Veterans and a Normandy Veteran Widow for the D-Day 75 commemorative events.

On the 5 June 19 at Colleville Montgomery a memorial service was attended by over 400 Veterans, military personnel and guests.

Upon arrival, his group mingled with those attending and regaled their stories of 75 years ago, their pride of their families and friends was overwhelming.

The one thing that will stay with me from the Pegasus Bridge visit was when a group of local teenagers asked to meet the Veterans and were in tears as they thanked each of them for what they did 75 years ago.

Warrant Officer 1 Baz Firth

Leading the Standard Bearers to the memorial statue. The Standard that he proudly carried was the original White Ensign that was landed by the Beachmaster on Sword Beach at 0800 on June 6, 1944. 

The ceremony was attended by the Mayor, General the Lord Dannatt, the SONT’s Patron and Field Marshall Montgomery's Grandson.  The flypast was precisely timed with the Last Post.

WO1 Firth said; “This is the greatest honour I have had had across 29 years of service. It was honestly so humbling to be amongst so many Veterans that were on Sword Beach 75 years ago, a huge honour to be involved.

“I am proud to say that the tears flowed as the piper played and again as Normandy Veteran Len Hobbs (95) read aloud the exaltation.”

Wreaths were laid before the parade marched off with the pipes and drums in full swing through the streets lined with spectators applauding. 

At the end of the march Veteran Frank Baugh (95) and WO1 Firth continued together to Sword Beach.  Frank is the only remaining person alive who saw that White Ensign on the beach 75 years ago.

After the Veterans enjoyed a Vin d’Honneur, the group travelled to a special reception as guests of the Prix Liberté Awards where 900 teenagers and staff gave the Veterans a ten-minute standing ovation.

Once seated, the Veterans was presented with a special commemorative coin from selected teenagers.

On the 6 June 19 the group travelled to the Bayeux Cemetery for the memorial service which was attended by Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall, and the Prime Minister amongst other dignitaries.

Hearing the Veterans and the Chairman from SONT address the attendees was very moving.

Frank Baugh (95) said; “My most abiding memory of that day is of seeing our boys. We had been talking to them minutes before they were cut down with machine gun fire.

“They would fall into the water, floating face down, and we couldn’t get them out.’, ‘We couldn’t help them and that is my most abiding memory and I can’t forget it.”

WO1 Firth was accompanied by his son James (aged 11 and the youngest person in the group) and together they laid wreaths for Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton and Birchfield Primary School.

A memorial service at Arromanches followed led by Rev. Major Mandy Reynolds and General the Lord Dannatt laid a wreath. The 7 June 19 saw the group head to Utah Beach so that Veteran Wally Beall (95) could lay a wreath.

Wally was an LCT (Landing Craft Tank) driver and landed nine Sherman tanks at Utah as well as a host of troops. Wally said; “It was horrific to land the first crew to see them taken down by machine gun fire only to return and pick up the next crew to drop off, all of whom did not know what they were about to face.”

Wally did his duty and continued knowing what the crews faced is something that haunts him to this day. A service to commemorate those men that he took to the beach was given and before leaving.

The group then headed to Omaha Beach and the cemetery where 9387 US military are laid to rest. The crowds gathered to listen to the special service the group held where Chief Brian Richardson USN Retd laid a wreath on behalf of Task Unit Bruiser and SEAL Team 3 alongside Veteran Wally Beall and Len Hobbs, and SONT Trustee Peter Lankester, former 845 Squadron Commanding Officer, gave the exaltation.

The 8 Jun started at Pegasus Bridge where the Veterans met with comrades at the famous café as guests of Arlette Gondree and Margaret Brotheridge the daughter of Den Brotheridge who was sadly the first Allied casualty on D-Day.

WO1 Firth said; “The one thing that will stay with me from the Pegasus Bridge visit was when a group of local teenagers asked to meet the Veterans and were in tears as they thanked each of them for what they did 75 years ago.”

Following a short visit to the Merville Gun Battery the final destination of the week was to Ranville Cemetery to pay respects to Private Elwyn Davies who is the Great Uncle of WO1 Firth’s wife Caitlin (46).

Elwyn parachuted into Pegasus on 6 Jun with 6 Airborne Division but died ten days later aged 19. WO1 Firth said: “It was clearly a very emotional occasion and I was immensely proud of my son who laid a wreath, rose, and cross at the grave of his Great, Great Uncle.

“We walked around the cemetery and found the grave of a 16-year-old. I still can't fathom that the young boy was only five years older than my son.

“All the cemeteries this week made us reflect, it was very humbling to hear Brian explain to James that it is James’ generation and further down the line, James’ son’s generation who hold the responsibility to never forget.

“As Brian turned around, arm extended to show the scale of the graves at Omaha he explained that the graves represent the cost of freedom and that if we ever forget then that is the cost that would need to be paid again. Never forget.”

With the return to Normandy nearly complete, there was another heart-warming moment on the journey to the ferry as Normandy Veteran Bob Conway (94) said; “I don’t want to go home, it’s been a wonderful week, can we just stay?”

As WO1 Firth played Bob’s favourite Nat King Cole songs for him and his wife of 44 years, Gwen, he recalls; “As I drove them to the ferry I caught myself in tears as I looked at them in the rear-view mirror as they both sang 'Unforgettable' to each other, holding hands as Bob said, 'I love you' and Gwen replied, 'I love you too Darling', probably one of the sweetest couples I have ever met.”