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Navy Normandy veterans’ VIP day with the RAF

30 October 2023
Four Normandy veterans were treated to a unique day out reviving wartime memories thanks to the help of a sailor determined to honour the men of 1944.

Former sailors Henry Rice and Stan Ford, ex-Royal Marine Jack Quinn and Ken Hay, who served with 4th Dorset Regiment, were royally treated as they spent a day in Lincolnshire learning about the RAF’s contribution to victory in WW2.

The veterans – aged between 97 and 99, and all Legion d’Honneur recipients – were accompanied by Warrant Officer 1 Baz Firth, who frequently volunteers to help Normandy heroes remember and honour wartime comrades.

Baz, who serves at the RN Leadership Academy based at Britannia Royal Naval College, is a trustee of the Spirit of Normandy Trust, a charity which supports veterans of the 1944 campaign from welfare assistance to trips out – including returning to France to pay their respects.

This time, the trip focused on the efforts of Bomber Command in particular, courtesy of private tours first of their new memorial/museum near Lincoln, then at RAF Coningsby, home to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and one of only two airworthy Lancaster bombers still left.

As former sailors/marines/soldiers, the four veterans learned about the terrible toll of bomber crews between 1939 and 1945 – 58,000 dead, honoured at the International Bomber Command Centre.

They – and Baz – were also surprised to learn that the roll of honour and ‘walls of names’ at the site includes at least 11 Royal Navy fatalities, mostly killed in 1940 when the Fleet Air Arm loaned desperately-needed aircrew to the RAF.

As well as raining destruction on Nazi-occupied Europe, towards the end of the war the RAF delivered 7,000 tonnes of food to the Netherlands, where one million Dutch were suffering from food shortages and starvation, resorting to eating pets, rodents and tulip bulbs. The food drop – Operation Manna – was the first such humanitarian mission and, outside Holland, is invariably eclipsed by the horrors/devastation of Dresden.

Lancaster bombers formed the backbone of the force dropping deliverance on the Netherlands. The sight of the BBMF’s four-engined bomber brought former soldier Ken to tears for the memories it evoked.

Captured in the fighting liberating north-west Europe, Ken and fellow prisoners of war were marched around Germany to prevent them falling into Allied hands.

It was really special and a very memorable day indeed.

Warrant Officer 1 Baz Firth

The speed of the Allied advance eventually caught up with Ken’s column of PoWs, liberating the men. An airlift, Operation Exodus, was arranged, bringing more than 15,000 former prisoners, including Ken, back to the UK.

On May 4 1945, he climbed aboard a Lancaster for the flight home and climbed up to look inside the BBMF bomber – the first time he’d been close to one since that day.  

“He told us all of the sheer sight and sound of all those aircraft that took part and broke down, apologising saying he was just overwhelmed remembering it all,” said Baz.

For 40 minutes, the veterans were joined on their tour of Coningsby – which included a look at a Typhoon fighter as well as Battle of Britain vintage Spitfires and Hurricanes – by the head of the RAF, Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton, sharing their wartime exploits and stories.

And the veterans did the same with memorial flight engineers over a brew, before signing the flight’s ‘Lest We Forget’.

The visit to Lincolnshire concluded with evening dinner with memorial flight and Coningsby personnel.

“We learned so much from the visit and it was really humbling to see how everyone we met paid their respects to the veterans and could not do enough for them,” Baz said.

“It was really special and a very memorable day indeed.”

Baz is now looking towards the 80th anniversary when he’s due to take 14 veterans back to the beaches – potentially for the last time, sadly, as the final major commemoration, making it a highly-charged visit which will be captured by Chris Terrill, the documentary maker behind a string of series on the RN including HMS Queen Elizabeth.

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