Kiwis pay private tribute to D-Day dead

By Catherine Field in Paris

New Zealand delegation to 70th anniversary to meet Queen at international ceremony

NZ veterans held a private ceremony yesterday at Bayeux ahead of a meeting today with the Queen. Photo / AP
NZ veterans held a private ceremony yesterday at Bayeux ahead of a meeting today with the Queen. Photo / AP

The New Zealand delegation to the D-Day commemorations held a private service at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Bayeux yesterday.

They visited each of the graves of the eight New Zealanders buried there - seven RNZAF and one RNZN - and laid a wreath.

Early tomorrow, the nine New Zealand veterans will meet the Queen at the international ceremony at Ouistreham (Sword Beach).

One of them, Roger MacClean from Auckland, has been chosen to attend the official lunch at Chateau de Benouville, near Ouistreham, hosted by the French President, Francois Hollande.

Mr MacClean served as a gunner on board a ship on D-Day.

One veteran from each of the 17 Allied nations which participated in the Normandy landings will be present at the lunch, which will be a small gathering of only 80 people.

Heads of state and government will be there, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Russian President Vladimir Putin, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, King Harald V of Norway, the Queen, US President Barack Obama and Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg, as well as the Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae.

Chateau Benouville has been owned by the department of Calvados since 1927. It was initially a maternity hospital run by nuns for young women in difficulties.

In the northern summer of 1940, the head of the maternity hospital, Lea Vion, helped French soldiers to escape capture.

She was an active member of the French Resistance and she would transmit radio messages to the Allies from the chateau giving them information about German troop movements.

The chateau was undamaged during the battle for Normandy.

In 1980 the maternity hospital was closed down, the chateau was renovated and it has since been opened to the public.

An official at the French President's Elysee Palace said the decision by the French Government to hold the lunch at Chateau Benouville was based on several factors: it was a fine example of neoclassical late 18th century architecture and very close to Pegasus Bridge, the crucial crossing captured early on D-Day on the main road, preventing German reinforcements getting to the landing beaches. It also allowed France to highlight the role of the Resistance in the liberation of France.

Tonight, at the Service of Remembrance at the Commonwealth cemetery in Bayeux, the Prince of Wales will read the lesson and lay a wreath at the Cross of Sacrifice.

Also present will be the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls.

There are 4144 graves of Commonwealth war dead - 338 of those unknown - at the cemetery. There are also 511 known and 50 unknown non-Commonwealth soldiers buried there, including many German war dead.

Across the road from the cemetery is a memorial with the names of the 1800 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the early stages of the battle for Normandy.

Gustav was a WWII tweeter

They were the original tweeters - pigeons who acted as vital message-carriers to relay urgent news about the D-Day landings.

Thousands of pigeon fanciers gave their birds to the war effort to bring back news on how the troops were progressing.

The first news report of the D-Day landings came from Gustav, an RAF homing pigeon released by Reuters news agency correspondent Montague Taylor.

Taylor crossed the Channel with Allied forces and a number of birds to send news of significant developments back to the office via the RAF.

The message, which had been strapped to Gustav's leg, read: "We are just twenty miles [32km] or so off the beaches.

"First assault troops landed 0750. Signal says no interference from enemy gunfire on beach ... Steaming steadily in formation.

"Lightnings, Typhoons, Fortresses crossing since 0545. No enemy aircraft seen."

Gustav travelled 240km across the Channel in five hours and 16 minutes to his pigeon loft at RAF Thorney Island in Hampshire.

The bird earned the PDSA Dickin Medal, regarded as the animal Victoria Cross. Four pigeons and an Alsatian called Brian received the Dickin Medal for their D-Day actions.


- NZ Herald

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