Solemnity or fun? Reaction to D-Day anniversary stuns British government

April 28, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Britain is in a dither over whether D-Day should be celebrated, commemorated or perhaps consecrated.

And once again Prime Minister John Major comes off looking like a slapstick comic who couldn't avoid slipping on a banana peel in the Sahara desert.

British D-Day veterans rose up in a huff when they found a 50th anniversary home-front jamboree in Hyde Park insufficiently serious. The veterans felt affronted by such frivolities as '40s dance competitions, sand-castle-building contests and Spam fritter cook-offs.

The Royal British Legion and the Normandy Veterans Association made a sharp distinction between sober commemoration and frivolous celebration.

D-Day should not be celebrated with "glitz, fireworks and street parties, which are totally inappropriate to commemorate some thousands of our men who landed on the beaches," Ted Hobson, the leader of the Legion, said on British Broadcasting Corp. Radio.

The veterans said the country should be mourning the 36,000 British soldiers who died on the beaches and during the Normandy campaign.

The vets also complained that they hadn't been consulted.

It didn't help that the firm that got paid 62,000 pounds (about $93,000) to cook up D-Day ideas is lead by Sir Tim Bell, who was knighted for his public relations services to Margaret Thatcher.

Sir Tim was quoted, somewhat unfortunately, dismissing the veterans' fears out of hand:

"If somebody wants to go and mess the party up by moaning and groaning, that's their problem, not mine."

But Dame Vera Lynn, the patron saint of World War II song, and Winston S. Churchill, a Conservative member of Parliament who is a grandson of the wartime prime minister, joined the vets in their protest.

Dame Vera, now 77, is still beloved by the old boys as the "Forces Sweetheart" who warbled "We'll Meet Again" and "White Cliffs of Dover" throughout the war years.

"The accent should have been more on remembering the sacrifices," she said.

John Major's Conservative government beat a precipitate retreat.

Peter Brooke, the heritage secretary, who is promoting the home-front activities, met twice with veterans organizations earlier this month and in effect gave them a veto over the Hyde Park activities. He asked them to bring their ideas to a third

meeting.

"My concern was for the veterans to make their comments on how they thought the event could be appropriately framed and conducted," he said, a bit belatedly.

The Ministry of Defense, which is handling the "military" events on D-Day, bowed out of any involvement with the "jollities" in Hyde Park.

The ministry is organizing the June 6 commemoration, when Queen Elizabeth II, President Clinton and a host of world leaders will mark the anniversary.

World War II fills a special need in a certain corner of the British psyche: their finest hour at the end of empire.

What once was Great Britain has been shrinking ever since: The Archbishop of Canterbury called it "an ordinary little country" now.

World War II was Britain's last great war and, as the Evening Standard put it: "D-Day was the absolute triumph of British arms and British courage."

Ironically, a poll by the Independent found that a third of British voters don't know what happened on June 6, 1944.

Forty-six percent under 34 didn't have a clue. Even among those over 55, who were at least alive on D-Day, one in five got it wrong.

But all those asked were strongly in favor of the proposition that the ceremonies should be "solemn."

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