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D-Day Veterans are guests of honour at exhibition launch
Veterans of the D-Day landings in 1944 that began the liberation of Nazi-occupied France have been immortalised in a new photography exhibition marking the 75th anniversary of the assault on Normandy. Entitled SIX.SIX.FORTYFOUR, the collection of beautifully photographed and reflective images has been unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. And there to attend the unveiling were a number of remarkable guests of honour - actual D-Day veterans whose images help make up the exhibition.
Robert Purver, who took part in D-Day, alongside his photo
The poignant exhibition, which comprises 29 black and white photos of both former servicemen and civilians involved in D-Day, has been launched to commemorate 75 years since the Normandy beach landings on 6 June 1944. Officially known as Operation Overlord but codenamed Operation Neptune, the D-Day landings represented the largest seaborne invasion in history. The unveiling of SIX.SIX.FORTYFOUR marks the culmination of a five-year project by photographer Stuart Wood who set out to capture the true essence of service and sacrifice free of regiment or rank. Sadly, nine of the 29 veterans who were photographed for the collection of portraits and photos over the past few years have subsequently passed away.
The exhibition, which is free to enter, will remain on display within the Arboretum at Alrewas, near Lichfield, until 1 September 2019. Among the D-Day veterans featured in the collection, and who was present at the launch of the exhibition, was Robert Purver who was one of the first soldiers to land at Juno Beach on June 6 alongside Canadian forces. Robert, now aged 94, from South Derbyshire, had the vital job of identifying the escape routes off the beach during heavy enemy fire. He told me: "The firing started as soon as the ramp went down on the landing craft. You are not prepared for what you got. It was not very nice and there were quite a lot of Canadians killed. I was put on reconnaissance to find out where the firing was coming from and easy access to get off the beaches. When the Canadians went on I had to stay on the beach to help load off supplies and find out where the enemy snipers were until my regiment came later." Robert is full of praise for the exhibition but is clearly still affected by the events of D-Day and beyond. "It doesn't leave you," he adds. "It still affects me and is still very fresh in the memory. I still have post-traumatic stress today."
Arthur Jones who drove a tank aged just 18 after landing in Normandy
Also present at the exhibition unveiling, and to see his own portrait, was 93 year old Arthur Jones from Wolverhampton who landed at Gold beach two days after D-Day. Aged just 18, he was with the forward delivery squadron when he was ordered to replace a Sherman tank, and became its driver. At one point during the conflict, his tank became stranded with damage to its track and he was forced to hole up with a French family for three weeks before he could rejoin his unit. Away from the front line, other people were working diligently behind the scenes to ensure D-Day went to plan. They included Nanza Downey from Birmingham, whose photo also forms part of the exhibition, who served as a wireless operator copying German coded messages which were then passed on to Bletchley Park. Nanza was working the night shift at 3am on 6 June 1944 when British army intelligence officers suddenly arrived. She said: "The German messages were normally coded in blocks of five letters, except on this morning. The army officer standing behind me said they were sending in plain language, but I didn't know that because I don't speak German. The officer said the message was they are on the beach or landing on the beach, and he then told me we were crossing the channel."
Wireless operator Nanza Downey was listening to the German's messages on D-Day
Photographer Stuart Wood said the unveiling of his project was a "very proud moment" for him. "We owe these guys so much. They are my heroes, and those who didn't come home." He added: "This has been a five-year project which took on a life of its own. The internet is great for things like this, to track people down, but the big breakthrough was when I met the secretary of the Normandy Veterans' Association, George Batts, who is in the exhibition, and he just gave me a list. Since then I've gone all the way from Whitley Bay to Herne Bay and even been over to Normandy. They are all deliberately dignified portraits, there aren't any regiments or ranks mentioned, we just wanted their personal stories."
One of the 29 photos in the exhibition, which was taken at Herne Bay