In an article for The Sunday Telegraph, Lord Ashcroft visits Sword Beach in Normandy to retrace the footsteps of his father on D-Day.
Under grey skies and as a southerly breeze blows across Sword Beach, I gaze out on a calm sea and try to imagine the scene 70 years earlier. What was it really like for my dear, late father, Lieutenant Eric Ashcroft, as he and his comrades approached their target as part of the D-Day landings?
Fear and anxiety were undoubtedly widespread: my father and his fellow officers had been privately briefed to expect 75 per cent casualties – dead and wounded – as they landed. If this estimate was correct, the chilling prospect was that only one man in four would survive unscathed when the front of their Landing Craft Assault (LCA) dropped down and they raced up the beach into a maelstrom of enemy fire.
All these thoughts and more were racing through my mind as I visited Normandy, just days before the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings of June 6 1944. This Friday is being billed as the “Normandy Swan Song”, when Second World War veterans, now mostly in their nineties, will visit France for the last time in significant numbers.
Of course, I have no monopoly on being proud of a close relative’s part in the war effort: there are many people up and down the country whose fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers and cousins also played courageous roles in the fight against Nazi Germany.
However, my father was, unwittingly, largely responsible for my boyhood interest in bravery: something that quickly developed into a passion and one that has played a significant part in my life for more than half a century.
Eric Ashcroft, a gentle, kind, popular man with a wicked sense of humour, was always modest about his wartime exploits, but eventually, with much prompting from his persistent son, he told me of his terrifying experience on D-Day.
I was about 10 at the time and the conversation took place at our family home in Diss, Norfolk. I sat wide-eyed as he conjured up the metaphorical smell of fear and the physical smell of vomit as his landing craft crashed through the waves and approached Sword Beach. As part of Operation Overlord, more than 155,000 men came across the Channel in some 5,000 vessels to land on five beach areas, each given a codeword.
Decades after my father filled me with pride over his exploits, he gave a recorded interview to the Imperial War Museums (IWM) that remains in their archives.
As he landed on an area of Sword Beach designated for the assault by his Battalion of The South Lancashire Regiment, he and his comrades were greeted by anti-tank, mortar, machine-gun and rifle fire, most of it from the main German defence strongpoint, codenamed “Cod”.
My father, the battalion signals’ officer, described his run up the beach: “About two-thirds to high watermark, I was knocked sideways when, so it would appear now, an 88mm splinter struck my right arm as I was moving across the beach… I just kept moving until the party got cleared of the beach and took stock of our position some 200 yards inland.”
When my father paused beneath a bank with the enemy beach wire just ahead, he applied a field dressing to his bloodied wound and crouched besides his CO. “Colonel [Richard] Burbury was about two feet away from me and the next thing I knew he rolled to his side and was shot in the chest,” my father said. His CO had been killed by a sniper.
Lieutenant Colonel Burbury’s life was over, aged 38, and, soon afterwards, my father’s war was effectively over, too: but not before his battalion had moved on later the same day to seize the village of Hermanville less than a mile away. My father was eventually ordered from the battlefield and received treatment, first, at the regimental aid post and, later, on the hospital ship returning to Britain.
As I reached my teens, the initial interest in bravery that my father had generated grew and grew. I became the schoolboy geek who knew more about the Normandy landings than any of my contemporaries.
Courage is a truly wonderful quality, yet it is so difficult to understand. You can’t accurately measure it, you can’t bottle it and you can’t buy it, yet those who display it are, quite rightly, looked up to by others and are admired by society. Wiser men than me have struggled to comprehend gallantry and what makes some individuals risk the greatest gift of all – life itself – for a comrade, for Queen and country or sometimes even for a stranger.
Yet, perhaps, ultimately we do not have need fully to understand why individuals display courage; all we need do is admire it. Over the years, my passion for bravery, in general, transformed itself into one for gallantry medals, in particular.
Such medals are the tangible record of an individual’s service and courage. When I was in my early twenties, I hoped one day to own a Victoria Cross, the ultimate decoration in Britain and the Commonwealth for bravery in the face of the enemy.
Shortly after my 40th birthday and by then fortunate enough to have made a little money as an entrepreneur, I bought at auction my first VC: a decoration that had been awarded to Leading Seaman James Magennis during the final year of the Second World War.
Today, from that modest start, the collection is comfortably the largest in the world. In 2008, I made a sizeable donation so that the VCs could go on display in a new, purpose-built gallery at IWM, London, along with decorations already in the care of the museum. The gallery was opened in November 2010 by the Princess Royal, and today I am the proud owner of 183 VCs and 14 George Crosses, the latter being Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry not in the face of the enemy.
I have written four books on bravery, I have a monthly column in Britain at War magazine and I write widely for national and regional newspapers about courage. Furthermore, I regularly lecture on gallantry up and down the country.
My continuing aim is simple: to highlight great acts of courage and to ensure that those brave men who carried them out, whether they lived or died following their actions, are not forgotten.
On a personal level, I credit the conversation I had with my father nearly 60 years ago for leading to my passion for gallantry. Indeed, when the VC and GC gallery bearing my name was unveiled four years ago, I publicly dedicated it to him.
My father was one of the fortunate wartime servicemen: he made a full recovery from his injuries, was promoted to captain, survived the war, had a satisfying career as a colonial officer and, eventually, died in February 2002, a month before his 85th birthday.
As the 70th anniversary of D-Day approaches, I am glad that I travelled to Sword Beach and stood, for the first time, where my father was wounded and where so many of his comrades fell. Matt Limb, my enthusiastic and knowledgeable battlefield guide, was able to pinpoint, to within a few yards, the exact spot where my father had landed.
I also visited Hermanville War Cemetery to lay a poppy cross at the grave of Lieutenant Colonel Burbury. Incidentally, his gravestone wrongly gives his date of death as June 7 1944 – rather than June 6 – and, for the sake of accuracy, I am going to investigate how it might be corrected.
In an area of more than 1,000 war graves and with birdsong as the only sound, I contemplated the thin margin between life and death. If the sniper’s bullet had been just two feet to one side, my father’s life would have been over, aged just 27, and I would never have been born.
At Pegasus Bridge Café Gondrée, the first house liberated by the Allies at the dawn of D-Day, I was given a warm welcome for lunch by the charming Arlette Gondrée, whose parents lived in the property during the German occupation with their three young daughters. It is the sort of welcome she and her family have generously extended to the British veterans for seven decades.
On Friday, as the veterans gather in Normandy for their “swan song”, I will join the rest of the nation in paying my respects to all the courageous individuals who turned the course of the war in the Allies’ favour with the greatest sea invasion in history.
However, given all that he did for me, I hope I will be forgiven if just one of those brave young men remains at the forefront of my thoughts for much of the day: Eric Ashcroft, my father, my inspiration, my hero.