D-Day–The Last of the Liberators
Photographic exhibition by Robin Savage
Produced by Airborne Assault – The Museum of the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces with Helion Books
Tuesday 29 April to December 2014
Mezzanine Gallery, AirSpace
As part of our commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, we present D-Day -The Last of the Liberators, a collection of photographic portraits featuring some of the last surviving British Normandy veterans.
This poignant photographic exhibition records, in a unique way, the stories of these remarkable individuals and their emotional but dignified return to the locations, in many cases the exact spot, which are tied to their most profound personal memories of the campaign; places where they saw action or were wounded, where they experienced instances of miraculous chance in the field or where they witnessed the loss of friends through the horror of battle.
The 15 photographs in the exhibition are a selection from a new book of the same name. The photographs were taken in Normandy during the 68th and 69th anniversaries of the D-Day Landings by photographer Robin Savage. They are a record of some of the final visits these brave and dignified men and women will make to the places that imprinted themselves indelibly on their lives.
Robin Savage is a London-based professional freelance photographer. He is an actors’ photographer and has produced portraits of some of the nation’s leading performers in theatre, film and television alongside production photographs for West End and regional theatre companies. His work has been seen in both national newspapers and magazines published throughout the UK.
Robin says: “I became interested in the Second World War at an early age, watching old footage of soldiers fighting in hedgerows with great curiosity. As I matured, so did my interest and the more I learned, the more I understood about the immense sacrifice made by the generation of men and women I’d been watching on television years before. The discovery that the hedgerows in the films were those in a particular region of northern France began my fascination with D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. Years later, in December 2011, I began a personal project that would eventually culminate in this exciting exhibition and book.”
He continues: “The commemorations in Normandy can often be a busy period for the veterans. It is a time for private remembrance for these individuals and I was immensely moved by the gracious kindness of the veterans and their generosity with their time. Being in the company of such extraordinary people has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life and I am honoured that many of them have become friends. I treasure memories of the hours, and in some cases, only minutes, spent in the company of such gentle and noble men and women and I am only too aware that the debt we owe their generation is one that can never be paid.”
One of the photographs featured in the exhibition is of William Bray of the 7th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment. The photograph was taken on 6 June 2013, exactly 69 years to the day after William had parachuted into the fields you can see behind him in the photograph.
William had a good drop into Normandy and had no trouble finding his rendezvous point. Upon arrival, he found about 20 other Paras from his battalion were already in position. William got to Pegasus Bridge without incident and was immediately ordered over to the village of Benouville on the west side to take part in the defence against the expected German counter-attack. As daylight came, William was embroiled in bitter fighting, often engaged in hand-to-hand combat. He was eventually pulled back to the eastern side of the bridges later that night for some rest.
Four days later, the 7th Parachute Battalion had moved on to a new location near Ranville and William was ordered to dig-in. He had just finished digging his foxhole when mortar bombs began dropping. Caught out in the open, he ran to his hole but someone had beaten him to it, denying him the cover that he needed. A bomb burst nearby and William was wounded by pieces of shrapnel.
Of William’s photograph, Robin says: “It’s a long walk from the road to this vantage point and it was another special moment to watch William’s face as he turned the corner and saw the field he parachuted into, 69 years ago precisely, unfold in front of him, virtually unchanged. But time was against us – I was so preoccupied with getting the shot that I hadn’t noticed the huge thunderstorm heading our way. We had a matter of minutes until it was upon us, so I worked very quickly to make sure I was happy we’d got it, before gathering up all the gear and helping William back to the cars just as the storm enveloped.”
Robin’s photograph of William Bray is featured on the front cover of the D-Day – The Last of the Liberators publication by Helion Books. It will be available from the IWM Duxford shop and online at iwmshop.org.uk from May 2014.
Also featured in one of the photographs is Vera Hay. Vera trained as a nurse at Hammersmith Hospital and was one month into a four-year contract when war broke out. She endured the horrors of the Blitz whilst training and was in no doubt that she wanted to help fighting troops as soon as she could. On finishing her training in August 1943, she volunteered for the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and eventually found herself landing on Gold Beach about a week after D-Day. She was one of the first British nurses to land at Normandy.
The 16 kilometre journey from the beach to the Chateau de Beaussy field hospital took about 24 hours to complete, avoiding German resistance en route.
As a Junior Sister, Vera was part of a team that treated up to 200 casualties per day. It was exhausting work. There was no on/off rotation; everyone was required to work around the clock, sleeping when they had the chance, usually for no more than one or two hours at a time. And when the rare opportunity for rest came, Vera had to find comfort in a ditch until eventually tented accommodation was provided for the sisters.
Robin remembers taking his photograph of Vera: “This was a tricky photograph to get – Vera had agreed to be photographed but as she hadn’t been back to the chateau since the war, she only had a rough idea of where it was, so it was very difficult to find. I did lots of research using the name of the chateau but drew a blank. She knew in which direction from Bayeaux it was, but it wasn’t until she remembered that the Paris to Cherbourg railway line lay at the bottom of the orchard at the chateau that I was able to pinpoint it. “
“I was in Normandy a month before the shoot to recce all the locations, so I drove to the chateau to explain what I was doing and ask permission to bring Vera there to photograph her, which the owners kindly gave. It was an amazing moment to see the glint of recognition in Vera’s eyes as we turned up at the chateau, and I think the owners enjoyed having her there as much as she enjoyed being back.”
D-Day -The Last of the Liberators is included in general admission to IWM Duxford. Visitors aged 15 and under enjoy free admission to the museum.
D-Day – The Last of the Liberators photographic exhibition is part of IWM Duxford’s programme of activities commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings.
For further information go to iwm.org.uk/d-day.