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They left the air signed with their honour

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Friday, June 6, 2014, marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the date of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe and the hinge upon which all of the rest of modern history swings.

German Field Marshal Erwin Marshal Erwin Rommel, overall commander of Nazi Germany's defences in north-west Europe at the time, had anticipated “the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive ... the fate of Germany depends on the outcome ... for the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day.”

And it proved to be just that.

D-Day remains the largest and most audacious undertaking of its kind in all of human history.

On June 6, 1944 more than 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops along with units of the exiled Free French and Free Polish armies launched Operation Overlord, the code name for the massive airborne and amphibious landings in France.

Crossing the Channel from England, at Normandy they breached the supposedly impregnable Atlantic Wall of German defences stretching from Norway to the Spanish border; tens of thousands of lives were lost in the subsequent battle for control of northern France.

Steadily a foothold was established. In the ensuing months more than three million Allied troops poured into France and gradually fought their way deeper into occupied Europe and, finally, into Germany itself.

Austrian-born German dictator Adolf Hitler, who the poet Auden chillingly but accurately termed “the psychopathic god”, was dead by April, 1945, along with his poisonous National Socialist (Nazi) creed which fused nationalism, fascism and genocidal racism.

The Nazi Götterdämmerung proved to be every bit as calamitous as the fiery twilight of the Norse gods celebrated in the Richard Wagner operas favoured by Hitler.

A Nazi imperium Hitler had boasted would last for a millennium was immolated, along with wide swathes of Germany, just 12 years after being established and a continent had the weight of tyranny and oppression lifted.

But the success of the D-Day operation was far from inevitable.

Logistically, militarily and technologically it was a hugely risky undertaking, one which could have ended with the Allies being pushed back into the sea if the capricious weather had not cooperated or German intelligence had been even slightly more reliable.

Bermuda, which had more men and women per capita in uniform in the Second World War than any other Commonwealth territory, was well represented on that epochal day.

Bermudians were in the air, on the sea and scrambling up the gritty Normandy beaches as Operation Overlord began to unfold, braving ferocious German defences and overrunning key enemy positions.

Far from home, in some instances just a year or two removed from the schoolroom and thrown into a crucible none of their prior military experience could have prepared them for, the Bermudians who participated in the D-Day operation embodied the words of poet Stephen Spender; they were men “who in their lives fought for life ... and left the vivid air signed with their honour.”

If, as St Augustine said, the real purpose of war is peace then the young Bermudians who took part in D-Day helped to ensure the world would move forward attempting, by and large, to resolve major international disputes by cooperation rather than through wholesale military action.

Today, of course, a conflict even remotely approaching the scale of the Second World War Two (1939-45) would necessarily result in global annihilation.

While there were many Bermudian present at D-Day and many acts of individual heroism were recorded, the most poignant story involves Bill Wilson, a future chief general manager of the Bank of Bermuda.

Even as the Normandy landings were ongoing, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told a hushed House of Commons on the afternoon of June 6 that “it is … a most serious time that we enter upon. Thank God, we enter upon it with our great Allies all in good heart and all in good friendship”.

In his own modest way, Bermuda's Bill Wilson symbolised precisely the type of good heartedness and fellowship the Prime Minister invoked.

Serving in the Canadian military during the war, Mr Wilson lost his best friend when the landing craft they arrived on was raked by German machine gun fire as soon as it had grounded on the foreshore of one of the Normandy beaches.

Canadian officer Gavin Rainey never made it to shore while Mr Wilson waded onto the body-strewn beach and into history.

Following the war Mr Wilson named his son, Gavin Wilson, after his Canadian brother in arms.

“During the war, Gavin Rainey's family back in Canada obviously never had the opportunity to meet my father,” Gavin Wilson said recently.

“But they were certainly aware from his letters home that he had a friend from Bermuda. And sometime in the early 1970s a visiting Canadian girl one day turned up unannounced on my father's doorstep in Paget.

“She was holding this photograph of Gavin Rainey, her father, and my dad together in the UK during the build-up to the D-Day operation. This girl asked if my father lived at this house. Dad didn't answer.

“He just went inside and brought out to her an identical photograph. It was framed and throughout his life it had pride of place in my parents' living room.”

Gavin Rainey died under enemy fire 70 years ago on foreign soil; Bill Wilson passed away 50 years later in his beloved Bermuda.

But the enduring bond these men established — strangers from different countries and entirely different backgrounds thrown together by war — entirely transcended time, place and even death.

It still provides a moving reminder of the camaraderie, courage and sacrifice of those who made common cause with freedom on that longest of days.

Photo by Robert Capa Soldier in the water at one of the Normandy beaches, June 6, 1944.
The late Bill Wilson (right), a Bermudian who served in the Allied forces on D-Day, is pictured somewhere in England in 1943 with close friend Gavin Rainey after whom his son Gavin Wilson is named. Mr Wilson survived the invasion but Mr Rainey was killed.

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Published June 09, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated June 08, 2014 at 11:55 pm)

They left the air signed with their honour

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