Like many British families, my own has its special memories of a loved one who died fighting for our country in the Armed Forces. And this week’s commemorations on the 70th anniversary of D-Day is particularly poignant for us.
My uncle, Sergeant Vernon Coaker was killed in action on 6 June, 1944. He was a member of 3 Commando from the Devonshire Regiment that took part in an assault on the town of Le Plein. The records from the War Office show that Vernon and his comrades struggled ashore with bicycles – the chosen mode of attack – and their heavy kit, and made their way slowly through swampy ground before mounting the attack.
As they began the operation to take the town, they found out that the mortars they had been equipped with were of no use because the charges had been removed. But my uncle Vernon and his comrades were ordered to carry on with the attack anyway, with very limited weaponry and little hope of survival. They came under fire from German soldiers hidden in outlying buildings on the road into Le Plein, and they were forced to fall back. After an officer was badly wounded and a soldier killed, they still fought on, taking control of some of the buildings in the town. But as evening fell, my uncle was killed when an enemy bomb directly hit the building he was sheltering in.
We as a family are very proud of him. He was my father’s older brother and when I was born a few years after Vernon died, my dad named me after the brother he had looked up to so much.
It’s for that reason and in that spirit that today I’m in Portsmouth with many others, taking part in commemorations to mark this hugely significant and symbolic anniversary. Alongside the ceremonies taking place in France, it’s important that people here in Britain – men and women of all ages and from all backgrounds – get the chance to show their gratitude and appreciation to those who fought for our freedom and their future.
That’s why I called for a national commemoration to be held, not least to allow veterans unable to travel to France to take part in events nearer home. But also to ensure that those veterans can receive recognition here in the United Kingdom, in the country they fought for. I’m glad that’s happening. Because as the years pass, the numbers of surviving D-Day veterans grow smaller, and after these commemorations the Normandy Veterans Association will disband. So this anniversary marks one of the last chances we will have to thank them for their selflessness, courage, determination and sacrifice.
In Portsmouth today, I am reminded again of how much we are indebted to them, those who came before and after them, and indeed all those who continue to serve our country today.
Vernon Coaker is shadow defence secretary