On historic D-Day anniversary, Catholic veteran says faith has always helped him in 'tight corner'

Royal Air Force veteran Bernard Morgan, 100, from Crewe, England, salutes the fallen ahead of the Royal British Legion Service of Commemoration to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day June 5, 2024, at Bayeux War Cemetery in Normandy, France,. (OSV News/Aaron Chown, Reuters)

(OSV News) -- As Western heads of state and government gathered in northern France to mark 80 years since the monumental D-Day invasion that helped secure victory in World War II, one veteran, now age 100, had special memories to share.

"I've revisited these beaches previously, and didn't feel a need to be there -- I was just doing the job assigned to me, while others played more important roles," explained Frank Doran, the last known British Catholic survivor of the heroic June 1944 Normandy landings.

"My Catholic faith has always helped me when in a tight corner, something which doesn't happen often now. It's always endured, offering me a signpost and sense of direction," he said.

The Normandy veteran, a former teacher, spoke to OSV News amid commemorations of the dramatic D-Day events, which left over 10,000 Allied troops dead and wounded in a single day.

He said he had been one of few Catholics in the 15th Air Formation Royal Signals regiment, but had been allowed to attend Mass at local churches during the subsequent "vital fight through northern Europe."

Meanwhile, a senior priest told OSV News the contribution of Catholic chaplains and service personnel in the historic operation had often been overlooked.

"This anniversary is particularly poignant because there are few veterans left who actually served on the beaches and can speak from personal experience," said Father Nick Gosnell, vicar general of Britain's Aldershot-based Catholic Bishopric of the Forces and dean of its St. Michael and St. George military cathedral.

"Collective memories get diminished, so the legacy has to be passed on by those of us who've served in the places where they served, but in circumstances far less certain than ours."

International ceremonies June 6 were attended by U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as by Britain's King Charles III and 20 other heads of state, at the U.S. military cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer and other sites along Normandy's Cotentin peninsula, accompanied by requiem Masses at Arromanches-les-Bains, Deauville, Honfleur and other towns.

In a message read June 5 at an ecumenical service at Notre Dame Cathedral in nearby Bayeux, Pope Francis recalled the "colossal and impressive collective military effort" put into D-Day, but also the "immense cemeteries" created in the drive to restore peace to Europe.

In his D-Day message, the pope recalled the image of "completely devastated" cities across Normandy, such as Caen, Le Havre, Saint-Lô and Lisieux, and urged prayers for victims of all wars, as well as for "the men who want wars, those who start them and senselessly stir them up, maintaining and prolonging them uselessly, or cynically profiting from them."

Meanwhile, France's Catholic bishops paid tribute to tens of thousands of young servicemen who suffered death, injury and trauma during the landings to free the "countries of old Europe" and in hopes of "advancing quickly enough to spare the countries of Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination."

"They were not perfect, they weren't without violence or prejudice. The countries that sent them to help us had their own interests at heart," the French bishops said. "Unlike the Nazis and the Soviets, however, they did not claim to establish a 'new man,' that of a dominant race, nor that of a totalizing thought," the bishops' 10-member Permanent Council, chaired by Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, said in a June 5 declaration.

"The immense struggle they waged transformed the world political order, fostered in all peoples the idea of free determination, political equality and freedom, and began the end of colonial empires. We also owe them our ability to revisit our history in search of a higher moral consciousness."

Over 23,000 troops from three U.S., British and Canadian airborne divisions were parachuted into Normandy after midnight on June 6, 1944, as part of a combined invasion force of 150,000, which stormed ashore from 7,000 ships and landing craft on five beaches: Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword and Utah.

Up to 4,400 troops from 30 countries, more than half of them Americans, were shot or drowned in the initial landings, code-named Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious movement in history, against German casualties estimated at 9,000.

However, around 20,000 French civilians also were killed in crossfire by shells and bombs as Allied forces battled inland against the German occupiers, liberating Paris in late August 1944 and securing Germany's capitulation on May 7, 1945.

Speaking June 5 during parallel commemorations at Britain's Portsmouth naval base, King Charles quoted the war poet Keith Douglas, who was killed in action in Normandy, and recalled the pre-invasion message of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander in chief of Allied ground forces, assuring D-Day troops they would be honored for "striking a blow for freedom which will live in history."

Meanwhile, in a June 6 address, Biden said the D-day anniversary was a reminder that the "struggle between a dictatorship and freedom" remained unending, adding that the current plight of Ukraine showed that to "bow down to dictators is simply unthinkable."

In a June 6 post on X, formerly Twitter, Ukraine's president, Volodymr Zelenskyy, who attended the commemorations, said the anniversary highlighted "courage and determination demonstrated in the pursuit of freedom and democracy," adding that Ukrainians had now taken the place of the wartime Allies in defending "Europe's freedom."

The BBC reported June 6 that just 23 British veterans had been able to travel to Normandy for the commemorations, compared to 225 five years ago, alongside three dozen Americans.

Meanwhile, the French bishops said later generations should be aware of the debt they owed to D-Day combatants. They added that the anniversary raised questions about "what kind of France" and "what kind of Europe" today's societies wish for, and said Europeans should redouble efforts to overcome current crises, while also supporting Ukraine.

In his OSV News interview, Father Gosnell said he hoped lessons would be learned from the D-Day anniversary about the "total destructiveness of war" and the constant need to "avert man's inhumanity to man."

He added that Masses celebrated by Catholic priests on the front lines had often attracted people of other faiths and none, and said the Catholic contribution to key events like D-Day should be properly acknowledged.

"Our faith drives us in a particular way, and we know from past evidence that military commanders were pleased to have Catholic priests on the front lines, because they were concerned about their own people, not about politics and careers," said the Catholic vicar general, a veteran of the Iraq War and other military campaigns.

"At present, thank God, we're not carrying bodies back every day, as we were until recently -- but military operations are still constantly underway across Europe and the world, and we have to ensure that past sacrifices weren't in vain," the priest added.

Doran, the last known British Catholic Normandy veteran, agreed.

Born near Newcastle, he faced anti-Catholic prejudice in his pre-war youth, but came through it to serve with distinction after enlisting at 18 and landing at Gold Beach in 1944.

Having fought through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, Doran stayed in the army till 1947, later founding the Catholic Blessed Edward Oldcourne College at Worcester in 1963 and serving for 22 years as its director.

Awarded France's Legion of Honor for his gallantry in 2016, he narrowly survived the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic, and still lives alone, helped by a son and daughter. He attends Mass regularly, helps Catholic charities and nurtures his faith through prayer and reading.

Looking back, the veteran thinks German forces were caught off guard by the impressive planning and technology used in Operation Overlord, but also vividly recalls the confusion which accompanied the victorious but bloody Allied drive through Normandy.

"The Catholic faith had always been central to my life, and I continued trying to live according to church teachings by helping others," Doran told OSV News.

"What's strangest of all is that there were Catholics on both sides, killing each other because of their national loyalties," he said. "You'd think it might have made a difference, but it didn't -- and I still can't understand this. But I'm pleased people still remember what we did -- or can be nudged into remembering it."


AOD-IAM: July Article Bottom