Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines’ Boudicca hosted 250 D-Day veterans, plus their companions, on a poignant pilgrimage around the UK and Normandy, France on The Royal British Legion’s history D-Day 75 Voyage of Remembrance on June 2-9.
Resplendent in The Royal British Legion’s red poppy decor, Boudicca set sail from Dover, taking the veterans to Dunkirk, Poole, Portsmouth and Le Havre, where they attended a series of commemorative events to mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Landings, which took place on June 6, 1944.
Suffolk-based Arena Travel, an official travel partner of The Royal British Legion since 2013, partnered with the charity and contacted Fred. Olsen due to the number of veterans to be transported and the lack of hotel availability in and around Normandy.
Mike Rodwell, managing director of Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, who joined Boudicca for the voyage, said: “It has been an incredible honour to play our part in The Royal British Legion’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landings and the Battle of Normandy. It has been a very moving and emotional experience for all concerned, and our staff have thoroughly enjoyed having these courageous D-Day veterans on board and sharing in their stories and memories.
“We would like to thank Arena Travel and The Royal British Legion for choosing Fred. Olsen as their partner in this most important of projects, to show our national and international respect. We would also like to commend all the ports of call for their warm welcomes to the veterans and to our ship, and it has been overwhelming at times just how much people have got behind the voyage to show their pride and gratitude to these D-Day veterans, to whom we owe so much.”
Bob Gamble, The Royal British Legion’s assistant director for commemorative events, said: “D-Day 75 was a momentous occasion and The Royal British Legion is proud to have put the veterans at the heart of everything we did. The events they took part in allowed the whole world to pay tribute to their bravery and sacrifice. We would like to thank all our partners who helped take the veterans back to Normandy on what was a historic and deeply moving voyage. Now they are safely back home, the Legion will still be there for them whenever they need us.”
Steve Goodenough, managing director of Arena Travel – who was also aboard Boudicca for the duration of the Voyage – said: “Arena Travel were very proud to operate the ‘Voyage of Remembrance’ in partnership with Fred. Olsen. This momentous Voyage took 250 D-Day veterans and their travelling companions to international commemorations in Southsea and in Normandy.
“The logistics of organising national coach travel for 500 people to join the cruise and arrangements whilst ashore, as well as managing the on-board programme, was a challenge that I am pleased our team delivered excellently. It was a genuine honour to have facilitated this voyage on behalf of The Royal British Legion for the veterans.”
In Dover, veterans received a special send-off, with the 40s-themed Swingtime Sweethearts performing in the cruise terminal, which was decked out with flags and bunting, together with a display of military vehicles greeting veterans as they arrived. Military re-enactors also gave a flavour of the era, and the Dover Sea Cadets marched and performed a number of wartime songs.
Sir Rod Steward made a surprise appearance, performing his iconic seafaring anthem Sailing on deck.
Following a call at Dunkirk, France, Boudicca continued to Poole. Along the quayside, the Ministry of Defence hosted a series of military-themed events, entertainment and activities, and 40 Commando Royal Marines came on board to display their weaponry to veterans.
The following day, veterans attended the national commemorative events in Portsmouth, where many were able to meet the current heads of state of the nations that participated in the D-Day operation. President Trump, President Macron and Prince Charles, along with many other leaders, joined the veterans for tea after the official event, and a number of veterans met Prime Minister Theresa May. A 30-minute fly-past and aerial display by the famous RAF Red Arrows followed the event.
Upon departure from Portsmouth, Boudicca was escorted by a Royal Navy frigate, along with four smaller Navy vessels, into the Solent, where a flotilla of Royal Navy vessels and personnel were waiting to salute the ship – including the Navy’s newest flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, where Theresa May joined them out on deck. The city of Portsmouth also paid its own tribute, waving off the veterans on their way to France with ‘THANK YOU’ spelt out in giant letters on the shore as Boudicca sailed past.
Boudicca then stood off the coast of Ventnor, Isle of Wight before sunset – accompanied by a Royal Navy escort warship – for a sombre ‘Moment of Reflection’ on deck, led by The Royal British Legion’s National President, Lt General James Bashall CB, CBE, before the ship headed for Normandy.
The following day, Boudicca arrived in the French port of La Havre, from where a convoy of 14 coaches, escorted under VIP blue lights by the French Gendarmerie, took the veterans to the Bayeux Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, where they were able to pay tribute to the soldiers who fought and died during the invasion of Normandy and the subsequent advance into France. Here, the prime minister, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall were able to meet and talk to the veterans personally.
After an overnight stay in Le Havre, veterans had the opportunity to visit the ‘Operation Overlord’ beaches, ‘Sword’, ‘Gold’ and ‘Juno’, as well as Pegasus Bridge, the British Normandy Memorial and the Arromanches Military Museum. Back on board Boudicca, veterans were entertained by the 40s-themed D-Day Darlings, runners-up in Britain’s Got Talent.
A sumptuous Gala Dinner on the final evening, en route to Dover, was the culmination of this commemorative sailing, with a performance by Captain David Cole OBE and The Central Band of The Royal British Legion, and a closing finale by the D-Day Darlings and Boudicca Show Company.
The Royal British Legion’s D-Day 75 Voyage of Remembrance was offered free of charge to D-Day veterans and their companions, funded by the UK government’s LIBOR grant, in conjunction with the Ministry of Defence.