Hundreds of veterans are booked aboard its ferries to Caen, Cherbourg and Le Havre as they travel to Normandy for what is set to be one of the last large commemorations involving heads of state from around the world.
The company has prepared to carry what they regard as VIP passengers by providing extra staff at its ports and on board to welcome and look after them. It is also liaising closely with the authorities to ensure that both veterans and their families enjoy the smoothest possible travel experience.
Those departing from Portsmouth International Port’s passenger terminal will be able to trace former comrades as they check-in, thanks to a special veterans’ reception centre set up by Portsmouth City Council. The terminal building will also host a special commemorative exhibition created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, giving departing customers details of key war cemeteries and memorials across Normandy.
Meanwhile on board, Brittany Ferries is laying on an appropriate welcome. Its ships will be dressed with flags to honour the involvement in D-Day of the UK, the United States, Canada and France.
With so many veterans travelling, customers can naturally expect a special, nostalgic ambience. But there will also be a few added touches. Several ships are hosting D-Day themed exhibitions and talks, whilst bunting and wartime music will lend a distinctly 1940s feel to the onboard bars and lounges.
Some veterans have chosen to hold special ondeck remembrance ceremonies as they approach the Normandy coast, with Brittany Ferries’ captains slowing their vessels to allow wreaths to be laid at sea.
For some of these returning heroes, the Channel crossing will mark the end of a much longer journey. Many are expected to fly into the UK from as far afield as the United States and Canada before heading to France. Among these is a group of 40 American veterans who will sail from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, remarkably making their very first return to Normandy since they took part in the invasion 70 years ago.
Adding to the colour of the commemorations are several large-scale military re-enactments, and Brittany Ferries’ ships will transport dozens of vintage military vehicles to Normandy to participate in the events.
‘Our ships link the UK with Normandy year round, making us ever mindful of the special, historic bonds between the two. But each year in June, when the veterans step aboard, it really hits home. The numbers that still travel with us each year in spite of their advancing years are quite humbling,’ said Mike Bevens, Brittany Ferries’ commercial director.
‘It’s an honour for us to carry these brave and special men as they make such an important journey, and our staff and crew enjoy the privilege of meeting them and over the years many friendships have been struck. We’re looking forward ensuring that their crossings to and from Normandy are both enjoyable and memorable,’ he added.
As well as the veterans, the ferry company transports thousands of sightseers and holidaymakers who travel to Normandy to take in the huge range of historic sites and museums spread across the region, including the beaches themselves.
‘Happily these numbers include more and more school children and young people, so I’m confident that even as the veterans themselves become fewer in number, the memory of their bravery and sacrifice will live on,’ explained Bevens.
Given the scope of this year’s commemorations in Normandy, and the security required, there will inevitably be increased pressure on the road network, and the French authorities will be implementing a regulated traffic zone in areas surrounding the main events of 06 June. Brittany Ferries is contacting all affected customers to ensure that disruption to their travel plans is minimised.
Brittany Ferries has linked Portsmouth with the Normandy town of Ouistreham, near Caen, since 1986, and for many of its customers, the route carries an unmistakeable symbolism. In 1944, Portsmouth was one of the key strategic locations across the south coast where thousands of Allied troops left for Normandy.
Meanwhile, Ouistreham sits on the edge of Sword Beach, the easternmost of the five Normandy landing sectors where on D-Day 150,000 men came ashore. Over 4,000 of them were lost. Nowadays, for the 900,000 passengers who use the Portsmouth to Caen route annually, these historic beaches are their very first and last glimpse of France.
This June, both towns will play a key role in the remembrance of 1944. Portsmouth will be a focal point for national commemorations to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, with a number of events including a drumhead ceremony attended by the Princess Royal.
Across the Channel, the eyes of the world will be upon Ouistreham as veterans and world leaders including the Queen, US president Barack Obama, and French president François Hollande gather for the key international D-Day ceremonies. The wider Calvados area will be holding 27 official ceremonies and an incredible 1,090 special events to mark the occasion.