My wife and I are delighted to be here today to help launch a series of nationwide events, large and small, that will take place throughout this week to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
But today also marks the start of Veterans’ Awareness Week, which will be an opportunity to reflect on the remarkable record of service and duty of our veterans during other conflicts too. As many of you know, there has barely been a year within living memory when a member of our Armed Forces has not been killed during operations somewhere in the World. From Korea to the Falklands, from Northern Ireland to Iraq, there have been many conflicts, but throughout each our sailors, soldiers and airmen have served this Nation with unstinting professionalism, courage and, above all, self-sacrifice. Today our Servicemen and women continue to take extraordinary risks around the globe on our behalf, in an increasingly risk-averse world.
I am particularly pleased to see so many organisations that provide care and support to veterans represented here and I know, as Patron of a few of them, just how vitally important their work is.
However, our focus today, and during the rest of the week, is on commemorating the end of the Second World War in 1945. Many of us, of course, are too young to remember the true horror of those years (my wife and I were born two and three years after the end of the war), when this country faced imminent invasion and occupation. It is hard to imagine the sheer terror of the relentless bombing campaigns on our cities and factories, or the incredible hardship that the wartime generation endured.
As many as 65,000 British civilians were killed in Britain during the war, the majority of whom died during the dark months of the Blitz. But the resolve of the British people in the face of such aggression was unbreakable, and we pay tribute to all those who were so active on the Home Front, whether serving in the Home Guard, in Civil Defence, in the emergency and Auxiliary Services - or helping to support the war effort in a wide variety of other ways. Crucially, we must not forget the brave and resourceful women who worked so tirelessly in our factories, on the land and in all manner of jobs, enabling our Forces to fight overseas. Nor must we forget the visitors and loved ones of those who never came back. They, too, have had to endure so much . . .
Astonishingly, over four and a half million Service men and women were mobilized in Britain, the vast majority of whom wore uniform for the first time. They came from all walks of life, but with a common purpose: to restore freedom to a tyrannized Europe and South East Asia. Around a quarter of a million members of our Armed Forces were to lose their lives throughout the war doing just that. And, of course, we remember the vital contribution made by the many millions of Commonwealth citizens, who fought so courageously far from home.
Having just toured this magnificent living museum, which provides an insight into what life was like from 1939 to 1945, I do hope that many of today’s generation will take the opportunity to visit over the next few days. And by talking to those who endured such adversity, we can hopefully come close to understanding the huge sacrifices made by men and women who were, in many cases, so very young – at the same stage in life as my sons are today...
Having experienced none of the war’s cruelty, as a boy my parents and my grandmother told me many inspiring stories - which I still vividly recollect - of the immense courage and self-sacrifice of our Armed Forces. They also told me what it was like to live through such a desperate time, but how they never failed to be amazed by the British people’s resilience and unshakeable resolve.
It is of the greatest importance that these experiences are passed from generation to generation (even more so considering the age of our veterans) and it is our duty to those who gave their lives that we never forget the debt we owe to so many. I hope that this week, amidst all the other preoccupations, will provide an opportunity to do just that and to remember that we enjoy our freedom today because of their sacrifice. Our gratitude is everlasting and we salute all those veterans who helped secure victory sixty years ago.