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Today on D-Day’s 80th anniversary I remember my uncle Hamish who died bravely during WWII, writes Andrew Marr

6 June 2024, 17:30 | Updated: 6 June 2024, 19:51

Hamish Marr died while trying to rescue troops at Dunkirk in 1940. Andrew Marr has shared his story for the first time
Hamish Marr died while trying to rescue troops at Dunkirk in 1940. Andrew Marr has shared his story for the first time. Picture: Supplied
Andrew Marr

By Andrew Marr

We should be pleased and relieved to have a day away from the election campaigning to think about D-Day and the war.

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This will be the last big anniversary where numbers of those who remember the actual fighting will still be alive; and all of us know that war is no longer something remote, but part of contemporary Europe.

The official commemorations really matter – the gathering of presidents and prime ministers, the King, Queen, military commanders and the veterans themselves.

Looking down on smooth sand and salt water that was once oily and bloody allows us to reflect on the extraordinary courage, organisation and determination that the invasion of Nazi controlled Europe needed.

Hamish Marr was killed aged 20 while trying to rescue British troops from Dunkirk
Hamish Marr was killed aged 20 while trying to rescue British troops from Dunkirk. Picture: Supplied

But I think for millions of British families what matters more are the private memories - the lost relatives; those who returned but physically or psychologically badly damaged; and the impact that had, cascading down from one generation to the next. Look deeply and the war still hasn’t quite left us.

Read more: 'Our gratitude is unfailing': King Charles pays tribute to 'remarkable war-time generation' in D-Day 80 memorial speech

Read more: Moment British paras are made to show their passports to French officials after D-Day jump into Normandy

Flowers offered as a tribute to the US soldiers who died during the Normandy landings lay on the shore in Utah Beach
Flowers offered as a tribute to the US soldiers who died during the Normandy landings lay on the shore in Utah Beach. Picture: Getty

My family lost one close relative, an extraordinarily brave and devout man, in a Spitfire over Norway; but when it comes to the Channel, today I’ve been thinking about my uncle Hamish Marr, a man I never met, killed aged 20 while trying to rescue British troops from Dunkirk.

The letter sent to the Marr family by a Rear Admira
The letter sent to the Marr family by a Rear Admiral. Picture: Supplied

My father adored his oldest brother and kept a photograph of him by his bedroom for the rest of his life; but rarely talked about him.

Hamish, a young officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, had made his way down to Portsmouth, where he found his ship unready to sail, so kept running up and down the dockside until he found a ship that was leaving where he could serve.

He got aboard HMS Grive which was hit by a mine dropped by a German aircraft, and blown to pieces.

A letter from the King after Hamish Marr's death
A letter from the King after Hamish Marr's death. Picture: Supplied

Remarkably, the ship's captain was blown off the bridge into the sea and later picked up alive.

He wrote a letter to my distraught grandparents in Glasgow from the Royal Naval Hospital, in Chatham where “I have both my legs in plaster and my mouth knocked about a bit”, a letter my family kept to this day.

In it, he describes “the explosion which was tremendous and of course came without any warning and was all over in an instant”.

He goes on: “Marr was on the bridge at the time of the mishap and was full of courage and very cheerful… assisting with navigation. I was on the bridge and remember being thrown into the air but do not remember landing again.”

Men in WWII attire stand along Utah Beach on June 6, 2024, during the D-Day commemorations
Men in WWII attire stand along Utah Beach on June 6, 2024, during the D-Day commemorations. Picture: Getty

Among the documents we still have is the official Post Office telegram (“No charge for delivery”) from the Admiralty informing the family of Hamish’s death and a letter from the flag officer commanding in Dover explaining that the ship “was sunk near the French coast about 10:30 PM on 1st of June during an attack by enemy aircraft.”

The Admiral apologises for the delay in writing to my grandparents - his letter is dated two weeks after the loss - but explains “when it is realised that nearly 30,000 men and hundreds of vessels ranging from lifeboats and such like, ( a reference to the now-famous “little ships”)… were employed in this operation the difficulties of the position with regard to obtaining reliable news of casualties will be apparent. Your son’s effects have been traced and are being dispatched to you by passenger train today.”

Mine is a story, of course, about Dunkirk not about D-Day, though many of the troops rescued from one French beach would return four years later to another.

I’m telling it for the first time, not because there is anything special about Hamish or the Marrs, but because millions of families up and down the country have similar stories; and are still affected in obvious, and subtle, ways by that war.

This is the real story of a day like today. The war was a lifetime ago, but it circles us still. I look at a picture of the teenage Hamish, arms folded, white shirt, staring confidently out at a future he would never know; and wonder what kind of man he’d have become.

The Americans call his “the greatest generation”. I used to think this was typical US sentimentality, but I no longer do.

We can pride ourselves today on being less prejudiced, more enlightened or whatever: but these people were tougher and more self-sacrificing than the softer creatures peace has made us.

But as Ukraine shows, these things can turn again very quickly. The true lessons of the Norman beaches may be needed again when we least expect it.

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