Published: 09:22, 16 September 2021
| Updated: 12:11, 16 September 2021
A veteran of the D-Day landings will wave off a group of supporters as they set off on a four-day ride from Five Oak Green to Lichfield to raise money for his campaign to build an educational centre at Gold Beach in Normandy.
George Batts, 96, from Beverley Road, Barming, near Maidstone, has already been successful in a campaign to see a national memorial built to those who fell during the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, after using his position as secretary of the Normandy Veterans Association to apply pressure on the Government, until eventually the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, agreed to support the campaign.
The memorial, after six years of gestation, was unveiled on June 6 this year, the 77th anniversary of the landings.
But now Mr Batts is determined to go a step farther.
He said: "The Normandy Veterans Association has already had to wind up because there were so few of us left.
"Pretty soon there won't be anyone alive who took part in that battle.
"But we must make sure the new generations know about it to ensure that there is never ever ever another World War."
Mr Batts was just 18 when he landed on Gold Beach. Attached to 1049 Company, Royal Engineers, he was in a special unit tasked with clearing mines from the beaches and surrounding fields.
He said: "We had four mine flails initially but pretty soon their flails were blown off."
It was impossible for Sapper Batts and his section to use electronic mine detectors because there was so much shrapnel on the beach, so they were reduced to searching for mines with their bayonets.
The Normandy landings cost the lives of 22,422 British servicemen, whose names are recorded on the new memorial at the village of Ver-Sur-Mer, among them some known personally to Mr Batts.
He said: "Memory is a funny thing. I struggle to remember their names after all this time, but I can still see their faces perfectly."
Mr Batts' war didn't end with the defeat of Germany; afterwards he was posted to the Far East where the Japanese were still fighting.
In civilian life, he worked in the City, then as a sales manager, and ended up running his own business with a chain of sewing machine repair centres.
But his memories of the war and his dedication to his comrades have never left him.
For 30 years he was a member of the Normandy Veterans Association (NVA), serving as secretary and treasurer.
He successfully oversaw a project to record the testimonies of 180 D-Day veterans that are now available as a living history archive in the D-Day Museum in Southsea, near Portsmouth.
He said: "My father was Grenadier Guard in the First World War and was twice wounded. It was only after he had gone that I realised I knew almost nothing about his service as he never talked about it.
"It seemed important that these D-Day veterans' experiences should not be lost with them."
He developed the idea of a National D-Day Memorial on Gold Beach in 2012.
After making little headway at first, his attendance as the representative of the NVA at an international event to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, which was attended by 19 heads of state, gave him the opportunity to lobby David Cameron personally on his idea.
Eventually he was summoned to the treasury, where a Government official asked him: "How would £20m do you?"
A trust was established to oversea the project with architect Liam O'Connor appointed to design the memorial.
George was initially a trustee, but later became its patron.
He said the memorial played an important role in educating the young about the waste of war, but it was not enough.
He said: "We now need to build a visitor and education centre there, so that people can learn about the war and the sacrifices made."
He has spent many years visiting schools to tell children about his wartime experiences and has developed a particularly close relationship with the students at St John’s Catholic Comprehensive School in Gravesend, who have produced a mural about the landings which he hopes to hang in the education centre when its built.
He estimates the centre will cost around £1m - small fry to compared with the amount raised for the memorial which eventually came in at £33m.
He said: "It can be done - and I'm determined to see it done before I go."
His cause has been adopted by the International Association of Bookkeepers (IAB), who have made his education centre their charity of the year.
Today, seven association staff will set off on their bikes from the IAB's head office in Five Oak Green to ride to the National War Memorial in Lichfield.
They are a mix of experienced cyclists and complete novices. They expect the 187-mile journey to take four days.
Sarah Palmer, the association's chief operating officer, said: "We are delighted to support George. It’s a long time since many of us have been on bikes – especially cycling so far – but it is nothing compared to the sacrifices George’s generation made.
"The stories I've heard from George were just so inspiring, we had to do something."
Joining the IAB staff on the ride will be Fabian Hamilton, the MP for Leeds North East and the Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament who is also supporting the campaign.
You can donate to the cause on the IAB's Just Giving page here.