A tribute to Joe Cattini
Nicholas Witchell, Founding Trustee of the Normandy Memorial Trust, paid tribute to Joe at his funeral on 19 May. Here we share his poignant words:
Many tens of thousands of words have been written about D-Day.
Nothing, I believe, captures the essence of it more powerfully than these few sentences, from the historian Stephen Ambrose. They were read at the opening of the British Normandy Memorial.
“It all came down to a bunch in their late teens and twenties. They were magnificently trained and equipped but only a few of them had ever been in combat. But when the test came, when freedom had to be fought for or abandoned, they fought. They were soldiers of democracy. They were the men of D-Day, and to them we owe our freedom.”
Joe Cattini was one of those men, ‘the men of D-Day’, the men to whom we owe so much, the men who it has been such a privilege to know.
Like John and Peter and Richard, I wish I could have known the younger Joe – the man who left the army in 1947 after 5 years of service in the Royal Artillery and the Hertfordshire Yeomanry including those unforgettable (for all the wrong reasons) moments, landing on Gold Beach on D-Day, driving a truck full of ammunition.
So many of us have stood there, above that beach, and tried to imagine what it must have been like on 6th June 1944.
Several times over the years I remember seeing Joe standing there, lost in his thoughts, looking out over the tranquillity of the modern-day scene: observing wryly that “it was a lot noisier when I was here.”
Indeed. Only those who were there at that defining moment in our recent history could really know. They were bound together in unshakeable comradeship.
But like so many of his generation, Joe left the military, thinking only that he’d done his bit, relieved that he’d come through the war unscathed and resolved – quite rightly – to move on and build a life for himself. “The horrors of the war were parcelled up and put away” Fran told me.
We’ve learnt something about the younger Joe: a dashing figure, immaculately dressed, with a winning smile and a twinkle in his eye: a man proud of his Italian heritage, prouder still of the life his parents had created here in Britain – but proudest, most of all, of his family.
You, above all, know what a very special man he was.
My first contact with Joe was six years ago, in March 2017. I’d set up the Normandy Memorial Trust to try to achieve the ambition of Normandy Veterans for Britain, finally, to have its own memorial, in Normandy, to the more than 20,000 men in British units who lost their lives on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy.
Joe was one of the first veterans I spoke to. I telephoned him: explained who I was, and why I was calling. I took some notes of our conversation.
At the time there was a sharp debate within the veteran community about WHERE the memorial should be sited. Our architect Liam O’Connor and I had found what we thought was the perfect site for it above ‘Gold Beach’, near the village of Ver-sur-Mer.
Other voices within the veteran community were insistent that it should be sited further east, close to ‘Sword Beach’. The problem was that there was no site there which overlooked the beach, which overlooking the landing area.
Joe was in no doubt: “The memorial”, he told me, “must be where the landings took place so that people can see where the British forces came ashore.”
And Joe was right … and so it was. A ballot among veterans delivered a verdict of 8 to 1 in favour of Ver-sur-Mer.
In June 2017 John Phipps brought a group of veterans to see the site. Joe was among them. I recall gathering the veterans together and explaining that this was where the memorial would be built …. And suddenly, from the back of the group, I heard at deep, powerful voice, speaking very deliberately: “It’s long overdue.” It was, of course, Joe … and he was, of course, correct.
We were so pleased to have the support of Veterans like Joe. It meant so very much to us – Joe became one of our Veteran Ambassadors – and Fran has been kind enough to say that it meant a lot to him to be involved.
And when finally, in October 2021 – after the lockdown – Joe and other veterans were finally able to visit the completed memorial, I hope and believe that they were satisfied …. In a sense as John Phipps has said: “a final duty to their lost comrades had been discharged.” They knew that their friends who never came home WILL be remembered.
Fran was with Joe during that visit. She writes: “He had tears in his eyes. The memorial exceeded all his expectations.”
And now, finally, through our sadness, we pay our tributes:
From Lord Peter Ricketts, the former British Ambassador to France and former Chairman of the Normandy Memorial Trust:
“Joe Cattini was a warm and inspiring man and a tireless ambassador for the British Normandy Memorial. I am proud to have known him.”
From Lord Edward Llewellyn, British Ambassador to France at the time of the memorial’s construction, who formally opened it on behalf of the then Prince of Wales:
“Joe was a remarkable man with an unforgettable smile and a sense of fun. I am so proud to have known him.”
And from Dame Menna Rawlings, the current British Ambassador to France:
“Thank you for your service to our country.”
Joe Cattini and the other Veterans to whom we owe so much, sadly, are leaving us.
Like them, he was the very best of British: brave but modest, committed but selfless …. Strong in his faith, strong in his love for his family …. honourable and decent.
Joe, we thank you – we salute you and we carry your memory in our hearts.