The memorial to 25,000 Portsmouth sailors and Royal Marines lost in both world wars is being painstakingly restored in time for D-Day’s 75th anniversary.
All 122 panels and every name upon them at the imposing Naval War Memorial on Portsmouth seafront are being painstakingly cleaned and restored ahead of June 6. The monument honours sailors and Royal Marines from Portsmouth ships and units who were killed in the two conflicts and who have no known grave: nearly 10,000 souls from 1914-18, the rest from the brutal struggle against Nazi Germany and her allies a generation later.
A small team of experts from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is cleaning, buffing and waxing the panels – each takes two days – after the elements took their toll and left names either difficult to read or the panels and stonework streaked with green stains caused by the copper in the bronze tablets reacting with the salty sea air.
With the memorial and adjacent common a focal point for this summer’s 75th anniversary commemorations of the Normandy landings, the commission decided the 95-year-old monument should receive one of its regular facelifts.
“Portsmouth Naval Memorial is a constant reminder of more than 24,500 men and women who never returned home from the world wars – it symbolically brings them home,” explained Max Dutton, the commission’s assistant historian.
“This summer we’re looking forward to seeing tens of thousands of visitors flock to the area to remember those involved in D-Day. We hope many will take the time to pay their respects at the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. It is only fitting we can ensure it is in top condition for this historic anniversary.”
Naval casualties on D-Day were relatively light by the standards of the time; there are no specific figures, no Royal Navy warship was lost on June 6, although many smaller landing craft were sunk or wrecked, and ships like HMS Swift went down later in the campaign in Normandy.
Stonemasons and restorers have spent the past month working on the panels – each one is steam cleaned at 155°C, bronzing powder is applied, the names are buffed up, a layer of cellulose lacquer applied to keep the elements at bay, before a final three coats of wax are added and a tablet which was a turquoise-green colour and marked with blotches is a sombre, smart and legible grey-black. They are due to finish the restoration by mid-May, but visitors to the site have already thanked them for their efforts.
“People are always coming down to pay their respects, looking for their relatives, laying flowers – they are very grateful that we continue to remember them,” said stonemason Mike Witham. “You read the names as you go down the panels cleaning them, but meeting their descendants brings them to life.” Those words were echoed by Portsmouth-based sailors visiting the monument to see the work being carried out.
The restoration should protect the names for another decade and the work will be followed by similar maintenance of the national naval memorials in Plymouth and Chatham.
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