THE fearless men who risked their lives on covert reconnaissance missions around the world have been honoured at a memorial to them.
Tributes were paid to the members of the elite Combine Operations Pilotage Parties (Copp) at the memorial stone to the secret unit on Hayling seafront.
Set up in the 1940s during the Second World War, only five members of the original 200-strong group are living today, and just three were well enough to make it to the event which was organised by the founder of the Copp Memorial Association, Robin Walton.
The Coppists were an elite squad based in Hayling who under the cover of darkness got small submarines and canoes to survey the beaches in Normandy ahead of D-Day.
Because of the age and small number of Coppists left, yesterday’s ceremony will be the last.
Television historian Dan Snow was there and said it ‘filled his heart with pride’ to be asked to speak at the event.
He added: ‘These 200 men did a hugely important job, having to recce the beaches. They had to get in there and test the sand, test the beaches that they were about to land on.’
Mr Snow said without the recces, the results could have been disastrous for the D-Day landings, which will be commemorated next month 70 years on.
He also spoke of the extraordinary hardship the men, who were drawn from the army and navy, had to endure – swimming under the cover of darkness in the freezing English Channel and having barely enough oxygen in the miniature submarines.
John Ashford, from Surrey, is one of only five surviving Coppists.
The 89-year-old spoke fondly of his time in the unit. He said: ‘I’m very proud to be here. It’s so good to be able to see two ex-Coppists.
‘It’s sad that there’s not more, but that’s inevitable. The whole thing is a remarkable achievement. I was one of the youngest. When you’re 20 you’ve lots of self-confidence, you’re terribly arrogant and quite convinced you can do anything.
‘When I was invited to join Copp I never considered for one moment not to.’
The Honourable Timothy Knatchbull, grandson of Earl Mountbatten who set up the unit, also paid tribute to the Coppists.
He said: ‘It is the rugged truth that Copp is not well-known. It was only in the 1960s that Copp was declassified as an official secret.
‘So it is a great responsibility that we have, particularly the young people, to talk about the accomplishments of Copp. Of the men who risked everything – many of whom gave their lives.’