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D-Day heroes' courage remembered

Published 06/06/2015

Some of the last British heroes of the liberation of Europe will attend services in Normandy to remember D-Day
Some of the last British heroes of the liberation of Europe will attend services in Normandy to remember D-Day

Age may finally have wearied them but the courage and sacrifices of Second World War servicemen who helped rid Europe of the tyranny of the Nazis were remembered on the 71st anniversary of D-Day today.

Around 150 British veterans crossed the Channel to honour their comrades who, on June 6 1944, helped to strike a decisive blow against the Nazis and bring freedom to Europe.

In the past week, frail former troops, now in their late 80s and 90s, travelled to Normandy to return to the beaches, cemeteries and villages of northern France - some for the last time.

And today at a Royal British Legion-organised service at Bayeux Cathedral, servicemen stood shoulder-to-shoulder 71 years after Allied forces launched a combined naval, air and land assault on Nazi-occupied Europe, codenamed Operation Overlord.

The Reverend Patrick Irwin, the Royal British Legion chaplain to Normandy, told troops gathered that "we thank you from the bottom of our hearts".

Servicemen "showed courage" in the face of a "resilient and well-equipped enemy", but they had trust in their comrades, he added.

Mr Irwin went on: "It was trust in their mates that really mattered. This trust bound men on the beaches of Normandy and it binds men together still."

He told veterans gathered: "Your historic achievements will remain as one of the defining moments in the history of the last century."

And he called for their sacrifices to continue to be remembered, adding: "It's for successive generations not to betray this trust."

Sir Peter Ricketts, Britain's ambassador to France, gave a reading ahead of an exhortation by Lieutenant Colonel David Whimpenny, of the Royal British Legion featuring the immortal words: "They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them."

Inside the cathedral was British D-Day veteran Victor Mackenzie, 91, who was aged 20 when he served with the Royal Army Service Corps on D-Day.

As the bells tolled following the service, Mr Mackenzie, of North Weald, Essex, said: "It's always very emotive, it really is.

"You have to think of those who never came back. It's with you every day. It's one of those things.

"Coming back to the cathedral brings back so many memories."

Outside the cathedral, Bob Gamble OBE, of the Royal British Legion, said: "Last year there was a significant event around this (date) but each year and every year since the end of the Second World War, veterans and their families come here to mark the moment where sacrifices and memories were made.

"For a lot of veterans who came, it was one of the key moments in their lives. They come back and meet people who they often haven't met since 71 years ago.

"It's an important part of their life and for everyone who contributed to the victory of Europe."

Some 156,000 Allied troops landed on the five invasion beaches on June 6 1944, in an operation prime minister Winston Churchill described as: ''Undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place.''

It marked the beginning of an 80-day campaign to liberate Normandy which involved three million troops and cost the lives of 250,000 people.

Crucial to the early part of the campaign was the successful glider-borne assault on Pegasus Bridge, which was immortalised in the 1960s film The Longest Day.

Led by Major John Howard, a team of Horsa gliders silently landed to take the strategically-vital bridge and another nearby after a 15-minute skirmish, in which two soldiers were killed and 14 wounded.

It paved the way for the Allies to surge inland, and Maj Howard famously signalled the success of the first British objective on D-Day by transmitting the codewords "Ham and Jam".

Penny Bates, daughter of Maj Howard, who died aged 86 in 1999, was among those who travelled to Normandy to mark the 71st anniversary with veterans, all in their 90s.

In the past few days, many veterans visited the five Allied landing beaches - codenamed Juno, Gold, Sword, Omaha and Utah - set across a 50-mile stretch of Normandy coastline where the D-Day landings took place.

It was there that thousands of troops came ashore from the Channel to help turn the tide of war into an eventual victory against Hitler's Germany.

Services were held at memorials and cemeteries, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), including at Jerusalem Cemetery - the smallest military cemetery in Normandy.

This year's events were much more low-key than last year when a huge security operation was put in place as 17 heads of state, including the Queen, attended engagements for the 70th D-Day anniversary.

Some veterans complained about experiencing difficulty moving between venues last year because of the high level of security and red tape that came with so many world leaders attending. But this year, access to events was much easier.

Memories also turned to those who have been lost since last year's 70th anniversary commemorations, including Bernard Jordan, who earned the nickname The Great Escaper.

He died aged 90 on December 30 2014 - six months after slipping out of his care home in Hove, East Sussex, to travel to Normandy for the D-Day commemorations.

Mr Jordan was offered free crossings to D-Day events for the rest of his life by a ferry company after he made international headlines. His wife of 59 years, Irene, died seven days after him, aged 88.

At a service on Friday at Colleville-Montgomery, yards from Sword Beach, local mayor Frederic Loinard spoke of the gratitude of the French for the role the Allies played in helping defeat Nazi Germany.

And Norwich and District Normandy Veterans' Association member Len Fox, 90, told of the sheer horror he and his young comrades endured battling on The Longest Day.

He said: "As a 19-year-old, I had never left home.

"It was very scary because we didn't know whether we were going to see our parents the next day, or even if we were going to survive D-Day.

"I was one of the lucky ones. I regard the lads who are buried in the cemeteries, they are the real heroes. We just had a job to do."

British veterans later attended a service at Bayeux Cemetery which bears the names of more than 4,100 of the Commonwealth land forces, including many British, who died in the Second World War.

There are also more than 500 war graves of other nationalities, the majority German.

More than 338 unidentified men who died during the conflict also rest at the cemetery, which is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

As D-Day servicemen withstood the warmth of the Normandy sun, wreaths were laid at the Bayeux Memorial by dignitaries including Sir Peter and David Whimpenny, of the Royal British Legion.

The Rev Irwin, who led the service, said: "Here in this cemetery, we are reminded of the cost of D-Day. We pay thanks and welcome enthusiastically the veterans to whose courage and determination we are most grateful."

Many observed the service sitting in their wheelchairs surrounded by families and friends.

Welsh-born D-Day veteran Richard Hughes, who lives in Mossley Hill, Merseyside, said it was important to remember the sacrifices made by his generation.

He said: "It's very important because quite a few of my mates who I served with were killed here on the beaches. I like to come here to pay my respects."

British D-Day veterans were greeted with applause as they paraded a short distance from the Pappagall Hotel in Arromanches into the town's main square for another service.

The Reverend Mandy Reynolds told those gathered: "Let us remember before God, and commend to his sure keeping, those who have died for their country in war, those whom we knew and whose memory we treasure today, and for all those who have lived and died in the service of humanity."

After the Last Post, a minute's silence and the laying of wreaths, troops and their families and friends linked arms as Auld Lang Syne was played - before the servicemen trooped out of the square again to applause from locals.

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