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D-Day wreaths laid at Monty statue

Published 05/06/2015

Former British serviceman Frank Rosier, 89, is heading to northern France for the 71st anniversary of D-Day
Former British serviceman Frank Rosier, 89, is heading to northern France for the 71st anniversary of D-Day

The legacy of Allied troops who died to help Europe gain freedom from the tyranny of Nazi occupation has been remembered in Normandy on the eve of the 71st anniversary of D-Day.

Wreaths were laid at Colleville-Montgomery beside a statue of British commander Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who commanded Allied land forces in the invasion of Normandy.

Prayers were also said for the men who fought and gave their lives in the pursuit of freedom under Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of occupied Europe, before a flypast took place.

Proudly displaying their war medals, troops - including around 150 British veterans, now mostly in their 90s - have crossed borders to revisit the scene of events which changed the course of history.

Colleville, or Colleville-sur-Orne, as it was known, added Montgomery to its name after the war to honour the role that Field Marshal Montgomery and his men played in liberating it.

In front of a statue of "Monty", Mayor of Colleville-Montgomery Frederic Loinard said: "It is a great honour and privilege for me today to speak to those who landed on these beaches on June 6, 71 years ago, on a dreadful and sleepless night. For those who have returned on the ferry today, the crossing would have been emotional."

George Batts, chairman of the Normandy Veterans' South Eastern branch, told the gathering that the numbers of D-Day survivors were diminishing but they would continue to return to the French shores for as long as they could.

Before the service, British D-Day veterans gathered on Sword Beach, one of the five Allied landing zones on June 6 1944, to remember lost comrades.

Norwich and District Normandy Veterans' Association member Len Fox, 90, said: "I was a motorcycle dispatch rider and landed at Gold Beach at 7.30pm on D-Day.

"We were being stonked by the Germans on the beach so we had to get off as quickly as possible.

"We assembled at the beach-head and then started to move inland towards Bayeux. 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."

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, has travelled to Normandy to mark the 71st anniversary with the veterans.

She said: "It's bitter-sweet for them because they go and remember the comrades they lost. It brings back a lot of memories for them.

"But they are also pleased to go back and mix with other veterans - it's like an international club, with Americans and Belgians."

A champagne toast will be held at the gliders' landing zone to remember their heroics, which was a major triumph for the Allies in the early stages of the invasion in France.

Many veterans are visiting some of the 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 are being held at memorials and cemeteries, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), including at Jerusalem Cemetery - the smallest military cemetery in Normandy.

Many veterans are now in their late 80s and 90s, and have made the annual pilgrimage to honour the 156,000 Allied troops despite the difficulties of old age.

Among them is Frank Rosier, 89, who served as an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment, who summed up the feelings of many veterans.

Mr Rosier, who lives in Waterlooville, Hampshire, said: "We fought for something you can't taste, you can't feel it, you can't see it, you don't know it's there until somebody takes it away - that's called freedom.

"This country, we don't know how free we are nowadays."

This year's events are 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 anniversay of D-Day.

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.

Mary Stewart, honorary secretary of the Spirit of Normandy Trust, said: "Hopefully this year things will be a little easier for the groups and independent travellers, and that the veterans will be able to make their personal pilgrimages.

"We know the French will give them a hugely warm welcome and it is hoped that other visitors will ensure that they receive the VIP treatment they so well deserve."

Some of those who attended last year's landmark anniversary events in Normandy are no longer alive, including Bernard Jordan, who earned the nickname The Great Escaper.

He died aged 90 last December 30 - 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.

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