UK veterans make D-Day pilgrimage


Published: Friday 5th June 2015 by The News Editor

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Dozens of British veterans have made a cross-Channel pilgrimage to Normandy to honour the legacy of comrades killed in the D-Day landings 71 years ago.

Around 150 ex-servicemen have travelled to northern France to attend events commemorating the military invasion on June 6 1944 which changed the course of history, the Spirit of Normandy Trust said.

Among those heading over is Penny Howard Bates, daughter of the late Major John Howard, who famously led a glider-borne assault on Pegasus Bridge, which was immortalised in the 1960s film The Longest Day.

In an incredible feat of flying, 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.

Major Howard famously signalled the success of the first British objective on D-Day by transmitting the codewords “Ham and Jam”.

Ms Bates said three veterans, all in their 90s, who landed with the regiment later on D-Day, were heading over for this weekend’s anniversary.

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 tonight 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 plan to head to some of 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 will also be 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 old age brings.

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 weekend’s events will be 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.

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 on 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.

The D-Day operation was described by Prime Minister Winston Churchill as “undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place”.

Some 156,000 Allied troops landed on the five invasion beaches on June 6 1944, sparking an 80-day campaign to liberate Normandy involving three million troops and costing 250,000 lives.

Published: Friday 5th June 2015 by The News Editor

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