D-Day events across the UK and France to honour allied assault that turned the tide of war
Celebrations will include a 95-year-old veteran parachuting into France
"I haven't been afloat for 40 years now," chuckles 95-year-old Rear Admiral John Roberts, as he boards for a celebratory voyage across the English Channel to Normandy. "I hope I'm not seasick."
On June 6 1944, Adml Roberts was a 20-year-old junior officer aboard a Royal Navy destroyer that bombarded the German defences. While three US and three British destroyers were sunk that day, Adml Roberts downplays the dangers and reflects on historical moment.
"I was in a ringside seat, as it were, watching the coast being bombarded by bombers, battleships; everything was firing at the shore," he said. "But the fact is that it was a success, and we knew that really almost by the end of that day. We caught the Germans by surprise."
Adml Roberts has joined more 300 veterans of the Normandy invasion on the cruise ship MV Boudicca that left Dover on Sunday for a British Legion-sponsored trip that will take them back to the landing beaches on the 75th anniversary of D-Day on Thursday.
D-Day was the largest amphibious assault ever launched, transporting over 75,000 British, Canadian and Commonwealth troops to join US and other allied forces on the beaches of Normandy. A further 24,000 parachuted onto French soil from RAF aircraft.
British and Commonwealth troops landed at the Gold, Juno and Sword beaches and American soldiers the Utah and Omaha beaches.
The assault used over 7000 ships and small vessels and 11,000 aircraft and is regarded as the turning point of World War II, leading to victory for Allied Forces in 1945.
Allied forces suffered nearly 10,000 casualties, of which 4,000 were fatalities, during Operation Overlord (the name given to the combined sea, air and land operation). Survivors described the sea awash with blood as thousands of men and boys raced onto the beaches attempting to avoid German snipers.
“This was a really big to-do” Jack Smith, a coxswain on one of the landing craft that day, said.
“We’d tried once before and it wasn’t a success, but this one was. I feel very proud that I took part in it.”
Mr Smith, 94, is also on the British Legion ship, which will stop in Poole on June 4 before heading to Normandy.
The six-day voyage is not the only celebration to mark the anniversary. Events are being held to commemorate the assault on both sides of the Channel.
Events will include all elements of the British armed forces, to represent those who took part in 1944. On June 4, the Royal Marines will perform an on water demonstration to veterans onboard The Royal British Legion’s ship to salute them for their service.
British commemorations on the eve of the anniversary will include a ceremony in the naval city of Portsmouth on Wednesday, which will be attended by Queen Elizabeth, out-going Prime Minister Theresa May and US President Donald Trump on the last day of his state visit.
The D-Day 75 National Commemorative Event will tell the story of D-Day using musical performance, testimonial readings and military displays including a fly-past of 25 modern and vintage aircraft.
Nations that took part in the campaign to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany will also attend.
Parachute displays will take place both at the UK’s RAF Duxford and in Normandy, with Harry Read, 95, taking centre stage as he recreates his 1944 parachute into the fields of Sannerville on Wednesday.
Mr Read, who was only 20 when he played his part in D-Day with the Royal Signals, said he would be thinking of his fallen comrades during the jump, which he will undertake with 280 paratroopers.
“I will enjoy the jump,” he told the Press Association. “But also, in my heart, I will be thinking of my mates.”
Wednesday evening will see a silent march across Pegasus Bridge, the first British capture on D-Day. The bridge was captured by 181 men a full six hours before the D-Day landings.
June 6 will see the French commemorations begin in earnest with President Emmanuel Macron leading ceremonies on beaches along Normandy’s coast.
As part of Mr Trump’s participation in the D-Day anniversary, he will attend an events at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer and Omaha Beach, where five US veterans from the operation will receive the Legion d'honneur, France's highest honour.
On the 70th anniversary of the operation, the French President announced all British veterans involved in WWII operations in France between 1944 and 1945 were eligible for the award. Since June 2014 more than 5,800 medals have been awarded to international veterans.
The nation has caught some of the mood to celebrate its veterans. On Sunday, Chelsea pensioner Colin Thackery won TV talent programme Britain’s Got Talent, securing £250,000 prize money and a performance in front of the Queen.
“I really can’t get over it,” the 89 year old, who served in Korea and Vietnam, said after his win. “I suppose it’ll take several days before it really sinks in”.
Updated: June 5, 2019 09:28 PM