Caen (France) (AFP) – D-Day veterans marched back to Normandy’s beaches and villages on Thursday, in an emotional return marking 70 years since the launch of the biggest amphibious invasion in military history.
Royals, top brass and no fewer than 20 world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, will attend the main D-Day ceremony on Friday, amid ongoing diplomatic wrangling over the Ukraine crisis.
A series of events on the eve of the anniversary honored the bravery and sacrifice of those who risked their lives to liberate Europe from Nazism, most of whom are now in their 90s and are marking the occasion for probably the last time.
One of them, Ernest “Ernie” Stringer, spoke of his terror as he piled out of a low-flying military aircraft in pitch darkness.
“It was dark and the planes were coming in very low. We were out and on the ground very quickly,” Stringer, who was only 19 on the day, told AFP.
“I was dead scared. You don’t know what’s going to happen to you. You are jumping blind. You don’t know where the Germans are,” he said.
“As it happened we were virtually surrounded but we didn’t know that. And they didn’t know we were there either!” he added.
He battled his way to Pegasus Bridge, the strategic crossing at Benouville that was secured by British parachutists in the opening stages of D-Day and awaited his comrades who would launch the main assault at dawn.
Many of those who jumped before him were not so lucky. The man ahead of Stringer hit a wall and broke his arm. Several died on impact, not having time to open their chutes as the planes were flying so low.
Stringer later had his knee shredded by machine-gun fire but survived the early skirmishes of a battle that would eventually mark the liberation of France.
More than 156,000 troops waded or parachuted onto French soil on June 6, 1944. Nearly 4,500 would be dead by the end of the day.
Britain’s Prince Charles led the tributes to men like Stringer who took part in the first wave, when thousands of Allied troops flew or parachuted in during the early hours of June 6, 1944, catching the German army by surprise.
Wearing a field marshal’s uniform, the heir to the British throne chatted at length to veterans, many of whom were confined to wheelchairs, along with his wife Camilla, who was wearing a grey-blue overcoat.
Copyright 2014 The National Memo