50th Anniversary of D-Day: Men of war celebrate peace in their time: Liberation ceremonies get under way as veterans return to Normandy - Julian Nundy on the emotional scenes in France yesterday recalling and paying tribute to the Allied invasion force

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The Independent Online
More than 1,000 paratroops, including veterans aged over 70, re-enacted the mass D-Day drop into Normandy yesterday which 50 years ago began the liberation of Nazi-occupied France.

They tumbled out of a blue sky to launch today's extensive French ceremonies marking the anniversary, led by 38 American veterans dubbed the papys sauteurs or 'jumping grandpas' by the French press. They parachuted over Sainte Mere Eglise where they had jumped as young men at the start of the invasion.

The main parachute of one veteran, Earl Draper, 70, from Inverness, Florida, failed to open and he had to use his safety chute, landing in marshy terrain and injuring his back, although not seriously. Smiling, he shouted that the incident would have 'made my father proud'.

Over the village of Ranville, a Second World War vintage Dakota dropped 18 British and French senior officers ahead of a spectacular display by nearly 1,400 British, Canadian and Polish paratroops who jumped at 800 feet from 17 Hercules transports.

'An older aeroplane for older soldiers,' said General Mike Jackson, one of five generals in the aircraft. Ranville, near the city of Caen, claims it was the first village to be liberated.

Just before the aircraft arrived from England, three Lynx helicopters followed the route used by the gliders which carried soldiers of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry just ahead of the British paratroops to Pegasus Bridge in the village of Benouville.

Corporal Rob Hawley - a Canadian paratrooper who landed just by the podium where the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, dressed respectively in British and Canadian parachute regiment uniforms, were later to take a salute - noted that yesterday's paratroops had jumped in daylight from planes flying 200 feet higher than those of 1944.

'We could do that at night but it would be scary,' he said. 'It gives you an appreciation of what those men did.' Officers said two of the men in the operation were slightly injured, compared with a usual casualty rate on jumps of 10 to 15 per cent. Colin Powell of Stockton-on-Tees, who was 20 when he parachuted into France as part of D-Day's advance guard, said the anniversary celebrations gave him 'a lot of mixed emotions, especially when you see those graves of 16-year-olds who lied about their ages in the cemeteries'.

After the display, members of the three countries' units marched past Prince Charles, led by two Shetland pony mascots - one of them called 'Pegasus' after the Parachute Regiment's emblem. The Queen and Prince Philip arrived by the royal yacht Britannia yesterday evening. Altogether, 19 members of royalty, heads of state and government will attend D- Day celebrations in France today.

At the Ranville military cemetery, on Place General Sir Richard Gale, named after the commander of the 1944 operation, buglers from the Royal Greenjackets, which absorbed the 'Ox and Bucks' in the modern army, played the 'Last Post'. Prince Charles unveiled a bust of Sir Richard in the village hall.

Before the first British ceremonies, hundreds of veterans, in berets and blazers covered with their decorations mingled with French visitors by Pegasus Bridge, which took its name from the operation, and ate snacks at a cafe owned by Arlette Gondree, who was four years old at the time of the invasion.

Today, hosts of other ceremonies will mark the Normandy landings. The main British events will be at the Bayeux military cemetery and at Arromanches where the main seaborne British contingent landed. At Omaha beach to the west, President Francois Mitterrand will preside over an international ceremony bringing together all the participants.

A letter from Mr Mitterrand, given to every veteran, said: 'To those who, 50 years later, have come to pay their respects at the graves of their fallen comrades, or to see again together the theatre of so much glory and so much suffering, I express the gratitude of France.'

(Photographs omitted)

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