50th Anniversary of D-Day: Town gives rousing welcome as veterans return to Sword Beach: Half a century has not diminished the gratitude of people in Hermanville, writes Will Bennett

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The Independent Online
THE men of the British 3rd Infantry Division marched in from Sword Beach last night their welcome from the local population undiminished by the passing of half a century.

Unlike the huge official events marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day, this was a more informal occasion for old comrades, their families and the many friends that the veterans of the 3rd Division have made in the town of Hermanville-sur-Mer.

Now mostly in their seventies they have often returned over the years to visit those they freed on the morning of 6 June 1944. Because of this D-Day has come to mean much to local people too young to remember it. Last night, more than 100 veterans marched behind the band of the Army Air Corps at a leisurely pace. On the 40th anniversary the music was provided by the Light Infantry whose tradition of quick marching 'nearly finished some of us off', according to one old soldier.

They followed the road they took inland on D-Day after quickly overwhelming the German defenders on Sword, the most easterly of the five Allied invasion beaches. Then, there was hardly a civilian to be seen; last night, they were applauded all the way.

People waved from balconies and gardens and children ran alongside as they marched in from the beach to the cemetery in the town where the division set up its headquarters in the mayor's offices on D-Day. The veterans remember that first advance 50 years ago with absolute clarity. Jack Hodgson, 72, from Leeds, who was in the Royal Army Medical Corps, joked: 'It can't be 50 years, we're not old enough.'

Reginald Rutherford, who led the first platoon of one of the first units to land on Sword, was there, too frail to march but determined to take part. He said: 'There are too many people I knew in the graveyard here to forget.'

Mr Rutherford, 79, from Scunthorpe, Humberside, a lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment, won the Military Cross for gallantry later in the war.

He said: 'I was very seasick in the landing craft. I thought it was going to be better to be ashore, but in fact it was far worse.

'The moment we got out of the boat the Germans drenched the beach with every kind of fire. Of 33 men I commanded, I took 15 ashore and I lost a further two at the main road nearby.'

Last night, the veterans were presented with commemorative medals by the French authorities before the march. Later a square in front of the cemetery was renamed Place des Combattants 6 Juin 1944. In Hermanville cemetery more than 1,000 graves include many of men of the 3rd Division. Mr Rutherford's comrades in the East Yorkshires lie alongside soldiers of the South Lancashires, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Suffolk Regiment, the King's Shropshire Light Infantry and other units.

Ten of Mr Rutherford's family were with him at the cemetery, some having come from Australia. Today there will be a big official ceremony there, one of a series of ceremonies taking place on the beaches of Normandy.

The main British commemorative event of the day, at Arromanches, will be attended by the Queen, the Prince of Wales, Princess Margaret, The Princess Royal and her husband Commander Tim Laurence, and the Dukes of Gloucester and Kent.

But last night was an occasion for the people of Hermanville and their own personal veterans.

(Photograph omitted)