They came from Caen, Arromanches, Deauville - anywhere they could rent a room - and headed for the British war cemetery in Bayeux, there to see their fallen comrades honoured in the rain. Roads for miles around the site had been sealed off, allowing access only to the veterans, the dignitaries and the media. It came as a surprise, then, to find the approach to the cemetery lined with cheering French people.
The surprise was a pleasant one; each time they saw a beret, a uniform or a row of polished medals, the French burst into spontaneous applause. That was when the first began to cry.
There are 3,935 British dead at Bayeux cemetery, the largest single group from a total of 4,648. That figure includes 181 Canadians, 17 Australians, 25 Poles and 466 Germans. It is a wide, peaceful place. Yesterday, its clipped lawns turned to mud as persistent drizzle fell from gunmetal skies.
The service to remember the dead began about 20 minutes late - the first of a number of problems - when the Queen and President Francois Mitterrand flew in aboard separate helicopters. They stood on a platform before the Cross of Sacrifice, one of two stone monuments in the cemetery, and were encircled by Normandy veterans bearing the standards of their local associations.
Monsignor Noel Mullin, head of naval chaplains, the Rev Ian Thomson, director of RAF chaplains, and the Rev James Harkness, the most senior Army chaplain, jointly conducted the service. There were hymns before the Duke of Edinburgh read from The Pilgrim's Progress. John and Norma Major were there, as were Edouard Balladur, the French Prime Minister, and the heads of state of New Zealand, Belgium, Luxembourg and Norway.
The most poignant moment, when tears ran down the cheeks of many of the 6,500 veterans, came when a Royal Marine bugler sounded the 'Last Post', followed by two minutes' silence, sadly broken by the siren of a passing ambulance.
'It was very moving,' said Julian Lewis, 78, of a member of the Association of Jewish Ex-servicemen. 'There was a young boy standing in front of me with his grandfather and I told him that the dignity of the event said it all. He said he would never forget. He would keep the memory alive.'
But many of the veterans felt the ceremony was anything but dignified. Dozens were unable to march into the cemetery with their standards unfurled because organisers limited the number to 36 to safeguard the view of the 10,000 assembled. There were also complaints that no time was allotted for laying wreaths.
John McGhee, 70, a former Royal Marine, said the parade was 'utter chaos', adding: 'Dozens of the men were very upset that they couldn't march with their standards on the 50th anniversary.'
Jack Robinson, 72, president of the Birmingham No 9 Normandy Veterans' Association, was one of those whose standard was kept under wraps. 'It's not a very good state of affairs at all . . . The parade marshalls let 36 go through and then told the rest of us to furl our standards. It would have been nice to march with it,' he said.
Eddie Byatt, 70, who landed on Gold beach with the Middlesex Regiment, was allowed to march with his standard, but he said the event was disorganised. 'There was an Australian near me who had spent pounds 2,000 to get here and they told him to lower his standard,' he said. 'I told him to stand fast with me, and we got through in the end. The whole thing - the standards, no time to lay wreaths - was disorganised. The National Anthem wasn't even played.'
There was an element of farce, too, in Mr Major's exit. He appeared to have been abandoned by French security and was left to battle through dense crowds with only two of his own security men for protection. The only way he could make progress was by signing autographs.Reuse content