'We felt fear, but you just ran and prayed'

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AS VETERANS of D-Day gathered in their tens of thousands in Normandy and the south coast of England, the Queen spoke last night of the high price paid in human life during the Normandy landings.

Addressing a banquet in Portsmouth, she said: 'A great debt is owed to those who made that sacrifice, to all those who fought in the Normandy campaign and, not least, to the men and women of the auxiliary organisations who, in diverse ways and with selfless dedication, made the operation possible.'

'Operation Overlord was a mighty deed, which proved what can be achieved against daunting odds when governments and peoples act together with conviction in a common cause. We are right to look back on it with pride and with thanks to God for its success, but we cannot let it rest there.

'We must keep faith with those who landed on the beaches of Normandy 50 years ago by continuing to be vigilant in defence of peace and freedom. This commemoration has brought the past into the present - may it also be an inspiration for the future.'

The Portsmouth banquet marked the end of a rain- drenched day of events setting in motion the D-Day commemorations. Bill Clinton, paying his first visit to Britain as President, had begun the day outside Cambridge among US veterans at the American Military Cemetery in Madingley.

It was an occasion which drew attention to the President's youth. His predecessor, George Bush, was a veteran of the Pacific war but, at 47, Mr Clinton is too young to have known the conflict he was there to commemorate.

And yesterday, he had a tough act to follow: Lloyd Bentsen, 73, the US Treasury Secretary. who did fight in the Second World War. A twice- decorated bomber squadron commander, Mr Bentsen delivered a personal reminiscence of great poignancy and eloquence.

'Here in England, and in every airfield and on every front, boys grew into men way too fast,' he said. 'Here airfields operated 24 hours a day, the Americans flying by day, the British by night. They squeezed the oxygen hose to break up frozen breath clogging their face masks. They cranked down their landing gear by hand because the hydraulics were shot out. The ground crews cheered when their plane made it back.

'At the target, a pilot, say six feet tall at the start, would be five feet at the end from squeezing down in the seat. The flak came up in black clouds. That flak gear - every flyer wished it was a suit, not just a vest. One minute a plane's out front. The next, the one behind is flying through the debris, counting parachutes, praying they're not next.'

The commemorative spotlight switches to Normandy today, and the veterans are already there in force, filling every hotel, farmhouse and caravan site for miles around the beaches. At every turn in Caen, Bayeux and the surrounding villages there are busloads of veterans, convoys of restored war vehicles and streets of bunting.

The place is awash with emotion. Each man has a tale to tell. Each has his own reasons for coming and his own expectations of what he will get out of it. For some it will be cathartic; for others, painful.

Len Wooldridge, 70, is one of an estimated 10,000 British veterans at the scene of the landings. His main aim was to meet a 61-year-old French woman he had not seen since the invasion. Jacqueline Cogny was 11 years old at the time, working with her father in the fields near Amiens when Mr Wooldridge - then a private with the 2nd Battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment - stopped to rest after days of fighting.

'We asked them how it had been under the Germans and whether they needed anything,' he said. 'The little girl said they had no soap. I went to my bag and got two bars of Lifebuoy and you'd think I'd given her the world.'

Charles Wilkinson, 72, from Leeds, was among the first to land on Gold beach near Arromanches. Now a frail, proud man with a row of medals, he talks firmly, like so many veterans, of what had to be done. But he also recalls wading past dead bodies in the water, and he remembers that the water was red.

'We just felt fear,' he said. 'But once the doors of the landing craft fell, you just ran and prayed. The orders were that if you were with your brother and he got shot, you left him and just kept going.

'It was a job that had to be done and we did it but we didn't walk away from it lightly. We're fine now, but if you see us in one of the British cemeteries, don't expect to see a dry eye.'

Since the embarrassing news broke of French attempts to eject elderly Canadians from a hotel to make way for VIPs, the veterans have been put at the forefront of all planning. British Ministry of Defence officials have been working for 18 months to ensure the smooth running of the various commemorative events, expected to cost about pounds 5m.

French officials say an extra six million people will pass through the region during the next few days; 1,500 British troops have been drafted in to help; 6,000 extra French police will be on duty; up to 60,000 veterans of all participating countries are expected to be in the area tomorrow; 5,000 French military personnel will patrol the region, working with police to secure generous cordons sanitaires around the various heads of state and government.

Excluded from the official D-Day ceremonies, German veterans assembled yesterday in the La Combe cemetery near Bayeux to honour their dead. About 500 people, in the presence of a French guard of honour and military band, attended an hour-long ceremony of remembrance.

The question of German participation in the D-Day anniversary ceremonies has been controversial and France finally decided to stick to the practice of previous years by honouring only the victorious allies.

In the ranks of Allied veterans, meanwhile, one died after a heart attack in a Caen hospital and two others were said to be seriously ill. Their nationalities were not disclosed.

Terror and pity, page 15

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