D-Day Anniverary: 'I was shot by a dead German soldier'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As the 65th anniversary of D-Day approaches, Terri Judd hears one survivor's extraordinary memories of the Normandy Landings

Former Lance Sergeant Ray "Titch" Rayner paused to study an image of a dozen white haired men, sitting stiffly upright for the cameraman, their medals glistening on smart blazers.

"He's dead and he's dead," he repeated as his finger rested on one proud face after another. In just five years – since the 60th Anniversary of D-Day – most of the survivors of one of the most audacious battles in history have gone. Lifting a frail hand, Mr Rayner continued: "You could probably count those of us left on these fingers."

But, just six months short of his 90th birthday, the former member of D Company, 2nd Battalion, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, gives every impression of a man who expects to commemorate the 75th anniversary on the Normandy beaches, let alone the 65th next week.

On Saturday 6 th June, he and other veterans will gather to mark the day, an event that has been mired in controversy since the Government said that the assistance that had been provided for the 60th would not be forthcoming this year as it was not a key anniversary.

After a campaign by The Independent successfully raised funds for veterans to visit the Normandy Beaches, Prime Minister Gordon Brown belatedly insisted there would be high-level attendance at the ceremony and payment of travel costs for former soldiers wishing to attend for what might be the last time.

Mr Rayner is in no doubt how important that commemoration will be. Immaculate in a perfectly ironed shirt, sporting a tie bearing the Pegasus winged horse emblem of the airborne forces, the widower recalled every moment of that fateful day and the name of every one of the band of brothers who survived or died beside him. Mr Rayner was part of an elite-trained force, led by Major John Howard, which took part in one of the epic battles of D-Day. He and 181 of his colleagues were dropped into France with the mission of capturing two bridges from the Germans and preventing them sending reinforcements to repel the beach landings.

It would be what is called a "coup de main" operation: a swift attack relying on speed and surprise.

Their training had taken two years: "Once we did a route march of 137 miles in three-and-a-half days with 80lbs on our backs. Anybody who fell out on that would not go on the operation because they would have been a liability. Only one man did." He still recalls how, while the others nursed sore feet, he and his best friend Pete Barwick went off to a local dance that night. Sergeant Barwick would not survive the war.

Finally they were gathered at Tarrant Rushton Airfield, Dorset, and told of their mission. Six gliders, each bearing two pilots and 28 men of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, were to fly into France to take two vital bridges – now known as Horsa and Pegasus – from the Germans. With information from the French Resistance, the plan was meticulous. The men even knew the names of the German officers they would face. To fail would put other Allied troops in jeopardy as their enemy would then be able to get across to repel the invasion on the Normandy beaches.

"General (Field Marshal Bernard) Montgomery came to John Howard and said 'Bring as many as of your boys back as you can'. That was when we knew we were going on a very dangerous mission."

But Lance Sgt Rayner and his men were buoyant as they boarded the gliders at 11pm on 5th June 1944, excited and eager to put their training into practice. "We were all singing until we were told to shut up," he added. The plywood Horsa gliders literally crashed at their destination in the early hours of the next day, in one instance knocking all of the men on board temporarily unconscious. Due to a navigator's error, Lance Sgt Rayner's glider landed eight miles from their target, Horsa Bridge, surrounded by machine-gun fire. His wireless operator was killed next to him. There was nothing they could do but keep going. Lost and alone in enemy territory, their lieutenant, Tony Hooper, went to recce the area. Minutes later Lance Sgt Rayner and Captain Brian Priday realised he had been captured by two Germans. Drawing their guns up, they yelled "Jump Tony!" As the platoon commander dived for cover, they opened fire and killed the two Germans. As one fell, his finger still on the trigger, he sprayed fire back, hitting Lance Sgt Rayner through the right arm.

"It was like a red hot poker going through my arm," he said, before adding with a grin that he was the only person to be able to say he had been shot by a dead German. After taking the nearby bridge, the survivors made their way to their original objective through the pitch black. The land had been deliberately flooded by their enemy and there were the bodies of some kit-laden paratroopers who had drowned amid the mire upon landing. Unable to swim with his injured arm, Lance Sgt Rayner was dragged by his men for six hours before they reached farm buildings on high ground where they could dry off and receive medical attention.

Finally 16 of them – along with 30 parachutists – made it back to their objective, where both bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne were successfully taken. Lance Sgt Rayner returned to England to tend his wounds but was back on the battlefield in Germany by February 1945. His arm still weak, he was promoted to Provost Sergeant with the task of burying the 150 men his regiment had lost.

He talked without a hint of self-pity of having to gather up their charred and amputated remains in blankets to give them a decent burial, carefully gathering up personal effects, photographs to send home to their families. He brushed off any suggestion that such images might still haunt him. His only scar, he insisted, was the slight mark where the bullet exited his right arm. But he conceded he had a deep affinity for the troops who have recently returned from battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, and felt deeply for the terribly injured youngsters he has met.

For them, he explained, he will return to Tarrant Rushton Airfield next Thursday, where only a tarmac landing-strip offers any evidence of the historic mission once launched there.

Mr Rayner will make the journey to see off over 200 runners embarking on a commemorative 65-mile marathon to Pegasus Bridge, hoping to raise £500,000 for six charities – The Royal British Legion, the Army and RAF Benevolent Funds, Help for Heroes, BLESMA (for the limbless) and St Dunstan's (for the blind). "It is very important. We are doing this for all the people getting injured and losing limbs in Afghanistan," said the great-grandfather, who lost his wife Joan 17 years ago.

"I would have liked to have run it. But they said 'You can't. You are 90'. So I will be there to set them off and greet them at Pegasus Bridge."

Mr Rayner left the army in 1946 and returned to his home town of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where he ran a building business. But his home is virtually a museum to his time in World War II, pictures of his old friends, paintings of the battles they fought, and even a model of a Horsa glider.

At Pegasus next week he will unveil one of six plaques dedicated to the 181 men who took part in the coup de main operation.

For Mr Rayner, it will be a vital chance to greet old friends, the few that remain, and swap notes with the younger generation now caught up in brutal combat themselves.

His advice to them, he said, would be brief: "You have got to keep your head, it is just as simple as that. Don't do anything silly."

Assault into France: The Normandy Landings

*D-Day was the term used for the Normandy Landings of the Second World War, the largest single-day amphibious invasion of all time.



*The assault into France on 6 June, 1944, was conducted in two phases: an air assault landing of American, British and Canadian airborne troops shortly after midnight, and an amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armoured divisions on the coast commencing at 6.30am



*More than 160,000 troops landed on a 50-mile stretch divided into five sectors – the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – supported by more than 5,000 ships.



*The allies suffered 10,000 casualties – men killed, wounded or captured – while the German losses were said to be between 4,000 and 9,000.



*Both the (later renamed) Pegasus bridge near Bénouville and the Horsa bridge near Ranville were of key strategic importance to the operation, to secure the eastern flank of the invasion area and prevent German armour from attacking the British 3rd Infantry Division which was landing on Sword Beach later on D-Day.

D-Day anniversary: The order of service

*00.16 Pegasus Bridge – The 200 Project 65 runners will arrive, timed to coincide with the original D-Day landings by the Horsa gliders. Attended by the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt

*10.30 Bayeux Cathedral – Royal British Legion memorial service, attended by the Defence Secretary, John Hutton.

*11.00 Bayeux War Cemetery – Normandy Veterans Association memorial service and wreath-laying ceremony, attended by John Hutton.

*14.00 A memorial dedicated to the men who took part in the coup de main operation will be unveiled at the site of the original Pegasus Bridge in the grounds of the Airborne Museum. Attended by General Sir Richard Dannatt

*14.30 American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking Omaha Beach – International ceremony of commemoration will be attended by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, US President Barack Obama and other world leaders.

*16.00 Arramanches – Veterans march through the town before gathering in the square for a fly-past by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and a memorial service attended by Veterans Minister Kevan Jones.

To donate go to www.project65.net

News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people
News
people
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Mentor for people who have offended

This is an unpaid volunteer role. : Belong: We are looking for volunteers who ...

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher - French

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Modern Foreign Language Teach...

RE/Humanities, Sittingbourne School

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: We urgently seek an experienced ...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Southampton: Randstad Education are recruiting ...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?