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Veterans for bird's-eye view of landing beaches: Will Bennett joins a special Dakota flight over the Normandy coastline chosen for Operation Overlord

THE last time Reg Jones arrived at Gold Beach he was standing nervously in a tank landing craft with German shells exploding all around him, on the morning of the D-Day invasion.

Yesterday he saw the beach again for the first time in half a century, but on this occasion he looked down from the noisy vantage point of an elderly Dakota aircraft.

The Dakota DC-3 G-AMPZ was built a few months after the invasion of Normandy and provided a fitting form of transport over the beaches for a party of veterans and aviation enthusiasts. On D-Day, 850 Dakotas were used as airborne workhorses, dropping paratroops and towing gliders.

Yesterday's flight was the first of a series over the D-Day beaches, laid on at pounds 99 a head by the Dakota's owners, Air Atlantique.

Mr Jones, 69, a retired horticulturalist from New Milton, Hampshire, jumped at the chance. He was a Stoker First Class on LCT521 on a day he remembers with absolute clarity.

As the landing craft hit the beach, it detonated a mine and became stuck fast on one of the steel beach defences. Mr Jones recalled: 'As the tide receded it was obvious we would be left high and dry, stranded like a whale. Not that I appreciated it at the time, but I had a grandstand view of the D-Day invasion from the early morning.'

Looking down yesterday, he tried to reconcile what he remembered with what he could see. This time the only German equipment pointed at him was the camera of a German television crew, who interviewed him with Teutonic thoroughness.

He said: 'It's so totally different today. You have not got the atmosphere, you have not got the fear, the gut feeling of apprehension about what was going to happen when you landed on the beaches.

'It brings it all back, but it can never really recapture the moment. However, I would not have missed it. It is nice to come back while you are still able to do so.'

The roar of the Dakota, described by its pilot, Captain Andrew Dixon, as 'not a fly-by-wire plane . . . it's heaved by cable', provided an appropriate background for Betty Hockey to remember her war.

Now 77, Mrs Hockey, from Bournemouth, was a dancer entertaining Allied servicemen, and on the night before D-Day danced the cancan for an enthusiastic audience of British and American pilots. She recalled yesterday: 'The atmosphere was electric. Because some of them had to leave to fly over Normandy during the show, we had 'God Save The King' and 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at the beginning. They went wild.'

Mrs Hockey added: 'The next day the camp was deserted and I have often wondered how many of them were shot down a few hours after the show.'

For Albert Jenkin, who spent the war as a wireless operator and gunner in RAF Bomber Command, yesterday was the first time he had flown since 1945. During the war he went on dozens of missions over North Africa, Sicily, Italy and northern Europe.

Mr Jenkin, 72, a retired council official from near New Milton, said: 'I have never flown in a jet and this is a bit like the old times. We used to fly in Dakotas as passengers when we were moving from one station to another.' Yesterday, the aircraft flew at 1,500ft past the beaches at a stately 160mph. Mr Jones said: 'When we were down there, we used to look up at the planes going over us. Now at least I'm getting the same bird's-eye view that the pilots had then.'