Jack Tilley stood staring at the name of Sub-Lieutenant C G Perre as he struggled to find words to explain why this particular war grave among 4,165 was so important. Hampered by a recent stroke, the 80-year-old apologised for his jumbled sentences. Another Normandy veteran, Victor MacKenzie, grabbed his arm protectively and pointed to the Distinguished Service Medal on his friend's chest. "You see that: that's just one down from a VC. He is a amazing man."
They were among some 10,000 veterans at this weekend's commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the day Allied forces began liberating France. Thousands descended yesterday upon the clipped lawns of the Bayeux Commonwealth Cemetery to watch a ceremony attended by the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the French President, Jacques Chirac, one of many across the region.
As a Royal Navy Commando, Mr Tilley was dropping American troops off at the notoriously bloody Omaha Beach on D-Day when he realised a mine had wedged the ramp shut. "He could not swim so he jumped into the water, clinging to ropes, and he pushed the mine away so the men could get off safely. He won't tell you that. He is too modest," his friend said.
Mr MacKenzie, also aged 80, who landed on Gold Beach two days later as part of the 7th Armoured Division, did not have an easy time either. "When I landed the bodies were still being washed in from the sea," he said. By the end of the Battle of Normandy his company had lost a quarter of its men.
The mood at the commemorations had at times been celebratory, with jubilant crowds cheering, fireworks and air displays, but a more sombre tone was evident yesterday. The autograph-hunters and military enthusiasts had gone. In their place came quiet reflection about those who did not make it and the horrors vivid in the minds of those who survived.
David March, 78, who served in Normandy with the North Staffords, described his recollection of war bluntly, without a hint of self-pity: "a massacre".
Cyril Ellis, a Royal Marine from 41 Commando who landed at Sword Beach at 7.25am on 6 June 1944, said: "We were 40 when we landed and 24 were knocked down. There was machine-gun fire, mortars, snipers. They just dropped and we had to keep running. Someone behind us would pick them up."
The 80-year-old Blackpool widower and great-grandfather added: "I had done two landings in Sicily and Italy but I was scared. I was shaking before we landed. If anyone says they weren't scared I say I don't believe you - we all were."
A foggy morning which delayed proceedings turned into a hot day as countless old soldiers, sporting rows of medals, parked their wheelchairs under the horse chestnuts of the cemetery. Tony Blair, stopping in front of Gordon Church, a member of the Royal Artillery group that landed on Gold Beach, who was, at 96, the oldest of the veterans present, said: "On behalf of my generation, the younger ones, thank you."
The crowd's most heartfelt applause was saved for the veterans who marched to the sound of the King's Division Normandy Band. Almost 1,000 in number, they paraded with only the odd limp or faltering step. From the back one old soldier, among a small contingent of Belgians, broke with tradition as he gave a thumbs-up to those who had waited patiently in the sun.
The tone of the simple ceremony was set by the Rev David Wilkes, Army Chaplain General. He said: "There are veterans in this service and many other services taking place this weekend who remember because they cannot forget. Their lives were shattered."
Yesterday was indeed primarily about the raw feelings still evident among those who remember. Among the row upon row of graves, engraved with personal messages, new tributes appeared. The card on one bunch of flowers bore the message: "In loving memory of Private A E Baker from his sister Doris and family." Nearby a former soldier, too young to remember the Second World War, cried as he placed crosses of remembrance on every grave of a Somerset Light Infantry soldier.
A few rows down, all was quiet near the graves of 466 German soldiers. Only Eric Treherne, 79, and his wife were reading the inscriptions. "We were looking at the differences in their ages," he explained. "They were either old men or just boys. I remember being struck by the ones I saw; they were just schoolboys. Being an infantryman I didn't hate them. There was no nastiness. There is no bitterness there."
Some were there to remember for those who had taken decades of pain to their graves. Lily Mason, 85, her late husband's medals shining against her black suit, could barely watch as the veterans marched past in the way that her spouse had done during the 40th anniversary commemoration. Frederick Mason, who served with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the Battle for Normandy, died three years ago.
Proudly showing off the Normandy 2004 medal that she had collected on his behalf the day before, tears ran from her eyes as she said: "When I saw the veterans march past, that was it. It was all those uniforms and I thought of my husband. He was a lovely, gentle man."
But he could never forget seeing two of his closest friends shot by a sniper who also hit him in the shoulder and the knee, she said, adding: "It always haunted him."Reuse content