On this day of days they came to remember. We will never forget

Yesterday the last of Britain's fighting men who stormed the beaches of Normandy 60 years ago gathered in France, perhaps for the final time, to honour the fallen and join with old comrades to commemorate the D-Day landings. It was a day of tears, of course, but laughter, too, a day of regret and reminiscence, truly a day to remember
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Walter Eastham would have loved the beach at dawn yesterday. It was so peaceful. The only figure on the sands was a fisherman wading into the sea, his shadow long in the pale orange light. Sixty years ago Pte Eastham and tens of thousands of other men approached through the hazy light of morning in ships and landing craft to find this and other beaches thick with black smoke, the sands shaking from artillery fire and bombs and littered with debris: barbed wire, tank traps, mines, the bodies of the fallen.

Walter Eastham would have loved the beach at dawn yesterday. It was so peaceful. The only figure on the sands was a fisherman wading into the sea, his shadow long in the pale orange light. Sixty years ago Pte Eastham and tens of thousands of other men approached through the hazy light of morning in ships and landing craft to find this and other beaches thick with black smoke, the sands shaking from artillery fire and bombs and littered with debris: barbed wire, tank traps, mines, the bodies of the fallen.

The dead may never have known the name of the town that lay just beyond the stretch of sand their commanders had designated Sword. The flags of France, Canada, America and Great Britain hung limply yesterday from poles on the private houses along the shoreline of Hermanville-sur-Mer. There was graffiti on the beach wall but none on the memorial, where someone had placed a wreath of poppies. And a small wooden cross, marked with the name Pte Walter Eastham, Pioneer Corps, 13088111.

They left no details of his story. He was just one of so many. But however much you have read or watched, however cautiously you approach the memories of old soldiers, however wary you are of the pomp that will surround the gathering of heads of state in Caen today, it remains true that the fate of Walter Eastham and all those others who died in Normandy begs a question that has haunted generations: what if it had been me? The question was unavoidable on the beach yesterday, made more strident by the calm. What if you or I were not eating our breakfast in bed or reading the newspaper on the sofa this morning but back in the Channel early on this day in 1944? Sick from the sea and the fear, numb and dizzy with adrenalin as the landing craft lurches against the sand. Soaked, lashed by wind and rain, chafed by the khaki and weighed down by equipment. Unable to believe the sights before us, unable to escape. And that is even before we jump forward with the rest, hit the icy water and stumble into the maelstrom of Sword, or Gold, or Juno, or, God help us, Omaha.

The first soldiers there were cut down while still in the sea. The next wave were pinned to the sand for hours. By the end of the day just over 34,250 men would have landed, of whom 2,000 were killed or seriously wounded. They were luckier on Utah, the other American landing site, landing 23,250 men with only 200 casualties. More than 96,000 troops landed on Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, with 3,000 casualties.

"We slowed to a snail's pace and, around 4.45am the anchors rattled down into the water, and I could hear some of the curses of men swinging their assault barges over the transport's side. You couldn't see the heads of the troops over their sides, just the coxswain's helmet sticking up from the stern. It was light then, and the scene was quickly changing from one of an even line of boats knifing in orderly rows behind their leaders towards the beach to a scene of carnage. One Higgins boat was completely disintegrated by a direct hit from shore. There were no survivors."

Carter Barber, an American correspondent, watched the bloody events at Omaha from a US Coast Guard cutter just offshore.

Most of the American memorial events are due to take place today, when President George Bush will be in Normandy. The Queen and other heads of state will be with him, including the German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The leaders of Norway, France and Belgium took part in joint ceremonies yesterday. But heads of state did not fight on the beaches. Ordinary men from 14 nations did. Yesterday they assembled at battlefields all over Normandy to remember. A mile inland from Sword at dawn, gardeners were working in the grounds of the British war cemetery at Hermanville. "These two days, of all the days, they have to be perfect," said Jean-Luc, one of two middle-aged groundsmen, "We make sure that these men are looking their best." He was straightening Union flags placed in the soil in front of some of the 986 British graves by relatives.

As Jean-Luc spoke, a flotilla of warships was leaving from Portsmouth harbour on the other side of the Channel, heading for France. A Lancaster bomber and two Spitfires flew low over the departing ships. Veterans in regimental blazers hung with medals lined the deck of the MV Van Gogh. "It is mild today," said Alfred Allan, 84, from Lisburn in Northern Ireland, a telegraphist on the frigate HMS Seymour 60 years ago, trying to protect troop ships from submarine and patrol boat attacks. "It was a bit rough back then."

So rough that the Germans did not expect an attack. A lull in the storm enabled the Allies to surprise them. Among the first towns they reached was Colleville-sur-Orne, which later changed its name to Colleville-Montgomery in honour of the Commander-in-Chief of ground forces for the invasion, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Yesterday morning 1,200 members of the Normandy Veterans Association paraded before a statue of Monty and saluted the Duke of Gloucester, their patron. As they did so a young man held up a placard saying: "The young are grateful".

The Mayor of Colleville, Guy Legrand, said: "Today the children and grandchildren of those you liberated are standing here to express their gratitude. We will never forget your comrades who gave their lives in the fight; those who were wounded and those who still suffer."

"In that first magnificent rush up the beaches on Tuesday many pillboxes and strongpoints were by-passed as the Commandos had objectives to reach 'at all costs'... A corporal sank to his knees half-way up the beach towards a pillbox. He was quickly on his feet again and shouting 'Come on mates!' rushed right up to the pillbox, from which half a dozen machine guns were firing. He fell again. He had led his men to the death. His body had more than 50 wounds ...

Noel Monks, Daily Mail

Ronald Porter was 19 when he waded ashore on Gold beach, up to his neck in water, holding his weapon high. "This is the fourth time I have been back," said Mr Porter, now 79, from Swansea. "I lost a lot of mates. Those of us who can come back are the lucky ones." He was landing on foreign soil, but a small band of French commandos were coming home that day. One eye still clouded by the injuries he suffered 60 years ago, Paul Chouteau pointed yesterday to the spot where he returned to France at 7.20am on 6 June. Mr Chouteau, 82, who was hit by a German mortar shell during the assault on Sword Beach, was part of the British 4 Commando force which included 177 élite French marines chosen to help lead the assault and, symbolically, be among the first to fire at the occupier that had driven them out four years earlier.

"I was hit as we ran up the beach," he said. "I had five pieces of shrapnel in my back - one of them is still in me. But I still remember that day with pride. It was important to us to be French and on that beach. We were concentrating on what we had to do but I know it felt good to touch French soil again."

Yesterday, Mr Chouteau was one of six from Commando Kieffer - the unit was named after its commanding officer - who were decorated with France's highest military award, the Légion d'honneur, at a ceremony on Sword Beach. Of the 33 members of Commando Kieffer still surviving from D-Day, only these six and a fellow comrade, who will receive his decoration from President Jacques Chirac today, had not received the prestigious medal. But there was little sign of ill feeling among the French commandos, several of whom leant on crutches and walking sticks, as hundreds of their compatriots turned out at the main war memorial on the sand dunes at Ouistreham, the port of Caen, to salute them.

Eugène Guinebault, 81, described how Commando Kieffer recruited from regular French forces who had escaped from Dunkirk and others who had passed through Spain, Africa and the Americas to reach England. They endured the rough crossing in the early hours of 6 June in their two small landing craft, numbered 526 and 527. "I was very sick," he said. "Everybody was sick, sick. But before we landed we were given a drink of calvados or cognac to fortify us. We got on with our job."

Seriously injured in the weeks after D-Day, Mr Guinebault fought on until he collapsed from exhaustion. After the war he set up a restaurant in the Sussex town of Bexhill-on-Sea, where the French Commandos were based before the invasion. He now lives in Hackney, east London. "I didn't expect to be honoured today. Some of my colleagues think it has been a long time coming. But I am touched. I hope in my village they will hear about this and feel proud of me."

Another of the 177 in Commando Kieffer was Léon Gautier: "We knew we had a job to finish and our British friends had a great spirit. We were proud to say we were with the British and they said the same. At 6am, we could see France. Seeing my country after four years away was very emotional. Col Dawson, who was in charge, said: 'We give the French the honour of being first ashore.' That was a great honour and we thanked him very much for giving us the opportunity. Unfortunately I lost a friend there. He just had time to see France and die. Everybody had believed they would come back. It took four hours to conquer the town and by 11.30am, Ouistreham was liberated."

By midday on 6 June the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, felt able to report the landings to the House of Commons. The British and Canadian forces, and the Americans who had landed on Utah beach, were making good progress. But it would be another two hours before any Americans could escape the bloodbath on Omaha. The German 352nd Division reported to headquarters that the invasion had been repulsed. Meanwhile Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who knew better, was rushing back to the coast from Germany.

"Slowly, laboriously, as though they were Atlas carrying the world on their shoulders, men were [climbing]. They were not firing. They were just moving slowly ... like a tired pack-train at the end of the day, going the other way from home ... Meantime, the destroyers had run in almost to the beach and were blowing every pillbox out of the ground with their 5in guns. I saw a piece of German about three feet long with an arm on it sail high up into the air in the fountaining of one shellburst."

Ernest Hemingway, a correspondent for Colliers

The first Allied troops into France on D-Day had come by parachute and glider just after midnight on 6 June. Their ability to hold the bridge code-named Pegasus against fierce opposition and overwhelming odds was key to the invasion's success. The bridge yesterday lunchtime was the site of a grand event with the Prince of Wales as guest of honour.

Geoff Barkway, an 82-year-old grandfather from Surrey, was one of the veterans who would meet the Prince; but first he slipped away in the morning with a small group of veterans and servicemen and women to the village of St Vaast-en-Auge. There they stood with local people to remember 12 men not buried in grand war graves but in the picturesque cemetery surrounding a 12th-century church. Mr Barkway, who was a 22-year-old with the Glider Pilot Regiment on D-Day, stood by the gravestone of his old friend Staff Sgt "Choppy" Hopgood. "He was quite a bouncy fellow. He was fun to be with. I have never been able to find out how his glider ended up here."

The two men were among the pilots of 350 gliders sent into France in the hours before the sea invasion, to drop off artillery and troops. Two gliders - a Horsa and a larger Hamilcar - broke their tows and went off course, crashing near the village of St Vaast. Eleven pilots and soldiers were killed immediately or died fighting. Later a Canadian para was killed nearby. "The mayor, Lucien Borel, was told by the Germans to bury them where they were, but he brought them here to the cemetery to give them a decent burial," said retired Brigadier Maurice Sutcliffe OBE.

For six decades locals have tended the spot, placing fresh flowers and mementos by the row of 12 white stones. The mayor is also buried next to them. The youngest soldier to die was just 21; the oldest at 40 was Capt Spencer Daisley, a quartermaster who insisted on staying with the vital equipment he was transporting instead of parachuting out with his regiment.

The villagers joined veterans and soldiers yesterday in an act of remembrance led by Mark O'Keeffe, padre of 3 Regiment Army Air Corps. The Last Post echoed through the churchyard as it did at higher profile gatherings around Normandy yesterday, and at many smaller ceremonies like this. The silence was broken only by birdsong. Thérèse Buhot-Soulier, who was nine in 1944, wept quietly. "My parents hid two English parachutists while the Germans occupied the upstairs rooms," she said. "I remember being occupied. These people were our liberators."

Slowly and unsteadily, Geoff Barkway placed a wreath at his old friend's grave. The 82-year-old lost a hand on D-Day. He was piloting one of fiver gliders which flew in 180 troops from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry to capture the Pegasus and Horsa bridges over the Caen Canal and the river Orne. The bridges were code-named after the winged horse that was the insignia of the Sixth Airborne Division and the name of the giant gliders in which they came.

"People didn't expect to see us again," said Mr Barkway, now a grandfather. "It was nicknamed 'the Victoria Cross' job" because we had been written off quietly. My glider smashed up and I remember being in the water and splashing about. I pulled my second pilot Peter Boyle out of what was left of the cockpit. I didn't really know what I was doing. I just wandered about. I was challenged [by British forces] but didn't answer quick enough so they took a shot. My hand had to be amputated. Today does bring back sad memories."

Four years ago Ludovic Louis opened a small museum, having spent eight years researching the stories behind the gravestones. "I used to stand near the graves of these men when I was the same age as they were. Nobody could explain what had happened to them, so I decided to go and speak to their families in England to make sure they will not be forgotten." As Lt-Col George Butler, commanding officer of 3 Regiment Army Air Corps, said of the quiet cemetery: "It is a real classic case of a corner of a foreign field."

A replica of one of the Horsa gliders was unveiled - symbolically rather than physically, given the immense size of the aircraft - by Prince Charles at the site of Pegasus Bridge, where there is now a

museum. The Prince stepped into the cockpit to talk to Jim Wallwork, who landed his glider at 00.16 on D-Day. There were 13 other veterans present including Peter Bright, 81, from Gerrards Cross in Buckinghamshire, who had not been back to the site of the battle in 60 years. He does not think he will come again. The visit reunited him with a friend, Dougie Allen. They had not seen each other since 1944, and the emotion was intense when they met again. "We cuddled one another," said Mr Bright. "There were a few tears. We were so close we would have died for one another. We were brothers."

"At the bridge headquarters overlooking the river we anxiously watched the luminous minute-hands of our watches. And then at 3.20am every Allied paratrooper behind the Atlantic Wall breathed a sigh of relief as he heard the roar of bombers. We hear the crunch of breaking matchwood as gliders bounced on rocks and careered into still undestroyed poles. It was hard to restrain the impulse to cheer, for out of every glider men were pouring and we knew that even if Nazi tanks did come now we could hold them."

Leonard Mosley, Combined Press reporter travelling with paratroopers six hours ahead of the main invasion

Mary and Kathleen Sheppard, on their 41st D-Day anniversary visit, lost their brotherBill at the age of 21, in August 1944. "He joined the Paras to get an extra two bob a day," Mary said. "He was always laughing. And he loved to play music. I can hear him laughing now." Jean Turner, from south London, is the daughter of D-Day veteran Albert Secker, who is too frail to join the Newman party as he has done on numerous occasions before. His daughter wore his medals. "He landed in a glider at Pegasus bridge," Ms Turner explained, "and went on to Ranville, where he was blown up. He got better in time to go to Arnhem, went on to the Battle of the Bulge where he got frostbite in his feet, and then took part in the crossing of the Rhine. He was 19. I'm here to pay homage. I'm proud of him. I'm proud of all of them."

Raymond Leeming, a glider veteran, remembered how smooth the landing was - unlike the landing over the Rhine later in the war, where enemy gunfire left him with shrapnel wounds. For Mr Leeming, who is from Cumbria, the importance of the anniversary lay in seeing old comrades. "And of course we are a dying breed," he said, "apart from me, of course, who will go on for ever. I'll be putting out the lights! But it's good to meet up with these people. D-Day is not part of your normal life. I don't think there's another experience that comes anywhere near."

For Mr Newman, meeting old friends was as important as remembering those lost. "It's a reunion party as much as a commemoration," he said. "We might not see each other from one year to the next. When we do see each other it's special. I don't just mean the veterans, because as the years go by there are fewer of us. I mean family and friends. When people come on their first trip they are maybe not so sure about it but they find this is something they have to do again and again."

Those around him were smiling. After the formality of the wreath-laying ceremonies there was a relaxed atmosphere in the afternoon too at Ranville, where crowds gathered to watch a re-enactment of the first parachute drop. The D37 which bisects fields north of Ranville was thronged with people of all ages, French, English and other nationalities. All eyes were cast towards the sky, and suddenly a dim shape appeared through the cloud. Then another. A pair of vintage Dakota transporter planes appeared, followed by wave after wave of modern Hercules troop-carriers, and hundreds of parachutists made graceful descents in the warm afternoon air.

The British and Canadian troops who were jumping must have been keenly aware that they were not doing so in the dark, as did the veterans in 1944. The open ground on which they landed was not surrounded by enemy forces. They were not under fire.

L/Cpl George Price of the 12th (Yorkshire) Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, described the real event: "I lay there for a few seconds thinking what the hell am I doing here and that there was no truck coming to pick us up as there had been on exercise.

"I had only a couple of hand grenades in my belt. The rest of my equipment, including my rifle and ammunition, my Piat gun and my food, were somewhere in the orchard. And to cap it all, I was lost. I made it to Le Bas de Ranville eventually, more by luck than judgement. We set up the gun up in a corner of this wood and a ruddy great Tiger tank came hurtling out the field. We put two rounds into it and blew the damn thing up."

There was an American soldier on that same deck with a head wound so horrible that he was not moved. Nothing could be done for him, and anything, any touch, would have made him worse. The next morning he was drinking coffee. His eyes looked very dark and strange, as if he had been a long way away, so far away that he almost could not get back.

His face was set in lines of weariness and pain, but when asked how he felt, he said he was OK. He was never to say anything more; he asked for nothing and made no complaint.

Martha Gellhorn, Colliers Weekly, from a hospital ship

Memories like those are the reason the veterans on board the Van Gogh were quiet as they came within sight of the French coast yesterday afternoon and watched poppies flutter down from the bomb bays of the Lancaster. Such recollections were the silent force behind the inauguration of a British garden of remembrance in Caen and the ceremonial at Arromanches last night. They are what made the men of the Ox and Bucks Regiment return, most for the last time, to Pegasus Bridge just after midnight and drink a toast to fallen comrades. Some will have thought the fireworks earlier in the evening a bit of a fuss.

One veteran had been overheard telling his son why he would not wear his medals except to the formal events. "I don't want to show off," he said. He would, though, have wished with a passion that Pte Walter Eastham, and all the others like him, whose stories are untold, could have been there to see him.

A living legend, forged in steel, cast in bronze

By John Lichfield at Le Mesnil crossroads, Normandy

The most senior surviving Allied commander from the D-Day campaign went back to the battlefield yesterday carrying the cleft stick with which he hobbled through ferocious fighting on the northern front of the landing zone 60 years ago.

Brigadier James Hill, 93, one of the war's most decorated soldiers, saw a bronze statue of his 33-year-old self - complete with his trademark stick - unveiled by the Prince of Wales at a crossroads where his paratroopers fought hand-to-hand battles with the Germans in June 1944.

In a brief interview with The Independent on Sunday before the ceremony, Brigadier Hill said: "I believe that I am the only brigade commander, or above, to survive from the British, American and Canadian armies. Some days, I must say, surviving to be old does not seem to be such a good idea. Today I feel wonderful and very proud to be with so many of my former comrades, all looking so well." About 2,200 members of Brigadier Hill's Third Para Brigade parachuted on to the fields and marshes of the northern edge of the landing beaches soon after midnight on 6 June 1944. By that evening only one-third were still alive, unwounded or uncaptured.

And yet as many as 400 of Brigadier Hill's Paras put on their maroon berets and marched at the unveiling of his statue yesterday morning. Stiff, octogenarian legs and arms and backs were forgotten for one morning as the ex-Paras - tough survivors of a tough breed - saluted and cheered their commander for what many knew could be the last time.

The unveiling of the statue - he is only the second Allied commander to be given a statue in Normandy - corrects what many veterans feel is the unjust neglect of their struggle through June, July and early August 1944 to defend the beachheads from German counter-attack.

With the rest of the 6th Airborne Division (which also captured Pegasus Bridge) the job of Third Para Brigade was to hold a wooded ridge north of Sword Beach and the river Orne, marking the northern limit of the D-Day bridgehead. A successful counter-attack from that direction could have thrown the Allies back into the sea.

Despite an inaccurate parachute drop, which scattered the brigade (some falling as far as 30 miles behind enemy lines), Brigadier Hill and his British and Canadian paras - and other units in the division - captured and held the ridge in brutal hand-to-hand fighting. Despite being seriously wounded early in the battle, Brigadier Hill continued to lead his men, leaning on his tall cleft stick.

Sapper Harry Mosley, an explosives expert attached to Third Para Brigade, was among the veterans who marched past Brigadier Hill and the Prince of Wales. Mr Mosley, 80, from Dorset, said: "We dropped in the dark. We were being shot at. We were not in the right place. I was scared. But D-Day itself was relatively easy compared with what came after."

In an interview with the BBC Today programme yesterday morning, Brigadier Hill recalled: "I dropped into four and a half feet of water about a mile and half from our landing zone. That took me about four hours to get out of because not only was the water very deep but the fields were flooded with deep trenches and wire.

"We were all blown down. I thought I had lost my left leg but I hadn't. I had lost my left backside instead. And then I found that only two of us in the party of 18 could get to our feet. And of course being the brigade commander I had to push on.

"So what we did was we gave all the wounded their morphia, patched up a little bit those we could and then we had to leave them. And the thing that sticks in my heart and mind today was the fact that as we set off they all gave us a cheer, and an hour or two later there was nobody left alive. They were dead."

'I am the doctor who delivered you. I was the SS. The wicked SS'

By John Lichfield in Culey-le-Patry, Calvados

In the summer of 1944, Bernhard Runge was a 37-year-old doctor with the 9th SS Panzer Division, fighting the British and Canadians trying to break out from their D-Day bridgehead. He was a convinced Nazi, an early recruit to Hitlerism.

He had lived through the bloody calamity inflicted on the German army in Stalingrad. He was about to endure a second military disaster in the lush, green Norman countryside.

During a pause in the savage fighting for Caen, he answered a plea from a distraught, French civilian and delivered a baby: an act of renewal of life amid death that he would cling to for half a century as "my one peaceful action of the war". The baby grew up to be Bernard Gosselin, a prosperous farmer in the rolling hills above the valley of the River Orne. Many years later, the two became unlikely friends - a spiritually troubled ex-Nazi, who had been a minor defendant at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, and a Norman dairy farmer.

Bernhard and Bernard became almost surrogate father and son. Their story is one of many untold human stories of the Battle of Normandy. It is a story of life triumphing over death; of Franco-German reconciliation. It is also a story of the tortured conscience of a highly educated man who came to be bitterly ashamed of, but could never quite forswear, his pre-war beliefs.

On 10 July 1944, Emilia Gosselin was about to give birth in a farmhouse in the hamlet of Mélogis, a few miles behind the German front line. The civilian doctor had been injured in Allied bombing. Albert and Mme Gosselin were distraught. Their three previous children had died in infancy.M. Gosselin appealed to the Germans drinking in the only bar in the main village of the commune, Culey-le-Patry. To his horror, M. Gosselin found that the carousing Germans were SS troops, Hitler's storm-troopers, known both for their unbreakable fighting spirit and inhuman cruelty. The 9th SS Panzer Division had been rushed from the eastern front to reinforce the German army in Normandy.

Dr Runge, who had been amputating limbs of wounded soldiers until the day before, delivered the baby safely. He asked Mme Gosselin what the baby's Christian name would be. She answered "Bernard" - the same as his own. Fast forward nearly 28 years: the defeat of Germany; the uncovering of the full horrors of the Holocaust; the Nuremberg war crimes trials ; the awkward post-war friendship between the old Franco-German enemies; and the renewed prosperity of both nations.

In the spring of 1972, Bernard Gosselin, approaching his 28th birthday, was ploughing a field half a mile from the house where he was born. An elderly man with curly, grey hair flagged down the tractor. "He was trembling," M. Gosselin recalled last week. "He was obviously terribly afraid that ... I would reject him. He said: 'Is your name Bernard and were you born in July 1944?' I said: 'yes'. I had already recognised the German accent and my heart was racing. He said: 'I am the doctor who delivered you.' I shook his hand and he asked me: 'Do you know who I really was? I was the SS. I was the wicked SS.'"

There began a friendship which ended with Dr Runge's death in 1997 at the age of 93. Every summer until 1994, when he became too ill to travel, he would spend a couple of weeks in the Norman hills with the man that he called "my French son". M. Gosselin's descriptions, and a letter which Dr Runge sent to him, suggest that the former SS medic found in his "French son" a balm for his conscience. He wrote: "One of my most beautiful memories has always been of the moment I was able to present your parents with a healthy baby."