Tearful farewell to D-Day memorial: Second World War veterans from France and Britain join nostalgic gathering as Germans start demolishing Pegasus Bridge

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PEGASUS BRIDGE rose for the last time yesterday morning to allow the Ville de Matam freighter, registered in Dakar, to pass through the Caen canal. Then the demolition crew moved in.

Before a small crowd, including the actor Richard Todd who took part both in the D-Day battle in 1944 to take the bridge and in 20th Century Fox's The Longest Day etching the Normandy landings in celluloid, the dismantling of the Pont de Benouville began.

It was a day for facts, figures, and, above all, nostalgia. Arlette Gondree, four when the first of the gliders from the 6th Airborne Division crash-landed near the her parents' cafe, wept on Todd's shoulder as the German-made equipment was positioned to chop the bridge into three. 'Did you notice where the machinery came from?' she asked.

The bridge was informally renamed after the flying-horse emblem of the 6th Airborne. Official French notices explaining the purpose of the 55m franc (pounds 6.2m) bridge replacement carried both names. Once the demolition, necessary because the 61-year-old bridge cannot take modern heavy-goods vehicles, is completed tomorrow, its parts will be laid alongside the canal while veterans and the authorities argue over its final resting place.

The real problem for veterans is not the need for a replacement for Pegasus Bridge, but the timing of the operation. Its demolition began just three days before the 11 November Armistice Day remembrance ceremonies and seven months before the 50th anniversary celebrations, due to be attended by the Royal Family and seven other heads of state next June.

According to the French government programme released last week, one of the events will be a parachute drop on the bridge site attended by the Prince of Wales.

Andre Grand, a former member of the Free French Forces and an engineer in the Calvados department whose post-war task was to look after all local bridges, winced as he saw a mobile crane positioned on the bridge. 'They've got some nerve, putting 60 tons on there,' he said to a friend. Sentimentality apart, he said, the bridge's removal had become essential.

Mr Grand is part of an association peddling a plan to reposition Pegasus Bridge on the other side of the canal, together with German and British relics of the time in a park to mark the landings.

Standing on the canalside with his French wife, Louise, was Wally Parr, who was in the first glider that landed on the other side with 30 volunteers just after midnight on 6 June 1944. 'Maybe it's old age, maybe it's sentimentality,' he said, 'but surely it could have waited one more year.'

(Photographs omitted)