'This is where all my mates are'

On the eve of the D-Day anniversary, John Lichfield joined the 500 veterans who returned to Sword Beach to remember the soldiers who didn't come back

Over 500 British octogenarians, and a sprinkling of nonagenarians, marched in orderly ranks along a suburban seaside street in Normandy yesterday. A score of French schoolchildren aged eight and nine waited by the roadside grinning and holding out their hands.

"'Allo, 'Allo. 'Allo," the children said in their best sing-song English, touching the hands of as many of the veterans as they could reach. "Bonjour, sweetheart," said the veterans, tears gleaming in their eyes. "Hello, dearie. Bonjour, sunshine. Hello, sweetheart."

Forget the squabbling and name-calling, the accusations and the counter-accusations. This is what the 65th anniversary of D-Day is all about and should always have been about.

At the end of the suburban street was Sword Beach, a pretty arc, two miles of waves and sand. Sixty-five years ago today, 28,845 British and a few French soldiers landed here to form the easternmost of the five D-Day beach-heads.

There is something intensely moving about the sight of 500 old men, and a few old women – with an average age of 84 years and nine months – marching jauntily in the sunshine to the tune of Tipperary. Many of the veterans started their march in tears. Others had gritted teeth, holding back their emotion – until they saw the British and French children waiting for them.

A Lancaster bomber and two Spitfires flew overhead. Bands played and cadets marched. Octogenarians or nonagenarians reverted to being young men again. "Oi, Mick," a wiry, old man with a Geordie accent shouted as the parade began. "Where's that 20 quid you've owed me since Normandy." He meant Normandy 1944.

Why do it? Why come back to Normandy, again and again? Why still commemorate the D-Day landings? For many of the veterans, the answer is simple. "This is where all my mates are," said Dick Bower, 83, from York. "I know where every one of them is buried. I can remember each one of them being killed. I come back to be with them."

On 6 June 1944, Private Bower, aged 18, of the 5th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment, stepped from a landing craft into a shower of machine-gun bullets at Gold Beach, 15 miles up the coast. It was his platoon's job to help a tank to attack a German bunker.

"The pillbox destroyed the tank first, but the explosions were so huge that all the Germans came out with their hands up. They weren't always so helpful later."

Dick Bower was only 15 when he lied about his age to join up in 1941. He fought all the way from the Norman coast to the Dutch-German border. "Many of my mates never came back like I did. I have brought a bag full of ashes from poppies and little wooden crosses that were placed in York Minster and then burned. I'm going to sprinkle the ashes on my mates' graves – bring them a little bit of Yorkshire."

Although many veterans, like Dick, come back year after year, the 65th anniversary has attracted the largest number of British veterans since the big, international 60th anniversary commemoration in 2004. The Normandy Veterans Association (NVA) estimates that 867 of its members have travelled to France this weekend – together with another 200 or so who belong to other organisations or none.

At least half of those NVA veterans would not have travelled to France without the £500,000 donated by the British public to the "Overlord Fund" launched by an article in The Independent 12 months ago. "The public reaction has been unbelievable," said Peter Hodge, national secretary of the NVA. "Some people ask why we should bother commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Even the Government didn't know the answer, it seemed. But the British public did."

The veterans will march and parade again today, in Bayeux and again in Arromanches, before Prince Charles, Gordon Brown and the French Prime Minister, François Fillon. The largely American ceremony at the American military cemetery at Omaha Beach – about which there has been so much fuss in Britain – will be attended by President Barack Obama, President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Brown and the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

A few veterans wore large badges with the Queen's image yesterday in protest against the British Government's decision that the 65th D-Day commemorations should be relatively low key and that the monarch should not attend. Other veterans could not see what the fuss was all about.

Thomas Norris, 84, from Market Drayton, Shropshire, was a driver with the Royal Artillery when his "tank-killer" mobile gun drove ashore on Gold Beach on 6 June, 1944. Like Dick Bower, he also fought all the way across France, Belgium and the Netherlands to Bremen in northern Germany.

"This 65th anniversary was important to us because we knew that it would be the last time we could bring so many of these old boys together," Mr Norris said. "How many of us will be alive for the 70th anniversary in 2014? This could be the last chance for us to come to say goodbye to our mates – both the ones that are still alive and those who have been dead for 65 years. Of course, it would have been nice to have the Queen here, but Prince Charles has saved the day. And I don't buy all this stuff about the French snubbing the Queen. The reception we get in France every time we come is extraordinary."

Each of the 800-plus veterans who attended yesterday's ceremony beside Sword Beach at Colleville-Montgomery received a commemorative medal minted by the lower Normandy regional council. The event was organised by the NVA with help from local officials and members of Normandie Memoire, a local organisation dedicated to keeping memories of D-Day alive.

Earlier, in a ceremony in Paris, 10 British veterans – nine men and one woman – received France's highest civil honour, the Légion d'honneur, to mark their part in the D-Day landings. The lone woman was Vera Hay, 87, from Cumbria, a member of the Queen Alexandra Nursing Corps, who landed on Gold Beach and tended the wounded at a château in Bayeux.

Heroism is not just for young men or young women. To march in the hot June sunshine for 200 metres when you are deep into your 80s is also the stuff of heroism – and humour. A regimental sergeant major in his late 20s was thoughtfully provided by the Ministry of Defence to scream at the marching veterans yesterday.

"Right you lot," he shouted. "Do you know your right foot from your left?"

Voice from the ranks: "I knew long before you were born, son."