Former Lance Sergeant Ray "Titch" Rayner paused to study an image of a dozen white haired men, sitting stiffly upright for the cameraman, their medals glistening on smart blazers.
"He's dead and he's dead," he repeated as his finger rested on one proud face after another. In just five years – since the 60th Anniversary of D-Day – most of the survivors of one of the most audacious battles in history have gone. Lifting a frail hand, Mr Rayner continued: "You could probably count those of us left on these fingers."
But, just six months short of his 90th birthday, the former member of D Company, 2nd Battalion, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, gives every impression of a man who expects to commemorate the 75th anniversary on the Normandy beaches, let alone the 65th next week.
On Saturday 6 th June, he and other veterans will gather to mark the day, an event that has been mired in controversy since the Government said that the assistance that had been provided for the 60th would not be forthcoming this year as it was not a key anniversary.
After a campaign by The Independent successfully raised funds for veterans to visit the Normandy Beaches, Prime Minister Gordon Brown belatedly insisted there would be high-level attendance at the ceremony and payment of travel costs for former soldiers wishing to attend for what might be the last time.
Mr Rayner is in no doubt how important that commemoration will be. Immaculate in a perfectly ironed shirt, sporting a tie bearing the Pegasus winged horse emblem of the airborne forces, the widower recalled every moment of that fateful day and the name of every one of the band of brothers who survived or died beside him. Mr Rayner was part of an elite-trained force, led by Major John Howard, which took part in one of the epic battles of D-Day. He and 181 of his colleagues were dropped into France with the mission of capturing two bridges from the Germans and preventing them sending reinforcements to repel the beach landings.
It would be what is called a "coup de main" operation: a swift attack relying on speed and surprise.
Their training had taken two years: "Once we did a route march of 137 miles in three-and-a-half days with 80lbs on our backs. Anybody who fell out on that would not go on the operation because they would have been a liability. Only one man did." He still recalls how, while the others nursed sore feet, he and his best friend Pete Barwick went off to a local dance that night. Sergeant Barwick would not survive the war.
Finally they were gathered at Tarrant Rushton Airfield, Dorset, and told of their mission. Six gliders, each bearing two pilots and 28 men of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, were to fly into France to take two vital bridges – now known as Horsa and Pegasus – from the Germans. With information from the French Resistance, the plan was meticulous. The men even knew the names of the German officers they would face. To fail would put other Allied troops in jeopardy as their enemy would then be able to get across to repel the invasion on the Normandy beaches.
"General (Field Marshal Bernard) Montgomery came to John Howard and said 'Bring as many as of your boys back as you can'. That was when we knew we were going on a very dangerous mission."
But Lance Sgt Rayner and his men were buoyant as they boarded the gliders at 11pm on 5th June 1944, excited and eager to put their training into practice. "We were all singing until we were told to shut up," he added. The plywood Horsa gliders literally crashed at their destination in the early hours of the next day, in one instance knocking all of the men on board temporarily unconscious. Due to a navigator's error, Lance Sgt Rayner's glider landed eight miles from their target, Horsa Bridge, surrounded by machine-gun fire. His wireless operator was killed next to him. There was nothing they could do but keep going. Lost and alone in enemy territory, their lieutenant, Tony Hooper, went to recce the area. Minutes later Lance Sgt Rayner and Captain Brian Priday realised he had been captured by two Germans. Drawing their guns up, they yelled "Jump Tony!" As the platoon commander dived for cover, they opened fire and killed the two Germans. As one fell, his finger still on the trigger, he sprayed fire back, hitting Lance Sgt Rayner through the right arm.
"It was like a red hot poker going through my arm," he said, before adding with a grin that he was the only person to be able to say he had been shot by a dead German. After taking the nearby bridge, the survivors made their way to their original objective through the pitch black. The land had been deliberately flooded by their enemy and there were the bodies of some kit-laden paratroopers who had drowned amid the mire upon landing. Unable to swim with his injured arm, Lance Sgt Rayner was dragged by his men for six hours before they reached farm buildings on high ground where they could dry off and receive medical attention.
Finally 16 of them – along with 30 parachutists – made it back to their objective, where both bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne were successfully taken. Lance Sgt Rayner returned to England to tend his wounds but was back on the battlefield in Germany by February 1945. His arm still weak, he was promoted to Provost Sergeant with the task of burying the 150 men his regiment had lost.
He talked without a hint of self-pity of having to gather up their charred and amputated remains in blankets to give them a decent burial, carefully gathering up personal effects, photographs to send home to their families. He brushed off any suggestion that such images might still haunt him. His only scar, he insisted, was the slight mark where the bullet exited his right arm. But he conceded he had a deep affinity for the troops who have recently returned from battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, and felt deeply for the terribly injured youngsters he has met.
For them, he explained, he will return to Tarrant Rushton Airfield next Thursday, where only a tarmac landing-strip offers any evidence of the historic mission once launched there.
Mr Rayner will make the journey to see off over 200 runners embarking on a commemorative 65-mile marathon to Pegasus Bridge, hoping to raise £500,000 for six charities – The Royal British Legion, the Army and RAF Benevolent Funds, Help for Heroes, BLESMA (for the limbless) and St Dunstan's (for the blind). "It is very important. We are doing this for all the people getting injured and losing limbs in Afghanistan," said the great-grandfather, who lost his wife Joan 17 years ago.
"I would have liked to have run it. But they said 'You can't. You are 90'. So I will be there to set them off and greet them at Pegasus Bridge."
Mr Rayner left the army in 1946 and returned to his home town of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where he ran a building business. But his home is virtually a museum to his time in World War II, pictures of his old friends, paintings of the battles they fought, and even a model of a Horsa glider.
At Pegasus next week he will unveil one of six plaques dedicated to the 181 men who took part in the coup de main operation.
For Mr Rayner, it will be a vital chance to greet old friends, the few that remain, and swap notes with the younger generation now caught up in brutal combat themselves.
His advice to them, he said, would be brief: "You have got to keep your head, it is just as simple as that. Don't do anything silly."
Assault into France: The Normandy Landings
*D-Day was the term used for the Normandy Landings of the Second World War, the largest single-day amphibious invasion of all time.
*The assault into France on 6 June, 1944, was conducted in two phases: an air assault landing of American, British and Canadian airborne troops shortly after midnight, and an amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armoured divisions on the coast commencing at 6.30am
*More than 160,000 troops landed on a 50-mile stretch divided into five sectors – the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – supported by more than 5,000 ships.
*The allies suffered 10,000 casualties – men killed, wounded or captured – while the German losses were said to be between 4,000 and 9,000.
*Both the (later renamed) Pegasus bridge near Bénouville and the Horsa bridge near Ranville were of key strategic importance to the operation, to secure the eastern flank of the invasion area and prevent German armour from attacking the British 3rd Infantry Division which was landing on Sword Beach later on D-Day.
D-Day anniversary: The order of service
*00.16 Pegasus Bridge – The 200 Project 65 runners will arrive, timed to coincide with the original D-Day landings by the Horsa gliders. Attended by the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt
*10.30 Bayeux Cathedral – Royal British Legion memorial service, attended by the Defence Secretary, John Hutton.
*11.00 Bayeux War Cemetery – Normandy Veterans Association memorial service and wreath-laying ceremony, attended by John Hutton.
*14.00 A memorial dedicated to the men who took part in the coup de main operation will be unveiled at the site of the original Pegasus Bridge in the grounds of the Airborne Museum. Attended by General Sir Richard Dannatt
*14.30 American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking Omaha Beach – International ceremony of commemoration will be attended by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, US President Barack Obama and other world leaders.
*16.00 Arramanches – Veterans march through the town before gathering in the square for a fly-past by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and a memorial service attended by Veterans Minister Kevan Jones.
To donate go to www.project65.net
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