- POSTED: 05 Jun 2014 20:10
- UPDATED: 05 Jun 2014 20:12
Veterans of the D-Day landings were back in uniform on Thursday as Normandy's beaches and villages marked 70 years since the launch of the biggest amphibious invasion in military history.
CAEN: Veterans of the D-Day landings were back in uniform on Thursday as Normandy's beaches and villages marked 70 years since the launch of the biggest amphibious invasion in military history.
Royals, top brass and no fewer than 20 world leaders, including US President Barack Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin, will attend the main D-Day ceremony on Friday, amid ongoing diplomatic wrangling over the Ukraine crisis.
A series of events on the eve of the anniversary honoured the bravery and sacrifice of those who risked their lives to liberate Europe from Nazism, most of whom are now in their 90s and are marking the occasion for probably the last time.
One of them, Ernest ("Ernie") Stringer, spoke of his terror as he piled out of a low-flying military aircraft in pitch darkness only to have his knee shredded by machine-gun fire.
"It was dark and the planes were coming in very low. We were out and on the ground very quickly," Stringer, who was only 19 on the day, told AFP.
"I was dead scared. You don't know what's going to happen to you. You are jumping blind. You don't know where the Germans are," he said.
"As it happened we were virtually surrounded but we didn't know that. And they didn't know we were there either!" he added.
As he battled to make his way to Pegasus Bridge, the strategic crossing at Benouville that was secured by British parachutists in the opening stages of D-Day, he was strafed by machine-gun fire, which tore apart his knee.
Despite his wounds, he made it to the bridge and lay in wait for his comrades who would launch the main assault at dawn.
Many of those who jumped before him were not so lucky. The man who jumped before Stringer hit a wall and broke his arm. Several died on impact, not having time to open their chutes as the planes were flying so low.
More than 156,000 troops waded or parachuted onto French soil on June 6, 1944. Nearly 4,500 would be dead by the end of the day.
Britain's Prince Charles led the tributes to men like Stringer who took part in the first wave, when thousands of Allied troops flew or parachuted in during the early hours of June 6, 1944, catching the German army by surprise.
The heir to the British throne met veterans at Pegasus Bridge before he was due to host a lunch with his wife Camilla at Ranville, the first village to be liberated from the Germans.
A parachute drop involving British, French, US and Canadian forces was scheduled for later.
Among the jumpers was Jock Hutton, a Scottish veteran who parachuted onto the same spot in 1944 and planned to make a tandem jump at the age of 89.
The energy of the hundreds of veterans who arrived in France this week is astounding, fuelled by their delight at being on the road with their comrades, friends and family.
Confronting their past brings back powerful emotions, however.
Watching his great-grandchildren play on the beach at Arromanches on Wednesday, 88-year-old Robert Jones spoke bluntly of his memories of stacking up the bodies of young German soldiers.
But the British infantryman admitted that a visit to a friend's grave at Bayeux cemetery had brought him to tears, while he was haunted by a return to the scene of some of his worst fighting.
"I walked into that wood, they had to coax me in, and it stank like death. It really scared me -- I was shaking and I broke down," Jones told AFP.
On Thursday, a flotilla of ships will set off from Britain's main naval port of Portsmouth in commemoration of the nearly 7,000 vessels that took part in the invasion.
US, French and Dutch soldiers will also take part at an evening ceremony at Utah beach, which lies on the western edge of the invasion site.
Fireworks displays along the coast will light up the sky shortly before midnight, marking the moment of the first bombing raids.
On Friday, Queen Elizabeth II and US President Barack Obama are among the world leaders attending the international ceremony of remembrance on the beach at Ouistreham.
Also in attendance will be hundreds of medical staff to care for the aged veterans who will take part in the ceremonies on what is expected to be a sweltering mid-summer Normandy day.
Stringer, who was to attend the lunch with Prince Charles, said he had been several times to Normandy but the circle of D-Day veterans was shrinking fast.
"You keep looking for your friends. Always wondering who's missing, because there's so few left."