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WWII army veteran heads to Normandy for D-Day event

June 6, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

HAMPSHIRE, UNITED KINGDOM: June 6, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

The largest seaborne invasion in history saw British, American and other Allied soldiers begin an operation to invade German-occupied Western Europe in 1944 and bring an end to the Second World War a year later.

World leaders including US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin will join European leaders, royalty and, of course, veterans of the conflict for a series of commemorations.

One veteran is 92-year-old Alex Reith.

Reith, who is heading to Normandy for the first time since landing there on D-Day, was a staff sergeant in the British army's glider pilot regiment.

He joined the army at the beginning of the Second World War, working as a bomb disposal officer before switching because he thought becoming a glider pilot would be more exciting.

Enroute to Normandy from his home in South Africa, the British former pilot visited the British Army's Museum of Army Flying for a trip down memory lane.

Reith took part in the D-Day operation, which saw 156,000 American, British, Canadian and other Allied troops landing along a 50-mile stretch of Normandy Coast in a seaborne assault which was supported by an aerial bombardment.

Reith said: "I can see it now, spread before me from about 1500 feet was this vast armada never been seen before and it consisted of every type of boat you can imagine, even battleships were in it, to pound the enemy when they got near the coast; it was wonderful, it was wonderful. There was activity all around; it was a one-off, never to be forgotten experience."

Reith piloted a glider with an army gun, a jeep and a small number of troops into Normandy.

He helped other soldiers secure the area and then his orders were to return to England so he could be used in other missions.

He and other glider pilots made their way back to the beaches where the thousands of Allied soldiers had landed.

Reith said: "I remember when I got to England I was wearing a German helmet...The ground was littered...with all sorts of corpses and destroyed and abandoned weaponry and machinery."

Reith will be visiting Normandy for the first time since his service in the Second World War.

He expects it to be an emotional time.

Reith said: "The simple explanation is this: I, landing on the soil in Normandy, and I've survived since. I survived then and I've survived since.

"You must remember there were others that did precisely the same as me, probably much more hazardous than what I did, and a lot of them didn't survive. So my thoughts are with them to a very large extent because I knew some of them personally."

An estimated 4,500 Allied troops died on D-Day, the first day of months of fierce combat which saw the allies slowly fight their way to victory against Nazi Germany.

The 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings is particularly poignant, with the recognition that this is likely to be the last major anniversary attended by veterans. 

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