RANVILLE, France (AP) – More than 20 British World War II veterans gathered on Sunday near Pegasus Bridge, one of the first sites liberated by Allied forces from Nazi Germany’s control, as part of commemorations in honor of the nearly 160,000 troops from Britain, the United States, Canada and other countries who landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Veterans, their families and French and international visitors braved the rainy weather to take part in a series of events held over the weekend and Monday to mark the 78th anniversary of D-Day.
Many felt that the celebrations paying tribute to those who brought peace and freedom to the continent take on special significance this year – as the war rages on in Europe since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
This year’s D-Day anniversary also comes after two consecutive years of the COVID-19 pandemic that has restricted or deterred visitors from coming.
Peter Smoothy, 97, served in the British Royal Navy and landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
“The first thing I remember is the poor guys who didn’t come back…It’s been a long time now, almost 80 years…And this is where we still live,” he told The Associated Press.
“We think of all those poor guys who didn’t get off the beach that day, their last day, but they are always in our thoughts.”
Welcomed by the sound of bagpipes at the Pegasus Memorial in Ranville, British veterans attended a ceremony commemorating a key operation in the opening minutes of the Allied invasion of Normandy, when troops were forced to take control of a strategically crucial bridge.
Bill Gladden, 98, took part in the British airborne operation D-Day and was later shot down while defending the bridge.
“I landed on D-Day and was injured on June 18… So I was hospitalized for three years,” he said.
Meanwhile, on the British side of the Channel, then 17-year-old Mary Scott worked at the communications center in Portsmouth, listening to the coded messages coming from the front lines and relaying them as part of the coordination of operations on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches.
“The war was in my ears,” she recalls, describing the radio machine she controls via levers.
“When they (communication officers) had to respond to my messages and they lifted their lever, you could hear all the sounds of the men on the beaches, bombs, machine guns, men screaming, screaming.”
Scott, who will soon be 96, said she got very “emotional” when she arrived in Normandy on Saturday as part of the trip organized by the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans and was in tears when she saw the beaches of Normandy.
“Suddenly I thought that some of those young men I spoke to…maybe they had died.”
The symbol is even stronger, as on the other side of the Channel, Queen Elizabeth II, who served as an army driver and mechanic in World War II, is celebrating her 70th anniversary on the throne.
“Women were involved,” Scott emphasized. “I mean, I’m extremely proud to have been part of Operation Overlord for a minute.”
Many visitors have come out to visit the monuments that mark the key moments of the battle and show their gratitude to the soldiers. Lovers of World War II history dressed in war uniforms could also be seen driving jeeps and military vehicles on the small roads of Normandy.
Greg Jensen, 51, came from Dallas with his 20-year-old daughter. On Saturday, they visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, overlooking Omaha Beach.
“I took a moment to hold the sand and you think, gosh, the blood that was shed to give me that moment and the freedom to hold that sand,” he said. “That was emotional for me.”
“I hope many of this younger generation are watching because we can’t forget what happened 78 years ago,” Jensen said, especially thinking about the current fighting in Ukraine.
On Monday, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, home to the graves of 9,386 who died in the D-Day fighting and in subsequent operations, will host American veterans and thousands of visitors in the first major public ceremony since 2019.
On D-Day, Allied troops landed on beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold, carried by 7,000 boats. In that one day, 4,414 Allied soldiers lost their lives, 2,501 of them Americans. More than 5,000 were injured. Several thousand were killed or wounded on the German side.