Last of D-Day veterans in France to mark 80th anniversary of Normandy landings and pay tribute to fallen friends

4 June 2024, 16:46 | Updated: 5 June 2024, 10:14

Last of D-Day veterans arrive in France to mark 80th anniversary of Normandy landings and pay tribute to fallen friends
Last of D-Day veterans arrive in France to mark 80th anniversary of Normandy landings and pay tribute to fallen friends. Picture: Alamy

By Christian Oliver

British D-Day veterans arrived in France on Tuesday to join commemorations marking the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings.

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A group of 31 former servicemen made the ferry crossing from Portsmouth almost 80 years since they invaded the German-occupied coastline on 6 June 1944.

This is likely to be the last time D-Day veterans will make the journey to France to pay tribute to their fallen friends, with many of the former soldiers now over 100 years old.

During the journey two Normandy veterans on board the ferry laid a wreath at sea to remember those who did not make the journey before saluting to the Last Post.

Veterans attend a Spirit of Normandy Trust wreath-laying service just off the French coastline
Veterans attend a Spirit of Normandy Trust wreath-laying service just off the French coastline. Picture: Alamy
D-Day veterans Harry Birdsall, 98, and Alec Penstone (front), 98, throw a wreath into the sea during the Spirit of Normandy Trust wreath-laying service
D-Day veterans Harry Birdsall, 98, and Alec Penstone (front), 98, throw a wreath into the sea during the Spirit of Normandy Trust wreath-laying service. Picture: Alamy

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At the stern of the ship, Harry Birdsall, 98, from Wakefield, and 99-year-old Alec Penstone carried the wreath together before joining their fellow veterans in Land of Hope and Glory. They were then cheered by the other passengers also making the journey to France.

Earlier in the day a ferry carrying the veterans departed Portsmouth Harbour accompanied by Royal Navy patrol vessels Trumpeter, Medusa and Basher as well as HMS Cattistock and the Training Ship Royalist

Several small boats and yachts also waited outside the harbour to see the ferry off on its journey to Caen.

The Jedburgh Pipe Band played the ferry out of the harbour and a Royal Air Force flypast circled low overhead.

Crowds waving Union and D-Day flags gathered on the Round Tower and harbour walls in Old Portsmouth and cheered and clapped as the ferry passed, with the veterans and families smiling and waving back from the ship's decks. One of them, Harry Birdsall, 98, from Wakefield, was seen dabbing his eyes.

The Royal British Legion is escorting just 22 D-Day veterans to Normandy, compared with 255 who travelled to commemorate the 75th anniversary in 2019. Another 10 are travelling with the Spirit of Normandy Trust.

Veteran Roy Harrison with the D-Day Darlings on board the Brittany Ferry ship Mont St Michel as it sails from Portsmouth Harbour in the UK to Ouistreham
Veteran Roy Harrison with the D-Day Darlings on board the Brittany Ferry ship Mont St Michel as it sails from Portsmouth Harbour in the UK to Ouistreham. Picture: Alamy
D-Day veterans gather on the deck of the Brittany Ferries ship Mont St Michel as it sails out of Portsmouth Harbour
D-Day veterans gather on the deck of the Brittany Ferries ship Mont St Michel as it sails out of Portsmouth Harbour. Picture: Alamy

As the ferry headed out into the Solent, an RAF A400 aircraft flew past to honour the veterans.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "The veterans, travelling with the Spirit of Normandy Trust and the Royal British Legion, will carry with them a commemorative torch from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which will form the centrepiece of the vigil at Bayeux War Cemetery on 5 June.

"A young person will pass this symbolic torch to a veteran before they board the ferry. At 1300 (ship's time), a wreath-laying will take place on the ferry to remember those who never made it to shore."

About 40 veterans gathered at Southwick House near Portsmouth on Monday, which was used as the headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower during the build-up to the Normandy invasions.

The Royal British Legion will tomorrow host a vigil at Bayeux War Cemetery. It is set to feature military musicians, as well as a Royal Air Force flypast, alongside speakers and a host of tributes.

The Red Arrows will also do a flypast above Portsmouth to commemorate the date.

The UK's national commemorative event is set to take place at the British Normandy Memorial in Ver-sur-Mer on Thursday, a memorial that contains the names of the 22,442 servicemen and women who fell during the historic D-Day landings.

It will be followed by an official international ceremony at Omaha Beach, the location of more than 2,500 American troop deaths.

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