HUNDREDS of D-Day veterans and their families have descended on Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the landings that were to ultimately end the Nazis’ reign of terror.
In what is expected to be the last major gathering of the men who stormed the beaches – with all the survivors now in their late 80s and 90s – world leaders will join them today in commemorative events at Bayeaux Cathedral, Arromanches and Sword Beach, to celebrate their bravery and achievement as well as mourn the many who fell.
For those who landed on the beaches on 6 June, 1944, yesterday was spent reflecting on their memories of 70 years before and the friends without whom they returned home.
Among them were two Scots who were in the thick of the action on that fateful day and the many days that followed before victory in May 1945.
Tom Renouf, from Musselburgh, East Lothian, who was awarded the Military Medal, attended one of the early ceremonies with Prince Charles at the tiny village of Breville, near Caen, which had been taken by 6th Airborne forces even before the German fortifications on the beaches had been attacked.
Dr Renouf was then a 19-year-old private in the Black Watch seeing his first engagement, which was to last for 12 days, after his regiment had its orders changed when it landed on Gold Beach in the afternoon of D-Day.
It was sent to support the 6th Airborne Division in Breville and ordered to storm German positions before being forced to withdraw after losing many men.
He and his comrades were then held up on high ground, withstanding two German attacks over days of fighting and only being saved thanks to a bombardment from a battleship. Dr Renouf told The Scotsman: “When the Ox and Bucks [light infantry] relieved us, they saw a battlefield that could not be described.
“There were dead men, animals, parts of bodies, heads, arms, legs. Our anti-tank guns and machine guns were destroyed. It was warfare at its brutal worst.”
Breville has a monument to the Scottish troops and each year D-Day is marked with a visit by Highland bands from Paris and the Netherlands.
Dr Renouf described his visits as “a pilgrimage”.
He said: “It is a very emotional experience and my main thoughts are about my comrades who were killed at the age of just 18 and 19.”
Fellow Scot Jock Hutton, 89, was one of the first Allied soldiers to land in Nazi-occupied western Europe, jumping with 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion to secure Ranville, the first village liberated on D-Day.
Yesterday, in a tandem jump with a member of the RAF’s Red Devils display team, he jumped from 5,000ft on to the same drop zone.
After landing, Mr Hutton, who now lives in Maidstone, Kent, joked that his only disappointment had been the lack of calvados on hand.
The Stirling-born former paratrooper said: “It was very humbling and I’m highly privileged to be here.”
Asked to describe how he felt, he replied: “Poetry.”
He went on: “I was very relaxed with all my companions in the aircraft, but I wanted to get out of that door.”
Others recalling the events of 1944 included 91-year-old Bertie Bates, from Shrewsbury, Shropshire, who was moved to tears as he told how he had promised his fiancée, now his wife of almost 70 years, that he would return to marry her. He said: “I kept saying her name and thinking, ‘I will get back’.”
The Royal Navy veteran landed on Sword Beach at 7:30am with landing craft for the tanks. He said: “The horror was indescribable. They loosed everything at us. You only had a 50/50 chance of surviving.”
Frank James, 94, a veteran of the Royal Dragoon Guards, who was due to be awarded a medal on Gold Beach by the mayor of the French town of Creully, spent the morning of the day before the commemorations visiting Commonwealth war graves in Bayeaux, where many of his colleagues were buried.
He said: “It is good to be here and I am feeling good now. It was a different story 70 years ago.”
Normandy was full of visitors paying tribute to the men who helped start the liberation of Europe. The roads were packed with vehicles from the invasion, painstakingly restored by owners keen to celebrate the achievements of the veterans.
Many others wore the uniforms of the men who had fought that day. Houses and buildings flew the Union flag, US Stars and Stripes and Canadian maple leaf to mark the three nations that led the liberation efforts on the five beaches and which lost so many young men.
And wherever they appeared, veterans were applauded and thanked, with Brittany Ferries presenting gifts to those who sailed over from Portsmouth.
The day also saw tributes to paratroopers and glider pilots who landed the day before D-Day to hold Pegasus Bridge.
A display of Second World War aircraft, including a Spitfire, Hurricane and Wellington bomber, brought traffic to a stand still.
Later, modern-day troops from the same allied nations took part in a parachute exercise.
Prince Charles met veterans from the commandos and glider pilots, and presented wings to those who had taken part in the events.
D-Day was due to be seen in by a vigil at Pegasus Bridge at midnight – the hour when paratroopers landed before the assault on the beaches began.
At the war graves themselves, ground staff were working round the clock to get them prepared for a major memorial service today, which will be attended by, among others, Prince Charles, Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmond.
They fought them on the beaches
THE Allies landed more than 130,000 troops on five beaches on D-Day, the biggest seaborne invasion in history, spread across a 50-mile stretch of coastline in Normandy. The five codenamed beaches were:
SWORD The easternmost of the five beaches, Sword was assaulted by the British who were to advance as far as the strategically important town of Caen and link up with the British airborne forces. The 3rd Division established a solid bridgehead and almost reached Caen, but the town was not to fall to the Allies until mid-July. By the end of the day, some 29,000 men had landed, with about 630 casualties.
GOLD Nearly 25,000 men from the British 50th Division landed here – at the centre of the landing zones. The aim was to capture the inland town of Bayeux and link up with the Americans at Omaha. By the end of the day, 413 men had been killed or wounded on the beach, and 89 landing craft destroyed.
JUNO The assault landings on Juno were made by the Canadians. The aim was to join up with the British forces on Gold to the west and Sword to the east. Choppy seas hampered the landings, but the troops were able to forge a bridgehead.
Despite making the deepest penetration of any land forces on 6 June, the Canadians eventually had to withdraw from their position 5km from Caen. Casualty figures were high among the total of 21,400 men who landed there on D-Day.
OMAHA Casualty figures here were higher than on any of the other beaches, with more than 2,000 Americans killed or wounded. Amid difficult terrain and with the whole beach overlooked by cliffs, some doubted whether Omaha should have been chosen.
The Allies also did not know that the experienced German 352nd Infantry Division was taking part in anti-invasion training in the area.
At one point, US colonel George A Taylor reportedly said there were two kinds of people staying on the beach, “the dead and those who are about to die”.
The Americans showed incredible bravery to gain a small foothold. The film Saving Private Ryan portrayed the horrors of Omaha beach.
UTAH Luck played some part in that strong currents swept the first wave of American troops into a more lightly resisted area. Of more than 23,000 men who landed at Utah, some 200 were killed, wounded or missing as they advanced about four miles.