THEY are the band of brothers who will never be divided.
Next year the national Normandy Veterans’ Association is due to be disbanded, laying up their standard in a London church, 70 years after storming the D-Day beaches.
But the Hull branch – which is down to its last eight veterans – have vowed to keep going “till the last man standing”.
This year only 80 veterans from around the country made the annual pilgrimage to Normandy – the smallest number since 156,000 Allied troops, including 61,000 British soldiers, stormed the D-Day beaches on June 6 1944, in the biggest amphibian invasion in history.
Their increasing age and frailty has led to the decision to officially disband the NVA next November.
But in Hull, the eight – youngest 88, oldest 95 – who still attend meetings regularly, want to continue, albeit under a different name.
Ray Lord set foot on Sword beach on D-Day, three-quarters of an hour after the first troops landed.
The son of a soldier who fought in both wars, he went on to fight in Belgium, Holland and Germany, despite being wounded by a mortar bomb in an attack on a German strongpoint, near Caen.
Ray, who will be 90 next year, said: “We are going to keep going till the last man is standing. It’s the end of it as an association, we won’t be able to call it the NVA, but we can’t just drop it. It is more or less a family.”
Branch chairman John Ainsworth, 92, was in the 10th Survey Regiment, Royal Artillery, and landed in Normandy as a storm broke on D-Day Plus Seven, which he recalls as being of his “hairiest” war-time experiences.
He said: “We have no intention of stopping as long as we are on our feet and as long as we’ve got our marbles.
“Even after the end of next year if we are in the same state of health and people are still keen to support us we will keep going.
“We keep in touch with the families of the veterans who have died, we have two widows who attend our meetings regularly and we have ex-servicemen, who are younger than the veterans. We welcome them.
“We have quite a close affiliation with Holy Trinity Church, in Hull, which is where our standard is laid up.”
Next year the veterans have a packed programme of events, beginning in May, in Holland, where they always get a huge welcome.
“May 5 is the day the Dutch were liberated and 100,000 turn up every year,” said Mr Lord.
In Normandy the veterans will attend a parade at Arromanches and the cemetery at Bayeux, as they have been doing for the past 30 years, and where they will remember the pals they lost.
Mr Ainsworth thinks of a fellow Geordie Peter McGrady, who was just 32 when he died, and is buried in a village called Bonnebosque.
“It never varies – the tears come,” said Mr Ainsworth. “We trained together in the UK. He was a great lad, a good bit older than me and I looked on him, as a father figure.
“We played football together and I remember him very fondly.”
Most of the vets say they remember very little about the landings.
Peter English, who was with the 65th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery (Norfolk Yeomanry), can’t remember landing on D-Day plus one “because we were under fire”.
Mr French said: “I lost from the age of 18 to 22 (being in the Army). Service in those days was boring and we were all getting a bit bolshy and a bit anti-Establishment.
“(Saving Private Ryan) makes me wonder what I missed.”
Next year he will be joining the trip to Holland: “You always think of the good moments when you go back in time, you forget all the misery.”
Nick Rumble, 88, was a Royal Navy gunner and remembers being “frightened to death” as they approached Juno beach in an armoured merchant ship laden with landing provisions. He was just 18 and trying to shoot down an enemy aircraft.
“I couldn’t see the plane but I could see all the tracer bullets. I fired where they fired – and unfortunately I shot down a balloon from another ship.”
Later bodies came floating by which they scooped out of the water to take back to England.
They will be at a Whitehall parade and trip to Normandy in June and a service at York Minster on July. In September there will be the dedication of a new memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. October sees the laying up of the national standard of NVA at St Mary’s Church in London and on November 21 the Association disbands.