THE LEGACY of Allied troops who died to help Europe gain freedom from the tyranny of Nazi occupation was remembered in Normandy on the eve of the 71st anniversary of D-Day.
Wreaths were laid at Colleville-Montgomery beside a statue of British commander Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who commanded Allied land forces in the invasion of Normandy.
Prayers were also said for the men who fought and gave their lives in the pursuit of freedom under Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of occupied Europe, before a flypast took place.
Proudly displaying their war medals, troops - including around 150 British veterans, now mostly in their 90s - have crossed borders to revisit the scene of events which changed the course of history.
Colleville, or Colleville-sur-Orne, as it was known, added Montgomery to its name after the war to honour the role that Field Marshal Montgomery and his men played in liberating it.
In front of a statue of “Monty”, Mayor of Colleville-Montgomery Frederic Loinard said: “It is a great honour and privilege for me today to speak to those who landed on these beaches on June 6, 71 years ago, on a dreadful and sleepless night. For those who have returned on the ferry today, the crossing would have been emotional.”
George Batts, chairman of the Normandy Veterans’ South Eastern branch, told the gathering that the numbers of D-Day survivors were diminishing but they would continue to return to the French shores for as long as they could.
Before the service, British D-Day veterans gathered on Sword Beach, one of the five Allied landing zones on June 6 1944, to remember lost comrades.
Norwich and District Normandy Veterans’ Association member Len Fox, 90, said: “I was a motorcycle dispatch rider and landed at Gold Beach at 7.30pm on D-Day.
“We were being stonked by the Germans on the beach so we had to get off as quickly as possible.
“We assembled at the beach-head and then started to move inland towards Bayeux. As a 19-year-old, I had never left home.
“It was very scary because we didn’t know whether we were going to see our parents the next day, or even if we were going to survive D-Day.
“I was one of the lucky ones. I regard the lads who are buried in the cemeteries, they are the real heroes. We just had a job to do.”
Some 156,000 Allied troops landed on the five invasion beaches on June 6 1944, in an operation prime minister Winston Churchill described as: “Undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place.”
It marked the beginning of an 80-day campaign to liberate Normandy which involved three million troops and cost the lives of 250,000 people.
Crucial to the early part of the campaign was the successful glider-borne assault on Pegasus Bridge, which was immortalised in the 1960s film The Longest Day.
Led by Major John Howard, a team of Horsa gliders silently landed to take the strategically-vital bridge and another nearby after a 15-minute skirmish, in which two soldiers were killed and 14 wounded.
It paved the way for the Allies to surge inland, and Maj Howard famously signalled the success of the first British objective on D-Day by transmitting the codewords “Ham and Jam”.