D-Day veterans leave Norwich for France to mark 71st anniversary of Normandy landings

Norwich Normandy veterans ready to leave the city for France. From left, Normand Taylor, David Woodr

Norwich Normandy veterans ready to leave the city for France. From left, Normand Taylor, David Woodrow, Len Fox, Jack Woods, Alan King, Neville Howell, and Peter Hemp. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

It's an annual pilgrimage which those still able to attend are privileged to make on behalf of those left behind in Normandy after one of the bloodiest days of the Second Word War.

Norfolk's Normandy campaign veterans have returned to the French beaches where they fought to secure our freedom for the 71st anniversary of D-Day on Saturday.

Leaving from Norwich today on a trip partly-funded by Eastern Daily Press readers, who raised more than £20,000 to ensure the veterans could pay their respects to comrades who never came home, Norfolk's soldiers will be honoured in France at a number of both large and small-scale ceremonies.

After last year's grand commemoration for the 70th anniversary, this year's anniversary will be slightly scaled down to reflect the dwindling number of veterans and civilian survivors of the brutal battle for Normandy and an assault that has never been matched for its size, planning and derring-do.

But for those who waded through blood-tinged waves, climbed razor-sharp cliffs or fell from the skies, facing their fear in an invasion that ultimately led to the fall of the Third Reich and the end of the war, the anniversary is as important as any other, regardless of scale.

Last year, more than 1,000 veterans travelled to the beaches and lush farmlands of Normandy in western France to mark seven decades since The Longest Day, this weekend their number is expected to be less than 600. Among them will be Norfolk's quiet heroes.

The Allied invasion of Normandy was the largest amphibious assault ever launched, involving an Allied invasion force of more than 156,000 soldiers, 8,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft.

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Their aim was to break through the German defences, advance on Paris and liberate France from German occupation. In total, British and Commonwealth casualties on D-Day numbered around 4,300.

Thousands more died in the ensuing Battle of Normandy that opened the Allied march to Paris to liberate the Nazi-occupied French capital in August 1944

Most of those who will take part in this weekend's ceremonies in Normandy will have no personal recollection of June 6 1944.

But for those who were there, the memories of the Longest day burn brightly. History was written on the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago tomorrow; the final chapter of the war in Europe had begun

Jack Woods, secretary of the Norwich and District Normandy Veterans Association said that it was the duty of veterans to return to France to pay their respects to the fallen and to ensure that their efforts were never forgotten.

'As long as we can go back, we will go back,' he said, 'it's our duty to make sure those that didn't come back are never forgotten and to say thank you to them. Last year it was all pomp and ceremony because it was the 70th anniversary, but we come back regardless of the number. It's not about the big ceremonies, it's about the quiet moments.

'We will be laying wreathes and crosses as we always do, thinking about the names on the headstones and the lives they left behind. When we first came here we weren't much more than boys, but now we are old men. We will tell the stories of sacrifice for as long as we can, the story of the men and women who beat back the forces of oppression and gave new hope to the world. We will be here until the last man is standing.'

The Norwich and District Normandy Veterans will be taking part in the official commemorations for D-Day at Bayeux Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Arromanches on Saturday but will also be involved in a host of smaller events across Normandy.

The Mayor of Rots will be hosting the veterans for an official and there will be remembrance services at cemeteries across the region and the group will be presiding over the official opening of the D-Day Academy.

There will be a wreath-laying for Norwich veteran Ernie Mears, whose ashes were scattered at a special service at Hottot les Bagues last year and for veteran Reg Burge, who will be remembered at a wreath-laying ceremony at Asnelle tomorrow.

Veterans will visit memorials, be welcomed by French dignitaries, officials and villagers and at the hotel they have stayed at for more than 10 years.

•Stacia Briggs and Denise Bradley have joined the Norfolk veterans in Normandy - look out more reports to follow.