Day the ghosts of lost heroes rejoined living brothers
THEIR pale young faces, wideeyed with fear, flashed up in photographs on a huge stage screen and their voices rang out from the pages of diaries and treasured love letters.
Seventy-five years ago, 130,000 young men stormed beaches strafed by enemy fire and parachuted into France to free Europe from Nazi tyranny.
On the first day of that Normandy invasion, 4,500 Allied troops were killed.
But yesterday, as a grateful nation looked on, the ghosts of the lost heroes of D-Day rejoined their surviving brothers in arms at a touching commemoration.
More than 300 veterans aged between 91 and 101 gathered on Southsea Common for an hour of music, readings and reflection.
The proud men and women, with chests full of medals, won a standing ovation from the Queen, President Trump and other leaders.
Everyone knew this was the last time they would gather in such numbers to remember their fallen comrades – and it was our last chance to truly thank them for sacrificing so much for our freedom.
It was a day of high emotion and the veterans’ eyes were misting over from the moment the joint services band struck up with wartime hits like Pack Up Your Troubles and Lili Marleen.
But the tears really started to flow when they played Hymn To The Fallen, composed by John Williams for the opening scenes of movie Saving Private Ryan. Images of troops landing on the beaches – Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno – were projected on to the screen of the huge arched stage.
And you could see the determination, shock and fear written over their young faces.
Three veterans shared their testimonies of D-Day in prerecorded messages.
They were Briton Bert Edwards, an Able Seaman on HMS Bellona which provided fire support to US troops on Omaha Beach, Bob Roberts, a Canadian veteran who was the second man to land on Juno Beach on June 6 and American Eugene Deibler, a sergeant in the 501st Airborne Regiment who parachuted in behind Utah Beach.
Recalling his actions on D-Day, Mr Deibler said: “I don’t regret it at all – I went from a boy to a man that day.”
Most of the 300 veterans in the audience were those travelling on the special Royal British Legion cruise, which will go on to Normandy today.
The event ended with a gun salute from Royal Navy Frigate HMS St Albans in the Solent, a flypast of 25 military aircraft including a Spitfire, a Hurricane, two Hercules and two Typhoons and then a spectacular finale by the Red Arrows.
Then the veterans were treated to lunch and several chatted to the Queen, Prince Charles, President Trump and First Lady Melania.
One of them was former Royal Marine Jack Smith, 94, a landing craft coxswain who was part of the first wave during D-Day.
He spent almost three months on the Normandy beaches, ferrying injured, munitions and other cargo while being strafed with bullets by Nazi planes.
When he told the Queen how bad things were, she replied: “You don’t have to tell me – I’m from the same generation!”
Afterwards, Jack said it had been “a thrill” to meet the Queen.
“She’s marvellous and a real good egg,” he said.
“It means an awful lot to be here – the day respects everybody who took part in D-Day.A lot of people did a lot of good work that day. It respects their memory and the lads that didn’t come back.”
As the veterans returned to the MV Boudicca, they were cheered on their way by thousands of flagwaving locals.
They then took to the decks with flags of their own as the ship was escorted out of Portsmouth by 11 Royal Navy warships and accompanied by a Spitfire flypast.
Prime Minister Theresa May, Defence Secretary Penny Mordthe aunt and First Sea Lord Sir Philip Jones also waved from the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth as crew members lined the decks to wave their caps in a traditional “Hurrah!”
At 9pm, the ship paused off the Isle of Wight at “Piccadilly Circus” where the D-Day flotilla gathered on the evening of June 5, 1944.
Lt Gen James Bashall led a moment of reflection before the Band of the Royal British Legion played Sunset.
A veteran wells up at the event, attended by the Queen, inset