This time last week they were in France - revisiting for likely the last time the beaches and the villages where they lost so many friends, and the immaculate cemeteries where thousands lie buried.
Yesterday the last few remaining Sheffield veterans of the Normandy campaign were back home – shoulder-to-shoulder in the city centre for their annual D-Day remembrance service and parade.
The 70th anniversary of one of World War Two’s most pivotal moments was last Friday, June 6, but in Sheffield the official event at Barker’s Pool was postponed while the men took part in commemorations in France, meeting royalty including the Queen and Prince Charles and attending an international ceremony of thanks at Sword beach.
But yesterday, at the stroke of 11am, as shoppers meandered in and out of John Lewis and office workers busied themselves in town, the spot around Sheffield’s war memorial fell silent as the city’s ‘real life Private Ryans’ gathered to remember.
Only the splash of the Barker’s Pool fountains, and the distant throb of bus engines on Pinstone Street, interrupted the hush.
A lone bugler on the City Hall steps played the Last Post to signal the start of a minute’s silence, before veterans Cyril Elliott, aged 94, from Shiregreen, Charlie Hill, 89, from Gleadless Valley, and Pat Strafford, 88, from Firth Park, stepped forward to lay a wreath at the war memorial.
Charlie is one of only two surviving Sheffield veterans to have landed in the very first dawning moments of D-Day – ‘H-Hour’, 7.25am – on June 6, 1944. He struggled ashore on Gold beach, and says D-Day turned him ‘from a boy into a man’.
As the minute’s silence drew to a close a dozen men – all pensioners now in their late 80s and 90s, but back then strapping lads in their teens and 20s – lined up smartly in blazers, berets and medals to listen as Bill Hartley, from Killamarsh, the 91-year-old treasurer of the Sheffield branch of the Normandy Veterans’ Association read aloud the Normandy Prayer.
“Oh Eternal Lord God, who has united together all the veterans of the Normandy campaign, grant us we beseech you your blessing, and give us strength to carry on our work,” said Bill, who was 21 when he landed on Gold beach the day after D-Day with the mobile light anti-aircraft regiment.
Gordon Drabble, 89, from Lodge Moor, who was wounded by shellfire in August 1944 in an attack which killed many, recited the words: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”
As the men made their way slowly on foot from Barker’s Pool to the Town Hall, where new Lord Mayor Coun Peter Rippon hosted a reception for them in the mayoral parlour, eight and nine-year-old Year 4 children from Wath CofE primary school were waiting outside in their red uniforms to applaud and cheer.
“They were so interested to speak to us,” said Bill. “They knew so much about D-Day, and that it had been the 70th anniversary last week.”
Cyril, who was the oldest of the Sheffield veterans to return to the French beaches last week, said: “This ceremony in Barker’s Pool each year is so important, to remember the comrades we lost, those who didn’t make it from the beaches.”
Charlie, who is believed to be one of only two surviving Green Howards from WWII nationwide - the other is Charles Taylor, 88, also from Sheffield – added: “At our age now there is not much we can do except call in at the war memorial every year and try to keep the remembrance alive.”