Sheffield’s Normandy veterans spent an emotional day touring the beaches and battlefields of France they first witnessed 70 years ago.
In the first full day of the veterans’ anniversary pilgrimage, accompanied by The Star’s deputy news editor Sarah Crabtree, old men now in their 80s and 90s – just teenagers or lads in their 20s back in 1944 – visited Pegasus Bridge, Cafe Gondree and Ranville Cemetery.
In the afternoon, after a view from the coach of the landing beaches Sword, Juno and Gold, the veterans made a moving stop at Fontenay-le-Pesnel war cemetery at Tessel.
It was there that Pat Strafford – himself badly injured in fierce fighting in a nearby wood – tearfully laid a wreath to his fallen comrade Ronald McGrath. The ceremony was accompanied by the haunting strains of a piper and drummer.
Pat, now 88, of Firth Park, said: “He was from Gainsborough, and he was only 17. He had lied about his age to get into the army early.”
At Pegasus Bridge, where silent gliders landed the night before D-Day, the streets thronged with international visitors and French police. The gendarmerie stopped to thank veterans Bill Hartley, 91, from Killamarsh, and Charlie Hill, 89, from Gleadless, and shake their hands.
Doug Parker, 91, from Owlthorpe, stopped for a beer in the Cafe Gondree – the first French property to be liberated by the invading Allied troops in 1944 – and met up again with Madame Gondree, the lady who still runs the cafe but was just a little girl when Doug and his pals landed on June 6 seventy years ago.
And at Ranville Cemetery, Jack Quinn – a lorry driver formerly of City Road, now retired to Mablethorpe – laid crosses on the graves of five of his fellow Royal Marines who were killed by machine gun fire on Gold beach on D-Day.
Wiping away tears Jack, now 89, said: “It was exactly 5pm when two German aircraft came and riddled the beach. Lots were killed, including five of my crew of six – I was the only survivor. The lads whose graves I’ve visited today were Reg Wells, Ken Wood, another lad called Wood, and men called Williams and Travis.
“I brought the crosses with me from home. It’s been very emotional to be able to do it. It could so easily have been me that was killed that day. I was just very lucky.”