NORMANDY — World leaders are due to attend ceremonies in Normandy Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Around 160,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel on June 6, 1944 to Nazi-occupied France - the biggest ever invasion fleet, which would help secure an Allied victory.
On board a passenger ferry bound for Normandy, 98-year-old Tony Pyatt is making the same journey he took 70 years ago across the English Channel.
Then, he was lieutenant in the 1st Royal Tank Regiment and part of the biggest seaborne invasion ever launched. Seven thousand vessels set sail from Britain on June 6, 1944 to take back Nazi-occupied France.
“I sat on the deck of this Liberty ship, reading a book without a care in the world - except that a few bombers were coming over from German planes, which did not hit us," Pyatt said.
It is difficult to recall. I was not frightened. But, on the other hand I was not doing any heroics either. We just had to accept it,” he said.
In the eyes of many, Europe owes its freedom to veterans like Pyatt. Archive news reports from that day capture the hope and expectation for the D-Day invasion.
“In the high spirits of free men launched on the grandest of all crusades, the trained soldiers of democracy left the shores of England. For all who had so long awaited the event, this was indeed an hour of triumph,” reads one.
Within 12 months of the 160,000 Allied troops wading ashore in Normandy, Nazi Germany was on its knees.
“We used to sleep in holes in the ground or we used to sleep inside the tanks sometimes. As signals officer, I had a jeep and I used that jeep all the way from Arromanches to Berlin,” Pyatt said.
Further west, U.S. forces took command of the Utah and Omaha beaches. Thousands of young men waded onshore from landing craft amid a storm of German artillery and gunfire.
For the generations that followed, those images are seared in the mind through history books and movies. For the veterans, a return to Normandy brings back vivid personal memories.
George Shenkle, 92, was a Communications Corporal in the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. On D-Day he jumped into Normandy with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He has returned to visit the U.S. Cemetery above Omaha beach.
“I will never forget the words of [then U.S. President] Dwight Eisenhower, ‘The eyes of the world are on you’. Now even today this makes shivers run up and down my spine.”
Bill Byers, from Oklahoma, is making his first trip back to Normandy since coming ashore in 1944 with the 300th Combat Engineers. He has come to the cemetery to pay his respects to a friend, Clifford Alexander, who did not survive the assault.
Alexander was aboard a ship sunk by enemy fire off Omaha Beach. His body was never recovered.
“To me it is just something that happened, you know. And we have never talked about it. I did see his wife, and told her what had happened. And she said ‘Well he is still alive somewhere.’ She would not take the hint that he was gone,” said Byers.
Six-thousand Americans lost their lives that day, alongside 4,300 British and Canadian soldiers. German losses are estimated at up to 9,000.
Most of the veterans are now in their ninth decade or older. Many say this will be their final visit to the beaches that still bear the scars of war; to the battlefields where so many of their comrades fell.