‘We lost so many in a short time’

PARACHUTISTS dropped from the sky over Normandy yesterday to remember British servicemen who made the first landings on D-Day, 65 years ago.

Some of those who dropped into fields near Ranville watched as present members of 3 Para jumped from Dakota and Hercules aircraft into fields edged with poppies.

There was sunshine and blue sky for yesterday’s memorial event, but those who took part in Operation Neptune — the code name for the initial landings on June 6 1944 — remembered jumping in the dark at about 1.50am.

George “Les” Martin, 84, from Wigan, Lancashire, was one of the members of 12th Battalion Parachute Regiment who jumped to support those who had already taken the bridge which is now known as Pegasus.

By taking the bridge they prevented German forces from attacking from the east the soldiers who were landing at Sword Beach.

“It was dark. You were huddled up in the plane and we got fed up.

“We jumped through a hole in the floor, not like the modern way. You were sat on the edge of the hole with nothing to hold you in.

“It could be quite terrifying.”

Once landed, Mr Martin said the priority was “to get the chute off and find something to fight with”.

Yesterday, he met a former colleague for the first time since they served together after getting in touch with Bert Marsh, 84, from Sheffield, on the internet.

Mr Martin described the feeling yesterday as “sorrowful”.

Mr Marsh said he was thinking of “how many comrades we lost in a short time”.

“From June 6 to June 13 we lost 600 people, killed or wounded,” he said.

He was close to tears as he added: “You can’t forget those killed. Children and everybody else shouldn’t forget it. There are that many people up there in the cemetery who lost their lives.”

A grant from the Big Lottery Fund helped the veterans from the Parachute Regiment Association, based in Sheffield, to make the trip to Normandy to take part in events to mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day today.

At Pegasus Bridge itself there were more events to mark today’s anniversary. The bridge was the site of the death of the first Allied soldier killed in combat on D-Day.

Lieutenant Den Brotheridge was killed in the first minutes of the assault and his sacrifice is commemorated on a memorial beside the bridge.

Another monument reads: “To you the 6th Airborne Division, to you of Lord Lovat’s commando, in memory of 6th June 1944. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

The Band of the Liberation today marched across the bridge — which was replaced in 1994 — as onlookers watched from the first house in France liberated by the Allies on D-Day.

The Gondree family still own the property next to the bridge, which is now a cafe with a sign marking its place in history.

Among those enjoying a cup of tea in the Normandy sunshine was Douglas Baines, who was 19 and a member of the 12th Yorkshire Parachute Regiment when he parachuted into the area on D-Day.

“I have been coming back here every year for 37 years,” he said. “It’s important because I like to pay my respects in the cemetery to my old friends and people who got killed.”

Mr Baines was accompanied by Fred Harman, 85, from Oxford, who was training with the RAF Voluntary Reserve in Manchester on D-Day.

“I wish we had done our training so we could have been flying,” he said.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama was seeing for himself the horrors of a concentration camp yesterday during a visit to Germany.

Mr Obama flew to Buchenwald where an estimated 56,000 people perished. Most were Jews — worked to death, shot or hanged by Nazi guards.

The visit — the first by a US president to the forced labour camp — was also personal. A great-uncle helped liberate a nearby satellite camp, Ohrdruf, in early April 1945 just days before other US Army units overran Buchenwald.

Today, Obama will be the star visitor at the commemoration ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the D-Day Allied landings when he joins French President Nicholas Sarkozy in Normandy.

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