‘Eternal debt’: 200 surviving veterans are focus of this year’s D-day

At the dying of the day, as dark descended across the beaches of Normandy, where the blood of so many thousands was spilled 80 years ago, each of the headstones of the 4,600 men lying in the Bayeux war cemetery was lit up aglow. A total of 156,115 men landed in Normandy in the early hours of 6 June 1944, but French officials estimate that a mere 200 veterans, mostly Americans but also British and Canadians, have returned to the scene of battle this time. The Royal British Legion brought 20 veterans back to the beaches, compared with the 255 in 2019 for the 75th commemorations.

Each of the events in England and northern France has been curated in the knowledge that this is likely to be the final opportunity to hear the testimony of those who were there, and to thank them in person.

“I’m not a hero. It is the ones who did not come back who were the heroes,” said Ken Cooke, 98, who as an 18-year-old stepped on to Gold beach at 7.45am. His protestations were politely put to one side. The breezy but sun-kissed day – the vast allied armada of vessels and the daring airborne troops had been launched in much harsher conditions at the Nazi defences in northern France in 1944 – had started with a direct tribute to the veterans on Southsea common.

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