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World War II
Gordon Mason and Bob Tweed on Juno Beach
By Victoria Bartlett and Jo Palmer
A group of New Forest veterans made an emotional return to Normandy to mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Over five days they visited the places, and paid their respects to the people, that have stayed with them forever.
It was a long day of travelling by coach and ferry for the New Forest veterans to reach Northern France. But when you get to know these men and women you realise that, in their minds, they've never really left Normandy.
Ted Thurston from Highcliffe laying wreath at Juno
Ted Thurston, 83, from Highcliffe, is the Chair of the New Forest Normandy Veterans Association and was a sniper with 15th Scottish Division.
While visiting the quiet village of Tilly-sur-Seulles, which 65 years ago was the site of a week-long violent battle, Ted told us: "to this day I can still smell Normandy - the death and carnage I saw. I am amazed, pleased and lucky I survived. But the real heroes are in the ground."
But these veterans are heroes. And not just to us travelling with them, but to every single person we met on our trip.
When they don their immaculate regimental blazers, berets and medals people seem to suddenly realise that they are not just the elderly chaps queuing for their pensions, or kindly grandfathers who love their gardens, but real heroes who deserve honour, respect and gratitude.
Our standard bearers on parade
In Sainte-Mère-Église a Belgian re-enactor thanked them for his freedom and asked for autographs, in Bayeux Cemetery people queued to have their photograph taken with the former soldiers, and at Juno Beach locals spontaneously cheered as the men paraded down the street.
"The appreciation from the crowds was such a surprise. I had a tear in my eye when I saw how much they cared. We never saw civilians at the time so it feels very strange, but lovely, that they are so thankful." said Bert Lucas, 85, from Wimbourne, who was a radio operator in World War II.
Even on the ferry from Portsmouth, wide-eyed children gathered around veterans to hear tales from 65 years ago. These elderly men and women were suddenly far more exciting than any other celebrity of the moment.
Without doubt it was when a veteran performed a private wreath-laying that we thought more deeply about why we were there. It was always highly emotional when a veteran found a grave of a friend they had been chatting about earlier.
The supposed pinnacle of the D Day 65 tour - Saturday afternoon at Arromanches - turned out to be a disappointment for our veterans.
The day itself was not helped by the weather. But the real shame was that the veterans, yet again, were left waiting for the politicians and VIPs. They did so in the pouring rain for nearly two hours. It was heartbreaking to see them so cold, wet and let down when it was meant to be their day. They were the real VIPs.
Beach at Arromanches before the rain
The celebration had started so well with the sun pouring down on a beach full of army vehicles and people in 1940's dress. Bands were playing, there was a party atmosphere and a real air of anticipation.
But as the wait continued and the weather turned, the mood altered and chants of "why are we waiting?" began. Veterans, as ever, remained respectful - but the crowds booed when the Prime Minister arrived.
Luckily a sun-drenched, more personal service in Bayeux the next day more than made up for it, and our veterans could end their visit on a high note.
Veterans at Pegasus Bridge
This whole visit was enriched by the amazing individuals we were with. Having the veterans become our friends and open up to us more and more, as the trust developed and the memories returned, was very special indeed.
It's only in recent years that many of these men and women have started talking about their experiences - even with their own families.
"My brother was in the navy during the war - but I only found out a few years ago that he landed on D-Day. You just didn't talk about it." Merville Pigeon from Southbourne told us. The 85 year old was a shorthand typist for the Royal Auxilleries as one of the many women "behind the scenes" of the war effort.
Bill Price of New Milton gets comemmorative badge
Being in Normandy with local veterans was a humbling experience to say the least, and one that we've been very lucky to have had.
This anniversary was particularly poignant because for many of these veterans this will be the last time they return to the beaches and battlefields where they fought so courageously 65 years ago.
last updated: 19/06/2009 at 17:24