We are the fortunate ones, say WWII veterans

6th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

British, US and Canadian divisions, plus free fighters from France and other occupied countries, crossed a stormy English Channel at dawn on D-Day to storm beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword in what remains the biggest amphibious assault in history.

Colleville-sur-mer -- Eager well-wishers press around them for a snapshot or a shake of their hand, but World War II veterans marking D-Day in Normandy insist they are the "survivors, not the heroes" of the battle to free Western Europe from Nazi rule.

From a shady bench at the American war cemetery in Colleville-sur-mer, Lee Allsopp looks out over the soft green slopes dotted with white crosses, to the sand dunes below, where Allied troops turned the tide of the war 65 years ago.

Now a frail 85, the British D-Day veteran is one of several hundred ex-servicemen attending Saturday's commemorations in Colleville, joined by US President Barack Obama and the leaders of France, Britain and Canada.

Allsopp was a fresh-faced 20-year-old when he was parachuted into the town of Ranville, a few miles along the coast, at 01:15 am on June 6, 1944, to secure a strategic bridge, codenamed Pegasus, for the advancing Allied forces.

"It was so tragic the events of the time. You look along that cliff and the Germans were at the top, the Americans at the bottom trying to get here -- and now the poor buggers are here, but they're here for good, for ever."

"They call us heroes. We're not the heroes, we're the survivors," Allsopp said, nodding at the small crowd of well-wishers gathered to admire his service medals, hear his story told, and pose with him for a souvenir photo.

"My heroes are the lads that are here, permanently. It was a job that had to be done at the time and I was just one of those people that were old enough to be involved."

British, US and Canadian divisions, plus free fighters from France and other occupied countries, crossed a stormy English Channel at dawn on D-Day to storm beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword in what remains the biggest amphibious assault in history.

"People ask if we were scared before the landings," said Allsopp, whose 53rd Airlanding Light Regiment provided artillery back-up to the parachutists of the British 6th Airborne division up until the taking of Caen.

"My thoughts were simply what you have to do when you got on the ground -- I'd got a 68 wireless set strapped to my legs, to set up when we landed."

"It is a long time ago, but quite frankly it's something that never leaves you," said Allsopp, who met his wife -- a parachute packer -- during the war and to set up a newsagents' business in the English city of Nottingham.

A diminutive five foot three inches tall, Allsopp jokes with a grin that he shrunk from the impact of the Normandy landings -- before conceding that he was "bloody good at the job," surviving three major World War II operations.

"I don't regret any part of this," said the British veteran, who sailed on Christmas Eve 1944 to assist US forces in the Battle of the Bulge, and later provided airborne support as they crossed the Rhine River into Germany.

One of those American troops was Robert Keck, who spent his 19th birthday on the banks of the Rhine, serving with the 83rd Infantry Division in the Battle of the Bulge and the advance towards Berlin.

Arriving in the freezing Ardennes forests on the second day of 1945, Keck was wounded in the leg and face -- he only recently had some shrapnel removed -- and had several near brushes with death.

"Once I was on a night patrol and I was trying to get up on the bridge when the Germans blew the bridge on me," said Keck, who told of being left for dead when his platoon was forced into a retreat.

"That's a horrible feeling. They thought I was killed. But of course I was lucky. I could tell a lot of stories like that, close calls that we had."

One of the 200 US veterans on hand to attend Saturday's ceremony in Colleville, the 83-year-old, who settled after the war in Mountville, Pennsylvania, was returning to France for the first time since 1945.

"I'm so overwhelmed," he said, looking out over the sea of white crosses. "There are so many guys that we lost that can't be with us, and I'm here. You wonder why."

AFP/Expatica

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