A day when D-Day heroes were given the VIP treatment they deserve
PUBLISHED: 21:14 06 June 2019 | UPDATED: 21:14 06 June 2019
Copyright: Archant 2019
Reporter Stacia Briggs and photographer Denise Bradley report from the Normandy D-Day commemorations.
A parade of old soldiers, a prayer for peace, fly-bys and fireworks, dancing and displays, tears and silence: Arromanches in Normandy knows how to welcome D-Day veterans.
Norfolk D-Day veterans were hailed as heroes by grateful French townspeople 75 years after they stormed their beaches.
Arromanches in northern France welcomed Allied soldiers 75-years ago on D-Day and it's welcomed them back every year since - "Thank you, Liberators", read the signs.
Every year when the Norfolk and Suffolk Normandy veterans return to France, they spend the afternoon of June 6, D-Day, at Arromanches, which was given the codename 'Gold Beach' in 1944.
The town truly loves veterans: every shop sells D-Day memorabilia, the streets are filled with flags of the Allies and spontaneous applause and a flurry of kisses follow each and every veteran.
Those townsfolk with long memories remember what occupation was like.
For the veterans themselves, being in Arromanches is like being a rock star at a fan convention: people burst into tears of gratitude, stoop to take selfies and vigorously shake hands with each and every one of them.
"I don't hold with the fact that we were brave," said Len Fox from Norwich, who landed close to Arromanches on June 6 75 years ago yesterday.
"I wasn't brave. I was the most frightened that I've ever been. I was terrified to stay on the boat and terrified to get off.
"When people tell us that we're heroes it doesn't feel real. We were just boys but Normandy made us men.
"The French and the Dutch are always so welcoming and they always thank us. It's nice that people remember what we did and I think we all feel we have to keep coming back.
"Of course we're lucky we can come back. We made it home, after all."
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David Woodrow from Topcroft, who landed on D-Day within sight of Arromanches, came to the town after taking part in the inauguration service at the new memorial in Normandy for British soldiers and another service at Bayeux Cemetery.
There, he had met and chatted with Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron and appeared live on British television.
"It's been quite a day!" he laughed, "we had to get up at 4am to get through the road blockade but I always have to come to Arromanches when I am in Normandy, it wouldn't be the same without a trip there.
"It feels strange when people want to have their picture taken with you or ask you to sign something. If you'd told me that would happen 75 years ago I'd have said you were talking rubbish."
This year more than any other before, the streets of Arromanches were filled with thousands of well-wishers, re-enactors and those veterans able to make the journey to France.
Pushing wheelchairs through crowds was a near-impossible task and although pleased to see so many people turning out to show their support, Jack Woods from Norwich said he felt a little overwhelmed.
"We are always humbled when the French thank us in such a heartfelt way but we are really here for those who never came home," said the Normandy Campaign veteran.
"None of us know if we'll come back, we hope we will but we can't be sure. So each year we try and enjoy every minute. Seeing all these people gives me hope that the Normandy soldiers won't be forgotten"
Also present at the service was General The Lord Richard Dannatt, who made a point of chatting to fellow Norfolk soldier, Mr Woods, cutting through the crowd to catch up with an old friend.
Onlookers watched a parade of veterans, heard first-hand accounts of the landings, enjoyed a concert from the Band of the Royal Air Force and watched the Royal Air Force Battle of Britain Memorial Flight complete three flypasts.
There was a parachute display by the British Red Devils and the American Golden Knights, a Red Arrows flyby and a spectacular firework display at 11pm.
But mostly, June 6 2019 in Arromanches meant saying 'thank you' - it was a day that put the heroes of the day at the centre of everything, rather than turning the spotlight on to a visiting dignitary.
In this Normandy town, it's the veterans not the heads of state that are the VIPs.
As the Red Arrows turned the sky red, white and blue, Mr Woodrow - whose first job in Normandy was to prepare an airfield for his squadron, said: "Will you look at that - the British over the skies again 75 years to the day."