On June 6, 1944, the forces of Britain, the United States, Canada and their allies crossed the Channel to Normandy, beginning the epic struggle that would turn the tide of World War Two and reclaim mainland Europe from Hitler’s Germany. D-Day – and the weeks that followed – would shape the Europe we now know. A little over 71 years later, Guardian editor Steve Adams travelled with 16 veterans of the Normandy campaign to revisit some of the key locations of the early days of the landings.


Perhaps the most staggering aspect of the Normandy campaign to those who were not there is the sheer scale of the numbers involved.

The entire British Army currently boasts 80,000 uniformed men and women. More than three-quarters of that number landed on Sword and Gold beaches in northern France on D-Day – June 6, 1944, alone. That was just the British. Canadian troops landed at Juno while the Americans stormed Omaha and Utah.

The total number of troops landed on those five code-named beaches on June 6 approached 200,000. Within eight weeks, the figure had passed 3,000,000. The world had never seen a force like it, nor will it again.

The scale of the invasion was beyond imagination, and each of the 16 men I travelled with played their part.

Geoff Veale, a 91-year-old former RAF aircraft fitter who landed at Juno – the Canadian beach - in late June and spent the campaign on search-and-retrieve missions reclaiming downed Spitfires and who I accompanied on the trip as a carer, summed up the situation perfectly.

“People talk about not being able to see the wood for the trees, but Normandy was so immense we were all just like a leaf on a twig on a branch of an individual tree,” he said.

“We had no idea what the bigger picture was. We simply did our jobs and got on with it.”

Geoff and each of the veterans on the trip all had their tales to tell, but each played down their role, each spoke of being just a tiny cog in a grand machine.

Each talked of the minutiae of life at war - the awful food, mosquitoes and the deafening noise of millions of Allied shells pounding German positions - and even those who spoke briefly of action, did so guardedly and with an unmistakeable though private and unspoken sadness.

None spoke of themselves as heroes; none revelled in the past or in the victory they would ultimately achieve.

The morning after our arrival in France, after an evening spent chatting around the dinner table and in the hotel bar, I understood why.

The village of Ranville was the first to be liberated. Its cemetery is home to 2,236 graves of Allied soldiers who died during the earliest days of the campaign. The first Allied soldier killed during the invasion while securing what would be renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of his regiment is buried in the churchyard there.

Row upon row of identical creamy-white headstones line the field, immaculately kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Many had poppies at their base, though not all.

What strikes hardest about those seemingly endless stones, beyond their sheer number, are the ages of the fallen: 19, 20, 21, 18, 22. Boys not men, more suited to the rugby, football and cricket pitches of home than a corner of some foreign field.

And yet they went and there they died – a golden generation from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, America, Canada, New Zealand and all corners of the globe.

Three days later, on the final excursion of our trip we visited Bayeux cemetery where 4,144 Allied soldiers are buried, their graves marked with those identical creamy-white stones.

At Ranville the mind can barely absorb the scale of the killing. At Bayeux there is only hushed awe at the rank upon rank laid out in all directions.

Each of the men I was with shed their private tears and each, in their own words, said: “Here, these are the heroes – the boys who never made it home.”

Between the cemeteries we visited Sword, Gold, Juno, Utah and Omaha - names from comic books and the TV screen for someone who grew up in the 1970s.

We visited the towns and villages where history was made and the places where these men had seen their pals scythed down.

And everywhere we went, in every street and bar and restaurant, these old boys in their berets and their blazers were heralded as the heroes they denied themselves to be.

In a motorway service station as we queued for coffee, a woman in her 60s approached and kissed Geoff on both cheeks.

“Excusez-moi monsieur,” she said, “merci, merci.”

She placed her hand on her heart and then on his before disappearing back from where she came.

All 16 received the same reception everywhere.

On the cobbled streets of Bayeux a well-dressed man came forward and asked, in perfect English, if he might shake Geoff’s hand.

“I wish to thank you and all your comrades for what you did and the sacrifices that you made,” he said.

“All of Europe is grateful to you Sir.”

He then turned to me and said: “We can but hope that we have learned the lessons of the past and none will ever again endure what these men had to.

As he began to walk away I asked where he was from, unable to pinpoint his accent.

“From Germany,” he said. “This gentleman and his comrades freed my country as much as they did France - and for that we are forever grateful.”