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WITH their medals glinting in the sunshine and tears filling their eyes, brave Midlands veterans returned to the killing fields of northern France to remember their fallen comrades 65 years on from D-Day.

Some were too old and frail to walk unaided, but would let nothing stand in their way as they honoured the thousands who never made it home from one of the most daring military operations of all time.

Many were only teenagers when they hurled themselves on to the beaches and in to a hail of enemy bullets, stepping over the bodies of friends as they dodged the shots.

More than six decades have done little to dull the horrors for the 18 living members of Birmingham's branch of the Normandy Veterans Association.

As they wandered among war graves emotions came flooding back.

Target Charlie Stretch, who turns 85 today, from Streetly, was on board HMS Sirius, which was the target of shells as it bombarded German positions at Ouistreham.

The former radio operator said: "The two lads either side of me in the draft were killed and I know it's only by the grace of God that there aren't people looking down at my headstone today.

"I spent my 20th birthday wondering whether I would ever make it home.

"We know that we are the lucky ones and that we must come to remember those who were less fortunate." Yesterday's ceremony at Bayeux's British cemetery took on an added poignancy as it is likely to represent the last chance many veterans will have to make the trip to France before they die.

When Birmingham's veterans visited in 2004 for the 60th anniversary there were more than 80 D-Day soldiers with them.

"They say this will be the last time, but they said that at the 50th anniversary and again at the 60th," said ex-Royal Engineer Walter Lawrence, aged 93.

"But if I'm still alive in five years, I will be here.

"The less of us there are, the more important it is that we come back and mark the event. To walk through here and see the headstones of lads who were 18 is very sad." Prince Charles laid a wreath during a moving ceremony attended by 4,000 people.

And Barrack Obama arrived to a fanfare just a few miles away in the city of Caen where he spent the day with French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

But it was clear that the real VIPs were the veterans.

John Robinson, aged 87, pictured, was a stretcher bearer with the Royal Warwickshire Artillery.

"We landed the day after DDay but there were still shells flying around and bodies on the beach," said Mr Robinson, from Great Barr.

"As soon as we started to reach the villages, the Germans were waiting for us with machine guns and we lost a lot of men. As a stretcher bearer, you couldn't carry a rifle as well as a casualty so we were sitting ducks really. Looking back it was horrific, but at the time you had to detach yourself emotionally from it." Two months after D-Day, as British forces continued their push in to enemy-occupied Europe, Mr Robinson was hit in his arm with a pice of shrapnel during a fierce fire-fight.

"If I hadn't been standing side on, it would have ripped through my chest," he added. "We know were lucky, that's all it was and that's why we owe it to our comrades to be here today." . Edward Chadwick travelled to Normandy courtesy of Brittany Ferries and Keycamp.

. For more D-Day news, read the Birmingham Mail next week


Charlie Stretch was on board HMS Sirius
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jun 7, 2009
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