Denis Edwards was just 19 when, armed to the teeth and full of adrenalin, he boarded his Horsa glider on the night of June 5, 1944 and was towed into the air behind a Halifax bomber on the way to liberate France.

A short while later, having flown through a wall of German anti-aircraft fire over the French coast, his glider landed at Pegasus Bridge.

Edwards was the first soldier to set foot in France at the start of D-Day, the biggest seaborne invasion in history.

As world leaders prepare to meet in Normandy to celebrate the 60th anniversary, the memories remain searingly vivid.

"We released from the tow and went into a horrendous dive. The wheels came off as we landed and we skidded before hitting the embankment next to the bridge," he told Reuters at a reunion at London's Imperial War Museum to remember "the longest day".

"The crash stove in the nose and hurled both pilots out still in their seats, so I suppose technically they were the first on the ground on D-Day. I was next," he said.

The glider attack took the Germans guarding the strategic bridge over the Caen Canal completely by surprise.

"The training took over and we sprinted across the bridge, firing and yelling. I got one of my grenades but threw it too early and it bounced into the canal where it probably blew up some fish rather than some Germans," Edwards added.

"One German got a machine gun and loosed off a few bursts, unfortunately hitting my commanding officer in the neck and killing him - the first allied casualty of D-Day.

The troops fanned out on either side of the bridge to await the expected counter-attack before being relieved several hours later by commandos coming inland from the beaches.

"It was my first time in action. You always remember your first battle," said the sprightly Edwards who went on to fight his way through the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes to eventually meet up with the Russians on the Baltic in 1945.

Out to sea at the head of a flotilla of minesweepers clearing the way onto Utah and Omaha beaches for the American invasion force, Alexander Heggie was uncomfortably aware that he was very exposed.

"Shells were going overhead in both directions, and we were right out in front," the bemeddalled octogenarian said. "We had front row seats to the biggest seaborne invasion in history."

"We watched the landing craft heading in loaded with men, and then saw them coming back full of the dead and the dying. We owe the yankees quite a bit," he added.

The heavily defended Omaha beach was the bloodiest of the five invasion beaches, with some 3,000 men killed or wounded by nightfall on the first day.

Able Seaman Terry Gull, now 78, had an even closer view of the beaches as his tank-landing craft hit a mine and sank on Juno Beach which was assigned to the Canadians.

"Initially we were told to get off and start fighting. But then we were told to sit tight and await further orders. So we just kept our heads down. There was an awful lot of stuff flying about," he added.

Eventually he and his shipmates sat out three tides before being refloated. They then ran a shuttle service bringing supplies from the giant invasion armada onto the shore.

By the end of June 6, 1944 some 130,000 allied troops had come ashore and the beginning of the end was in sight - although it would take nearly a year of hard fighting before the German capitulation.

For Wally Harris, who landed at Gold Beach on the afternoon of D-Day and who won a Military Medal during the liberation of Brussels for killing or capturing some 30 Germans in a day, the memories are as vivid today as they always have been.

"Time has not dimmed them," said the 83-year-old with a slight catch in his voice. "They are with me, forever." (Reuters)


From D-Day to Berlin

France this weekend marks the 60th anniversary of the Allied D-Day landings in Europe leading to the end of World War Two on the continent eleven months later.

Here is a short chronology of the last year of the war from D-Day to Berlin and the destruction of the Nazi regime in Germany.


June 6: Allied invasion of Europe.

July 20: Adolf Hitler escapes assassination attempt spearheaded by a group of army officers. He is only lightly wounded by a bomb. Bloody purge of opponents follows.

August 25: General Dietrich von Choltitz, German commander in Paris, surrenders to Lieutenant Henri Karcher of the French 2nd Armoured division, the first Allied unit to enter the city.

September 17-25: Ill-fated Allied airborne assault on Arnhem in the Netherlands.

December 16: The Battle of the Bulge. German troops counter-attack through the Ardennes forest to try to split Allied forces and re-capture the Belgian port of Antwerp.


January 16: German advance in Ardennes beaten back, US troops press their advance.

January 17: Soviet troops take Polish capital Warsaw.

January 27: Red Army troops liberate Auschwitz concentration camp in southern Poland.

February 4-11: Wartime conference at Yalta in the Crimea. Soviet leader Josef Stalin, US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Premier Winston Churchill agree on postwar division of Germany.

February 13: Budapest falls to the Red Army after a bloody 50-day siege.

April 9: Koenigsburg, stronghold of Germany's Baltic defences, falls to the Red Army after a 59-day siege. A quarter of the city's population died.

April 25: US and Soviet forces link up at German city of Torgau on the river Elbe.

March 7: US 1st Army crosses Rhine river, the main geographical barrier on the way to the German heartland, at the railway bridge in Remagen.

April 30: Hitler commits suicide in bunker in Berlin.

April 30: Soviet soldiers raise Red Flag over shattered German Reichstag (parliament) building.

May 2: End of large-scale fighting in Berlin. Marshal Georgy Zhukov takes surrender after battle that cost the lives of 70,000 Soviets and 150,000 Germans.

May 4: All German forces in northwest Europe surrender.

May 7: German forces sign capitulation at General Dwight D. Eisenhower's headquarters in Rheims in France.

May 8: Capitulation proclaimed on Victory in Europe Day (VE Day).

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