Here we are at the start of a new Normandy invasion!” Don Sheppard announced over the loudspeaker as the coach carrying British D-Day veterans pulled out of the rain-soaked car park.
“The objective is Brussels — to sort out the European Parliament,” the 94-year-old joked, prompting cheers from the passengers as they settled down for the day-long drive to France.
The veterans, many of them in their nineties, are among hundreds travelling to Normandy from around the world to mark 70 years since the Allied invasion began on June 6, 1944.
Scores of dignitaries are attending the commemorative events, but for those who fought in France, it is above all an opportunity to lay wreaths for fallen comrades and remember together, most likely for the last time.
As they sipped their coffee on the ferry from Dover to Calais, Sheppard and his friend Ron Spencer, 90, played a comedy double act, poking fun at each other and laughing at how they drank too much at a D-Day event last week.
But Spencer admitted that the trip to France had brought back a nightmare that he used to have after the war, which causes him to wake up screaming.
Although he cannot recall the details, he said there was plenty to draw on from his memories of landing with the Royal Artillery on Gold Beach.
“It wasn’t what you did, it was what you saw,” he said.
Spencer deflected any further questions about his experiences with jokes, but added: “Any man who said he wasn’t scared when we landed was lying. It was terrifying.”
Wearing smart jackets adorned with medals and the badge of the Normandy Veterans Association, the elderly travellers were an unmissable sight on the cross-Channel ferry.
Two young female British soldiers stopped one of the veterans for a photograph, while another was approached by a German passenger.
“Are you going over for D-Day?” the German man asked. “Thank you. We don’t know what would have happened if Hitler had continued.”
The veterans had set off early from Basildon in Essex, southeast England, joined by family, friends and carers, as well as a medical officer equipped to deal with anything from a headache to a heart attack.
As chairman of the Essex branch of the NVA, Sheppard organised the journey like a military operation, complete with rations and well-timed rest stops, and planned out a full schedule for the six-day trip.
Two of his granddaughters were among the party, 10-year-old Molly having secured a week off from school with the promise to make a presentation about D-Day to her year group when she returned.
Staring out the window as the coach neared its destination, Bob Stevens pointed out the town names he recognised from 70 years ago, after he landed on Juno beach as a Royal Engineer attached to the Canadian army.
“I see all the signposts and it brings back memories. Although it was nothing like this — it was all hedgerows,” the 92-year-old said.
Stevens landed on June 7, missing the horror of that first day when men were gunned down as they stepped out of the water, but still risking sniper fire and mines.
“There were bodies in the water and when we landed they were stacking them up the beach. Horrible,” he said.
A few seats in front, Walter “Nobby” Clark could not see the view as he is almost blind, but he listened keenly to the chatter around him.
Now 88, he was a navy signalman on D-Day on a frigate that escorted troop ships to the Normandy shores.
“I watched them go up the beaches through my binoculars, thinking: ‘Poor devils’,” he recalled.
When he returned a few days later, however, his ship was hit by a torpedo from a German E-boat.
“There was a big bang and a white streak comes towards you. There’s nothing you can do except hang on to something,” Clark said.
He sustained a head injury but was saved after being picked up out of the water and taken to a nearby ship.
Fifty years later, he met a man who had been on that ship — Len Hobbs, now a member of the Southend NVA, and a fellow passenger on the coach to France.
“This is the chap that saved my life,” Clark said, smiling broadly at his companion, and passing him a sweet.