Express & Star

'Jerry was firing everything at hand - it was like a firework display but we were in it' – Peter Rhodes' D-Day Diaries Day One

Most of the men who fought on D-Day, June 6, 1944, have passed away.

Troops crossing Pegasus Bridge – a river crossing close to the Normandy beaches invaded on D-Day

We have collected many memories of veterans over the years. Over the next week we will retell their stories, told first-hand to Peter Rhodes by some of the 100,000-strong band of brothers who stormed the beaches or dropped from the squally skies on a single day in June to seize a foothold in occupied France and begin the liberation of a continent.

D-Day minus 1, June 5 - 10.15pm to D-Day, June 6 - 1am

The invasion plan was simple.

Allied troops would land on five beaches and grab a slice of Normandy 50 miles wide.

British and American airborne troops would strike a few miles inland to seal off the left and right flanks of the invasion area. From this bridgehead, the liberation of Europe would begin.

The first victory of D-Day fell to the men of the British 6th Airborne Division. Their job was to secure two crucial bridges and protect the eastern flank of the invasion area from German reinforcements.

Alec Harper of Bloxwich, a staff-sergeant in the Paras, dropped into Normandy through ‘a firework display’ of tracer bullets and made his way to Pegasus Bridge. His war began at 10.15pm on June 5 as he and his comrades boarded the Stirling bombers which were to drop them over Normandy. In the dim fuselage, he recalled, there was little for the paras to do but chat to the next man and contemplate the chances of survival: "Will I end up at the Hippodrome with a couple of pints of Butler’s or Banks’s . . . ?"

Over the French coast, tracer shells flashed past the Stirlings.

The red light came on. The paras prepared to go.

As the green light showed, they jumped into the blackness, falling towards occupied France.

“Jerry was firing everything at hand,” Mr Harper would later recall. “Searchlights were sweeping the sky and tracer bullets seemed to be coming from everywhere. It was like a fireworks display but instead of looking at it, one was in the middle of it.”

His abiding memory of D-Day was the unearthly wail of bagpipes echoing over the meadows when Lord Lovat’s Commandos arrived as reinforcements, having fought their way inland from the invasion beaches.

Picture from 2004 of Second World War piper Bill Millin