Surrounded by the illuminated graves of 4,140 men who would never see the liberation for which they gave their lives, the Princess Royal last night recited the words of a heartbroken mother inscribed on one headstone: ‘He is not dead whose memory lives in hearts that know and loved him.’

The Princess was leading the advance party for today’s Royal mini-invasion of Normandy, when the King, Queen and Prince of Wales will also be here for the big set-piece events to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

Yesterday was a moment for reflecting on the enormity of what lay ahead for all those young men packed into their ships and aircraft this time 80 years before.

Speaking at last night’s D-Day vigil at the Commonwealth cemetery in Bayeux, the Princess quoted the memoirs of Sub-Lieutenant Keith Symons, the uncle of her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence. 

At the age of just 20, his job was to lead three landing craft in the first assault on Gold Beach come dawn. ‘Everyone was quite subdued, but it was all very matter-of-fact,’ he had written. ‘After supper we sat around making light conversation and listening to the chaplain playing his violin.

Anne, The Princess Royal, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, shakes hands with Cadet Corporal Grace Maddison as she arrives for the Commonwealth War Grave Commission's Great Vigil to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

Anne, The Princess Royal, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, shakes hands with Cadet Corporal Grace Maddison as she arrives for the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s Great Vigil to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

A pipe band makes the procession from Bayeux Cathedral to the military cemetery walking in front of Princess Anne

A pipe band makes the procession from Bayeux Cathedral to the military cemetery walking in front of Princess Anne

D-Day veteran Sergeant Richard Brock gives a reading during the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's Great Vigil to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

D-Day veteran Sergeant Richard Brock gives a reading during the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Great Vigil to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

British veteran Bernard Morgan, 100, salutes at Bayeux cemetery, on the day of commemorative events for the 80th anniversary of D-Day

British veteran Bernard Morgan, 100, salutes at Bayeux cemetery, on the day of commemorative events for the 80th anniversary of D-Day

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, shakes hands with Cadet Corporal Grace Maddison (second left)

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, shakes hands with Cadet Corporal Grace Maddison (second left)

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Princess Anne accepts a posy to lay on the Grave of an Unknown Soldier in Normandy

Princess Anne accepts a posy to lay on the Grave of an Unknown Soldier in Normandy

Princess Anne, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, walks past headstones as she arrives for the Commonwealth War Grave Commission's Great Vigil

Princess Anne, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, walks past headstones as she arrives for the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s Great Vigil

Princess Anne speaks during the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's Great Vigil to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

Princess Anne speaks during the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Great Vigil to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

The Torch of Commemoration carried by Cadet Corporal Madison Grace at the Commonwealth War Grave Commission's Great Vigil

The Torch of Commemoration carried by Cadet Corporal Madison Grace at the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s Great Vigil

Princess Anne arriving for the Commonwealth War Grave Commission's Great Vigil to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

Princess Anne arriving for the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s Great Vigil to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

‘My cabin companion was a Captain in the Green Howards, a charming man who had been a solicitor before the war. We talked about what we would do when the war was over. Sadly he was killed in France only a few weeks later.’ The captain, Raymond Chambers, was buried a few yards from where the Princess was speaking.

Young Symons survived the war, finished his Oxford degree, married and became a headmaster. Like all the veterans, no doubt, he would have regarded himself not as a hero but as one of the lucky ones.

This week’s scenes are perhaps the most poignant D-Day commemorations ever staged here. Every June 6 brings the veterans and the families of the fallen back to the beaches and the bocage where the Allies began the painful and bloody task of liberating Western Europe.

However, as the dwindling band of veterans are the first to tell you, this will almost certainly be the last time they come back in any significant numbers. That sense of a final farewell lends even more emotion to what are always very powerful events. There are thought to be up to 100 veterans here, including around 45 from the United States. In future, though, it will be the families — the children of D-Day — who ensure the torch of remembrance keeps burning.

Anne, The Princess Royal, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, attends the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's annual service of remembrance at Bayeux Cathedral

Anne, The Princess Royal, President of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, attends the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s annual service of remembrance at Bayeux Cathedral

The Princess Royal speaks with members of the military following the Royal British Legion Service of Commemoration

The Princess Royal speaks with members of the military following the Royal British Legion Service of Commemoration

Princess Anne views the war graves following the Royal British Legion Service of Commemoration

Princess Anne views the war graves following the Royal British Legion Service of Commemoration

Princess Anne views war graves following the Royal British Legion Service of Commemoration to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day

Princess Anne views war graves following the Royal British Legion Service of Commemoration to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day

Princess Anne accompanied by Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence attends the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's annual service of remembrance at Bayeux Cathedral

Princess Anne accompanied by Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence attends the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s annual service of remembrance at Bayeux Cathedral

Bagpipers walk in a procession after a thanksgiving service to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day

Bagpipers walk in a procession after a thanksgiving service to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day

Princess Anne attends the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's annual service of remembrance at Bayeux Cathedral

Princess Anne attends the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s annual service of remembrance at Bayeux Cathedral

Princess Anne walks in a procession after a thanksgiving service to commemorate the 80th anniversary

Princess Anne walks in a procession after a thanksgiving service to commemorate the 80th anniversary

International pipers from France, Germany and the United Kingdom during a procession

International pipers from France, Germany and the United Kingdom during a procession

Normandy is hosting a variety of events at significant sites leading up to the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landing

Normandy is hosting a variety of events at significant sites leading up to the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landing 

International bagpipers lead a procession to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

International bagpipers lead a procession to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day 

Princess Anne lays a wreath as she attends a ceremony along with D-Day veterans

Princess Anne lays a wreath as she attends a ceremony along with D-Day veterans 

I met many of them here yesterday, at some of the many enchanting little ceremonies ahead of today’s big international set-piece occasions.

In the Commonwealth cemetery at Ranville, I spoke to Peggy Eckert, 92, from Hounslow. She should really be among the VIPs today, yet she has not been invited to any official event and has come at her own expense on a coach tour with her nephew, Keith. She has done so to honour her brothers, Cyril and Stan, both Paras who lie just eleven graves apart.

Proudly wearing a Parachute Regiment scarf, she placed a cross in tribute to her two big brothers. ‘I do this for my parents. They never got over it,’ Peggy explained, holding a photo of the two boys and a copy of the letter which Stan, just 19, wrote to his mother in the early hours of D-Day.

Dropped in the wrong place behind enemy lines and holed up in a ditch, he had scribbled: ‘Do you know mum dear, I have never realised how much you meant to me until now. If I ever get home again, you will see a very different Stan. The same goes for dad.’ The letter was found with his body and eventually made its way back home.

Headstones in Normandy dedicated to soldiers who lost their lives

Headstones in Normandy dedicated to soldiers who lost their lives 

Parachutes in the skies over Normandy to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

Parachutes in the skies over Normandy to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

Peggy kneeling at her brother Cyril's grave who was killed at D-Day

Peggy kneeling at her brother Cyril’s grave who was killed at D-Day 

Veteran Don Turrell signs a commemorative book for a D-Day enthusiast

Veteran Don Turrell signs a commemorative book for a D-Day enthusiast 

Margaret Brotheridge and Penny Bates (left) at the memorial service in Normandy

Margaret Brotheridge and Penny Bates (left) at the memorial service in Normandy 

Parachutes drop from the sky at the 80th anniversary of D-Day

Parachutes drop from the sky at the 80th anniversary of D-Day 

Lights decorate the sky in the shape of a spitfire to mark the anniversary of D-Day

Lights decorate the sky in the shape of a spitfire to mark the anniversary of D-Day 

Drones make a Spitfire during a drone display telling the story of D-Day above the coastline in Portsmouth

Drones make a Spitfire during a drone display telling the story of D-Day above the coastline in Portsmouth

Peggy, a child evacuee at the time, treasures the original, just as her mother did. It was months before they learned that Cyril, 22, had also been killed, in August at Pont L’Eveque. ‘His comrades had carried him to the medical station on a door but they couldn’t save him.’ Peggy doesn’t know how much longer she will be able to keep coming back but will do her best. ‘It still affects me in different ways,’ she says.

A couple of hours later, I watched the Eckert brothers’ successors, today’s Paras, jumping over the very same terrain at Sannerville — to happy applause instead of gunfire.

Nearby at Pegasus Bridge, the first piece of France to be liberated thanks to a textbook feat of arms by Major John Howard and the men of the Ox & Bucks, the grounds of the Memorial Pegasus museum were packed for a stirring drumhead service. Buglers from The Rifles sounded the Last Post from the top of the original swing bridge, now the centrepiece of the museum.

Drones spell out "I can remember" during a drone display telling the story of D-Day above the coastline in Portsmouth, Hampshire

Drones spell out ‘I can remember’ during a drone display telling the story of D-Day above the coastline in Portsmouth, Hampshire

Blanche Boulet, 105, pictured at the memorial service to mark D-Day

Blanche Boulet, 105, pictured at the memorial service to mark D-Day 

Peggy Eckert standing at the grave of her brother Cyril who was killed at D-Day

Peggy Eckert standing at the grave of her brother Cyril who was killed at D-Day 

Both of Peggy's brothers, Cyril and Stan, were killed at D-Day

Both of Peggy’s brothers, Cyril and Stan, were killed at D-Day 

Cyril and Stan Eckert (right) who were killed at D-Day

Cyril and Stan Eckert (right) who were killed at D-Day

A plane drops parachutes in the skies over Normandy to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

A plane drops parachutes in the skies over Normandy to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day 

A soldier drops among the crowd in Normandy to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day

A soldier drops among the crowd in Normandy to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day 

Peggy Eckert visits the grave of her brother Stan Eckert who was killed at D-Day aged just 19

Peggy Eckert visits the grave of her brother Stan Eckert who was killed at D-Day aged just 19

Serving members of today’s Parachute Regiment were there to honour their forebears, including an ill-tempered regimental mascot. 

Called Pegasus, he is a Shetland pony with his own uniform and rank of lance corporal (his stroppy behaviour, I discovered, was because he was not actually the real Pegasus; post-Brexit paperwork makes it too bothersome to travel with a pony so the Paras had borrowed a local lookalike).

Once the formalities were over, I met old friends Penny Bates and Margaret Brotheridge, both from Devon. Penny is the daughter of Major John Howard. After his men had landed in their gliders in the early hours of June 6, it was Margaret’s father, the gallant Lt Den Brotheridge, who led the first charge over the bridge. 

A machine gun opened up and he fell, still urging his men forward as he died. He has gone down in history as the first fatality of D-Day. Margaret was born a few days later and never knew the story of her father until adulthood because her mother refused to talk about it.

She remembers living in digs as a young teacher when her landlord handed her a newspaper retelling the story of Pegasus Bridge. ‘He said: ‘There’s this chap with your surname’,’ she told me. ‘Then I started coming back here and have been coming ever since because I should have come long before.’ 

She soon started meeting her father’s old comrades and it was like switching on a light. ‘I wasn’t that much like my mother but when I met all these men who knew my father, it started to explain so much about me.’

Veterans keep warm during the memorial service to mark 80 years since the D-Day landings

Veterans keep warm during the memorial service to mark 80 years since the D-Day landings

Blanche Boulet, 105, has her hand kissed in thanks by veteran Alec Penstone at the memorial service

Blanche Boulet, 105, has her hand kissed in thanks by veteran Alec Penstone at the memorial service 

Margaret Brotheridge and Penny Bates (left) at the memorial service at the Pegasus Bridge

Margaret Brotheridge and Penny Bates (left) at the memorial service at the Pegasus Bridge

Blanche Boulet (pictured) during the war

Blanche Boulet (pictured) during the war 

Blanche Boulet pictured with other soldiers at the tea club during the war

Blanche Boulet pictured with other soldiers at the tea club during the war

A statue dedicated to 'Monty', Field Marshal, Commander in Chief of the Allied Armed Forces, Normandy, 1944

A statue dedicated to ‘Monty’, Field Marshal, Commander in Chief of the Allied Armed Forces, Normandy, 1944

A veteran holds the order of service for the memorial service to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day

A veteran holds the order of service for the memorial service to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day

Blanche Boulet, 105, receives a scarf from a veteran at the memorial service

Blanche Boulet, 105, receives a scarf from a veteran at the memorial service 

Veteran Ken Hay with other fellow veterans at the memorial service

Veteran Ken Hay with other fellow veterans at the memorial service 

Pipers line Pegasus Bridge for the memorial service in Normandy

Pipers line Pegasus Bridge for the memorial service in Normandy

D-Day enthusiasts on their way to the memorial service at the Pegasus Bridge

D-Day enthusiasts on their way to the memorial service at the Pegasus Bridge 

Penny Bates remembers an anniversary dinner when Margaret bravely stood up in front of the old soldiers and announced that she was Den’s daughter. ‘There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,’ says Penny. ‘And Margaret’s been part of the family ever since.’

Don’t tell any of these women that this is all stuff for the history books. The anniversary is always a challenge for Margaret and this one is no different. ‘You just have to swallow hard,’ she tells me. 

Last night, just like her father always used to do, Penny was at his original landing spot near the bridge just after midnight, reciting the speech he would give each year to spellbound crowds as he talked about ‘taking the gliders down’. Margaret never attends this particular ritual, however. As she put it: ‘I don’t want to be listening and thinking: ‘And ten minutes later, my father died….’.’ 

Her annual tradition is always to go across the bridge for a glass of champagne with Arlette Gondree at her family café. Arlette still remembers, as a little girl, watching the liberators arrive on that historic night.

So, too, does another French woman, Blanche Boulet. ‘I will never forget what I saw,’ recalled Blanche, now a sprightly 105, when I met her at another charming ceremony in Colleville-Montgomery. The town was renamed after the British general and the service was taking place beneath his statue. ‘It was bomb, bomb, bomb — all night. I didn’t sleep. And in the morning, we had 28 dead and many injured.’

Young Blanche helped administer first aid to the wounded and then volunteered to run a tea station for British troops in a local house, Riva Bella, even though it was soon attracting German artillery. She kept her ‘English club’ going for several months.

Yesterday, a small posse of British veterans returned the favour – with a Royal British Legion poppy scarf and a kiss.

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