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'On D-Day I was terrified, everyone was - it changed me,' says veteran

Mirror logo Mirror 05/06/2019 Rachel Bletchly & Elaine McCahill
a group of people wearing military uniforms: PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND - JUNE 05: Veteran John Jenkins MBE takes to the stage during the D-Day Commemorations on June 5, 2019 in Portsmouth, England. The political heads of 16 countries involved in World War II joined Her Majesty, The Queen on the UK south coast for a service to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Overnight it was announced that all 16 had signed a historic proclamation of peace to ensure the horrors of the Second World War are never repeated. The text has been agreed by Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) © Getty PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND - JUNE 05: Veteran John Jenkins MBE takes to the stage during the D-Day Commemorations on June 5, 2019 in Portsmouth, England. The political heads of 16 countries involved in World War II joined Her Majesty, The Queen on the UK south coast for a service to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Overnight it was announced that all 16 had signed a historic proclamation of peace to ensure the horrors of the Second World War are never repeated. The text has been agreed by Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

He cut a slight figure as he walked on to the huge stage in front of his Queen, the US President and ­leaders from around the world.

But the presence of old soldier John Jenkins, 99, was immense as he represented all the heroes of 75 years ago.

He stood proudly to deliver an emotional tribute to every brave soul lost on D-Day and all those who made it home after liberating Europe.

Video: D-Day veterans parachute into Normandy 75 years later (Press Association)

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After the faces of pale, frightened lads captured in old photos had been flashed up on a huge screen to set the stage, John said: “On D-Day I was ­terrified, as everyone was.

More on D-Day 75th Aniversary:

'On behalf of the free world, thank you': Queen's moving D-Day tribute (HuffPost UK)

D-day veterans in their 90s parachute into Normandy once more (The Guardian)

MV Boudicca and veterans waved off by PM as Normandy journey begins (Press Association)

“But I look back on it as a big part of my life – it changed me.

“I am honoured to be here today in front of so many other veterans. You never forget your comrades because we were all in it together. It is right that the courage and sacrifice of so many is being honoured 75 years on.

a man wearing a hat and glasses: D-Day 75 National Commemorative Event on Southsea Common © Adam Gerrard/Daily Mirror D-Day 75 National Commemorative Event on Southsea Common

“We must never forget.”

His words moved the audience to tears and when he had finished, they rose to give him a standing ovation.

Mr Jenkins, one of 300 veterans at Southsea Common yesterday, joined the Army in 1940 and was a 24-year-old platoon sergeant in the Pioneer Corps when he landed in Normandy on June 8, 1944. He was deployed on Gold Beach, one of the five Operation Overlord landing points, then pushed on through France and Germany, helping to liberate the Fallingbostel concentration camp.

Gallery: 75th D-Day anniversary commemorations (Photos Services)

After the war, Mr Jenkins worked as a bus driver and a crane operator. He continued to serve in the Territorial Army, rising to Company Sergeant Major, and became an MBE.

After his moving speech, he said: “Today has been overwhelming and something that will last in my memory for a long time. I always think of all my mates that didn’t come back because that comradeship was really ­something quite marvellous.”

As a grateful nation looked on, veterans with chests full of medals knew this was the last time they would gather in such numbers to remember their comrades. And the rest of us knew this was our last chance to truly thank them for sacrificing so much for our freedom.

a man wearing a suit and tie: French President Emmanuel Macron, meeting British 99 year old D-Day veteran John Jenkins © EPA-EFE/REX French President Emmanuel Macron, meeting British 99 year old D-Day veteran John Jenkins

Eyes were misting over the moment the joint services band struck up with wartime hits like Pack Up Your Troubles and Lily Marlene. But the tears really started to flow when they played Hymn to the Fallen, composed by John Williams for the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Because images of troops landing on the beaches – Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno – were shown on the screen.

Three veterans shared their testimonies in pre-recorded messages.

They were Brit Bert Edwards, an Able Seaman on HMS Bellona giving fire support to US troops on Omaha, and Bob Roberts, a Canadian veteran who was the second man to land on Juno on June 6. He recalled how the horror of what was coming dawned on him when he was given live ammo, saying: “I thought, ‘Oh my God – I was not brought up to go kill people’.”

Sailors stand to attention on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, as they wait for the MV Boudicca to pass as it commemorates the 75th anniversary of D-Day, in Portsmouth, Britain, June 5, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY © Thomson Reuters Sailors stand to attention on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, as they wait for the MV Boudicca to pass as it commemorates the 75th anniversary of D-Day, in Portsmouth, Britain, June 5, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

But American Eugene Deibler, a Sergeant in the 501st Airborne Infantry Regiment who parachuted in behind Utah, said: “I don’t regret it. I went from a boy to a man that day.” There were also tributes to the female agents of the Special Operations Executive, French Resistance fighters and D-Day’s technical geniuses.

But the voices of lost servicemen and women brought to life again through readings resonated strongest.

Most of the 300 veterans present were those travelling on the Royal British Legion cruise, which will go on to Normandy for official events today.

a group of people on a boat in a large body of water: MV Boudicca © Adam Gerrard/Daily Mirror MV Boudicca

The ceremony ended with a gun salute from HMS St Albans in the Solent, a flypast of 25 military aircraft, then a finale by the Red Arrows.

Veterans were then treated to lunch and a lucky group of six got to chat with the Queen, Prince Charles, President Trump and First Lady Melania.

The Queen met former Royal Marine Jack Smith, 94, a landing craft coxswain in the first wave during D-Day. When he told the Queen how bad things were, she replied: “You don’t have to tell me – I’m from the same generation!”

Veteran Harry Read, 95, completing his tandem parachute jump with the Red Devils during the Commemorative Parachute Descent over Sannerville, France, during commemorations for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images) © PA Wire/PA Images Veteran Harry Read, 95, completing his tandem parachute jump with the Red Devils during the Commemorative Parachute Descent over Sannerville, France, during commemorations for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)

Jack said later: “It was a thrill meeting the Queen. It means an awful lot to be here, the day respects everybody who took part in D-Day.”

Joan Berfield, 94, from Buckinghamshire, was a Wren coder on a submarine in Aden, in the Middle East, when news of D-Day came through.

She said: “It was fantastic. President Trump speaks quietly. He said ‘May I ask how old you are’ and my carer Lorraine said ‘She will be 95 on Friday’. He said ‘Happy Birthday’ and his wife shook hands with me.”

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May meets veterans during an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, in Portsmouth, Britain June 5, 2019. Kerry Davies/Pool via REUTERS © Thomson Reuters Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May meets veterans during an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, in Portsmouth, Britain June 5, 2019. Kerry Davies/Pool via REUTERS

As the veterans returned to the MV Boudicca, locals waving flags cheered them. They took to the deck with RBL flags of their own for an incredible send-off from Portsmouth.

Prime Minister Theresa May , Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt and First Sea Lord Sir Philip Jones waved from aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth as ratings lined the decks, waving their caps.

At 9pm, the ship paused off the Isle of Wight at “Piccadilly Circus”, where the D-Day flotilla gathered on June 5, 1944. And RBL national president Lt Gen James Bashall led a moment of reflection before the ­charity’s band played Sunset.

PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND - JUNE 05:  Veteran John Jenkins MBE takes to the stage during the D-Day Commemorations on June 5, 2019 in Portsmouth, England. The political heads of 16 countries involved in World War II joined Her Majesty, The Queen on the UK south coast for a service to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Overnight it was announced that all 16 had signed a historic proclamation of peace to ensure the horrors of the Second World War are never repeated. The text has been agreed by Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) © 2019 Getty Images PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND - JUNE 05: Veteran John Jenkins MBE takes to the stage during the D-Day Commemorations on June 5, 2019 in Portsmouth, England. The political heads of 16 countries involved in World War II joined Her Majesty, The Queen on the UK south coast for a service to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Overnight it was announced that all 16 had signed a historic proclamation of peace to ensure the horrors of the Second World War are never repeated. The text has been agreed by Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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