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D-Day veteran Harry Read to parachute into Normandy 75 years after first landing

Harry Read, who is taking part in a parachute drop in Normandy. Credit: Family handout/ITV

"I know, I know it’s got a ridiculous element to it really, hasn’t it?"

Harry Read is 95-years-old but his eyes are sparkling with excitement as he talks about his plans to parachute in to Normandy for the D-Day celebrations.

He will climb into a Dakota plane at Duxford Airfield on Wednesday and fly across the English channel just as he did in 1944 - one of only two D-Day veterans who will make a parachute jump to mark the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion.

"There are not many of us left to do this kind of jump - we’re in short supply," Harry jokes.

In 1944, Mr Read had just turned 20.

He was a signalman, part of the British Sixth Airborne Division, whose mission it was to jump in to German-occupied northern France, secure key bridges and destroy the Merville Gun Battery ahead of the amphibious landings.

Harry has said 'it is hard to stand by the graves of your friends and other servicemen'. Credit: Family Handout

In the days before D-Day, there were briefings on what to expect.

As the Divisional Commander, Major General Richard Gale revealed their mission, it was predicted that one in two soldiers would be killed during the operation.

"Every time he gave one of the objectives, he said, 'and this objective must be won regardless of the cost'.

"Well of course he wasn’t thinking of the cost of the equipment, he was thinking of us! It was, ‘get in there boy and do what you can do and if you die in the process you’ll be one of a lot who do so.’ So that was salutary."

Mr Read continued: "And then towards the end, one of them - whether by intent or by a flash of some kind of intuition - said, 'we are expecting 50% casualties on landing'.

"And that’s a lot. And I remember it was a sunny day and I found a quiet spot near the perimeter and sat in the sunshine and just ruminated in myself as to what my mindset should be in the light of this 50% casualties, which meant that the chances of me returning were less than the chance of me being captured or killed.

"And without in any sense trying to be over dramatic, I came to the conclusion that I would not surrender. I would not give in. I would do what the Division was created to do, and that I did."

  • Harry Read describes visiting the graveyards of servicemen from D-Day

The parachute jump young Harry made at 00:50 on June 6, 1944, was only his 17th.

In the Dakota, his was seat number 12. Next to him, in seat 13 there should have been a news reporter, but they never turned up.

"It was a shame really, because I would have enjoyed a chat with him, but it had the advantage of giving me some room for my kit," Harry said.

With a radio strapped to his legs, he remembers seeing the sky light up with explosions and gunfire above the French coast.

"Before we were due to land, while we were still out at sea, we could see this massive, massive fireworks display ahead of us, but of course it wasn’t a fireworks display was it? And as soon as it hit us, we had great difficulty in keeping our feet."

Harry did a rehearsal skydive in Salisbury last year. Credit: Go Skydive/Meridian

He added: "You had all your equipment on, you were hooked up on the line, you checked the man in front to see that he was okay, he checked yours, you got the command to jump and one by one you went to the door."

"And so on D-Day as I reached out for the door and all this stuff that I was carrying, it was so cumbersome, and so I reached out preparing to jump, but I needn’t have worried because I was helped."

"The slipstream really did hit hard, the parachute opened, I glanced along as a plane crashed in flames just ahead and I could see flashes of the ground, but not very much. And then - splash!"

Harry hadn’t expected to hit water.

But the German Commander Rommel had ordered his soldiers to deepen irrigation ditches used by farmers in this area, and then flood the fields. Almost 200 men drowned as they landed.

"When daylight came, I could see the rounded circle of the parachute just lying on the water where obviously there was a man underneath it, dropped into the flooded area where it was too deep for him to escape and that was just it," Harry recalls.

Harry Read was a 20-year-old wireless operator with the Royal Signals when he was pushed out of the plane. Credit: Family handout

Mr Read continued: "I was on my own for quite some time, walking as I thought in the direction of the plane, because to go back the other way was to go back to extinction I believed because the gunfire was so severe, and I could hardly take on that little lot, could I?"

He decided to meet up with someone from a defence platoon and they continued to go on.

He said: "At around four o’clock in the afternoon we emerged out of the flooded area. The sun had started shining, there was a copse of trees, we went in the copse of trees, we had a meal, there was a farmhouse just a little bit distant from us and we knew we needed help, and we thought we might get it there."

Thankfully, they found a small group of Paras inside the farmhouse, and assistance in the form of a local priest, who helped them rejoin the rest of their units.

Until now, Harry - as many veterans do - has been recounting his story in an animated but matter-of-fact way, deflecting any sadness with little quips and asides.

But his expression changes as he considers what it will be like to jump over Normandy once again.

"Whilst I applaud the celebratory aspect of D-Day and the subsequent years, I still feel very bound to my friends who didn’t make it, the many men who didn’t make it. I think that these thoughts will be very close to me as I jump. The resonance with those who have paid the great sacrifice, the understanding that they paid the sacrifice in order that there might be celebration."

One friend in particular will be in his thoughts. A medic called Tony Bassett was killed instantly by a German mortar shell as he ran with a stretcher to help another wounded soldier. The memory moves Harry to tears.

"I haven’t stood at their gravesides very often. I went some 30 years ago and went to the cemetery then and it’s deeply moving. Deeply moving. And it’s a moving of the heart that you can’t shrug off.

"I think every serviceman who fought in a battle and stands by the graves of his friends, he is just moved to tears, and I will cry if we continue with that."

"I feel that loss today, I really do. Think of the great men who would have enriched our society, men who would have enriched our world but they’re in the cemetery."

"In a sense, Lawrence Binyon got it absolutely right. 'Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.' And yet, some of us have lived great lives. I’ve had a wonderful life, I still have a wonderful life. I don’t feel that age has wearied me, and if you asked me which part of my life I would cut out to live again, I wouldn’t want any of it (to be cut out). I’ve had a full life, a wonderful life."