Saturday is the 65th anniversary of D-Day, the day in 1944 when American, British, Canadian and other allied forces launched an air and sea assault on the coast of Normandy. British filmmakers have highlighted the stories of some aging veterans who took part in the crucial battle to free Europe from the Nazis.
One hundred sixty thousand Allied troops landed on the desolate stretch of coastline, which was heavily fortified by the Germans. More than 5,000 Allied ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the operation.
It was called D-Day, a military term for an unspecified target date. American Mort Schechter was a tail-gunner with the 467th bomb group, based in Rackheath, England, and he flew on D-Day.
"We flew the first mission about 3:30 in the morning," said Mort Schechter. "We bombed a port in France." He says the skies were quiet. "There was no flack and no fighters," he said. "The Germans must have been sleeping, and we were thankful for that." He says the English Channel beneath his B-24 aircraft was like a busy highway. "While we were flying over the channel and I looked down and there were thousands and thousands of ships. Like if you say cars were bumper to bumper, that was what the ships looked like."
Another American, Jerry King, was on the ground at his U.S. base in England, helping to load planes with paratroopers and supplies.
"It was chaotic, believe me. There was a lot going on."
Off the Normandy coast, Earl W. Norwood was a 17-year-old sailor who operated a landing craft between the ships and Omaha Beach, one of the beaches where the Americans landed. There were 36 on board his landing craft. "
Around 7:30 in the morning, we were hit by a round that come into starboard side, proceeded to kill two soldiers and wound two very severely," said Norwood. "And here I'm just talking about it in about 15 or 20 seconds, maybe a minute, but it was a lifetime."
He kept heading for the beach. The soldiers disembarked and he took the dead and wounded to the hospital ship.
"I was driving the boat, and a lot of people think that was a great thing andso forth. But the real heroes that day were those 32 men that after they saw their comrades, the first four me on the boat cut in half or shot to pieces, two very severely and two dead, they still climbed over the bodies and did their job."
At least 9,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded in the invasion. German casualties are thought to have numbered between 4,000 and 9,000. The costly D-Day battle would mark a turning point in the war, and would change the lives of survivors like Earl Norwood. "That morning when I went in I was a 17-year-old kid. I came out a 40-year-old man."
The story of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who landed in Normandy is told in a documentary by two British filmmakers. Ellwood von Siebold grew up fascinated with the Second World War. He turned his passion into a career when he moved to the French village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first town that was liberated by the Americans in Europe. Today, he gives tours to visitors, including some aging D-Day veterans and their families. He also hosts the video tour of historic D-Day sites in the documentary The Americans on D-Day, which he made with British producer and fellow Normandy resident Richard Lanni.
"The most important motivating thing for us was to perpetuate the memory of these great men who are sadly dying away before our very eyes," said von Siebold. "We wanted to make sure that their achievements will live on forever, and this is our small contribution towards doing that."
The bloody assault on the beaches of Normandy would change the course of the war, allowing the Allies to liberate occupied France and advance into Germany, as Soviet troops advanced against the Germans from the East.