D-Day pilot recalls mighty force

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Copy of ST e2 Alex Reith 99 THE STAR World War II veteran Alex Reith was part of the historic 1944 Normandy landing in northern France. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Johannesburg - The fact that war veteran Alex Reith, 91, had his first parachuting experience when he was 86 years old testifies to his daredevil streak.

Reith is among the last surviving troops who were part of the historic Normandy landing in northern France on June 6, 1944 during World War II.

D-Day, as the day of the invasion is known, saw more than 300 000 troops, just more than 54 000 vehicles and more than 100 000 tons of supplies landing on the Normandy beaches.

It is regarded as the largest invasion of its kind in history.

This week, the invasion’s 70th anniversary will be commemorated by heads of state who were allies in the war and thousands of visitors from around the world.

On Sunday night, Reith departed from OR Tambo International Airport to England to take part in the commemorations.

Before departing, he shared some of his experiences of that day.

At 22, Reith was one of the pilots who safely landed a glider carrying a field gun with a Jeep and its crew in Normandy.

“Now the big difference between a plane and a glider, I don’t have to remind you, is that there is no engine (in a glider)… The most important thing about this is that with an engine you could fly with your… aircraft, you’re able to come down if you make a slight blunder, you can open the throttle and go around again. You don’t have that privilege with a glider,” he said.

When D-Day came, after a lengthy wait and countless rounds of preparation, the weather was not on the troops’ side.

“The weather was atrocious. It was raining; it was good old English drizzle and the clouds were scraping the ground,” Reith said.

The trip was cancelled twice over two days because of the terrible weather.

It was eventually decided that the troops would head out on June 6. The two-hour flight and the landing were uneventful, Reith said.

What was memorable for him was witnessing all the ships, vehicles and aircraft heading to Normandy.

“We were flying at about 1 500 feet and to look down and see this massive force on the way to the invasion was absolutely fantastic. I didn’t have a camera, but it’s etched on my mind.

“The ships were bumper to bumper… all heading in the same direction and at the same time. It’s a memory I’ll never forget,” he said.

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