ROYAL Navy sailors and veterans set sail for France to join world leaders in major D-Day commemorations today.
The navy’s flagship HMS Bulwark left Portsmouth last night in a flotilla of international ships.
Bulwark and her 350-strong company were anchored off Portsmouth all day taking part in the city’s D-Day events.
Today, the warship and her crew will arrive in France off Gold beach to join in the ceremonies there.
Captain Dean Bassett, the commanding officer of HMS Bulwark, told The News: ‘It has been a real honour to be involved in the commemorations in Portsmouth.
‘The response we saw from everybody on land was outstanding.
‘We will transit across from Portsmouth to France with a number of other ships to join in the commemorations there.
‘I see it as a real honour to be able to share the experiences and values of the veterans we have met.
‘I just hope my ship’s company and I can give something back to the veterans both in Portsmouth and in Normandy.’
On board HMS Bulwark is Royal Marine veteran Bill Bryant, who was a landing craft coxswain on D-Day.
As an 18-year-old marine in charge of a landing craft, Bill was tasked with taking men and equipment onto Gold beach to support the British landings.
He said: ‘To tell you the truth, you never had a chance to feel scared because you were so busy looking after your own neck and your own crew. I was only 18 and we were all a bit worried what was going to happen and what it was going to be like.’
En route to France, Bill’s landing craft developed engine problems meaning they fell back during the night and his 46ft long craft missed the initial landings but nevertheless joined the fight on D-Day.
‘We had done landings before during practice but it was nothing like a practice run,’ he added. ‘We had Jerry pounding away inland and big ships pounding away overhead and bombs often falling very short.’
Bill and his colleagues spent six weeks on the beaches shuttling back and forward between merchant vessels and the shore carrying equipment, stores and people.
Afterwards, he became involved in constructing the famous Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches.
These massive prefabricated harbours allowed for Allied ships to quickly offload thousands of men, equipment and supplies in order to sustain the assault.
Having joined the Royal Marines in 1943, he underwent his seamanship training in Wales before joining Landing Craft Mechanised Flotilla 609 in 1944.
Flotilla 609 made the crossing from Southampton to France on the night of June 5 where they joined the main fleet waiting for the signal to invade.
Bill will now be making the return to Gold beach on board HMS Bulwark sailing from Portsmouth as part of the 70th anniversary.
Sailors on board the flagship are also looking forward to representing their country at the commemoration events in France today.
Engineer Technician Callum Edwards, 22, from Fareham, serves on board the ship.
The mechanical engineer technician said: ‘I want to attend D-Day to personally represent my country at such a historic event.’
HMS Bulwark is one of the Royal Navy’s two assault command and control ships and is based in Plymouth.