D-Day veteran Harry Read, 95, makes his final preparations with members of the Army Parachute Display Team before flying to Normandy in France for his parachute jump. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)
The two times Harry Read has leapt out of a plane over the fields of Normandy in France couldn’t be more different.
The first time, he was 20 years old, parachuting out of a transport aircraft under cover of dark as a part of the British 6th Airborne Division in the early hours of June 6, 1944.
The second time — three quarters of a century later during the 75th anniversary of D-Day — he performed a tandem skydiving jump with a member of the British Army’s Parachute Display Team for “sheer pleasure.”
“It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I really have to express it in the most most warm words. It was a delight,” Read, 95, told As It Happens host Carol Off on Thursday, the day after his dramatic leap.
Read was one of several Second World War veterans in their 90s who made the jump as part of the commemoration of the Normandy landings, the beginning of the Allied liberation of Nazi-occupied France.
“Comparing the two is not a very good comparison, because 75 years ago we were going into action,” Read said.
Back then, Read was among more than 8,000 soldiers tasked with protecting the Allied left flank from counter-attack as the biggest seaborne invasion in history landed ashore in northern France.
It was a crucial battle that paved the way for the eventual Allied victory — and Read knew going in that his odds of surviving were slim at best.
“We were in a war against a world that was increasingly evil,” he said. “Our very future was at stake. The war had to be fought. It was a sheer necessity for us to do so.”
Read comes into land as he joins parachutists, in full Allied uniforms, in a parachute drop onto fields at Sannerville on June 5 at Sannerville, France. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
When he jumped that first time — in the dead of night with a toolbox-sized battery strapped to his leg — Read landed “on time, but in the wrong place.”
“The Germans, in their military wisdom, had flooded a massive area diverting a river into land that was already subject to normal overflows,” he said.
That’s where Read — and many of his brothers in arms — landed. Many men drowned in those flooded fields.
“I landed, took the battery off my leg and put my gun together and looked around to see who was ready to kill me — and lo and behold, no one was there to do that,” Read said.
“But getting out of the flooded area was not easy and took, in effect, 16 hours.”
The lucky few
He and a fellow paratrooper were able to make it to a nearby farmhouse, where a French family was housing several other members of the Allied forces.
A local priest, who was part of the resistance, helped them connect with more of their fellow soldiers on the other side of the village.
“Because of the priest’s success as a go-between, we were able to get together as a group and then make our way through the enemy lines to get to where we were supposed to be,” he said.
Read comes in for a landing after an ‘absolutely brilliant’ jump. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Not everyone was so lucky. More than 10,000 members of the Allied forces are estimated to have died on D-Day, as well as thousands of Germans.
That’s why returning to Normandy and commemorating their sacrifice is so important to Read.
“We’re proud of the record we have of pulling a victory out of an almost impossible situation. It is a great history, though brief, that regiments like ours have,” he said.
“But we lost a lot of friends and I tend to be very emotional here. I stand in the cemetery and find that I can hardly speak — and I weep.”
But there is one thing that Read’s two jumps have in common. In both cases, Read says, he’s lucky to have made it.
“Anyone, I would think, over the age of 65 who would contemplate a skydive … has got to be thinking unwisely,” he said with a chuckle.
“Which shows one or two things [about me], doesn’t it?”
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Harry Read produced by Chris Harbord.
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