Kiwi veterans mark D-Day
Des Laurie has seen the French region of Normandy from a Spitfire fighter plane but the 94-year-old will set foot there for the first time this week.
Laurie and eight other New Zealand veterans are travelling with the Royal New Zealand Air Force to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Although no Kiwi troops landed at Normandy, a number of veterans were closely involved in the operation that proved the turning point of World War II.
Laurie said he still recalled the message he was given in June 1944: "pack your bags".
At the time he was stationed at a tactical exercise unit in England and was told he would be flying a Spitfire for the first time in the lead-up to the D-Day landings.
"Anyone who flew for the Royal Air Force was given the call and they just said to us to get ready," he said.
"There were pilots from all different countries. As D-Day approached they started painting great big stripes on all the airplanes, to signal that we were all on the same side, and then we were ready to go."
Fellow veteran Colin Kemp was involved in the naval side, aiding allied ships in the landings. He signed up to the army as a 17-year-old, was dobbed in for being underage, but was able to transfer to the navy the following year.
"I was quite ambitious to do a big trip," he said. "It was a way to see the world and have an adventure."
He said it was only in hindsight that he realised the enormity of D-Day - the largest seaborne invasion in history.
"I remember we saw some barges go down the river and we thought it was just an ordinary exercise. But it was the real thing."
The veterans, aged between 89 and 97, left Auckland airforce base this morning (Sunday June 1) and will visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Bayeux as well as a number of services commemorating the landings of June 6, 1944.
The youngest member of the delegation, 18-year-old university student and Sea Cadet Chris Sims, said he was excited by the chance to join them.
"It's really an honour to travel with this group," he said. "They're good characters."
Laurie said it was likely the last time the veterans would be able to travel together.
"There's not too many of us left so it's quite a special time. I'm thrilled to bits to be going."
The total number of Kiwis who took part in the D-Day landings is still unknown, but both Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel played a key role transporting troops and flying behind enemy lines during the invasion.