Ninety eight year old veteran Jack Bellis was a guest of honour at a special screening of a concert to remember the D-Day invasion that changed history.
The concert was beamed live from the Albert Hall in London to the Odeon Cinema at the Eagles Meadow shopping centre in Wrexham where ex-soldiers and the rest of the audience paid homage to those who did not return.
Cinema bosses set aside 20 complimentary seats for the dwindling number of veterans, their families and carers for the BBC’s D-Day 70 Years On spectacular.
The D-Day story was retold through drama and narration with music from the BBC Concert Orchestra and a military band featuring musicians from all the UK services.
Former market trader Jack, from Southsea, was the oldest D-Day veteran to attend the special screening.
It was, he said, a wonderful way to remember all the good mates, who fought alongside him on Normandy’s Sword Beach and across Europe, and who never came home.
Jack, who still lives independently in his own home and remarkably still drives his own Vauxhall Astra car, served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the King’s Own Shropshire Light Infantry during the war, and remembers D-Day like it was yesterday.
He said: “I was a driver and Bren Gun carrier. We trained for weeks before they took us down south from Wrexham. We had no idea what was planned but knew something big was brewing.
“Then they put us on boats and told us this was it, D-day had arrived. We landed on Sword Beach and I was one of the first off the landing craft. It was actually quiet at first, the Germans were taken a bit by surprise.
“I remember one of the landing craft crew saying ‘I don’t envy you lot, at least I get to go back to Blighty’ although he added a few swear words!”
Jack who was born and bred in Southsea where he has lived all his life, added: “We headed up the beach and our commander told us to head for these white buildings and turn left, which we did.
“We headed to this Orchard with shells going off all around. I remember seeing these haystacks which we dived into. I’m not sure they would have saved us though.”
Jack was involved in heavy action right across France initially heading for Caen where he was involved in fighting around the now famous Pegasus Bridge.
He said: “It was terrible really. I lost a lot of good mates and saw some terrible sights.”
And Jack still carries with him a copy of a letter, dated 1944, from the family of a Bill Jones of Northop Hall who he wrote to telling them where their son was buried and how he had died.
Jack said: “I got this lovely reply telling me how much the letter I had written, in which I explained how their son had died and the name of the village where he had been buried, had been a big comfort to them.
“I thought it important and they said in their letter how much better it was to hear from someone who had been with their son when he died. It was more comforting than the official dispatch they received from the Shrewsbury office.”
Jack was to continue fighting with the Allied Forces as they swept across Europe eventually being involved in the Battle for Arnhem in Holland.
He said: “That was tough because the enemy were waiting for us. We were told if we took Arnhem the war would be over in weeks, if not days, but it was a lot tougher than expected.
“I did make it to Germany though and passed through Bergen-Belsen at one point after the Nazi death camp had been liberated.”
Jack also recalled how he made the national news after forgetting all about etiquette when he nudged the Queen on her arm when she made a 2004 visit to Wrexham barracks. He was a sprightly, energetic, 88-year-old at the time.
He recalls: “It was lovely meeting the Queen. I just forgot and nudged her on her arm and asked whether, when she was an army driver during the war, she had driven trucks like the ones on the base that day.
“She laughed and said ‘no, not that big!’ A photographer captured the moment I nudged her on the arm, something you’re not supposed to do. I ended up on the news and in the national newspapers. I didn’t care, she was just lovely and very relaxed.”
Jack, who lost Gladys, his wife of 65 years, just two years ago, says the sacrifice made by those who took part in D-Day should never be forgotten.
He said: “It was a really bad time and I lost so many good mates. I still remember, every day, the horrible things I saw. We were only young men. I was lucky to survive and come home, many weren’t that lucky.”
Jack, who ran his own Oswestry Market material stall with his wife, Gladys, before retiring, says he was thrilled to be able to enjoy the D-Day concert at the Odeon Cinema.
So too was Dave Hylands, the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal manager for Wrexham.
He said: “It means a lot to them and, as their numbers dwindle, it’s fantastic they have been able to come together to watch the concert as a group rather than watching at home on their televisions.
“It’s been a wonderful gesture by the Odeon and has really helped them remember their comrades.”
Wrexham AM Lesley Griffiths and MP Ian Lucas joined the veterans for the screening and both spoke of their pride.
Lesley Griffiths said: “It really is lovely to be here. We should never forget the sacrifice this generation made so we can be free. We owe such a debt of gratitude.
“And the gesture by the Odeon Cinema here at Eagles Meadow in giving free seats to the veterans so they can enjoy the show together is just wonderful.”
Ian Lucas added: “My own dad was a Normandy veteran and I’m so proud of what he, and these wonderful men, did for our country and the world in general. We really do owe them so much.”
The Mayor of Wrexham, Cllr Alan Edwards, added: “We are so incredibly lucky to have had a generation of men like this and owe them so much for the heroism. I don’t think we really appreciate the sacrifice they made for us.
Odeon deputy manager Kenny Kempster said: “We wanted to do something special so set aside 20 complimentary seats for veterans, their carers and families. It’s been a wonderful evening and I know they all thoroughly enjoyed the concert.”
According to Eagles Meadow Manager Kevin Critchley, it was inspirational seeing the veterans gather at the Odeon Cinema.
He said: “What a wonderful occasion. We owe an incredible debt of gratitude to all those that landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day.
“I know the veterans have enjoyed the occasion and it was truly inspirational meeting these incredible men and having the chance to hear just a little of their D-Day experiences.”