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Moving pilgrimage to honour D-Day hero

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Juno Beach in France, where Canadian forces swept ashore in the Normandy landings of D-Day (Photograph by Linda Smith)

Gavin Wilson’s journey to the memorials in tribute to the D-Day offensive on Nazi occupied France came with an unexpected discovery.

His pilgrimage with his wife Linda was to pay respect to Major Gavin Rainnie, the Canadian officer and a close friend of his father, Bill, after whom he is named.

Major Rainnie was directly alongside his father on the morning of June 6, 1944 as they came ashore at the Normandy coast.

“They were in the 13th fleet artillery, barge number 13 — Dad thought there was no way they were going to survive it,” Mr Wilson said.

His father, a former Bank of Bermuda chief general manager, survived as the only Bermudian D-Day veteran who went up on the beaches.

Major Rainnie, 36, still next to him as the barge opened, fell — leaving behind a wife and two young children.

The two families have remained in contact, and Mr Wilson heard much of his father’s closest friend in the war.

Returning home last week, he was surprised to learn of another memorial to Major Rainnie — Rainnie Drive, in Halifax, which is named after him.

The experience of finally coming to his memorial headstone in Beny-sur-Mer cemetery, just east of the village of Reviers, can be read on Mr Wilson’s face in the photograph, right.

“After all those years with my Dad talking about it, the impact was much greater than I thought it would be,” he said.

“I’m so glad I did it. I know I’m one of thousands. I know I haven’t done anything unique. I’m just glad. I told him: ‘I’m just so glad I found you’.”

More than 2,000 are buried in the Canadian war cemetery. In contrast to the identical ranks at the American cemetery, which recall those of the Arlington National Cemetery, the graves are marked by beds of flowers. Mr Wilson was able to add his own with a bouquet the couple brought along.

Just as poignant was the opportunity to stand on the very beach where his father came ashore, and his namesake perished.

“I lost it,” Mr Wilson said.

“They know the exact location where they came up on the beach. The museum there has the field notes from D-Day. The people who work at the museum are the same age as the people were on the beach. They’re kids.”

Mr Wilson has been able to track Major Rainnie’s son in Halifax for a quick telephone chat — also Gavin.

“It was good to speak to him,” he said, noting that the Scottish surname is relatively uncommon, and thus easy to track down. I never knew about the street. He was a war hero. To me, they all were.”

The grave of Major Gavin Rainnie, who was killed in the D Day assault on Nazi occupied France (Photograph by Linda Smith)
Gavin Smith stands by the headstone of Major Gavin Rainnie, the Canadian officer after whom he is named (Photograph by Linda Smith)
Remnants of the Atlantic Wall, Nazi fortifications on the French coastline, at Juno Beach in Normandy (Photograph by Linda Smith)