– Two dozen D-Day veterans were the star passengers of a flotilla which set sail from Portsmouth, England, on Tuesday, bound for the beaches of Normandy where 80 years ago this week they fought to liberate France, a turning point in World War Two.

The special voyage was part of the British leg of celebrations to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the name given to the landing of more than 150,000 Allied soldiers in northern France, which eventually drove German Nazi forces out of the country and led to victory on the Western Front.

“It’s a very special day,” veteran Ken Hay, 98, told the BBC onboard the “Mont St Michel” ferry which was decorated with maritime flags.

In 1944, Portsmouth was the main departure point for the 5,000 ships which headed to Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, the beaches made famous by the operation, the largest amphibious invasion in history.

Surrounded by naval ships and civilian boats, the ferry was waved off by small crowds who lined the docks in Portsmouth, as tugboats sprayed water, a traditional tribute.

Midway through the journey to France, the ship was due to switch off its engines for a wreath-laying ceremony to remember those who did not make it to shore. About 4,400 Allied troops died on June 6.

German casualties are unknown but are estimated at between 4,000 and 9,000.

John Dennett, 99, told the BBC he was looking forward to the ceremonies of the coming days, with events set to be attended by French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz plus Britain’s King Charles and Prince William.

“It’s a chance of a lifetime. Eighty years ago, it’s a long time, going back, to see what we started,” Dennett said from the ship’s deck.

He and fellow veterans listened to a military band onboard the ferry led by bagpipes. Aged between 97 and 103, many of the veterans had walking sticks or were in wheelchairs, and wore military medals pinned to their lapels.

The Royal Navy said the 80th anniversary of D-Day was likely to be the last marked on a grand scale on both sides of the Channel in the presence of those who fought in 1944.