Dame Vera Lynn has told veterans “we will never forget all you did for us” ahead of a Royal British Legion cruise to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
The original Forces sweetheart, 102, was unable to be on the ship in person but recorded a voice message for 250 heroes on board the ship.
They were welcomed to the Port of Dover by a guard of honour and performances by the Dover Sea Cadet Band.
She told them: “Hello boys, Vera Lynn here. I wish you and your carers a memorable trip to Normandy.
“It will be nostalgic and sure to bring back lots of memories. Rest assured we will never forget all you did for us.
“I’m sending you all my best wishes for the trip.”
Earlier, Sir Rod Stewart serenaded the Second World War veterans on the ship with his 1975 hit Sailing.
The performance, organised by Hello! magazine, was photographed by his wife Penny Lancaster.
Sir Rod described the occasion as “so important”, telling the magazine: “If it wasn’t for these guys we could well and truly be under the jackboot as everybody knows.”
Later, the Royal British Legion Band played as people cheered and waved flags to mark the ship’s departure from Dover on Sunday night.
The veterans will have the opportunity to visit beaches in Dunkirk on Monday before watching a display by the Royal Navy in Poole Harbour on Tuesday.
They will attend the National Commemorative Event in Portsmouth on Wednesday before travelling to Normandy for events in Bayeux and Arromanches.
The ship returns to Portsmouth on Saturday before concluding its journey in Dover on Sunday.
Jim Docherty, 94, had not spoken of his role as an able seaman with the Royal Navy on D-Day until he was invited on the week-long voyage about five months ago.
“I was on board the HMS Obedient, a destroyer,” Mr Docherty, of Glasgow, said.
“I’ve never been back to Normandy before. I never thought it would happen.
“I might meet some of the people I used to know but I don’t think there are many left.”
Mr Docherty will be accompanied on the trip by his son Joe, 67.
The pair previously visited sites in Belgium in honour of relatives who fought in the First World War.
Joe said: “I only found out he had been on D-Day about five months ago, it was because of this trip.
“I knew he had been on the Russian convoys and that’s what I thought. He said ‘I was at D-Day’.”
Rear Admiral John Roberts, 95, from Whitstable, was serving as a sub lieutenant on D-Day.
“I was in a ringside seat,” he said.
“There were bombers, battle ships – everything was firing at the shore but it was a success and we knew that almost by the end of that day.
“We caught the Germans by surprise. They didn’t think we were going to come there.”
Rear Admiral Roberts said he believed the 75th commemorations could be the final events with veterans.
“People that took part will no longer be here,” he said.
“I haven’t been on a boat for 40 years now – I hope I’m not seasick.”
Ted Smith, 62, vice-chairman of the Dover branch of the Royal British Legion, welcomed each of the veterans to the port.
“It has been very emotional,” he said.
“If it hadn’t been for these guys where would we be today?”
More than 330 veterans were visited in their homes by Legion staff ahead of the commemorations.
Travel plans and events for each veteran to attend were agreed following consultation with their families and carers.
In total, 250 veterans will take part in the week-long voyage on MV Boudicca.
A further 80 UK veterans, with funded travel available through the charity, and 60 international veterans will attend the National Commemorative Event in Portsmouth.
For those unable to undertake the ship’s journey to Normandy, the Legion secured 30 purpose-built twin rooms in Caen to allow veterans to fully participate in events in France.
— Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines (@FredOlsenCruise) June 2, 2019
The Services of Remembrance at Bayeux Cathedral and at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in Bayeux will be attended by the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.
A Service of Remembrance will also be held at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, attended by 20 veterans.
In addition, the Legion’s community teams will host hundreds of local events across the UK.
Large lettering spelling “D-Day 75”, covered in messages of support and remembrance from members of the public, will also be placed in Arromanches for veterans to read.
Lt Gen James Bashall, national president of the charity, said: “The liberation of Normandy went on for many months after the D-Day landings, and it is important that we remember all those who played a role, from the United Kingdom, across the Commonwealth and the Allied Forces.
“A tremendous sacrifice was made for the peace, democracy and diversity we know today, and we must pass on the torch of Remembrance to new generations, today, tomorrow and forever.”