The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Veterans, world leaders honour D-Day's fallen, 70 years after pivotal invasion of Normandy

  • Print
British veterans and other participants attend a French-British D-Day commemoration ceremony at the British War Cemetery in Bayeux, France, Friday, June 6, 2014. World leaders and veterans gathered by the beaches of Normandy on Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of World War Two's D-Day landings. (AP Photo/Thomas Bregardis, Pool)

Enlarge Image

British veterans and other participants attend a French-British D-Day commemoration ceremony at the British War Cemetery in Bayeux, France, Friday, June 6, 2014. World leaders and veterans gathered by the beaches of Normandy on Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of World War Two's D-Day landings. (AP Photo/Thomas Bregardis, Pool)

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France - It was a day of pride, remembrance and honours for those who waded through blood-tinged waves, climbed razor-sharp cliffs or fell from the skies, staring down death or dying in an invasion that portended the fall of the Third Reich and the end of World War II.

It was also a day of high diplomacy for a Europe not completely at peace.

After 70 years, a dwindling number of veterans, civilian survivors of the brutal battle for Normandy, and 19 world leaders and monarchs celebrated on Friday the sacrifices of D-Day, an assault never matched for its size, planning and derring-do.

The events spread across the beaches and lush farmlands of Normandy, in western France, had an added sense of urgency this year: It would be the last grand commemoration for many of the veterans, whether they relived the anniversary at home in silence or were among the some 1,000 who crossed continents to be present despite their frail age.

For President Barack Obama, transmitting the memory of their "longest day" means keeping intact the values that veterans fought and died for.

"When the war was won, we claimed no spoils of victory — we helped Europe rebuild," Obama said in a speech at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It is the site where 9,387 fallen soldiers rest under white marble tombstones on a bluff above Omaha Beach, the bloodiest among five beach landings by U.S. and British troops.

"This was democracy's beachhead," he said, assuring veterans that "your legacy is in good hands."

F-15 jets flew over the cemetery in missing-man formation, a 21 gun salute boomed and taps sounded.

The day of gratitude drew royals including Queen Elizabeth II of England, who dined at the French presidential palace in the evening, and the king of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, as well as political leaders from across Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also joined in, along with a small group of German soldiers, as a sign of European unity.

Both symbolism and pragmatism were on French President Francois Hollande's agenda. With an invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been elbowed out of G-7 talks a day earlier, the ceremonies also became a moment to try to deflate the tense situation in Ukraine. The West fears the ongoing fighting there could fan a new Cold War with Moscow, which has annexed the eastern Ukraine region of Crimea.

Hollande's invitation to Ukraine's president-elect gave impetus to a diplomatic ballet of meetings behind the scenes.

Putin, who was present as a tribute to the Russian loss of more than 20 million troops in WWII — the largest among Allies — met with Petro Poroshenko and Obama on the sidelines of the event. Obama met privately, and briefly, with Putin.

"It is because France itself experienced the barbarity (of war) that it feels a duty to preserve peace everywhere, at the frontiers of Europe as in Africa," Hollande said.

Dancers re-enacted the drama of the Nazi takeover and battles across Europe against Hitler's forces on a stage at Sword Beach, one of the landing points near Ouistreham, a small port where British troops landed and fought their way to Pegasus Bridge, a key route. Ouistreham was the site of the main international ceremony.

It was 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, when soldiers started wading ashore. Operation Overlord, as the invasion by U.S., British, Canadian and Polish forces was codenamed, was the first step in breaching Hitler's stranglehold on France and Europe. Besides Sword and Omaha, Allied forces landed on Utah, Juno and Gold beaches — all codenames.

Ahead of the landing, the U.S. Army's 2nd Ranger Battalion went in with the 5th Battalion Rangers, scaling the craggy cliffs of Point du Hoc to put out of action six 155mm Nazi howitzers that could target landing areas. Paratroopers from the 101st Airborne division jumped into dark skies, some getting lost in hedgerows, shot down or caught in trees.

At least 4,400 Allied troops were killed the first day, and many thousands more in the ensuing Battle of Normandy that opened the Allied march to Paris to liberate the Nazi-occupied French capital in August. Another August assault was launched by forces from North Africa into southern France.

"They left home barely more than boys. They came home heroes," Obama said at an observation deck in Colleville, overlooking Omaha Beach.

Seven decades later, gratitude for life is a theme that runs through some veterans' recollections.

"I was lucky I survived," said U.S. veteran Oscar Peterson, 92, who fought with the 2nd Infantry Division, during his visit to Colleville. At the time, he said "I would say that if I could survive this, I'll work the rest of my life for nothing to be alive."

Clair Martin, 93, of San Diego, California, landed on D-Day with the 29th Infantry Division and said he kept fighting until he reached the Elbe River in Germany the following April. "I praise God I made it and that we've never had another World War," he said.

While many of the fallen in the Battle of Normandy — Americans, British, Polish and even Germans — lie in manicured cemeteries, some victims have been largely forgotten — the French.

Allied bombardments killed an estimated 20,000 French civilians, and Hollande paid tribute to them Friday in Caen, largely destroyed in the bombings like many Normandy cities.

The Vichy government which collaborated with the Nazis — and which France took decades to admit represented the state — used the bombings as a propaganda tool, burying the extent of fatalities. Historians now believe that nearly as many French civilians died in Allied air raids as Britons during the German Blitz.

"This battle was also a battle of civilians," Hollande said. Normandy's residents "helped the victory happen. They opened their doors to the liberators."

U.S. veteran Jack Schlegel, 91, of Albany, New York, who fought in the 508th Parachutist Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne, paid tribute to those who survived and are transmitting the D-Day message.

"I love, especially in this area, the patriotism I can see, that you're so thankful that the Allies ... helped liberate this country from the Nazis and giving the younger children a chance to grow up without this oppression."

___

Ganley reported from Paris. AP writers Lori Hinnant and Julie Pace contributed from Ouistreham; Catherine Gaschka contributed from Colleville-Sur-Mer.

___

Follow Greg Keller and Elaine Ganley at https://twitter.com/Greg_Keller and http://twitter.com/ Elaine_Ganley

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Winnipeg Cheapskate: Cheap summer weekends

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A gosling stares near water at Omands Creek Park-See Bryksa 30 day goose challenge- Day 25– June 21, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press. Local- WINTER FILE. Snowboarder at Stony Mountain Ski Hill. November 14, 2006.

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Which of Manitoba's new landlord-tenant rules are you looking forward to most?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google