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World leaders, veterans, commemorate D-Day's 80th anniversary in Normandy

3 min

Moving letters from veterans were read out as ceremonies took place in Normandy on Thursday to mark the 80th anniversary of the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings, when more than 150,000 Allied soldiers invaded France by sea and air to drive out the forces of Nazi Germany.

U.S President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron attend a ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, June 6, 2024. Reuters/Elizabeth Frantz

Moving letters from veterans were read out as ceremonies took place in Normandy on Thursday to mark the 80th anniversary of the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings, when more than 150,000 Allied soldiers invaded France by sea and air to drive out the forces of Nazi Germany.

At the British ceremony in Ver-sur-Mer, veterans were applauded as they filed into the event to take their seats, which were decorated with bright red poppies.

"I want to pay my respects to those who didn't make it. May they rest in peace," veteran Joe Mines said, in words read by actor Martin Freeman. "I was 19 when I landed, but I was still a boy...and I didn't have any idea of war and killing."

"I tried to forget D-Day but I can't," Royal Navy veteran Ron Hendrey said in words read by actor Douglas Booth. "I've lived 80 years since that day, my friends have remained under the earth."

Both veterans were present at the ceremony.

With war raging in Ukraine on Europe's borders, this year's commemoration of this turning point in World War Two carries special resonance.

The anniversary takes place in a year of many elections, including for the European Parliament this week and in the U.S. in November. Leaders are set to draw parallels with World War Two and warn of the dangers of isolationism and the far-right.

Solemn music was played and Tom Jones sang "I won't crumble with you if you fall" in a ceremony attended by Britain's King Charles and Queen Camilla and French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte.

Charles, in full military uniform, was visibly moved as he paid tribute to those who took part in the landings, as well as the French resistance.

"We recall the lesson that comes to us again and again across the decades: free nations must stand together to oppose tyranny," he said.

"Our admiration is eternal," said Charles, who spoke in both French and English. "Let us pray such sacrifice will never be made again."

After the ceremony, Charles, Macron and their wives chatted and shook hands with veterans and other guests.

With the numbers of veterans, many aged 100 or more, fast dwindling, this is likely to be the last major ceremony in Normandy honouring them in their presence.

Some 200 veterans, most of them American or British, are set to take part in ceremonies throughout the day on windswept beaches that still bear the scars of the fighting that erupted on D-Day, history's largest amphibious invasion, in which thousands of Allied soldiers died.

Macron presented a Legion d'Honneur award to Christian Lamb, a 103-year-old member of the wartime British female naval service who helped plan the landings, describing her as "a hero in the shadows".

"You have set us an example, which we'll not forget. France will never forget the British troops who landed on D-Day and all their brothers in arms," he said.

"We are honoured by the ties of remembrance, friendship and loyalty which were forged between our two countries."

At a separate event at the Normandy American cemetry, Biden met with World War Two veterans, giving salutes, handshakes and hugs to the men, many in wheelchairs, who came to France for the anniversary.

He and his wife, Jill, took photos with the veterans and the president gave them each special commemorative coins.

Underlining the frail health of many veterans, the U.S. Embassy said the last surviving Native American veteran was gravely ill

'TERRIBLE'

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and many others will take part in the day of tributes. 

But Russia, which invaded Ukraine in 2022, touching off Europe's biggest armed conflict since World War Two, was not invited.

Earlier in the day, as the sun rose in Arromanches-les-Bains, one of the beaches where Allied troops came ashore 80 years ago, small crowds filtered onto the beach to watch a collection of World War Two jeeps and an amphibious vehicle coming ashore carrying a bagpiper playing a lament.

At Omaha Beach, the largest of the D-Day landing areas, where about 2,400 U.S. servicemen lost their lives on June 6, 1944, more than 20 heads of state and government were due to attend an international ceremony later in the day.

Landing craft were in place to reenact part of the landings, while several warships and patrol boats anchored on the horizon.

At a Canadian ceremony, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: "We must all continue to stand for democracy day in day out, we owe it for future generations."

Prince William, speaking at the same ceremony, said: "Standing here today, in peaceful silence, it is almost impossible to grasp the courage it would have taken to run into the fury of battle that very day."

By Elizabeth Pineau, John Irish and Jeff Mason

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