D-Day anniversary: France will ‘never forget’, Macron says

World leaders gather for commemorations marking 75 years since Normandy landings

75 years ago on D-Day, the allied invasion that helped turn the tide of the second World War.

 

France will never forget the sacrifice of the Allied troops who liberated it from Nazi Germany, French president Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day operation that helped bring the second World War to an end.

US president Donald Trump and British prime minister Theresa May joined Mr Macron at separate ceremonies marking the occasion along an 80km stretch of Normandy coastline, where more than 150,000 Allied soldiers landed on June 6th, 1944, under a hail of German fire.

“We know what we owe to you, our veterans: our freedom. On behalf of my country, I want to say ‘thank you’,” Mr Macron told several dozen American D-Day combatants at a US war cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, one of five landing spots in Normandy during D-Day.

“France will never forget.”

A veteran views graves ahead of a remembrance ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Bayeux, France. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA
A veteran views graves ahead of a remembrance ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Bayeux, France. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Mr Macron awarded the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest award for merit, to five US veterans at the event and embraced each man warmly.

The Normandy landings were months in the planning and were kept secret from Hitler and his forces despite a huge transatlantic mobilisation of industry and manpower for the operation.

Under the cover of darkness, thousands of Allied paratroopers jumped behind Germany’s coastal defences. Then, as day broke, warships pounded German positions before hundreds of landing craft disgorged Allied infantry troops under a barrage of machine-gun fire and artillery.

Some veterans say the sea and sand turned red with blood during the operation. Dozens of US rangers were felled by German machine guns as they scaled the cliffs rising up from Omaha Beach to Colleville-sur-Mer, where the US cemetery lies.

“You are among the very greatest Americans who will ever live,” Mr Trump said in his address, turning to the surviving veterans. “You are the pride of our nation, you are the glory of our republic and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

Danish second World War veteran Antoinette Melgaard (97) and Danish member of the resistance Poul Hoeg following a ceremony on Utah Beach in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Normandy on Thursday. Photograph: Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images
Danish second World War veteran Antoinette Melgaard (97) and Danish member of the resistance Poul Hoeg following a ceremony on Utah Beach in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Normandy on Thursday. Photograph: Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images

“These men moved through the fires of hell,” he said. “They came here and saved freedom, and then they went home and showed us all what freedom is about.”

People applauded as one of the veterans, 94-year-old Pte Russell Pickett, rose shakily to his feet. “Tough guy,” Mr Trump said, before Mr Macron helped lower Mr Pickett back into his seat.

Largest-ever invasion

The Normandy landings remain the largest-ever amphibious invasion and paved the way for western Europe’s liberation.

Inaugurating a memorial to the 22,000 soldiers under British command who were killed on June 6th, 1944, and in the ensuing battle for Normandy, British prime minister Theresa May saluted the bravery of the soldiers, many of whom were still boys when they waded ashore as shells screamed overhead.

British prime minister Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron at Ver-sur-Mer, France, during D-Day commemorations on Thursday. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
British prime minister Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron at Ver-sur-Mer, France, during D-Day commemorations on Thursday. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

“It’s almost impossible to grasp the raw courage it must have taken that day to leap from landing craft and into the surf despite the fury of battle,” Mrs May told a small gathering that included Mr Macron and veterans, their uniforms laden with medals, on a site that overlooks Gold Beach.

“These young men belonged to a very special generation . . . whose incomparable spirit shaped our post-war world,” she said.

The devastation wrought by two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century fostered a decades-long era of co-operation between European capitals determined to protect their hard-fought peace, giving rise to what is now the European Union.

But even as Britain now tries to sever its ties with the bloc after four decades of membership, Mr Macron told Mrs May some links between France and Britain were indestructible.

“Nothing will ever take away the links of spilled blood and shared values. The debates of the present in no way take away from the past.”

Lone piper

An hour after sunrise, under clear blue skies, a lone piper on the remnants of an artificial harbour played Highland Laddie to mark the hour the first British soldier set foot on French sand. The Mulberry harbour was built to supply Allied troops as they pushed the Germans back.

Restored wartime jeeps and amphibious vehicles lined the beach at Arromanches and in villages along the Normandy shore the flags of the UK, Canada and the US, the main contributors to the Allied force, fluttered in the breeze for the anniversary.

Military vehicles line the beach at Arromanches in Normandy, northern France, ahead of D-Day commemorations on Thursday. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Military vehicles line the beach at Arromanches in Normandy, northern France, ahead of D-Day commemorations on Thursday. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The commemorations come against the backdrop of two years of forthright diplomacy and “America First” policymaking by Mr Trump and his administration that have shaken the Nato alliance and tested relations with allies including the UK and France.

On the eve of the anniversary, France’s president evoked the spirit of D-Day, saying: “These Allied forces that together freed us from the German yoke, and from tyranny, are the same ones that were able to build the existing multilateral structures after the second World War.”

“We must not repeat history, and [must] remind ourselves what was built on the basis of the war,” he said.

Re-enacting jumps

Khaki parachutes filled the skies above Sannerville on Wednesday afternoon as two British veterans in their mid-90s joined several hundred paratroopers re-enacting the jumps behind enemy lines. Hundreds of British veterans also crossed the English Channel on a specially chartered ferry.

Attendees inspect headstones at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, on Thursday. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg
Attendees inspect headstones at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, on Thursday. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg

Earlier on Wednesday, on the south coast of England, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth led presidents and prime ministers in paying tribute to surviving D-Day veterans and their fallen comrades.

“The heroism, courage and sacrifice of those who lost their lives will never be forgotten,” the queen said. “It is with humility and pleasure, on behalf of the entire country – indeed the whole free world – that I say to you all: thank you.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel also praised the sacrifice of tens of thousands of soldiers. “That I, as German chancellor, can be here today, that today we stand together for peace and freedom, is a gift from history that must be cared for and protected,” she said.

At the event, Mr Trump read a prayer spoken by Franklin D Roosevelt in 1944. The reading capped a three-day state visit to Britain for the US president, during which he had lavished praise on the UK and said wartime bonds forged the “greatest alliance the world has ever known”.

Amid the D-Day ceremonies, Russia told the West that the Allied war effort should not be exaggerated and that the Allied victory would not have come without the Soviet Union’s “titanic effort”. – Reuters