HISTORY

Vets honoured at Normandy ahead of main D-Day 70th anniversary event

Tension with Russia underlies memorial events at Normandy landing site

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 June, 2014, 10:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 June, 2014, 11:07pm
AFP

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Seventy years to the day after the first planes set off for the invasion of France, veterans gathered in Normandy yesterday to remember the dead and be honoured for risking their lives on D-Day.

Britain's Prince Charles was leading the tributes to those who took part in the first wave, when thousands of Allied troops flew or parachuted in during the early hours of June 6, 1944, catching the German army by surprise.

No fewer than 20 world leaders were due to attend the main D-Day ceremony today, when all eyes will be on Russian President Vladimir Putin and the diplomatic manoeuvring over Ukraine.

But a series of smaller events yesterday put the spotlight on the survivors, the youngest of whom are touching 90 and consider this their final return to France.

Confronting their past brings back powerful emotions.

Watching his great-grandchildren play on the beach at Arromanches on Wednesday, 88-year-old Robert Jones spoke bluntly of his memories of stacking up the bodies of young German soldiers.

But the British infantryman admitted that a visit to a friend's grave at Bayeux Cathedral had brought him to tears, and he was haunted by a return to the scene of some of his worst fighting.

"I walked into that wood, they had to coax me in, and it stank like death. It really scared me - I was shaking and I broke down," Jones said.

Arromanches is located in the middle of the five invasion beaches, and was the site of an artificial harbour established by the Allies to bring in supplies.

It has long been a destination for tourists and second-world-war enthusiasts, and this week was packed with visitors and men in replica uniforms, while vintage jeeps and motorcycles buzzed along the coastal road.

More than 400 memorial events were planned.

A flotilla of ships was yesterday scheduled to set off from Britain's main naval port of Portsmouth in commemoration of the nearly 7,000 vessels that took part in the invasion, the biggest amphibious assault in history.

US, French and Dutch soldiers were to take part at an evening ceremony at Utah beach, which lies on the western edge of the invasion site.

American veteran Charles Wilson returned for the first time to view the spot where he drove a tank onto Utah beach on D-Day.

"I had to fall on my knees down on the beach. I was so humbled," he said.

Today, Britain's Queen Elizabeth and US President Barack Obama are among world leaders attending the international ceremony of remembrance on the beach at Ouistreham.

Obama and other Group of Seven leaders will arrive after a summit in Brussels, from which Putin was excluded because of Russia's intervention in Ukraine.

But the diplomatic wrangling will not stop the veterans paying tribute to all those who put their lives on the line for an invasion that ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Of more than 156,000 troops who waded or parachuted onto French soil on June 6, 1944, some 4,500 would die by day's end.