Heads of state salute D day heroes

HEROES of the liberation of Europe were joined by a host of world leaders as tens of thousands of people paid tribute to the courage of servicemen on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

HEROES of the liberation of Europe were joined by a host of world leaders as tens of thousands of people paid tribute to the courage of servicemen on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

British veterans - many taking a final opportunity to revisit the scene of the historic invasion - took part in commemorative events yesterday as they honoured those lost in the pursuit of freedom.

Others made personal pilgrimages to sites throughout Normandy to recall their memories of friends who never returned from the battleground.

Hundreds of former soldiers, sailors and airmen proudly marched before the Queen as the anniversary events reached a poignant and moving climax yesterday afternoon on the seafront of Arromanches, where many British troops had come ashore in 1944.

In a heartfelt tribute to the veterans, many now aged in their 80s and 90s, the Queen said: “Thank you on behalf of the whole nation.”

The weekend's events marked the final time most of the men will return to the stretch of French coastline where they fought the bitter battle that helped free Europe from Nazi tyranny.

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With thousands of local people, soldiers and visiting dignitaries looking on, the Queen added: “Their sacrifice must never be forgotten.

“What for you is a haunting memory of danger and sacrifice one summer long ago is for your country and for generations of your countrymen to come, one of the proudest moments in our long national history.

“I take it upon myself to express the immense debt of gratitude we owe to you all.”

Some 156,000 Allied troops landed on the five invasion beaches on June 6, 1944, in an operation that wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as “undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place”.

It marked the beginning of an 80-day campaign to liberate Normandy, which involved three million troops and cost the lives of 250,000 people.

Earlier yesterday, in a stirring international ceremony at Arromanches, close to the Gold landing beach, French President Jacques Chirac presented the Legion d'Honneur medal to 14 representatives of the Allied Nations of the Second World War.

Following a 21-gun salute from the French frigate Cassard, 142 Allied veterans received thunderous applause as they led a parade before a host of heads of state.

Fourteen of the veterans - one each from Britain, the USA, France, Belgium, Australia, Canada, Greece, New Zealand, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Norway, and Luxembourg - remained on the parade ground to receive medals from President Chirac.

The Queen, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr Chirac, U.S. president George Bush and Russian premier Vladimir Putin were among those who gave the heroes a spontaneous standing ovation.

For the first time, Germany was represented by its leader at the official ceremony. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said that the invite proved the shadow of war had finally been lifted from his country.

Mr Chirac told the ceremony at Arromanches: “We hold up the example of Franco-German reconciliation to show the world that hatred has no future, that a path to peace is always possible.”

In her first engagement of yesterday, the Queen had paid tribute to Canadian veterans in a ceremony in the French seaside village of Courseulles-sur-Mer overlooking Juno Beach, one of the five D-Day landing points.

Almost one in 10 of the 156,000 soldiers who stormed Normandy's beaches during Operation Overlord was a Canadian and the Queen told veterans: “On this anniversary day, I join all your countrymen and allies in saluting you, the heroes and veterans of a historic campaign.”

Mr Bush joined Mr Chirac for a ceremony at the huge U.S. cemetery in Colleville, which holds the remains of 9,386 men, many of whom died in the fiercest fighting of D-Day on Omaha beach.

In a moving speech, Mr Bush said their sacrifice threw back the “marching mechanised evils of fascism”.

He praised the strength of the U.S.'s alliance with Europe, saying unity in the cause of freedom was strong, but “still needed today”.

Mr Chirac dubbed America the “eternal ally” of France, pledging the country would never forget the “day hope was reborn and rekindled”.

The area of the original invasion of Normandy had earlier been sealed off, with 17,000 military and police personnel barring all unauthorised access by land and sea and Mirage fighter jets on standby to fend off any attempt to breach an air exclusion zone around the sites of commemorations.

In Bayeux, Mr Blair and his wife, Cherie, joined the Queen and Mr Chirac at a joint British-French service at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, where about 4,200 troops are buried.

In the blazing midday sun over Normandy, both the Queen and Mr Blair met former soldiers, sailors and airmen who joined 12,000 people to pay tribute to the bravery of Allied troops.

With the glinting medieval spires of Bayeux cathedral as a backdrop, a bugler sounded the Last Post and the massed congregation paused for a minute's silence, many overcome with emotion.

Earlier, veterans had made their own quiet pilgrimages to sites across Normandy to stand in quiet reflection and honour lost friends.

Many assembled on the manicured lawns of the Bayeux cemetery among row upon row of white gravestones, while others visited the town's memorial, which commemorates the death of 1,801 men.

Veterans also looked on, in brilliant sunshine at Sword beach yesterday morning, as the sand was covered in a sea of 70,000 Union Flags.

Each bore a handwritten tribute to the young men cut down in fierce fighting and the event will raise £1million for the work of the Royal British Legion.

Tears welled in the eyes of scores of former troops as they read the words that had poured in from across Europe. One read simply: “We are here now because you were there then.”

In other ceremonies over the week, the Prince of Wales honoured the fallen as veterans arrived in France onboard a flotilla of warships and ferries.

Almost 500 soldiers also parachuted into France from a Hercules and two Second World War Dakotas in commemoration of their predecessors.

Their arrival was witnessed by hundreds of veterans, many of whom had completed their own parachute drop in 1944 in total darkness.

Matthew Lowe, from Colchester, was one of the members of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions Parachute Regiment who took part in the parachute drop.

“It was brilliant. What you had in your mind was that 60 years ago the aircraft were flying with 18 and 19-year-olds who didn't really know what they were going to meet,” he said.

Colour Sergeant John Kennedy, was unable to take part in the drop, but was determined to pay his tribute and travelled from Colchester to watch the spectacle.

“It's just fantastic. The men who dropped in this field changed the course of history. Their landing on D-Day was the start of the end of the war,” he said..

“I feel I'm paying tribute to all the airborne divisions, the job they did and the sacrifice they made.”

He recalled a 16-year-old private who died soon after landing in the early hours of D-Day and added: “Private Jones gave up his life so I can stand here and talk to you. I'm 40. I've lived a life - he didn't.”

Prince Charles also met surviving veterans of the Pegasus Bridge raid, unveiling a replica of one of the giant gliders used in the daring attack, and also laid a wreath at a memorial to Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines who fell.

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