CAEN, France: D-Day veterans marched back to Normandy’s beaches and villages yesterday in an emotional return to mark 70 years since the launch of the invasion that hastened the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Royals, top brass and some 20 world leaders, including US President Barack Obama and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, will attend the main D-Day ceremony today, with diplomatic wrangling over the Ukraine crisis casting a pall over proceedings.
But on the eve of the anniversary, the spotlight was firmly on those who risked their lives in launching the largest sea assault in military history to liberate Europe from Nazism, most of whom are now in their 90s and are marking the occasion for probably the last time.
One of them, Jock Hutton, celebrated in a unique way by parachuting to the same spot he landed on as an 19-year-old, this time with a member of the Red Devils strapped to his back for safety.
Wearing a bright red jumpsuit, the 89-year-old veteran touched down lightly on the grass just in front of the waiting Prince Charles, dusted himself down briskly and removed his helmet. “I was hoping there’d be some Calvados,” he quipped on arrival. “At my age, life tends to get a wee bit boring. So you’ve got to grab at any chance at excitement,” he said.
As colonel-in-chief of the Parachute Regiment, Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, led the tributes to those in the first wave of air landings shortly after midnight on June 6. Wearing a field marshal’s uniform, he chatted at length to veterans, many of whom were confined to wheelchairs, along with his wife Camilla. The royal couple then hopped into a motor gunboat, one of the lead boats on the approach to Swords Beach on the historic day seven decades ago. More than 156,000 troops waded or parachuted onto French soil on June 6, 1944. Nearly 4,500 would be dead by the end of the day.
At the naval base of Portsmouth, in southern England, the departure point for troops heading to Swords Beach, some 80 veterans watched an amphibious vehicle roar off a landing craft onto a beach and Queen Elizabeth II’s daughter Princess Anne led a service nearby.
Today, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Obama will be among the world leaders attending the international ceremony of remembrance on the beach at Ouistreham. Some 1,800 veterans are expected at the ceremonies and around one million members of the public are set to mark the occasion along the Normandy coastline.
The 88-year-old Queen received a warm welcome from hundreds of well-wishers as she alighted at the Gare du Nord in Paris in a cream-white coat and matching hat.
After a quick change into a pink outfit, she took part in a ceremony at the eternal flame at the Arc de Triomphe which marks the grave of the unknown soldier before taking tea with French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace.
While the focus was on the veterans, the world leaders embarked on a frenzied round of shuttle diplomacy over the Ukraine crisis, with Putin meeting Britain’s David Cameron, his first tete-a-tete with a Western leader since the Ukraine crisis erupted. The Russian leader then went to the Elysee Palace to meet with Hollande, who had earlier dined with Obama. AFP