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D-Day changed the course of history, says Obama in Normandy

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-06-07

US President Barack Obama praised WWII veterans who took part in D-Day landings in 1944, saying their struggle for "a slice of beach" had changed the course of history, as leaders gathered for the 65th anniversary of the landings.

Under bright skies, leaders paid tribute to the US, British and Canadian veterans who fought against all odds to liberate Europe on the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings on Normandy.

"It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only six miles long and two miles wide," the US president said.

“The sheer improbability is part of what makes D-Day so memorable,” said Obama speaking to fellow heads of state and veterans. The US president told his listeners that “if the allies failed here, Hitler’s hold on Europe could have continued indefinitely.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British PM Gordon Brown and Canadian PM Stephen Harper attended the anniversary event at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. The cemetery is located next to one of the D-Day landing sites, codenamed Omaha beach, where thousands of white tombstones mark the graves of the US war dead.

Speaking to 200 aging, white-haired veterans who had travelled to France, Sarkozy said his country would always remember the soldiers who were buried in the US military cemetery in Colleville. “I want to pay homage, in the name of France, to your children who spilt their blood here and who are sleeping here,” said Sarkozy, “we will never forget them.”

After praising Europe for its ability to reunify, Brown insisted that “dreams of liberation still needed to be realised” around the world, citing agony in Zimbabwe and detention in Burma. 

In a sermon during the service, Reverend Patrick Irwin paid tribute to the "chapter of bravery" written by the fallen. "The least we can do is to work for a future they will never see," he said.

Repairing ties

Residents in Normandy towns decked their streets in US and French flags in preparation for Obama's visit. Posters welcoming Obama read: "Yes, we ca(e)n," a cross between Obama's election campaign slogan and the city of Caen, which British and Canadian troops captured in 1944 after two months of bitter fighting.

Before the ceremony, Obama held talks with Nicolas Sarkozy in Caen, touching on subjects such as the Middle-East peace process, Turkey’s EU bid and Iran’s nuclear programme.

The US president has been seeking to repair ties with France and other European states who were alienated by his predecessor George W. Bush's go-it-alone diplomacy, the US-led invasion of Iraq and his policies on climate change.

Obama's presence at the D-Day ceremony has almost overshadowed the event, to the point that Sarkozy's failure to invite Britain's Queen Elizabeth – who served with the armed forces during World War II – prompted accusations that he was trying to make space for himself next to Obama. While Queen Elizabeth was not present at the commemorations, her son Prince Charles paid homage to the veterans.

Omaha beach

It is a tradition for American presidents to visit the landing beaches at Normandy where the June 6, 1944, invasion by British, US, Canadian and other Allied troops began a rollback of the Nazi war machine entrenched in Western Europe and helped end World War II the following year.

Ronald Reagan went to the D-Day beaches for the 40th anniversary in 1984, Bill Clinton was there in 1994 for the 50th and George W. Bush was there in 2002, and in 2004 for the 60th anniversary.

Obama's Normandy visit concluded a history-laden tour of Europe that took in the German concentration camp of Buchenwald and the city of Dresden, where an estimated 35,000 perished after it was flattened by Allied bombs in February 1945.

Obama's great uncle Charles Payne, who was involved in the liberation of Buchenwald as a US soldier but did not visit the camp with Obama, was among the war veterans at the commemoration.

Date created : 2009-06-06