D-Day anniversary: Thousands pay homage to the heroes of 'The Longest Day'
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World leaders, military personnel, dignitaries and ordinary people descended on France's northwest coasts on Friday to pay tribute to the heroes of D-Day and remember the fateful landings 70 years on.
special correspondent in Normandy
The region of Normandy is organising 20 different ceremonies this year to honour the sacrifices of Allied soldiers and celebrate their victory over Nazi Germany, but Friday saw the biggest events planned for the historic anniversary.
President François Hollande played host to 19 heads of state who had travelled to France for the commemoration, while organisers – French and foreign – welcomed veterans from Britain, the United States, and Canada, among other countries.
Thousands of visitors made stops in the city of Caen and other smaller towns, where Allied flags decorated traffic circles, public buildings and private homes.
'The fate of humanity'
Speaking to a crowd of over 3,000 people in the American War Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, Hollande recalled the bonds between France and the United States, declaring that the two countries had been “walking side by side for 200 years” in their common pursuit of liberty.
He reminded those present at the bilateral ceremony, which included a large number of active US servicemen, that more than 6,603 American soldiers lost their lives on June 6, 1944.
Hollande promised that France would never forget their sacrifice.
Moments later, President Barack Obama said that wrestling control of Omaha Beach from the Nazis had not just “determined the outcome of a war”, but the “fate of all of humanity”.
The US president's praise for the veterans that were on hand for the ceremony, and seated directly behind him, earned a rousing standing ovation from the public.
Following the ceremony, people strolled among the perfectly-aligned tombstones, snapping a picture or pointing to a detail etched into the white marble markers. The Martins family from Dallas, Texas, was travelling with a group from the US that included WWII veterans.
“We feel really privileged to share this trip with them,” they said. “We are probably the last generation that can share such a moment with the vets.”
In the afternoon, the attention shifted to Sword Beach in the port of Ouistenham, where an audience of over 7,000 people watched world leaders file into the open-air stage built for the massive D-Day ceremony.
Distinguished guests included Queen Elizabeth II, Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and even Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko.
With the Ukraine crisis casting its shadow over the ceremonies, Obama and Putin shared an uncomfortable moment when their faces were shown side-by-side on giant screens set up for the event.
But the real highlight of the Ouistreham ceremony was a multimedia performance, including live actors who covered the history of World War II in four acts.
In the second act, entitled “The Longest Day”, a column of men and women moved forward in slow motion, most of them movingly falling to the ground, with only a few reaching the far-side of a massive stage to reflect the heavy casualties of D-Day.
Show not over yet
While the giant commemoration on Sword Beach was the day's main event, other ceremonies followed, including a Franco-Polish gathering with Hollande and a Canadian ceremony hosted by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Canadian premier Stephen Harper.
France will continue remembering the great dates of World War II in the weeks ahead, including celebrations around the liberation of Paris in August.