Veterans of the Second World War D-Day landings have been joined by world leaders for a second day of events to mark the 75th anniversary of the allied operation in northern France that helped liberate Western Europe from Nazi occupation.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron joined former soldiers at a ceremony in Normandy early on Thursday morning to commemorate the June 6, 1944, operation – the largest combined land, air and naval deployment in history.
More than 150,000 mostly American, British and Canadian allied troops took part in the landings, which saw soldiers set off from southern England’s port city of Portsmouth and surrounding areas to begin an air, sea and land attack on some 50,000 German forces stationed across the English Channel.
Speaking at the event at Ver-Sur-Mer, May said: “Standing here as the waves wash quietly onto the shore below us, it is almost impossible to grasp the raw courage it must have taken that day to leap from the landing craft and into the surf despite the fury of battle.”
“If one day can be said to have determined the fate of generations to come in France, in Britain, in Europe and the world, that day was June 6, 1944,” she added. “To our veterans here in Normandy today, I want to say the only words we can: thank you.”
Macron also thanked “all those who were killed so that France could become free again”.
“We owe our freedom to our veterans, we will never surrender. And whatever it takes, we will always stand together. Because this is our common destiny,” he said.
Macron was later joined by US President Donald Trump at a cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, in front of the beach codenamed Omaha during the landings.
Trump paid tribute to a group of around 60 US veterans sitting in the front row: “You are among the very greatest Americans who will ever live. You are the pride of our nation. You are the glory of our republic and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts,” he said.
The US president, who has criticised NATO members for their levels of military spending, also spoke of the bond between the United States and its transatlantic allies.
“Our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war and proven in the blessings of peace. Our bond is unbreakable,” he said.
President Emmanuel Macron also spoke of “the heritage of peace that we have been bequeathed”.
“We must never stop working for the alliance of the free world,” said Macron, citing the UN, NATO and EU as examples. He said being worthy of this “promise of Normandy” meant “never forgetting that free peoples can overcome all the challenges when they unite”.
Trump has previously threatened to withdraw the United States from the NATO alliance, but on Thursday kept his remarks to the commemoration of the D-Day anniversary.
“D-Day has for 75 years been a powerful symbol of international co-operation, of nations working together for a common purpose,” said Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Normandy.
“French President Emmanuel Macron is a great believer in multilateralism and international institutions and co-operation. So it’s no surprise that in his speech he referred to how international alliances – including NATO and the EU – had made the world a safer place.
“It’s a different vision than that of US President Donald Trump, with his ‘America First’ policy. But Trump this time chose not to touch on today’s politics in his speech, and stuck to paying homage to the veterans,” she said.
The D-Day landings started at 6:30am local time, targeting five code-named beaches, one after the other: Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword, Juno. The operation also included actions inland, with 24,000 paratroopers deployed overnight over strategic German sites and US forces scaling cliffs to wrestle control of German gun positions.
Thousands were killed on both sides – more than 4,000 allied troops died on that day alone, with German fatalities estimated between 4,000 and 9,000. Survivors have since recounted how the coastline around Normandy was red with blood and the air thundered with repeated explosions.
“These young men belonged to a very special generation, the greatest generation, a generation whose unconquerable spirit shaped our post-war world,” Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May said on Thursday morning.
“They didn’t boast, they didn’t fuss, they served. They did their duty, as they laid down their lives, so that we might have a better life and build a better world.”