US President Donald Trump has joined European leaders in Portsmouth, on Britain’s southern coast, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings of World War II.
Trump is concluding his state visit to the United Kingdom by marking the anniversary of the departure of more than 150,000 troops from British shores, heading for the beaches of Nazi-occupied northern France.
The soldiers who stormed those beaches in 1945 were drawn from a wide coalition of nations, and the US president joined British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau along with other leaders for the ceremonial military parade on Wednesday morning.
“There was concern that the controversy following Donald Trump’s visit might disturb or overshadow the events here, which mark a sacrifice shared by so many nations,” said Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from Portsmouth.
“But others felt it was important to show the US president some of the strength and history of multilateral relations. The relationship, particularly between Britain and the United States, predates Mr Trump, of course, and many hope it will endure long after his time in office.”
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, waves of allied troops set off from Portsmouth and the surrounding area to begin the air, sea and land assault on Normandy that ultimately led to the liberation of Western Europe from the Nazis.
By that time, Soviet forces had been fighting Germany in the east for almost three years and Kremlin chief Josef Stalin had urged British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to open a second front.
The invasion, codenamed Operation Overlord and commanded by US General Dwight D Eisenhower, remains the largest amphibious assault in history and involved almost 7,000 ships and landing craft along an 80km stretch of the French coast.
Shortly after midnight, 24,000 paratroopers were dropped. Then came the naval bombardment of German positions overlooking the shore. Then the infantry arrived on the beaches.
Mostly American, British and Canadian men, some just boys, waded ashore as German soldiers tried to kill them with machine guns and artillery. Survivors say the sea was red with blood and the air boiling with the thunder of explosions. More than 4,000 of the invading soldiers were killed that day, with estimates that between 4,000 and 9,000 Germans died.
Line upon line of white crosses honour the dead in cemeteries across northern France. Even the codenames of the sectors of the invasion – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – can draw tears from veterans.
“Seventy-five years ago this Thursday, courageous Americans and British patriots set out from this island towards history’s most important battle,” Trump remarked in London on Tuesday.
“They stormed forward out of ships and aeroplanes risking everything to defend our people and to ensure that the United States and Britain would forever remain sovereign and forever remain free.”
The 16 countries attending the commemorations have agreed on a proclamation to “ensure that the unimaginable horror of these years is never repeated”.
“We will act resolutely, with courage and tenacity, to protect our people against threats to our values and challenges to peace and stability,” the proclamation said.
On Wednesday evening, 300 veterans who took part on D-Day, all now older than 90, will leave Portsmouth on a specially commissioned ship and retrace their 1944 journey across the English Channel, accompanied by Royal Navy vessels and a lone wartime Spitfire fighter plane.
Meanwhile, in Normandy, British air assault troops, French army paratroopers and D-Day veterans will recreate the airborne landings. There will be further D-Day memorial events on Thursday in northern France.
Wednesday’s event coincides with the last day of Trump’s state visit to Britain, during which he called for NATO allies to spend more on defence, saying they had no choice but to spend at least two percent of GDP on their militaries.
Trump has repeatedly complained that Germany and others are not pulling their weight.