D-Day 70th anniversary: World leaders pay tribute to veterans

World leaders, veterans and civilians gathered in Normandy today to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the military offensive that changed the course of the Second World War.

Canadian remembrance ceremony attended by PM Harper, Prince Charles, Duchess of Cornwall

A CBC news event hosted by Peter Mansbridge 6:30:00

World leaders, veterans and civilians gathered in Normandy today to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the military offensive that changed the course of the Second World War.

Following an international ceremony, Prime Minister Stephen Harper along with Canadian veterans and civilians flocked to Juno Beach for a Canadian remembrance ceremony.

Maj.-Gen. Richard Rhomer recalled the D-Day invasion in front of the crowd, which included Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

We and our long gone comrades have made a substantial contribution to the growth and development of Canada, which is now the finest country in the world to live and be a citizen.- Maj.-Gen. Richard Rhomer

He remembered first seeing the beaches from a unique perspective, seeing the English Channel filled with boats and seeing the waves crashing against the shore.

"It was a magnificent sight, and it took the people on this shore by a substantial surprise," he said.

He thanked Harper and Veteran Affairs Minister Julian Fantino for being supportive of the military.

"We and our long gone comrades have made a substantial contribution to the growth and development of Canada, which is now the finest country in the world to live and be a citizen," he said.

Harper thanked Canadian veterans for their service and said that while many things have changed in the world since D-Day, the virtues of courage and honour are still the same.

"The freedom, democracy and justice for which these veterans fought are still Canada's birthright. It is their legacy to you. Cherish it," he said.

Prince Charles, dressed in his military uniform, also addressed the crowd and said that those military men who died are more than just names.

"For you, each name on a headstone ... conjures up a memory of someone who is much loved and is greatly missed," he said, admitting that he has been humbled by the veterans' personal stories he has heard and struck by their modesty.

Our 'duty to preserve what was left to us'

During the international ceremony, French President François Hollande thanked the veterans of the Allied troops for their courageous actions on June 6, 1944, when some 150,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops stormed an 80-kilometre stretch of beaches along the French channel coast to attack hundreds of Nazi troops in concrete fortified gun positions.

"The French republic will never forget your sacrifice. We will always be grateful for what you have done," Hollande said. He called for the beaches at Normandy that the troops stormed to be granted UNESCO heritage site status.

Nineteen world leaders, including Harper, attended the main ceremony in Ouistreham to honour the troops and civilians who died on D-Day and during subsequent battles.

Hollande said it was not only their duty, but also their obligation to fulfil the promises of those who died during the invasion.

"We still have to do our duty. The duty to preserve what was left to us," he said. "The duty to defend human rights across the globe."

The crowd gave Hollande a standing ovation after his remarks.

Following Hollande's speech, a group of French dancers re-enacted the events leading up to and on D-Day through interpretive dance on the beach in front of the stage.

Jessica Graves Brampton, Ont., is embraced by Queens Own Rifles of Canada Association former president Brian Budden after scattering the ashes of her late grandfather, Canadian sniper William "Boots" Bettridge, on the beach where he landed on D-Day in Bernieres sur Mer, France on Friday. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)
Behind the re-enactments, screens played historical footage. At one point, they showed the Queen — at the time Princess Elizabeth — in her military uniform working on a truck.

Queen Elizabeth served in the women's Auxiliary Territorial Service during the Second World War as a truck driver. She is attending today's ceremony, and royal watchers speculate it may be her last official trip outside of England.

Veterans, youth at centre of ceremony

While not many of the 150,000 veterans are still alive, more than 1,000 gathered at the ceremony. The young veterans in the group are in their late 80s, said CBC's Peter Mansbridge, adding that some are in their 90s and a couple have reached triple digits.

CBC's Nahlah Ayed spoke with one veteran, Jim, who said that while he is glad that the ceremony is so well attended this year, he has noticed that there are less veterans than in previous years.

He was part of a group that swam to the shores of the beach after their boat was hit. Only two others from his group are still alive, he said.

"I've been to the graveyards and I've identified a few of my buddies there," he said.

We still have to do our duty. The duty to preserve what was left to us.- French President François Hollande

Arriving dignitaries were walked towards their seats by two young children, in keeping with the ceremony's theme of including the younger generation in the day's events, said Mansbridge.

Ayed spoke to 18-year-old twin brothers from Vancouver who had come to the anniversary to scatter some of their grandfather's ashes on the beach. He died in November last year and had been in Normandy on D-Day.

One of the brothers wore his grandfather's medals, while the other had a set of imitation medals on him.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands in front of the cenotaph in the Canadian military cemetery on Friday in Beny-sur-Mer, France. (Adrian Wyld/The Associated Press)
​"He was so proud of them. He kept them so well," one of the twins told Ayed.

Both said it was important to them to them to pay tribute to the veterans and their grandfather.

"It's so important to remember the sacrifice that they left behind," one said. "It really is an honour to be standing on this ground."

A group of veterans, one representing each of the Allied countries, then greeted the world leaders as they arrived.

Russian President Vladmir Putin, U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's president-elect, also attended the ceremony.

The crowd cheered as Obama walked down the red carpet and took his seat on the stage.

A large split screen at the ceremonies showed Obama on one side and Putin on the other. The image drew some gasps and laughs from the crowd.

The White House said Obama and Putin spoke for about 10 to 15 minutes after a lunch earlier Friday, but stressed the discussion was informal. It marked the first time the two leaders spoke face to face after Putin's Russia annexed part of Ukraine, drawing condemnation from the West.

'National pride' in Canada's role

Harper said in a written statement that it was an honour and privilege to be in France on the anniversary of D-Day.

"It is difficult to understand the courage it took to advance through minefields and barbed wire under fire from mortars and machine-guns in order to punch through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall; and yet that is exactly what many Canadians did," Harper said.

"It is a source of enormous national pride that Canadians played such a pivotal role in ensuring the success of the D-Day landings, one of the greatest battles of the Second World War and a turning point in the world’s history."

Before the major International Ceremony of Remembrance, Harper lay a ceremonial wreath at the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, where more than 2,000 men killed on D-Day are buried.

He then attended a luncheon hosted by French President Francois Hollande.

At least 4,400 Allied troops, including 359 Canadians, died the first day. Canada's D-Day tribute to the fallen Canadians was unveiled Thursday at the Juno Beach Centre. It is comprised of 359 maple tribute markers.

Five thousand Canadians were killed during the 2½-month campaign.

CBC's complete D-Day coverage

With files from The Canadian Press, The Associated Press


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