D-Day: June 6, 1944

Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion the world has ever seen, with 156,000 Allied troops landing on the beaches of Normandy, under the code name Operation Overlord. If, for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Allied victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942 was “the end of the beginning,” then the invasion of Occupied France was perhaps the beginning of the end for Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.

There will be no triumphalism at this anniversary though, with commemorations already having started yesterday to mark the arrival of airborne troops in advance of the main amphibious invasion. Instead, the mood will be one of sombre reflection and gratitude, as homage is paid to the thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice and to those who survived World War II but who have succumbed to the passage of time.

This year’s ceremonies will be the biggest since the 60th anniversary and will be the last significant commemoration. 70 years is a very long time, a lifetime indeed, if we are to go along with the biblical three score years and ten, and the ranks of World War II veterans are dwindling. As blogger Mr CA Griffith poignantly reminded us a couple of weeks ago, in response to an article by Ian McDonald: “Since the release of Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation some 16 years ago, the ranks of American WWII veterans have fallen from 16 million to 1 million and according to the Federal Government and the National WWII Museum in New Orleans approximately 555 are dying each day.”

Shortly before sunset today, the British Normandy Veterans Association (NVA) will march for the last time at Arromanches on Gold beach, where nearly 25,000 British troops landed. The ceremony will be endowed with added emotional weight, as the NVA is to disband in November, its numbers having been reduced from some 15,000 thirty years ago to fewer than 1,000.

In honouring the troops who fought the bloody Battle of Normandy, the dead and the living, tributes will also be paid to the estimated 20,000 French civilians killed, mainly as a result of Allied bombing, a cruel reminder of the cost of war.

But this war – “the largest single event in human history” according to British military historian John Keegan – is perceived by most as a just war, possibly the last truly justifiable conflict of which we know. And the crucial importance of D-Day is perhaps best captured by the supreme allied commander himself, American General Dwight D Eisenhower, who wrote to the Allied Forces just before the invasion: “You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”

Today, some 16 foreign heads of state and government, including Queen Elizabeth II, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama, will accompany the host, French President François Hollande and the surviving heroes of D-Day, now in their late 80s and 90s, at an international ceremony at Sword, the most eastern of the five beaches assaulted, invested with additional significance, as 177 Free French commandos landed there alongside 29,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers to participate in the liberation of their homeland.

The dignitaries are, of course, gathering against the backdrop of the Crimea crisis, NATO unease with Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and yesterday’s G-7 summit and talk of further sanctions on Russia. Mr Obama has ruled out meeting with Mr Putin but it will be interesting to see how the other European leaders engage or not with the Russian president. Amidst fears of a new European conflict, the irony of Mr Putin’s presence is not lost on anyone.

Perhaps the assembled leaders would all do best to heed the words of one veteran, 91-year-old Englishman George Talbot, speaking about the importance of the D-Day commemorations: “We need to do this to teach people the lessons of the past, otherwise they will do the same again.”

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