Leaders pay tribute to D-Day veterans

By Calvin Palmer

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Barack Obama today paid tribute to the sacrifices made by allied troops during the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, 65 years ago today.

In a ceremony at the U.S. cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, the Prime Minister said that he saluted the veterans who took part the landings and said that “as long as freedom lives their deeds would never die”.

He said he had come to Normandy to remember those who had “advanced grain of sand by grain of sand utterly determined amid the bullets and the bloodshed that freedom would not be pushed back into the sea but would rise from the beaches below to liberate a continent and to save a generation.”

President Obama said that D-Day had become an annual pilgrimage for many because of the “sheer improbability of the victory” which had taken place.

He added: “D-Day was a time and a place where the bravery and selflessness of a few was able to change the course of an entire century. In the hour of maximum danger and in the bleakest of circumstances men who thought themselves ordinary found within themselves the ability to do something extraordinary.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France thanked all nations which took part in the operation and added: “France will never forget.”

The speeches were heard by an audience of more than 10,000, which included 300 veterans who took part in the operation. President Sarkozy’s wife Carla Bruni, Michelle Obama, Prince Charles and the actor Tom Hanks were also present.

Prince Charles and the Prime Minister had earlier attended a memorial service at Bayeux Cathedral to commemorate the events of the June 6th 1944 when 130,000 allied troops landed in Normandy – an offensive which helped to bring about the end of the Second World War.

Both men laid wreaths inside the cathedral in remembrance of the British soldiers who died on the beaches and during the bloody battles which raged throughout Normandy for six weeks after the landings.

After the service, Prince Charles, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup and Bob Ainsworth, the newly appointed defense secretary, attended a ceremony at the town’s Commonwealth War Graves Committee cemetery, where 4,000 British servicemen are buried.

Hundreds of Normandy veterans paraded into Bayeux cemetery to the memorials which remember the bravery and sacrifice of the troops who landed in northern France.

A carpet of 12,000 Union Flags covered part of Gold Beach in Normandy today, each one a message to the men of D-Day.

D-Day veteran surveys the carpet of Union Flags on Gold Beach, Normandy, as part of the 65th anniversary. Picture courtesy of The Daily Telegraph.

D-Day veteran Ron Leagas surveys the carpet of Union Flags on Gold Beach, Normandy, as part of the 65th anniversary. Picture courtesy of The Daily Telegraph.

Sent out to households across Britain by the Royal British Legion, the paper flags were returned with expressions of gratitude written on them, and donations totaling £1.8 million ($2.8 million). Children from three schools spent Friday planting them in the sand near the village of Asnelles, 180 square yards of red, white and blue.

“In remembrance of the families who lost loved ones on this beach,” read one. “Thank-you for the freedom we so often take for granted,” was another.

“It makes you happy,” said Ron Leagas, who 65 years ago landed on this bloody stretch of sand, “that people take the trouble.”

His ordeal began a few hours later in the early afternoon of June 6, 1944, when he landed with a Bren Gun Carrier detachment of the Queen’s Royal (West Surrey) Regiment. He was 18, having lied his way into the Army in 1941 at the age of 16.

The beach was still under fire as his battalion disembarked and his reaction to the scene that greeted him was “fright, plain and simple”.

His Bren carrier was third in a column heading inland when the lead vehicle was hit by an 88mm anti-tank shell.

“It simply disappeared,” he remembered. “There were heads – bits of men – covering the road.”

It was his first time in action and he described the carnage as “numbing”.

Leagas has visited Normandy four times.

“It is a right, and a duty, to come,” he said. “I can’t say how it feels. Emotion, emotion is only thing I can say.”

He remembers his friend, who fired the Bren gun. He was 17, having lied about his age, and had killed seven or eight Germans with a burst of fire.

“We were resting and suddenly he lost it and dived under a tank. It was 35 tons and sinking slowly in the soft ground and he was face up about to be crushed. We dragged him out by tying a rope to his foot. He was taken away and I never saw him again.”

Canada’s D-Day veterans were honored at ceremony at Queen’s Park in Toronto, attended by Premier Dalton McGuinty.

The Battle of Normandy is one of Canada’s most significant military engagements. On D-Day 340 Canadians died and 574 others were wounded.

[Based on reports by The Daily Telegraph and The Canadian Press.]

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