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Tuesday 16 September 2014

'Blood soaked the water and bullets bit the flesh'

Gordon Rayner and Patrick Sawer

Published 07/06/2014 | 02:30

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US veterans salute at the Normandy American Cemetery
US veterans salute at the Normandy American Cemetery

"Their sacrifice and bravery shaped the security and well-being of all posterity." With these words President Obama led world leaders in emotional tributes to the troops who gave their lives to liberate Europe from the Nazis.

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President Obama said they had breached "Hitler's Wall" and secured today's era of democracy and freedom.

It was the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and Mr Obama was standing in front of mainly US veterans – their medals glittering in the sun. Their eyes glistened with unshed tears for lost comrades.

Queen Elizabeth joined 400 Commonwealth veterans at an open-air service at the British military cemetery in Bayeux.

She too paid tribute to the "immense and heroic endeavour" of the soldiers who took part in the invasion, speaking of their "incredible sacrifices".

The day saw the coming together of some 20 heads of states, royals and prime ministers, who mingled with veterans at ceremonies on the beaches of northern France, where the biggest amphibious assault in history was launched on June 6, 1944.

Mr Obama spoke from the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where nearly 10,000 men are buried on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, the site of some of D-Day's most intense and bloody fighting.

He described the landings in vivid terms, recalling that "by daybreak, blood soaked the water" and "thousands of rounds bit into flesh and sand."

Visibly moved, the US President – whose speech was interrupted by a lengthy standing ovation from the assembled audience when he acknowledged the surviving veterans present – said: "By the end of that longest day, this beach had been fought, lost, refought and won – a piece of Europe once again liberated and free. Hitler's Wall was breached, letting loose Patton's Army to pour into France."

He told the veterans, many of whom were confined to wheelchairs and were in all likelihood attending the anniversary events for the last time: "Gentlemen, we are truly humbled by your presence today."

Mr Obama went on to say: "These men waged war so that we might know peace. They sacrificed so that we might be free. They fought in hopes of a day when we'd no longer need to fight. We are grateful to them."

The President described Omaha as "democracy's beachhead", saying "our victory in that war decided not just a century, but shaped the security and well-being of all posterity."

He added: "Our commitment to liberty, our claim to equality, our claim to freedom and to the inherent dignity of every human being – that claim is written in the blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity,"

At the close of his speech, Mr Obama warmly embraced a stooped veteran, almost half his size, before bowing his head alongside François Hollande, the French president, at a wreath commemorating the thousands that fell that June day.

The two leaders then stood, hands on heart, with saluting veterans standing to attention behind them, as a lone bugler sounded out and jets roared a fly-past through a gloriously blue sky.

Humbling

President Hollande said France would "never forget what it owes the United States." Opening the ceremonies, he said: "This day, which began in chaos and fire, would end in blood and tears, tears and pain, tears and joy at the end of 24 hours that changed the world and forever marked Normandy."

The two leaders spoke as Queen Elizabeth attended a service at Bayeux cemetery, where nearly 5,000 Commonwealth troops are buried.

During the service, the Ode of Remembrance, which begins with the line "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old", was read by veteran Eddie Slater, the national chairman of the Normandy Veterans Association.

The organisation's numbers have fallen to around 600 from some 15,000 and it will disband in November, when it will lay up its national standard at a service in London.

Queen Elizabeth and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls laid floral tributes at a monument in the cemetery – the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery of the Second World War in France, with more than 4,000 burials. They were followed by the Prince of Wales, David Cameron and his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott.

David Cameron said that it was "incredibly moving" to be at the events in Normandy and it was especially "humbling" for people of his generation.

Among the congregation at Bayeux was Roy Harding (91) who was a private with No 6 Commando when he stormed "Sword Beach", the code name for the easternmost of the five beaches targeted on D-Day.

The retired barrister, originally from London but now living in Australia, said: "When I hit the beach there was a man in front of me and a shell landed in the water, he keeled over. He'd lost an eye and his shoulder was smashed. I took him to the medics"

Mr Harding, who went on to fight his way across Europe with his unit in the months following D-Day, added: "I shan't be coming over ever again, this is my last trip. I was here for the 65th anniversary and I've been here 12 times." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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