70th Anniversary D-Day Commemorations

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In what will surely be the last 10th-anniversary commemorations featuring a substantial number of veterans, events marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day began yesterday and continue until Sunday

Wearing military uniforms and proudly sporting their hard-earned medals, the heroes of D-Day marched once more through Normandy yesterday for the first major commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of June 6th, 1944.

About 20 foreign heads of state are expected to attend ceremonies on the Landing Beaches – forever now known under the code names they received 70 years ago.

In advance of the main event, the commemorations started yesterday morning on “Pegasus Bridge” – the Allied code name for Bénouville Bridge that was liberated by British parachutists on the night of the 5/6 of June 1944.

This first strike by the Anglo-American forces just a few kilometres from the coast was followed by the taking of Ranville – the first village on Continental France to be liberated from the occupying Nazi forces.

70 years on, an impeccably turned out Prince Charles walked across the same bridge with his wife Camilla, before attending a commemorative parachute drop in the afternoon by 300 parachute soldiers. Mainly composed of British paras, they also included American, Canadian and French soldiers. The parachutist that got the most attention, however, was 89-year-old Scottish para Jock Hutton who made the jump in tandem onto French soil once more (see slide show below).

Amongst the huge force of 150,000 soldiers that arrived by sea or by air onto the French coast on the 6th of June 1944 was parachutist Ernest Stringer, who was wounded in the knee by a machine-gun bullet before being able to reach “Pegasus Bridge”.

“It was dark and the planes were flying very low. We found ourselves on the ground very quickly,” said the British veteran to AFP just before the start of the ceremonies.

“I was rigid with fear. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us. We were jumping blind without knowing where the Germans were,” he recalls. “In fact, we were surrounded but we didn’t know it and the Germans didn’t know either that we were there.”

Injured in the leg, Ernest Stringer managed to reach the bridge all the same, waiting for help from the troops that landed at dawn on Sword Beach – about 6km away.

Holding the bridge was of fundamental strategic importance to the Allies, who were thus able to prevent the arrival of the German troops stationed on the other side of the River Orne.

A lot of his comrades had less luck than Ernest Stringer and many didn’t even get the chance to open their parachute before hitting the ground.

One of the most popular of the many events going on over the next few days is the fireworks display last night just before midnight that marked the first allied bombardments of the night of the 5/6 of June 1944 – a precursor to the main invasion to liberate France from the Nazi occupation.

From Ouitreham in the east as far as Saint-Martin-de-Varreville (from “Sword Beach” to “Utah Beach”)in the west, the commemorations will honour to the 3,800 Allied soldiers and almost as many French civilians that lost their lives on the 6th of June 1944.

This 70th Anniversary Commemoration is tinged with poignancy owing to the fact that it will surely be the final 10th anniversary milestone of the historic event with a sizeable contingent of surviving veterans. The highpoint is expected this afternoon with the international ceremony on the beach at Ouistreham in the presence of about 20 heads of state and government, including US President Barrack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Porochenko, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British head of state Queen Elizabeth II.

Some 1,800 veterans are expected to attend in Normandy. The homage started this morning at the Mémorial de Caen with a ceremony to the memory of the civilian victims in the presence of French president François Hollande.

Afterwards, President Hollande joined his American counterpart Barrack Obama at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer near Omaha Beach, where almost 10,000 GI’s are buried.

All along the Norman coast, in addition to the heads of state, a million people are expected between now and Sunday evening.

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