Remembering Normandy

June 6, 2009 12:00 am

, COLLEVILLE SUR MER, Jun 6 – US President Barack Obama joins the leaders of Britain and France and hundreds of World War II veterans to mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day on the beaches of Normandy.

Star guest of the commemorations, Obama is to deliver a speech before 9,000 people including 200 US D-Day veterans at a cliff top graveyard in northern France which has become a symbol of America’s sacrifice for Europe’s freedom.

Barack and Michelle Obama are expected to fly from Paris to the Normandy city of Caen at around noon (1000 GMT), where they will be greeted by President Nicolas Sarkozy and first lady Carla Bruni for lunch and a bilateral meeting.

Both presidential couples will then head to the American war cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, which overlooks the sand dunes where Allied troops turned the tide of the war to liberate Western Europe from the grip of Nazi Germany.

Obama’s Normandy visit concludes a history-laden tour of Europe that took in the German concentration camp of Buchenwald and the city of Dresden, flattened by Allied bombs in February 1945 killing an estimated 35,000 people.

After paying homage to the 9,387 American soldiers buried in Colleville, he spends Saturday night in Paris and heads back to Washington on Sunday.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Prince Charles and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will join him at the American cemetery, which has been signed over by France to the United States in perpetuity.

Earlier, the British leaders will attend a ceremony in honour of Britain’s World War II dead, in presence of French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and British veterans, in the nearby cathedral at Bayeux.

The British and French prime ministers will head from Colleville to a final ceremony in Arromanches, site of a man-made port built for the Allied landings.

Prince Charles’s attendance was only announced this week, defusing an embarrassing diplomatic tussle over whether Queen Elizabeth II should attend — which was cast by some British newspapers as a French snub for the monarch.

Britons account for the lion’s share of the 1,500 ex-servicemen expected in Normandy, according to the memorial body Normandie Memoire.

With most now aged 85 or more, organisers are well aware this may be the last time large numbers of ex-servicemen can attend — and they have sought to put them centre stage at the 450 D-Day ceremonies, firework displays and village balls taking place across Normandy.

British, Canadian and US divisions, plus free fighters from France and other occupied countries, crossed the Channel at dawn on June 6, 1944 to storm beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword in what remains the biggest amphibious assault in history.

By the end of day one some 156,000 Allied personnel had been landed in France. An estimated 10,000 Allied troops were declared dead, wounded or missing, while Germany lost between 4,000 and 9,000, and thousands of French civilians were killed.

The Normandy village of Colleville is at the centre of a draconian security lockdown for Obama’s visit, with some 3,000 police and gendarmes deployed and roads and highways cut across the region.

But locals have rolled out the red-carpet despite the security headache with streets festooned with Allied country flags and soldiers’ photographs, and military enthusiasts patrolling in period jeeps and motorcycles.


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