Leaders and veterans mark D-Day

For the first time Russian and German heads of state were present along with Queen Elizabeth II and other world leaders including President George W Bush, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Australian PM John Howard and New Zealand’s Helen Clark.

As they met in Arromanches for the main international ceremony, a warship fired a 21-gun salute.

About 250,000 died in the 80-day battle for Normandy after 6 June 1944.

“As we commemorate those decisive moments in our history, I wanted Germany to remember with us those hours when the ideal of freedom returned to our continent,” said French President Jacques Chirac.

“We hold up the example of France-German reconciliation, to show the world that hatred has no future, that a path to peace is always possible.”

Mr Chirac added: “France will never forget. She will never forget that 6th of June, 1944, the day hope was reborn and rekindled.”

More than 135,000 men waded ashore on the first day of Operation Overlord, backed by 20,000 parachutists, in the push to break Hitler’s four-year grip on France.

The greatest casualties on that first day were sustained by the Americans who landed at Omaha Beach, and ran straight into the path of German guns perched on the cliffs above.

“You will be honoured ever and always,” US President George W Bush told US veterans gathered at the US cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer above Omaha Beach.

In a weekend of poignant moments and painful memories, the proud parade of 142 veterans from 14 countries who marched past crowned heads, presidents, and prime ministers under a blazing sun stood out.

As they passed by a podium at the main ceremony at Arromanches, the leaders of some of the world’s most powerful countries rose to give them a standing ovation.

Many of the veterans struggled to hold back tears.

The presence of Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder stirred a controversy here, with some veterans angered the leader of their bitterest foe should be accorded such an honour.

But many people, including many French locals, agreed it was time to lay their ghosts to rest.

As Mr Schroeder, who lost his father in the war, arrived at the Allied cemetery in the village of Ranville where some 322 German troops were laid to rest alongside 2,200 Allied troops he was applauded by hundreds of residents.

He stood for a moment in silent reflection before the grave of an unknown German soldier, before paying tribute to Allied troops laid to rest there.

“We in Germany know who caused the war. We know our responsibility for history and we take it seriously,” said Mr Schroeder.

“Europe has learned its history, and we Germans are not going to suppress it. Europe’s citizens and politicians are responsible for ensuring that war-making, war crimes and terrorism have no chance.”

This year’s commemorations are set to be the last major ones given the age of the remaining veterans, and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, 78, commiserated with veterans saying “we are all getting old”.

But she said: “What for you is a haunting memory of danger and sacrifice one summer long ago, is for your country, and for generations of your countrymen to come, one of the proudest moments in our long national history.

“I take it upon myself to express the immense debt of gratitude we owe to you all. I salute you, and thank you on behalf of our whole nation.”

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