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D-Day anniversary 2024:  World leaders, veterans, commemorate Normandy landings

U.S. President Joe Biden made an impassioned call for the defence of freedom and democracy at the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, urging Western powers to stay the course with Ukraine and not surrender to Russian tyranny.

At a joint ceremony with French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. veterans at the Normandy American Cemetery, Biden said it was “simply unthinkable” to surrender to Russian aggression and he promised no let-up in support for Ukraine.

He urged Western and NATO allies to recapture the spirit of D-Day and work together at a time when he said democracy was under greater threat than at any time since the end of World War Two.

British Veterans take part in a parade to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day at Arromanches, Normandy region, France, June 6, 2024. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

“Isolationism was not the answer 80 years ago and is not the answer today,” Biden said in his speech.

On June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers invaded France by sea and air to drive out the forces of Nazi Germany, coming ashore at five beaches codenamed Omaha, Juno, Sword, Utah and Gold or dropping from the sky.

With the number of veterans, many aged 100 or more, fast dwindling, this is likely to be the last major ceremony in Normandy honouring them in their presence.

Biden said it was the highest honour to salute the assembled U.S. veterans, some huddled in warm blankets, turning to tell them: “God love ya.”

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“The men who fought here became heroes,” he said. “They knew beyond any doubt there are things that are worth fighting and dying for.”

Veterans, around 200 of whom were present, have been the stars of commemorations throughout the week.

As veterans arrived at an international commemoration at Omaha Beach on Thursday, world leaders applauded each of them as they were pushed past them on wheelchairs, some of them smiling proudly and saluting.

Some leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, kneeled to be at the same level as the veterans in wheelchairs as they exchanged a few words.

US President Joe Biden talks with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky as France’s President Emmanuel Macron looks on at the start of the International commemorative ceremony at Omaha Beach marking the 80th anniversary of the World War II “D-Day” Allied landings in Normandy, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, in northwestern France, on June 6, 2024. LUDOVIC MARIN/Pool via REUTERS

UKRAINE FEARS

With war raging in Ukraine on Europe’s borders, the anniversary of this turning point in World War Two carries special resonance. It also takes place in a year of many elections, including for the European Parliament this week and in the U.S. in November.

Critics fear former President Donald Trump, who will go head-to-head with Biden in the election, would reduce U.S. support for Ukraine.

Zelenskiy and his wife Olena Zelenska received an ovation when they arrived at the Omaha Beach ceremony as World War Two bombers flew overhead. Zelenskiy hugged Macron and talked with many of the heads of state present.

Speaking at a British commemoration in Ver-sur-Mer earlier in the day, Britain’s King Charles, in full military uniform, also urged greater international collaboration to fight for peace.

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and many others also took part in the day of tributes.

But Russia, which invaded Ukraine in 2022, touching off Europe’s biggest armed conflict since World War Two, was not invited.

Leaders were set to adopt a declaration saying democracy was once more under threat in Europe and promising to defend freedom and democracy, two sources said.

Thousands of service personnel from Britain, the United States, Canada and other nations were killed, as well as their German foes and thousands of civilians across Normandy.

Britain’s King Charles and Queen Camilla attend the UK national commemorative event for the 80th anniversary of D-Day, held at the British Normandy Memorial in Ver-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, June 6, 2024. Gareth Fuller/Pool via REUTERS

At the U.S. ceremony in Colleville-sur-Mer, where row after row of white marble crosses – some with names, some unmarked – show the toll of the invasion, Macron awarded the Legion d’Honneur to U.S. veterans, many sporting caps that read “WWII veteran.”

“You are back here today at home, if I may say,” Macron told the 180 American World War Two veterans, including 33 D-Day veterans, saying France would not forget their sacrifice.

Moving letters from some of them were read out at the British ceremony.

“I want to pay my respects to those who didn’t make it. May they rest in peace,” veteran Joe Mines said, in words read by actor Martin Freeman. “I was 19 when I landed, but I was still a boy…and I didn’t have any idea of war and killing.”

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By JEFF MASON, ELIZABETH PINEAU and JOHN IRISH

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