Along the Normandy coast, the flags were out. Bagpipe and drum bands roamed the cemeteries and memorials to the dead. The motley lines of war reenactors in their khaki woolen uniforms sped through the narrow lanes in their vintage jeeps and trucks.
Yet for the second year in a row, the veterans whose bravery on June 6, 1944 was here to honor were missing.
Once again, the coronavirus has prevented Brits and other veterans from returning to relive, as they have in previous years, their longest day. On Sunday, 77 years later, most are over 95 and frail. Of course, their number is decreasing.
This year is particularly moving as, for the first time, the surviving British Normandy veterans and their families have their own memorial dedicated to the largest maritime invasion in history.
The British Normandy Memorial, which will officially open on Sunday, overlooks British landing areas, including the Arromanches coastline and the remnants of the famous Mulberry harbor.
The monument was designed by architect Liam O’Connor and its centerpiece is a giant bronze statue of three soldiers coming ashore, by sculptor David Williams-Ellis. It is surrounded by pillared arcades, each bearing the names and ages of the 22,442 soldiers under British command who died on June 6, 1944 and in the subsequent Battle of Normandy.
The Allied invasion of Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord, was the largest maritime assault in history. More than 80,000 British, Canadian and Commonwealth troops were among the 150,000 soldiers who stormed five Normandy beaches, while another 23,400 soldiers under British command arrived by air. Of these, about 4,300 were killed, wounded or missing in action on D-Day.
Sunday’s commemoration day began with a small ceremony on the Pegasus Bridge over the Caen Canal, where, in the early hours of June 6, the gliders landed a force of 181 men of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry led by Major John Howard. The successful capture of the two Benouville bridges played a vital role in limiting the effectiveness of a German counterattack after the beach invasion.
On Saturday, British piper Steve Black, 61, a BA engineer, joined a march across the Pegasus Bridge to pay tribute to Howard and his men. “It’s very emotional,” Black said. “It is an honor. Of course, it is not the same without the veterans, but it is important for me to do this and the response we get from the French is amazing.”