Jacob King / AP
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France (AP) – As the sun rises over Omaha Beach, revealing vast stretches of wet sand stretching toward distant cliffs, one begins to understand the immensity of the task Allied soldiers faced on the June 6, 1944, upon landing on the Nazi-occupied Normandy coast.
Several ceremonies were held on Sunday to mark the 77th anniversary of the decisive assault that led to the liberation of France and Western Europe from Nazi control, and to honor the fallen.
“These are the men who allowed freedom to regain a foothold on the European continent, and who in the days and weeks that followed raised the shackles of tyranny, hedge by hedge of Normandy, mile by bloody mile”, the ambassador of Great Britain in France, Lord Edward Llewelyn, said at the unveiling of a new British memorial to the D-Day heroes.
On D-Day, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers landed on the beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold, carried by 7,000 ships. This year, on June 6, the beaches remained vast and nearly empty when the sun rose, exactly 77 years since the dawn invasion.
Coronavirus restrictions again prevent veterans and families from attending ceremonies
For the second year in a row, the anniversary commemorations are marked by virus travel restrictions that prevented veterans or families of fallen soldiers from the US, Britain, Canada and other allied countries from making the trip to France. Only a few officials were allowed exceptions.
At the UK ceremony near the village of Ver-sur-Mer, bagpipes played memorial tunes and fighter jets flew overhead leaving a trail of red, white and blue smoke. The socially estranged participants were in awe of the solemnity and serenity of the site, providing a spectacular and moving view over Gold Beach and the English Channel.
The new monument pays tribute to those under British command who died on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy. Visitors rose to greet the more than 22,000 men and women, mostly British soldiers, whose names are engraved on their stone columns. Giant screens showed D-Day veterans simultaneously gathered at Britain’s National Aboretum Memorial to view the Normandy event remotely. Prince Charles, speaking via video link, regretted not being able to attend in person.
On June 6, 1944, “In the heart of the fog that enveloped the Normandy coast … there was a ray of freedom,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly said at the ceremony. “France does not forget. France is eternally grateful.”
Charles Shay, a Penobscot Native American who landed as a US Army medic in 1944 and now calls Normandy home, was the only surviving D-Day veteran at the Ver-sur-Mer ceremony. He was also expected to be the only veteran to participate in a commemoration at the American Memorial Cemetery later that day.
Most public events have been canceled and official ceremonies are limited to a small number of selected guests and dignitaries.
Denis van den Brink, a World War II expert who works for the city of Carentan, the site of a strategic battle near Utah Beach, acknowledged the “great loss, the great absence is all the veterans who could not travel.”
“That really hurts us a lot because everyone is around 95, 100 years old, and we hope they last forever. But, you know …” he said.
“At least we maintain a certain spirit of commemoration, which is the most important,” he told The Associated Press.
During the anniversary weekend, many local residents have come out to visit the monuments that mark key moments in the fighting and show their gratitude to the soldiers. French WWII history enthusiasts, and some travelers from neighboring European countries, could also be seen riding jeeps and military vehicles on the small roads of Normandy.
David Vincent / AP
Some reenactors came to Omaha Beach in the early hours of the day to pay tribute to those who fell that day, bringing flowers and American flags.
On D-Day, 4,414 Allied soldiers lost their lives, 2,501 of them Americans. More than 5,000 were injured. On the German side, several thousand were killed or wounded.
Later Sunday, another ceremony will be held at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, on a cliff that oversees Omaha Beach, which will be streamed on social media.
The cemetery contains 9,380 graves, most of them for servicemen who lost their lives in the D-Day landings and subsequent operations. Another 1,557 names are inscribed on the Walls of the Disappeared.
Normandy has more than 20 military cemeteries housing mostly American, German, French, British, Canadian and Polish soldiers who participated in the historic battle.
Dignitaries highlighted the importance of keeping the D-Day legacy alive for future generations.
“In the face of today’s threats, we must act together and show unity,” Parly said, “for peace and freedom to endure.”