US President Donald Trump and Queen Elizabeth II joined 300 veterans in paying tribute to their fallen comrades at a poignant ceremony on Wednesday marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Mixing sombre recitals of soldiers’ last letters home with period song-and-dance numbers, the ceremony in Portsmouth drew more than a dozen world leaders including Canada’s Justin Trudeau, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel.
They took turns honouring those involved in the Allied cross-Channel invasion of the Normandy beaches, the largest amphibious assault in history, that left 4,400 troops dead on the first day.
“I was 18 and I was hoping for some sort of great adventure, but yes, I knew something big was obviously happening,” former pilot Gregory Hayward, 93, told AFP.
“It brings back the memories and I’m grateful… to be able to survive long enough to be here on the 75th anniversary.”
With some in the audience shedding tears and a few of the surviving veterans, now all in their 90s, sitting upright in the front rows, Trump read excerpts from the prayer President Franklin Roosevelt delivered by radio on D-Day.
“They will need Thy blessings for the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces but we shall return again and again,” Trump read, in one of his last acts of a three-day state visit to Britain.
The 93-year-old queen also paid tribute to the sacrifices made.
“It is with humility and pleasure, on behalf of the entire country — indeed the whole free world — that I say to you all, thank you,” she said.
German leader Angela Merkel called D-Day the operation that “finally brought Germany freedom from National Socialism.”
“That I could participate today as German chancellor and that we jointly defend peace and liberty today is a gift from history we have to protect and to cherish.”
Portsmouth was the main staging point for 156,000 US, British, Canadian and other Allied troops who sailed for northern France.
The Battle of Normandy on June 6, 1944 led to the liberation of Europe and helped bring about the end of World War II the following year.
Fear of being afraid
The hour-long ceremony included theatrical productions and news reel footage watched by presidents and prime ministers from across Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
The gathered drew silent when a recording of the stirring battle cry Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered in the UK parliament as Nazi forces advanced across Europe in June 1940 piped in.
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” Churchill said.
May read a letter written by Captain Norman Skinner to his wife Gladys on June 3, 1944, which was found the day before his death in Normandy on June 7.
“I am sure that anyone with imagination must dislike the thought of what’s coming,” his letter said.
“But my fears will be more of being afraid than of what can happen to me.”
Macron read the last letter of French resistance fighter Henri Fertet, who was executed when he was just 16.
“The soldiers are coming to get me. I must hurry,” it said. “I am not afraid of death, my conscience is completely clear.”
Trump sows confusion
The D-Day commemorations are among May’s last official duties before she steps down as leader of the governing Conservatives on Friday over her failure to get Britain out of the EU on time.
She will stay on as caretaker prime minister while her successor, picked from among 11 Conservative lawmakers currently running by their colleagues and party members, will take over at by the end of July.
May’s meetings with Trump have gone smoothly. The US leader tweeted on Wednesday that he “could not have been treated more warmly in the United Kingdom by the royal family or the people”.
He reaffirmed his commitment to a “very big trade Deal” with Britain after Brexit.
The US president left Britain for Ireland after the D-day ceremony, where a massive security operation is under way with the deployment of thousands of security forces.
He will then join May and Macron again on Thursday for another D-day ceremony in northern France.