SEVENTY years ago, they stormed the Normandy beaches to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny. Yesterday, the veterans of the D-Day landings gathered in dazzling sunshine to be celebrated as heroes by the Royal Family and world leaders.
In what is likely to be the last commemoration of this magnitude, the diminishing band of Second World War veterans attended a series of events to mark the anniversary of D-Day.
Most of the 2,000 men gathered on Sword Beach for the main ceremony were in their 90s. Many were accompanied by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, for whom the Second World War is an unimaginably long time ago.
The age and frailty of the veterans gave yesterday’s commemoration an added poignancy. It was likely to be the final time most of them would rekindle old friendships and gaze out over the Normandy beaches where more than 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives on the first day of the biggest amphibious assault in history.
In a moving address to dignitaries and veterans, French president François Hollande paid tribute to those who died on a day that “changed the world”. He issued a rallying cry to the world to fight against threats to peace just as the D-Day troops did 70 years ago.
Turning to the veterans, he said: “You are exceptional people. Thank you for having been here in the summer of 1944. Thank you for still being here on 6 June, 2014. France’s gratitude will never be extinguished.”
Mr Hollande went on to describe the horror of D-Day, invoking the image of young men, not long out of childhood, who would have had in mind a “loving mother, a worried father” as they charged into a hail of shells, bullets and barbed wire.
He said: “Before this very beach, this beautiful beach, thousands of young soldiers jumped into the water to run towards deadly German fire. They moved forward, risking their lives to shatter a diabolical regime.
“It is up to us to have the same vision, the same courage, to be just as bright and to have the same determination as those who came to those beaches 70 years ago.”
To sustained applause from an audience of VIPs that included the Queen, US president Barack Obama, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Hollande went on to call for the battlefield beaches of Normandy to become a Unesco world heritage site, in recognition of their role in history.
The ceremony on Sword Beach was the focal point of a day of remembrance.
Archive black and white film footage on giant screens and uniformed performers told the story of Nazi atrocities and re-enacted the invasion by 156,000 troops that led eventually to the downfall of Hitler’s regime.
Bill Millin – piper to Lord Lovat, commander of 1 Special Service Brigade on D-Day who played his comrades ashore – was portrayed in the ceremony by French piper Laurent Lecourt, who said afterwards: “It was a great honour for me. I was very happy to take part.”
Some of the archive footage featured a young Princess Elizabeth, who served as a Subaltern with the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during the war where she trained as a mechanic and lorry driver.
Earlier, British and Commonwealth veterans gathered with friends, family and dignitaries for a service at Bayeux Cathedral before walking to the Commonwealth war graves cemetery to pay their respects. The route was lined with hundreds of French villagers who applauded their elderly liberators, shouting “merci” and “thank you”.
Among those being honoured was Robert Laverty, 90, who wore the same Tam O’Shanter he had on in 1944 when he landed on Juno Beach with the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
He said: “It is wonderful to be here. The people are so welcoming.”
The Royal Scots, along with the 52nd Lowland Division, Royal Marines based at Fort William and the Black Watch, were among the Scottish units sent into battle on 6 June.
The Queen walked over to chat to servicemen. As she spoke to Don Sheppard, 94, an engineer in the 51st Highland Division who landed on Juno Beach, his daughter Jo said: “I must get a picture. My Dad is meeting the Queen.”
Elsewhere Prime Minister David Cameron, First Minister Alex Salmond and Labour leader Ed Miliband mingled with the crowds and posed for photographs with veterans.