Portsmouth (United Kingdom) – 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 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor 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 Allied 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 US 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 the last acts of his three-day state visit to Britain.
Queen Elizabeth, 93, 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.
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, on the southern English coast, 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, prime ministers and representatives 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.
British Prime Minister Theresa May read a letter written by Captain Norman Skinner to his wife Gladys on June 3, 1944, which was in his pocket when he landed in Normandy on D-Day. He was killed the following day.
“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 lands in Ireland –
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 remain as prime minister once her successor is chosen from among 11 Conservative lawmakers currently running for the job.
Party members will pick the winner, who will take over by the end of July.
May’s meetings with Trump have gone smoothly. The president 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 after the D-Day ceremony for Ireland, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Leo Varadkar before the pair headed inside Shannon Airport for one-on-one talks.
The president will then head to his luxury golf resort near the village of Doonbeg.
He leaves for northern France on Thursday, where he will attend another D-Day ceremony alongside May and Macron.