D-day landings, 70 years on – live anniversary coverage


My colleague Caroline Davies is in Bayeux this morning. She sends this report:

At the Bayeux war cemetery, which is principally a British shrine, veterans are gathering ahead of a service of remembrance which will be attended by the Queen and prime minister David Cameron.

This is one of the most emotional events for many of the veterans as they parade past the neat rows of 3,935 uniform white headstones. A stone plaque commemorates the 1,807 British and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen whose bodies were never found.

Before the ceremony Peter Smoothy, 89, walked among the headstones, carrying two crosses. With tears in his eyes, he said: ‘Coming here, to this place, it always affects me straight away. My mind is always on those that never came home.’

He had been asked to place the crosses by the daughter of one of those resting here. She never knew her father, who was killed on D-day on Sword Beach. ‘She was born soon after. It was something I was happy to do,’ said Smoothy, from Herne Bay, Kent, who served with the Royal Navy aboard LST215 – one of the many landing craft used to ferry soldiers to the beach and later bring back German prisoners of war. He landed on Juno, which was stormed by Canadian troops.

‘Just being here, it is very dear to me,’ he said, wiping away tears.

Veteran Frederick Wyatt, 92, from the 48th Royal Commando Dragoon Guard, explains the meaning of his decorations to a choir boy of the St John's College Choir of Cambridge, in Bayeux.
Veteran Frederick Wyatt, 92, from the 48th Royal Commando Dragoon Guard, explains the meaning of his decorations to a choir boy of the St John’s College Choir of Cambridge, in Bayeux. Photograph: Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images

The Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall will attend the service, which is due to start at around 11.30am following the formal service in Bayeux cathedral. They will join with veterans making the short walk from the cathedral to the cemetery, and other heads of state, including Tony Abbott, the prime minister of Australia.

Traditionally the veterans march through the cemetery behind their standards and encircle the Cross of Sacrifice.

My colleague Philip Oltermann reports from Berlin that, although chancellor Angela Merkel will attend commemorations in Normandy today, the 70th anniversary of D-day ” is unlikely to register much with the wider public”.

Merkel will today visit the Commonwealth cemetery of Ranville, where 133 German soldiers were laid to rest.

Angela Merkel pictured in Brussels yesterday.
Angela Merkel pictured in Brussels yesterday. Photograph: Isopix/Rex

Philip reports:

Few other countries have actively engaged as much with the crimes of their past as the second world war‘s chief aggressor, but in a year in which the first world war, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler are commemorated, D-day has inevitably been marginalised.

Even without other anniversaries to compete against, the Normandy landings fail to have the same symbolic resonance in Germany as they have in Anglo-American memory.

According to the military historian Peter Lieb, whose book on the landings was published this month, the main reason for this is the overpowering role in German memory played by the eastern front: ‘Between 1940 and 1943, all eyes in Germany were on the Soviet Union,’ Lieb said.

Even on the day, it didn’t feel like a turning point: Adolf Hitler reportedly enjoyed a lie-in at his holiday home in Berghof, and when he heard the news at 10am, he welcomed it, announcing that he was ‘absolutely certain’ the Wehrmacht would smash the enemy.

The dedication of the new cathedral bell at Bayeux is taking place now.Prince Charles, on behalf of the Queen, tells the Archbishop of Paris, who is making the blessing, that the bell is to be named “Thérèse Benedicte”.

The bell is blessed in French, English and German.

Updated 

70 years ago at this moment:

08.45hrs
The English channel

From his command HQ on the battleship USS Augusta,General Omar Bradley, commander of the US landing forces, contemplates abandoning the disaster of Omaha beach. Supporting waves of US troops were about to be ordered to land on other beaches, leaving a vast hole in the centre of the invasion.

However, as he is considering this radical step, US destroyers risk beaching themselves by going close inshore to fire their 5-inch guns directly on to the German gun positions.

And on the beach, Brigadier General Norman Cotarallies his men, who have got as far as the sea wall, and encourages them to begin the assault that at last overwhelms the German defences. Cota wins a Distinguished Service Cross for getting his men to advance.

You can read the full hour-by-hour report here.

Thanks to readers who are contributing comments below and sharing their stories of D-day:

User avatar for Sidfishes

My Granddad and my Wife’s Granddad were both off the beaches of Normandy D-Day. Neither of them spoke much about it; but I know my Granddad who’d survived both Arctic convoys and the Battle of the Atlantic would have been somewhere off the North East of the Landings in the Destroyer screen looking to defend the fleet from U-Boats and E-Boats.

My wife’s Granddad was a signaller on a LSI and was off Omaha Beach; he was also reluctant to talk about his experiences, but after a night in the pub with me I managed to get little bits of reflections. He told me about dropping off supplies in a landing craft the next day and seeing the covered bodies of the american servicemen lined up like they were on parade for the burial details and picking up wounded to be transferred to ships to take them to England. He told me it was the saddest thing he’d ever seen – they were so young most of them. (he was only 21)

My Granddad Died in 1972 with bits of metal still in him from an explosion (he survived two singings)

My Wife’s Granddad died in 2009 – taking most of his experiences of the war to the grave.

The service pays “special tribute” to those who took part in the Normandy landings and are still living. A number of them are in the cathedral this morning. The congregation is hearing this address to the veterans:

that private moment when an elderly serviceman stands beside the grave of a fallen comrade …

You are witness to the high price that had to be paid to rid this continent of a tragic evil.

We owe you … a momentous thank you.

The service taking place now in the cathedral at Bayeux is one of the two UK-French national ceremonies of commemoration for the 70th anniversary of D-day.

The Royal British Legion, which has organised the ceremony, says in the congregation are “veterans and the people of Bayeux as well as senior UK, Australian, New Zealand, French and European allied political representatives”.

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall are also there.

The service includes the blessing of a new cathedral bell to mark the 70th anniversary of D-day. The Queen is to be one of the bell’s “godparents”.

D-Day veteran Bill Price, aged 99, stands to attention at Gold Beach for the last ever flag-raising ceremony by the Surrey Normandy Veterans Association today in Arromanches.
D-Day veteran Bill Price, aged 99, stands to attention at Gold Beach for the last ever flag-raising ceremony by the Surrey Normandy Veterans Association today in Arromanches. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The priest leading the prayers at Bayeux cathedral – apologies, I don’t have his name – asks the congregation to remember also the German soldiers “swept up” in the war.

The Royal British Legion service at the cathedral at Bayeux is beginning. Many veterans from many different countries are in attendance, along with the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cambridge, and politicians including David Cameron, French prime minister Manuel Valls and Australian prime minister Tony Abbott.

French Prime minister Manuel Valls (L) shakes hands with Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott (R) prior to a British D-Day commemoration ceremony at the cathedral in Bayeux, Normandy.
French Prime minister Manuel Valls (L) shakes hands with Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott (R) prior to a British D-Day commemoration ceremony at the cathedral in Bayeux, Normandy. Photograph: Thomas Bregardis/AFP/Getty Images

Updated 

My colleague Richard Norton-Taylor was born on D-day, in the afternoon of 6 June 1944. He has written this account:

My mother heard about the Normandy landings on the radio just before going into labour. She remembered seeing ‘all the planes flying very low overhead with special Allied markings on the wings’.

‘I was worried as the matron kept coming in to inquire what I was going to call my son,’ my mother told me. ‘I thought that something must be wrong with the baby – but the press had been calling to see if any boys had been born that day, and was I going to christen him Bernard [after Montgomery] or Dwight [after Eisenhower]?’ Monty might have been even worse.

As my colleague Jason Deans reportsthe BBC’s 8am news bulletin on 6 June 1944 carried no confirmation of the D-day landings that had begun an hour-and-half earlier – the official nod came later in the morning – but did warn that “a new phase in the Allied air offensive” had begun.

It quoted German reports that “Allied airborne troops have been landed” and naval forces were “engaged with Allied landing-craft”.

This morning at 8am Radio 4 is beginning to rerun its broadcasts of the BBC’s original 1944 news reports, starting with actor Benedict Cumberbatch reading the bulletin during the Today programme in a few minutes’ time. The tribute runs until Sunday evening; all the bulletins, along with some original recordings, can be heard here.

This hour-by-hour retelling of the events of 6 June 1944 – put together as part of the Guardian and Observer’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary in 2004 – is worth a read. Here’s what it has to say about what was happening at this time, 70 years ago:

07.30hrs
Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, Normandy

H-Hour on the British and Canadian beaches, as the low tide is one hour later further east. The British use their armour far more effectively than the Americans, with many floating tanks coming ashore to provide vital assistance to the infantry.

On Gold beach there is stiff resistance around the seaside town of Le Hamel, but this is overcome. British troops advance three miles inland by the end of the day to the edge of Bayeux, with its tapestry of the Norman invasion of England. On Sword beach flail tanks clear routes through minefields for the infantry. Lord Lovat and his commando brigade lands to the sound of bagpipes and capture Ouistreham, then march inland and, with the pipes still playing, link up with the tiny force at Pegasus Bridge.

On Juno beach the Canadians have a much tougher time with heavy German shelling of their landing craft – 20 out of 24 in the first wave are lost. It takes the Canadians three hours’ bitter fighting to capture the town of St-Aubin-sur-Mer and crush resistance.

Canadian flags and portraits of Canadian soldiers Albert and Franck Maloney – killed here at Juno beach on June 6, 1944 – at Courseulles-sur-mer.
Canadian flags and portraits of Canadian soldiers Albert and Franck Maloney – killed here at Juno beach on June 6, 1944 – at Courseulles-sur-mer. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

UK prime minister David Cameron is in France for the commemorations and has this to say about the continuing importance of the D-day landings:

As we gather on the beaches of Normandy to remember the extraordinary sacrifices made for peace, there has never been a more important time to underline our belief in collective defence.

Through the searing experiences of moments like D-day, we learnt how much more we could achieve by working together as allies than by fighting alone.

The Nato alliance was born out of this commitment to increase our collective security and to ensure that the common cause we found through shared hardship would prevent conflict on this scale threatening our world again.

Just as British and French soldiers fought for victory against a common enemy on the beaches of Normandy, today France and the UK stand shoulder to shoulder against the threats of the modern world. We remain united against international terrorism and extremism – and in recent times our armed forces have served together in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and elsewhere around the world.

Cameron said the “shared hardship” of the second world war had “forged our unique relationship and created a shared determination to work together for a safer, more prosperous future for us all”:

That future is why so many of our servicemen gave their lives – and protecting the peace they fought for is the greatest way we can honour those who fell.

I’ve taken the quotes from the Press Association.

Guardian Witness has been compiling first-person accounts of D-dayfrom those who were there or who were involved in the operation. You can read a collection of those stories here.

Reader Phill Burrows sent this story about his father who landed on D-day near Pegasus bridge. It was the first time he’d ever left Northern Ireland:

D-Day landing leads to love -eventually

D-Day landing leads to love -eventually

Bleaching the date of birth on his identity papers, and getting away with it, my father joined the Royal Ulster Rifles aged 17.

He’d also heard they were recruiting for a new section that were going to be part of an airborne brigade, and volunteered for it.

Training endlessly, he told me years later that he found it hard, endless, but became incredibly fit. There were runs before breakfast, endless weapon training, assault courses naturally, and parachute jumps often using Stonehenge as a reference point.

He told me of having to jump out of a converted bomber where they had simply cut a circular hole in the flooring. The jumps were precarious as the wind would knock you forward as you went to jump out. You had to gauge it properly to allow for your parachute on your back to have clearance, but not jump too far forward as you would hit your chin on the rim. Many troops in training had broken and cut jaws.

He became part of the 6th airborne division, eventually landing during the night of D Day right near Pegasus Bridge. He admitted he was petrified, but also excited. This was the first time he’d ever left Northern Ireland.

Getting stories out of him was also very hard.

He met Madame Gondrée owner of the now famous café at Pegasus bridge, but the place was also crowded with soldiers.

Later, much later, he went on up through Belgium and into Germany where he met Russian troops at Wismar. They swapped cap badges for cigarettes. On his way back he passed the concentration camps some weeks after they had been discovered where he took photos (subsequently donated to The RUR museum in Belfast).

He was then billeted in Bethune in Northern France where he met a French woman. The RUR was disbanded, the war was over and he joined the Royal Military Police. He was sent off to Palestine where he had to guard the famous Exodus ship.

When he returned, he married the French woman. Years later they had one son who is writing this today.

Readers are very welcome to share their stories with Guardian Witnesshere.

This June 1944 map shows a blackened area, at centre, on the Normandy beachhead indicating the approximate area captured by the Allies at the end of four days of battle after D-day, as continued Allied aerial bombings struck at objectives in the shaded belt.
This June 1944 map shows a blackened area, at centre, on the Normandy beachhead indicating the approximate area captured by the Allies at the end of four days of battle after D-day, as continued Allied aerial bombings struck at objectives in the shaded belt. Photograph: AP

Around 3,000 Australians fought in support of the D-day landings; 18 were killed. My colleague Richard Nelsson sends me these examples of how Australian newspapers reported the start of the “vast sea and air operation”.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Airborne troops … had been been landed behind the enemy’s lines on a scale far larger than ever before seen, with great accuracy and extremely little loss.

The Sydney Morning Herald front page, 7 June 1944.
The Sydney Morning Herald front page, 7 June 1944.

The Argus, published in Melbourne, reported on the day after the landings began:

Massed airborne landings in France have already been successfully effected … Fire from German shore batteries had already been largely quelled. Obstacles constructed in the sea had not been as difficult as expected.

The Argus front page in Melbourne, 7 June 1944.
The Argus front page in Melbourne, 7 June 1944.

The day’s commemorations in Normandy have already begun.

At midnight there was a vigil at the Pegasus Bridge, marking the first assault of the D-day invasion when airborne Allied soldiers landed in the dead of night 70 years ago.

At 12.16am on 6 June 1944 a team of six Horsa gliders carrying 181 men from the Glider Pilot Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, landed silently to capture the strategically vital bridge and another nearby, paving the way for soldiers landing on the Normandy beaches to move inland and reinforce their airborne colleagues.

Fireworks mark the moment that Pegasus Bridge was captured by British troops on 6th June 1944, which signalled the beginning of D-Day.
Fireworks mark the moment that Pegasus Bridge was captured by British troops on 6th June 1944, which signalled the beginning of D-Day. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

There has been a wealth of coverage leading up to the anniversary; it has been hard to pluck out highlights, but here are some of the best from the Guardian this week.

• This interactive, showing D-day landing scenes in 1944 and the present day.

• Veterans of D-day revisit the places where they fought: in pictures.

William Bray of the 7th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, Drop Zone N, Ranville. This photograph was taken on 6 June 2013, 69 years to the day after Bray had parachuted into the fields behind him to play his part in the liberation of Europe.
William Bray of the 7th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, Drop Zone N, Ranville. This photograph was taken on 6 June 2013, 69 years to the day after Bray had parachuted into the fields behind him to play his part in the liberation of Europe. Photograph: Robin Savage

• Helen Pidd met Harold Checketts, the former naval meteorologist whose weather forecasts by determined the timing of the Normandy landings.

• Kim Willsher heard vivid testimonies from veterans at Pegasus Bridge. Robert Sullivan, 91, of 3 Para Squadron told her:

Like many others, I missed the landing area. Fortunately I landed. Many of the others drowned. We had to make our way to the bridge. I got there at 9am and it had been partially destroyed, but not completely. So we blew it up.

Unlike my colleagues, I had the chance to live my life, have my family, and they did not. That’s the main thing I think.

• Caroline Davies sent this moving report from Normandy yesterday, as she visited Sword Beach with veterans including Gordon Smith, 90:

Those poor kids, running up the beach. Just 18- or 19-year-olds …

We did what we did, what we had to do. This is the final time for me. I am not coming back any more. It’s just too much.

My colleague Caroline Davies describes the ceremonies and tributes we will see today:

Friday’s international ceremony is at Sword, the most eastern of the five beaches, and assaulted by the 3rd British Infantry Division with some 29,000 men landing there. Its location serves as a fitting tribute not just to the 156,000 men who made up the Allied invasion force, but also the 177 Free France commandos who took part in ground operations on D-day alongside the British.

The sacrifices made by the French, up to 20,000 civilians killed mainly as a result of allied bombing, are to be recognised with a national memorial service at the Caen memorial on Friday morning.

President Obama will join French president François Hollande at a service later in the morning at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. US forces bore the brunt of allied casualties on that day. Of the estimated 4,500 who died, some 2,500 were US personnel. Casualty figures on cliff-fringed “Bloody” Omaha, where difficult terrain allowed German machine gun fire to tear into troops, were higher than on any other beach. A huge dawn gathering on Omaha beach is planned.

Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Hollande attend a ceremony on Thursday at the grave of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe monument.
Queen Elizabeth II and French President Francois Hollande attend a ceremony on Thursday at the grave of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe monument. Photograph: Gilles Rolle-Pool/Sipa/Rex

Many of the British veterans will visit Bayeux, known as the British shrine, for a Royal British Legion service at midday on Friday at the cathedral followed by an service of remembrance at the war graves cemetery where 4,144 second world war soldiers from the Commonwealth are buried.

The Bayeux Memorial bears the names of 1,800 men from Commonwealth land forces who died during intense fighting during the advance into Normandy and have no known grave. The Prince of Wales will watch a short parade of veterans, joined by Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, who will be accompanied by seven Australian D-day veterans. Some 3,000 Australians fought in support of the D-day landings, with 18 killed.

Shortly before sunset, the Normandy Veterans Association will perform its final parade at Arromanches on Gold beach, where, on 6 June 1944, nearly 25,000 men from the British 50th division landed.

Elsewhere, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper will pay tribute to the 21,000 Canadian troops who secured a heavily-defended Juno at a service nearby, accompanied by five veterans invited as his guests.

Nine veterans have officially been invited to attend the commemorations from New Zealand.

Welcome to rolling coverage of commemorations to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings.

My colleagues Caroline Davies and Kim Willsher are in France throughout the day, and this blog will draw together their reports with coverage of commemorations taking place around the world.

The first Allied airborne troops began landing in France shortly after midnight on 6 June 1944, with the main assault on the Normandy beaches beginning at 6.30am.

Most of the men who landed on the beaches were from the UK, the US and Canada, but troops from across the world took part in the ongoing Battle of Normandy: from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Poland.

Some 4,413 Allied troops are thought to have died on D-day; German casualties numbered between 4,000 and 9,000 dead, injured or missing.

You can see how the Manchester Guardian – as we were then – reported the Allied invasion in the newspaper of 7 June 1944 below:

The Manchester Guardian's report on D-day, 7 June 1944.
The Manchester Guardian’s report on D-day, 7 June 1944. Click here to see the full page. Photograph: The Guardian

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