On Tuesday, June 6, 1944, Operation Neptune, better known as D-Day and part of Operation Overlord, the largest seaborne invasion in history, began. It saw tens of thousands of Allied soldiers landing on five beaches in Normandy, northern France – with the codenames Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.

The operation was the start of the liberation of France – and, subsequently, the rest of Western Europe – laying the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front. The Neptune amphibious assault was supported by the landing of 24,000 US, British, and Canadian airborne troops. At the same time, Operation Bodyguard, a number of diversionary attacks in the Balkans, southern France, Norway and Bulgaria, were carried out to mislead the Germans as to the date and location of the main Allied landing.

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Events to mark the 80th anniversary of that invasion took place Thursday, June 6 in France and the UK. Perhaps the most compelling of those took place at the site of the British Normandy Memorial in Ver-sur-Mer, attended by 23 of the surviving veterans of that day 80 years ago, all close to or more than 100 years old. It was also attended by several Western leaders including King Charles III, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Other memorial events included the official international ceremony on Omaha Beach, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer attended by more than 25 heads of state, including US President Joe Biden and Ukraine’s President Zelensky and the event memorializing Canadian involvement at the Juno Beach Centre, Courseulles-sur-Mer attended by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and France’s Prime Minister Gabriel Attal.

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The UK commemoration saw military pipers playing laments, a salute from artillery guns, massed bands playing arrangements of 1940s tunes, a fly-past of World War II vintage aircraft, a recreation of the assault by Royal Marines from a landing craft, the arrival of an 80-strong flotilla of boats from Falmouth, Cornwall and a beacon-lighting ceremony in Aylesford, Kent – both locations from which the 1944 fleet set sail.

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As the British Prime Minister said: “Each of you who contributed that day – sailor, soldier, aviator, civilian – whether you fought on the beaches, or parachuted from the skies, or flew fighters or gliders, whether you were an engineer or a radio operator or an intelligence officer, your actions freed a continent and built a better world.

“You risked everything, and we owe you everything. We cannot possibly hope to repay that debt, but we can, and we must pledge never to forget.”

Britain’s King Charles said: “How fortunate we were, and the entire free world, that a generation of men and women… did not flinch when the moment came to face that test.

“On the beaches of Normandy, on the seas beyond and in the skies overhead, our armed forces carried out their duty with a humbling sense of resolve and determination – qualities so characteristic of that remarkable wartime generation.”

The UK’s event ended with the presentation by Macron of the Legion d’honneur, France’s highest decoration, to Christian Lamb, a former naval officer who was involved in preparing the operational maps that were so critical during the landings.

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British actor Martin Freeman, best known as Dr. Watson in the Sherlock TV series, read out the words of Joe Mines, who was 19 when he took part as a soldier in the Essex regiment and the now 99-year-old veteran looked on. His memories included the words:

“Joe Mines, clearing mines. One of our fellows trod on one and blew his leg off. The whole leg went. War is brutal. I was 19 when I landed, but I was still a boy. I don’t care what people say, I wasn’t a man, I was a boy. And I didn’t have any idea of war and killing."

“Why would I come back you may ask. This is the last and only opportunity for me, the last there will ever be. I want to pay my respects to those who didn’t make it. May they rest in peace.”

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