Updated: Saturday, 07 June 2014 04:03 | By Agence France-Presse

Veterans bid farewell to D-Day beaches after emotional tributes

D-Day veterans bade an emotional farewell to the Normandy beaches on Friday after an outpouring of tributes from world leaders for their courage during a battle that liberated Europe from Nazism.

Veterans bid farewell to D-Day beaches after emotional tributes

US President Barack Obama and his French counterpart Francois Hollande participate in the 70th D-Day ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, on June 6, 2014 - by Pascal Rossignol

Some 1,800 veterans, the youngest well into their 80s, rubbed shoulders with royalty, presidents and prime ministers as the world marked a historic day on which, in the words of France's leader, "the fate of humanity was played out and decided."

Resplendent in military uniform with medals glinting in the Normandy sun, the veterans, many now wheelchair-bound, struggled to hold back the emotion during events recalling the largest seaborne assault in military history on June 6, 1944.

Leading the tributes, a visibly moved US President Barack Obama said he was "truly humbled" by their presence, painting a picture of the carnage and courage as troops scrambled out of boats and piled out of low-flying planes into a hail of Nazi machine-gun fire. 

"By daybreak, blood soaked the water, and bombs broke the sky. Thousands of paratroopers had dropped into the wrong landing sites; thousands of rounds bit into flesh and sand. Entire companies' worth of men fell in minutes. Hell's Beach had earned its name."

More than 156,000 troops waded or parachuted onto French soil on June 6, 1944. Nearly 4,500 would be dead by the end of the day.

- The wind of freedom -

Obama said the sacrifice and bravery of those men, then in their teens and 20s, had breached "Hitler's Wall" and ushered in today's era of democracy and freedom.

The few remaining survivors of that day struggled painfully to their feet as the president's warm tribute sparked a lengthy standing ovation.

French President Francois Hollande said the veterans' spirit would always grace the northern beaches in his country, pledging: "The gratitude of France will never, ever end.

"As the sun set on this longest day, a light came on across a Europe enslaved," said Hollande, who also paid tribute to the "courage of the Red Army" and the victims of Nazi Germany.

"On these now peaceful beaches, no matter how much time has passed, only one wind blows -- the wind of freedom," said the French president.

After Hollande's speech, gas flares sent fire and plumes of black smoke billowing into the air as images from the day played on giant screens and performers moved across the beach, many falling slowly to the ground in a moving reenactment of the horror 70 years ago.

- 'Poor buggers' -

In a ceremony full of colourful military pomp, Hollande welcomed a score of world leaders one-by-one as they processed up a red carpet, flanked by young children and a guard of honour.

The biggest cheers were reserved for Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, resplendent in a lime-green coat and matching hat and -- at the age of 88 -- on an increasingly rare foreign trip.

But the stars of the show were undoubtedly the veterans, who lined up to receive some of the leaders as they made their way to the stands.

Earlier in the day, one British veteran, 89-year-old Ken Godfrey, was applauded by well-wishers who shouted "bravo" and "thank you" as, medals clinking on his chest, he walked the mile-long path to Bayeux cemetery for a service.

"My main memory is wading through the sea with water up to my chest," he told AFP. "But I don't like to talk about the fighting. If people ask, I just say we had a hairy time. But I'm lucky that I survived."

Bob Cowper, a 91-year-old Australian night fighter pilot, met his current prime minister Tony Abbott at the Bayeux ceremonies and told AFP that he flew over the beaches on D-Day as the fighting raged below.

"Looking down, even though we were making a contribution, I remember feeling empathy for all the poor buggers fighting on the ground."

It was Cowper's first trip back to Normandy and he beamed with pride at being present at the ceremonies.

"It's wonderful as an old man of 91 - it's like coming home."

- 'Too long' -

While world leaders did their best to concentrate on the solemnity of the occasion, diplomatic wrangling over the Ukraine crisis provided an unwanted backdrop.

A frantic round of separate talks involving Obama, Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of Ukraine and Germany appeared to yield something of a breakthrough.

Putin, brought out of the diplomatic deep-freeze for the occasion, said his talks with Western leaders were "positive" and issued a joint call with Ukraine's president-elect for an end to bloodshed in the east of the country.

Not all veterans were bowled over by the speeches, however.

Rudolf Willem, 91, from the Netherlands, told AFP: "I liked everything but I thought that Mr Hollande was too long."

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