Along the coast of Normandy the flags were out. The pipe-and-drum bands were touring the cemeteries and memorials commemorating the dead. The motley ranks of war re-enactors in their khaki wool uniforms sped through the narrow lanes in their vintage jeeps and trucks.
For the second year in a row, however, the veterans whose bravery on 6 June 1944 they were here to honour were missing.
Once again, the coronavirus has prevented British and other veterans from returning to relive, as they have in previous years, their longest day. On Sunday, 77 years on, most are aged over 95, and frail. Their numbers are of course dwindling.
It is particularly poignant this year as for the first time, surviving British Normandy veterans and their families have their own dedicated memorial to the largest sea invasion in history.
The British Normandy Memorial, which will be officially opened on Sunday, overlooks the British landing areas, including the coast off Arromanches and the remains of the famous Mulberry harbour.
The memorial was designed by architect Liam O’Connor and its centrepiece is a giant bronze statue of three soldiers coming ashore, by sculptor David Williams-Ellis. It is surrounded by pillared arcades, each of which carries the names and ages of the 22,442 soldiers under British command who died on 6 June 1944 and in the subsequent Battle of Normandy.
The Allied invasion of Normandy – codenamed Operation Overlord – was the largest sea assault in history. More than 80,000 British, Canadian and Commonwealth personnel were among 150,000 troops who stormed five Normandy beaches, while another 23,400 troops under British command arrived by air. Of them about 4,300 were killed, wounded or missing in action on D-day.
Sunday’s day of commemoration started with a small ceremony at Pegasus bridge over the Caen canal where, in the early hours of 6 June, gliders landed a force of 181 men from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry led by Major John Howard. The successful capture of the two Bénouville bridges played a vital role in limiting the effectiveness of a German counterattack after the beach invasion.
On Saturday British piper Steve Black, 61, a BA engineer, joined a march across Pegasus bridge to pay tribute to Howard and his men. “It’s very emotional,” Black said. “It’s an honour. Of course, it’s not the same without the veterans, but it is important for me to do this and the response we get from the French is amazing.”
Normandy marks D-day anniversary with new memorial