PORTSMOUTH, England — Queen Elizabeth II and world leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump gathered Wednesday on the south coast of England to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings that, at great human cost, turned the tide of World War II and helped liberate Europe from Nazi occupation.
Mixing history lesson, entertainment and solemn remembrance, the ceremony was a large-scale spectacle involving troops, dancers and martial bands, culminating in a military fly-past. But the stars of the show were the elderly veterans of that campaign who said they were surprised by all the attention: They were just doing their jobs.
“I was just a small part in a very big machine,” said 99-year-old John Jenkins, a veteran from Portsmouth, who received a standing ovation as he addressed the event.
“You never forget your comrades because we were all in it together,” he said. “It is right that the courage and sacrifice of so many is being honored 75 years on. We must never forget.”
Jenkins was among 300 WWII veterans, aged 91 to 101, who attended the ceremony in Portsmouth, the English port city from where many of the troops embarked for Normandy on June 5, 1944.
The 93-year-old queen, who served as an army mechanic during the war, noted that when she attended a 60th-anniversary commemoration 15 years ago, many thought it might be the last such event.
“But the wartime generation — my generation — is resilient,” she said.
“The heroism, courage and sacrifice of those who lost their lives will never be forgotten,” the monarch said. “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.”
The event, which kicked off two days of D-Day anniversary observances, paid tribute to the troops who shaped history during the dangerous mission to reach beachheads and fight in German-occupied France.
D-Day saw more than 150,000 Allied troops land on the beaches of Normandyin northwest France on June 6, 1944, carried by 7,000 boats. The Battle of Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord, was a turning point in the war, and helped bring about Nazi Germany’s defeat in May 1945.
Wednesday’s ceremony brought together presidents, prime ministers and other representatives of the countries that fought alongside Britain in Normandy: The United States, Canada, Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Luxembourg, Denmark, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Poland.
The leader of the country that was the enemy in 1944 , German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also attended— a symbol of Europe’s postwar reconciliation and transformation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who attended 70th anniversary commemorations in France five years ago, has not been invited. Russia was not involved in D-Day but was instrumental in defeating the Nazis on the Eastern Front.
The world leaders kept the focus on the veterans, reading the words of participants in the conflict.
Trump read a prayer that President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered in a radio address June 6, 1944, extolling the “mighty endeavor” Allied troops were engaged in.
British Prime Minister Theresa May read a letter written by Capt. Norman Skinner of the Royal Army Service Corps to his wife, Gladys, on June 3, 1944, a few days before the invasion. He was killed the day after D-Day.
“I can imagine you in the garden having tea with Janey and Anne getting ready to put them to bed,” wrote Skinnery. “Although I would give anything to be back with you, I have not yet had any wish at all to back down from the job we have to do.”
French president Emmanuel Macron read from a letter sent by a young resistance fighter, Henri Fertet, before he was executed at the age of 16 years old.
“I am going to die for my country. I want France to be free and the French to be happy,” it said.
The ceremony ended with singer Sheridan Smith performing the wartime hit “We’ll Meet Again,” as many of the elderly assembled veterans sang along.
Then WWII Spitfire and Hurricane fighter jets, modern-day Typhoons and the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows aerobatic unit swooped over the dignitaries, veterans and large crowd of spectators.
On Thursday the focus shifts to France, where commemorations will be held at simple military cemeteries near the Normandy beaches. Some 300 British veterans will cross the Channel by boat to the beaches overnight, just as they did 75 years ago.
Events in France began early Wednesday morning with U.S. Army Rangers climbing the jagged cliffs of Normandy’s Pointe du Hoc to honor the men who scaled them under fire 75 years ago.
Elderly veterans looked on as members of the 75th Ranger Regiment started mounting the limestone promontory at dawn, pulling themselves up on ropes one by one, seagulls swooping above.
They were recreating a journey taken by the U.S. Army’s 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions to destroy Nazi guns atop the cliffs, helping prepare the way for Allied troops to land on the coast.
Elsewhere in Normandy parachutists jumped from C-47 transporters in WWII colors and other aircraft, aiming for fields of wild flowers on the outskirts of Carentan, one of the early objectives for Allied troops.
Among the jumpers was American D-Day veteran Tom Rice, 97. He jumped into Normandy with thousands of other parachutists in 1944, and recalled it as “the worst jump I ever had.”
Like many other veterans , Rice said he remains troubled by the war.
“We did a lot of destruction, damage. And we chased the Germans out and coming back here is a matter of closure,” he said. “You can close the issue now.”