LA CAMBE, France — American and German World War II veterans paid respects to their fallen comrades at a cemetery near a D-Day landing site Friday before an international commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy.
During the ceremony, military bands played anthems of the United States, Germany, Britain and France and German visitors piled wreaths of flowers at the foot of a mound at the center of the cemetery at La Cambe. Some 22,000 German soldiers are buried beneath clusters of rounded brown crosses in a grassy meadow not far from Omaha Beach.
After the ceremony, most visitors headed out, but a few dozen stayed on in a corner of the cemetery, where a German priest and a few soldiers buried the remains of a German soldier discovered last year. A Frenchman conducting construction work near the German battery at Grand Camp Maisy, a dozen miles away, came across first a gun and then the remains, which have yet to be identified.
"It's a great feeling ... to come here," said Austin Cox of Crisfield, Maryland, a sergeant with the 29th Division of the U.S. 115th infantry regiment who landed on Omaha Beach at 9 a.m. on the epic day that turned the tide of World War II.
"My comrades though are buried over at Omaha," said Cox, 90.
Flags from nations on both sides of World War II flew in the spring breeze.
A low, granite entrance leads into the cemetery containing the graves of the German soldiers, each marked with a small, flat stone. The main American cemetery at nearby Colleville-Sur-Mer has about 9,300 graves. Most U.S. war dead were repatriated.
Earlier Friday, British paratroopers swooped down on Ranville as part of the commemorations. Later in the day, a fireworks display was planned up and down the shore where Allied troops launched the Battle of Normandy that helped turn the tide of the war.
The big event is Saturday, when President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Canadian and British prime ministers and Prince Charles gather for a ceremony amid the rows of white crosses and Stars of David at the American cemetery, which is U.S. territory.
A brief history...
D-Day - June 6, 1944
The Battle of Normandy was fought in 1944 between Nazi Germany in Western Europe and the invading Allied forces as part of the larger conflict of World War II. Operation Overlord was the codename for the Allied invasion of northwest Europe, which began on June 6, 1944, and ended on August 19, 1944, when the Allies crossed the River Seine. Over sixty years later, the Normandy Invasion still remains the largest seaborne invasion in history, involving almost three million troops crossing the English Channel from England to Normandy. Operation Neptune was the codename given to the initial assault phase of Operation Overlord; its mission, to gain a foothold on the continent, started on June 6, 1944 (most commonly known by the name D-Day) and ended on June 30, 1944.
The primary Allied formations that saw combat in Normandy came from the United States of America, United Kingdom and Canada. Substantial Free French and Polish forces also participated in the battle after the assault phase, and there were also contingents from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, the Netherlands, and Norway.
The Normandy invasion began with overnight parachute and glider landings, massive air attacks, naval bombardments, and an early morning amphibious phase began on June 6, 1944. The “D-Day” forces deployed from bases along the south coast of England, the most important of these being Portsmouth. The battle for Normandy continued for more than two months, with campaigns to establish, expand, and eventually break out of the Allied beachheads, and concluded with the liberation of Paris and the fall of the Falaise pocket in late August 1944.
The Battle of Normandy was described thus by Adolf Hitler: “In the East, the vastness of space will... permit a loss of territory... without suffering a mortal blow to Germany’s chance for survival. Not so in the West! If the enemy here succeeds… consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time.”
Be sure to visit the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana for some exciting events going on today!
If you are interested in accurate D-Day and WWII history, I highly recommend the following books by Stephen Ambrose. He has written other WWII books, but those four are by far the most notable and my favorites:
- Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest
- D Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II
- Citizen Soldiers: The U. S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany
- Pegasus Bridge
The HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, inspired by Stephen Ambrose's book by the same title, is a must-see for any WWII history buff. I have found the series to be one of the most historically accurate movies made on the topic... I highly recommend checking it out!