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Fisher: D-Day anniversary: World leaders, veterans gather in Normandy

Courseulles-sur-Mer, France — Against a backdrop of renewed tensions between East and West across Eastern Europe, the beach where 14,000 Canadians came ashore under intense German fire 70 years ago was almost deserted Friday. French and Canadian dignitaries gathered on […]

Courseulles-sur-Mer, France — Against a backdrop of renewed tensions between East and West across Eastern Europe, the beach where 14,000 Canadians came ashore under intense German fire 70 years ago was almost deserted Friday. French and Canadian dignitaries gathered on the northern French coast, under a dazzling blue sky for a ceremony that was more a celebration of D-Day and Canada’s achievements in the Second World War than a solemn remembrance of the more than 1,000 dead or wounded Canadians.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper saluted the Canadians’ passion for “Freedom. Democracy. Justice.”

“All the things, in fact, that our enemies despised and had extinguished from every part of the continent they had conquered,”  Harper said in his speech to about 100 D-Day veterans and dozens of other nonagenarians, who crossed Juno Beach after the first wave established a beachhead. They then pushed east toward even bloodier battles in Caen and the Falaise Gap, or fought elsewhere in Europe, North Africa and Asia during those uncertain times.

Given the current dispute over eastern Ukraine, it was a day of  drama in Normandy as some leaders appeared to treat Russian President Vladimir Putin as if he was a pariah because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. However, U.S. President Barack Obama and Putin later spoke informally for a few minutes at the multinational ceremony. And Putin did not want for companionship at this liberation celebration. France’s President Francois Hollande, who had invited Putin to Normandy, wined and dined him in Paris on Thursday and Britain’s David Cameron and Germany’s Angela Merkel met privately with the Russian leader Friday in Normandy.

The very different receptions accorded the Russian strongman underlined a split between the North American and European ideas about how to deal with Putin’s apparent desire to turn back Europe’s political clock to a time when Russia was feared.

d day preview image Fisher: D Day anniversary: World leaders, veterans gather in Normandy


Click to see an interactive graphic about the Normandy landings.

In a meeting that had been arranged by Hollande and Merkel near Sword Beach, which was one of the two landing points for British troops, Putin spoke briefly Friday with Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko. Putin and the confectionery tycoon are not unknown to each other. They had met previously to discuss Poroshenko’s business interests in Russia, but this was their first get together since Russia grabbed Crimea and threatened to send troops to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.

Hollande singled out Canada, Britain and the U.S. for special thanks. But he also mentioned the Soviet Union’s immense suffering and huge contribution to defeating Hitler’s armies on the eastern front.

Curiously, although the Red Army played no role on D-Day, Putin garnered far more applause than Harper did when he walked toward the stage in Ouistreham where the official multinational ceremony was held. So, for that matter, did Germany’s Merkel and America’s Obama. But no leaders was as warmly received by the French spectators as Queen Elizabeth.

Weather had severely curtailed the naval and air bombardments that the Operation Overlord planners had hoped would ease the way of the Canadians and their British and American allies through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. When they came ashore from thousands of landing craft and small ships after having made the short hop across the English Channel, the war-hardened German batteries were waiting for them.

“Only having run this deadly gauntlet could the survivors destroy the enemy strong points, and even then, only through savage hand-to-hand combat against some of the toughest soldiers in the world,” Harper said. “That is how they took the beach … Canadians were now to fight in Europe until Europe was free of fascism. And fight they did.”

Harper does not often deliver emotional speeches, but the one he gave on Juno Beach on Friday seemed to come very much from his heart.

“As a Canadian, reflecting on this achievement I can only feel two emotions that are not usually reckoned together: fierce pride and the deepest humility,” he said.

“Who were these men? What kept them going? Why did they do what they did? They came from all walks of life, from all parts of our great country. They were young, some still in their teens. And, as their British hosts found, they were boisterous and enthusiastic.

“But, they were united in a common cause. They wanted to see Europe free.”

Harper has often emphasized that Canada has a great tradition as a warrior nation and should not only be remembered as a nation of peacekeepers although that has often received more attention in schools and from the media. Returning to that theme on Friday, Harper said: “Then as now, Canadians understood why peacemakers are said to be blessed … So, they took up arms, these and a million other Canadians — men and women — who put on the uniform and beat their plowshares into swords.”

The prime minister has made a point of recalling Canada’s military achievements by returning the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Canadian Navy to their original names and bringing back rank insignias used during both world wars. However, despite talking tough on Russia and Ukraine and many other international issues, the Harper government has fallen 50 per cent short of the NATO goal of spending two per cent of the country’s GDP on defence.

That lack of spending on the military was glaringly obvious Friday, when the RCN could not muster a single warship to take part alongside British, American and French warships in the D-Day festivities. It has been a long fall from D-Day, when Canada had the fourth largest navy in the world.

However, 50 Canadian paratroopers took part in an air drop with American and British forces, as they all did 70 years ago.

“We have been greatly honoured to have had an opportunity to speak with some of our D-Day veterans,” said one of the Canadian jumpers, MCpl Stephen Fennelly of 1Field Ambulance Edmonton and Orleans, Ont.  “They came here by land, and sea, and air and have told us their stories. When they extended their hands and thanked me for my service it was one of the most humbling things in my life.”

The Canadians dropped Thursday very close to the where the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion landed on June 6, 1944.

“As one of them told us, some of them didn’t exactly land where they wanted to,” said Fennelly, who like many of those who jumped had served in Afghanistan. “One guy told us he landed on a house, but he got up and got going,” he said.

“Something keeps dragging me back,” said Edgar Bedard, who landed on D-Day with the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa and who was visiting Normandy for the 12th time since the war. “It was just terrible when we reached shore. They were all shouting at us, ‘Get off the beach.’ ”

Pointing toward a house that was still standing in the distance, the spry 90-year-old added, “When we reached there 11 German P0Ws were inside. One of them said, “‘ Kanada is kaput.’ But we weren’t. We were off immediately on a road inland toward Caen.”

Donald Fowler, who came ashore on the second day with the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, had mixed feelings about returning to Juno Beach.

“The guys we left here were 17, 18, 19, like we used to be and they used to be my friends,” the 88 year old said. “But it is important to be here to explain the true history.”

Twitter: @mfisheroverseas


Fisher: D-Day anniversary: World leaders, veterans gather in Normandy