CAEN, France: Seventy years to the day after the first planes set off for the invasion of France, veterans gathered in Normandy on Thursday to remember the dead and be honored for risking their lives on D-Day.
Prince Charles will lead the tributes to those who took part in the first wave, when thousands of Allied troops flew or parachuted in during the early hours of June 6, 1944, catching the German army by surprise.
No less than 20 world leaders are due to attend the main D-Day ceremony on Friday, when all eyes will be on Russian President Vladimir Putin and the diplomatic maneuvering over Ukraine.
But a series of smaller events on Thursday put the spotlight on the survivors, the youngest of whom are touching 90 and consider this their final return to France.
Charles, the heir to the throne, will meet veterans at Pegasus Bridge, the crossing at Benouville that was secured by British parachutists in the opening stages of D-Day.
He and his wife Camilla will host a lunch at Ranville, the first French village to be liberated from the Germans, before watching a parachute drop involving British, French, US and Canadian forces.
Among them will be Jock Hutton, a Scottish veteran who parachuted onto the same spot in 1944 and plans to make a tandem jump at the age of 89.
The energy of the hundreds of veterans who arrived in France this week is astounding, fueled by their delight at being on the road with their comrades, friends and family.
Confronting their past brings back powerful emotions, however.
Watching his great-grand–children play on the beach at Arromanches on Wednesday, 88-year-old Robert Jones spoke bluntly of his memories of stacking up the bodies of young German soldiers.
But the British infantryman admitted that a visit to a friend’s grave at Bayeux Cathedral had brought him to tears, while he was haunted by a return to the scene of some of his worst fighting.
“I walked into that wood, they had to coax me in, and it stank like death. It really scared me — I was shaking and I broke down,” Jones told Agence France-Presse.
Arromanches is located in the middle of the five invasion beaches, and was the site of an artificial harbor established by the Allies to bring in supplies.
It has long been a destination for tourists and World War II enthusiasts, and this week was packed with visitors and men in replica uniforms, while vintage jeeps and motorcycles buzzed along the coastal road.
More than 400 memorial events were planned, although bad weather forced some to be canceled on Wednesday, including a planned parachute drop from vintage planes.
On Thursday, a flotilla of ships will set off from Britain’s main naval port of Portsmouth in commemoration of the nearly 7,000 vessels that took part in the invasion, the biggest amphibious assault in human history.
US, French and Dutch soldiers will also take part at an evening ceremony at Utah beach, which lies on the western edge of the invasion site.
American veteran Charles Wilson returned for the first time to view the spot where he drove a tank onto Utah beach on D-Day.
“I had to fall on my knees down on the beach. I was so humbled,” he said.
Fireworks displays along the coast will light up the sky shortly before midnight, marking the moment of the first bombing raids.
On Friday, Queen Elizabeth II and US President Barack Obama are among the world leaders attending the international ceremony of remembrance on the beach at Ouistreham.
Obama and other Group of Seven (G7) leaders will arrive after a summit in Brussels, from which Putin was excluded because of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
But the diplomatic wrangling will not stop the veterans paying tribute to all those who put their lives on the line for an invasion that ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Of more than 156,000 troops who waded or parachuted onto French soil on June 6, 1944, nearly 4,500 would be dead by the end of the day.