“Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the allied expeditionary force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.”
With these words, General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, rallied his forces on 6th June 1944, and so began the defining moment of World War Two: the Allied invasion of Normandy.
The sheer scale and ambition of Operation Overlord have become legend. The months of planning at home, of preparation by the French Resistance, all conducted in the utmost secrecy, culminated in the greatest sea and airborne assault in human history. Over 150,000 soldiers from Britain, the United States, Canada, France and eight other countries, carried in seven thousand ships, landed on the beaches across a fifty mile front between Caen in the East and Cherbourg in the West. A further 23,000 airborne troops parachuted or landed by glider into enemy territory to secure the key positions on the flanks of the beaches and defend them against counter attack.
The stunning victories achieved on the first day secured the vital foothold, and in their success lay the liberation of France and, from there, the rest of North West Europe. But we must never forget that these victories did not come without enormous cost. The Battle for Normandy raged for some eighty days with about three million men engaged, of whom some 250,000 lost their lives. The city of Caen, around which much of the fighting took place was virtually destroyed and over 15,000 French inhabitants in the region were killed.
Sixty years later, with old adversaries now reconciled, together enjoying peace, prosperity and better common understanding, it is hard to imagine the devastation wrought on France and the immense struggle that took place there to deliver it from the yoke of organised barbarism under which it had suffered. But the free Europe we know today could not exist, had not the tide of war been turned in Normandy in 1944.
It is thus that the eyes of the world return to Normandy in June 2004, to honour the survivors amongst those who embarked on that ‘Great Crusade‘. Old comrades will reunite on the beaches, at the drop zones and in the towns and villages they fought so bravely to liberate. We will remember their deeds, honour those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and thank them for the gift of freedom which they gave to future generations.
Above all, we should recall that so many of those who died were of the same age as both my sons are today. It is only that way we can begin to understand the real extent of the sacrifice that was made and of the heartrending suffering of the families in this country, and in France, whose loved ones were torn away from them in the course of doing their duty. And they are still doing it today on our behalf, so we owe these men and women our profound respect and everlasting prayers of gratitude.