50th Anniversary of D-Day: 2,000 ships set sail for new invasion

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The Independent Online
AS ON that June day 50 years ago, an awesome fleet of warships gathered in the Solent yesterday, then headed south, churning the sea into a white froth in its wake.

This time, for the second invasion of the coast of Normandy, a host of other craft accompanied it. Dozens of tiny motor-boats bounced in the wakes of the massive aircraft carrier USS George Washington, the royal yacht Britannia, and the liners Canberra and QE2, which were packed with veterans returning to the beaches they stormed on D-Day to begin the liberation of Europe.

This invasion was launched by a Drumhead Service, modelled on the British military tradition of field ceremonies held around an upturned battle drum used as an altar. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh joined John Major in representing Britain with the Queen Mother, now 93, and the Princess Royal. Bill and Hillary Clinton led the Americans, with heads of state and government from all the 13 nations which had taken part in Operation Overlord.

On the seafront at Southsea's war memorial, in bright sunshine chilled by a strong breeze, they remembered the 11,000 men killed, wounded or missing in action among the 132,000 who took part in the assault. 'We gather here to remember with pride and thanksgiving - yes, and with tears - those who gave everything for freedom 50 years ago and whom, in our hearts, we have never forgotten,' the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, told the congregation.

Overhead a Fairey Swordfish biplane from the Fleet Air Arm, looking frail as a box kite, clattered into view, and a minute later, the roar of a Lancaster, two Hurricanes and a Spitfire from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, accompanied by two stalwarts of the US Army Air Force, a Flying Fortress and a Mustang, brought a lump to the throats of many in the 70,000 crowd.

As the service ended, the Queen, the Queen Mother, Mr Major and President Clinton spoke to veterans before boarding Britannia and heading for France, where today the commemoration proper of 6 June 1944 will take place.

Looking from Britannia's deck at the nearly two thousand accompanying craft, the Prime Minister said: 'We wanted it to be this sort of event, to honour the people who took part, remember the people who are not here and to remind young people of what was done then to preserve the sort of existence and lives we have today.'

(Photograph omitted)

Veterans jump in, page 3

Letters, page 13

Day the dream died, page 15