As Prime Minister Stephen Harper took a private one-hour tour of a Canadian military cemetery far from the public eye, a handful of people dotted the vast expanse of Juno Beach.
Bathed in radiant, mid-morning sunshine, they walked in the calm in the hours before Harper’s expected arrival at the Juno Beach Centre perched on the bluff above them.
They were fathers and sons, who came to remember and reflect on the spot where more than 350 Canadian fathers lost sons 70 years ago today in the D-Day attack on France’s Normandy coast.
Twenty-one-year-old Mark Wyatt, of Orillia, Ont. recalled a quotation from Virgil that he said he saw on a war memorial in Ottawa that reads: “nobody shall erase you from the memory of time.”
“Being here, it is very evident from the scenery time has not eroded the things that happened here, he said.
He was with his father, OPP Supt. Chris Wyatt of Orillia, who wore his dark blue, dress uniform for this morning stroll along the beach
“I can’t imagine what a hell on earth it was 70 years ago, but I’m glad I came.”
Together, they remembered the elder Wyatt’s uncle, an RCAF pilot who flew during the Second World War.
Just behind them in the surf, Jean-Marc Renck, 40, frolicked with his two-year-old son Abel. He and his family have been coming here from their home in faraway Strasbourg, France each year for the last decade to honour D-Day and the Canadian, British and American troops who stormed German forces dug in above this and four other beaches along an 80-kilometre stretch of French coastline.
Clutching Abel in his tattooed arms, Renck said the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers on this beach paved the way for the freedom and happiness his family now enjoys. He had a simple message: “Merci, Canada.”
The sweep of history collided with real-time political drama today as Harper travelled along the Normandy coast today to mark the anniversary.
In a much-anticipated moment, the prime minister joined Russian President Vladimir Putin at a leaders’ luncheon after starting the day by participating in a wreath laying ceremony at the Beny-sur-mer Canadian Cemetery, where more than 2,000 men, mostly Canadians, are buried.
Harper arrived at the luncheon hosted by French President Francois Hollande before the start of the major International Ceremony of Remembrance commemorating the June 6, 1944 attack.
Putin arrived as U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and many other world leaders assembled for the day’s events.
The White House said Obama and Putin shared “an informal conversation” on the sidelines of the luncheon.
An American official said the brief chat lasted 10 to 15 minutes.
It was the first face-to-face meeting the two have had since the Ukraine crisis erupted.
Putin also spoke for 15 minutes with Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko on the sidelines of the ceremonies in Ouistreham, France. It was the first time the two men spoke since last month’s Ukraine election.
The two men discussed how Russia could recognize the Ukrainian elections, and a possible cease-fire, officials told The Associated Press.
Harper is off to Kyiv Saturday for Poroshenko’s swearing in.
Prior to the lunch, Harper stood smiling straight ahead from the second row for a large group photo of world leaders, as Putin slipped into the front row along with Queen Elizabeth, Obama and Hollande, among others.
France invited Putin to the D-Day anniversary, a decision Harper supports because he says it reflects the vital contribution the former Soviet Union made in helping Allied forces defeat Nazi Germany.
Harper has said he will steer clear of Putin altogether. Obama says he won’t be going out of his way to meet Russian leader either, but will talk to him if they meet.
Harper will end the day at Juno Beach where 18,000 Canadian troops played their part in the greatest seaborne invasion in history.
Canada’s salute to the Canadians who died on the first day of the battle was unveiled Thursday at the Juno Beach Centre. Each soldier is commemorated on a metre-high marker bearing a plaque, 359 of them in all.
Juno Beach is now a serene, eight-kilometre strip of summer resorts and villages scattered over flat land behind low beaches and a sea wall.
On June 6, 1944, this beach and four others, Utah, Omaha, Gold and Sword, were stormed by an invasion force of 130,000 U.S., British and Canadian soldiers. They came ashore to attack hundreds of Nazi troops in concrete fortified gun positions.
Half of the members of D Company of Canada’s Queen’s Own Rifles, died in their first moments on the beach as they sprinted 180 metres from the water to the seawall.
The Canadian 3rd Infantry Division joined the fight alongside the British 3rd and 50th Infantry Divisions and the U.S. 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions.
For the next two and half months, Allied forces would fight to break out of Normandy in a campaign that began the process of freeing France from Nazi occupation and would eventually lead to victory in Europe.
By late August 1944, Canada had lost more than 18,000 casualties, including 5,000 dead, in the Normandy campaign.
In written statement earlier in the day, Harper lauded the courage of the young Canadians 70 years ago.
“It is difficult to understand the courage it took to advance through minefields and barbed wire under fire from mortars and machine guns in order to punch through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall; and yet that is exactly what many Canadians did,” Harper said.
He said Canadian can take enormous pride in the fact their troops played “such a pivotal role in ensuring the success of the D-Day landings,” which he called a turning point in history.
“We are also deeply humbled by the enormous sacrifices made by our fellow citizens, who with grim determination, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with like-minded allies to fight evil.”
At Juno Beach Centre, Harper and his wife Laureen were to be greeted by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and a large group of Canadian veterans who fought in Normandy.