Harper, world leaders mark solemn 70th anniversary of D-Day

"It is difficult to understand the courage it took."

COURSEULLES-SUR-MER, France – 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 other Canadian fathers lost their sons 70 years ago Friday 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: “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, who wore his dark blue dress uniform for their 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 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 the German forces dug in 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 Friday as Harper travelled along the Normandy coast 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 attack on June 6, 1944.

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 election in Ukraine.

They discussed how Russia could recognize the Ukrainian elections, and a possible cease-fire, officials told The Associated Press.

Harper is off to Kyiv on 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.

Harper ended the day at Juno Beach where 18,000 Canadian troops played their part in the greatest seaborne invasion in history.

“Today, we stand where Canadians bled on D-Day,” the prime minister told a gathering that included 99 veterans of the campaign, and hundreds more.

“You have travelled a long way to be close once more to fallen comrades. What you did here will never be forgotten,” Harper said.

“I know I speak for all Canadians when I say a sincere and heartfelt ‘thank you.'”

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 — code-named 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.

Earl Jewers, 92, was part of the second wave of troops to hit the beach one hour after the first assault. He and his fellow soldiers made it “eight miles” in land, he said.

“That was the furthest of anyone on D-Day.”

Jewers hasn’t been back since, and he said he’s happy he finally got the chance to see Juno Beach again, with his daughter and grandson along this time.

“It has changed so much. I don’t know. You try to keep out …” he said, pausing for several seconds, “memories.”

One of the hardest groups of troops hit was D Company of Queen’s Own Rifles, which lost half their members 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 Canadians 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 greeted by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and a large group of Canadian veterans who fought in Normandy.