Facebook Twitter



In company with ships of many nations, the American carrier George Washington, with President Clinton and his entourage aboard, steamed on Sunday night toward Normandy and a rendezvous with memories of a mighty victory.

For Clinton and other leaders of the World War II allies, a Sunday as mild and sunny as Saturday was dank and rainy passed in a swirl of color and high British military pageantry. Kings, princes, presidents, and prime ministers from three continents, the leaders had come together to mark the launching precisely half a century ago, of the greatest seaborne invasion in history, Operation Overlord.That assault, the president said in an anniversary message, signaled "the beginning of the end of the Second World War." In a speech to the crew of the George Washington, he called D-Day a "magnificent, heroic, almost unbelievable endeavor."

At a drumhead service on Sunday morning on Southsea Common, a spacious waterside green in Portsmouth, the colors of the 14 nations whose soldiers landed on the French beaches were stacked together, tepee-fashion, to symbolize unity of purpose. With upturned drums forming an altar, the flags were blessed as in days of yore, when such ceremonies were held for troops as they went into battle.

The royal family attended the service, including the Duke of Edinburgh, a naval officer in World War II, and the Princess of Wales - but not her estranged husband, Prince Charles, who was in France. Still, the focus fell upon survivors of D-Day combat from many countries. Many of the British veterans, the biggest contingent, wore their medals on business suits or windbreakers. In their ranks one could pick out commandos, in olive green berets, and paratroopers, in red ones.

There were similar if smaller services in churches all around Britain on Sunday, and there were also many little personal acts of commemoration, as this nation, which feared for a time in the early 1940s that it would be overrun by Hitler, gave thanks.

When a group of Americans finished their dinner at the White Horse Inn in Chilgrove, near Portsmouth, on Saturday night, the proprietor, Barry Phillips, hauled out a bottle of 1944 cognac.

All day long, Portsmouth resounded with the sights and sounds of war. Artillery batteries fired ceremonial salvos, the drone of aircraft engines submerged conversation, boatswains' pipes sounded as ships cruised along the seawall. It all looked and sounded a bit odd on such a balmy spring day in a Britain so thoroughly at peace.

Fifty years ago on Sunday, the original fleet set sail in a very different world - minesweepers, 255 of them, landing craft carrying tanks and jeeps, 6 battleships, 21 cruisers, 68 destroyers, and numberless smaller craft, including PT boats, barges, and troop transports.

Together, they formed the most powerful armada ever assembled, 5,339 ships, pointing for a 50-mile stretch of French coastline.

Emerging from a hundred harbors up and down England, the ships assembled just south of the Isle of Wight, off Portsmouth, at a point the sailors referred to as "Piccadilly Circus," then headed south across the Channel.

Fifty years ago on Sunday night, Dwight D. Eisenhower found a way to escape what he later called "the interminable wait that always intervenes between the final decision of the high command and the earliest possible determination of success or failure." He went to the encampment of the 101st Airborne Division to talk to its men as they waited, their faces blackened, for their leap into the dark.

Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, whose decision it had been to begin the invasion despite desperately iffy weather, also wrote out an order of the day. "The tide has turned!" he said. "The free men of the world are marching toward victory!"

Gen. Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, the Briton serving as ground commander, added his own hortatory words: "To us is given the honor of striking a blow for freedom that will live in history."

By the end of the first 16 hours, 132,715 Americans, Britons, Canadians, Free Frenchmen, Poles, Czechs, and others were ashore.

"Fifty years on, we thank them all," said the Most Rev. George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury, who conducted the "national service of commemoration, thanksgiving and re-dedication."

He noted the special poignancy for many old soldiers in his audience of the words of Jesus that he took as his text: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Reminding the tens of thousands of onlookers how much they and generations yet unborn owed to those who died on D-Day, the archbishop said that all during the war Eleanor Roosevelt kept at her bedside a prayer that said: "Help me to remember, somewhere out there a man died for me today. As long as there be war, I must ask and answer, `Am I worth dying for?' "

Carey paid tribute to all who fought to stop the Nazis, including those in the Soviet Union, which few other speakers this weekend have even mentioned. He hailed those who had suffered on "the vast, heroic Russian front." But the whole drumhead ceremony, while unmistakably British in its ceremonial tradition, accorded a special status to the United States.

Carey quoted not only Mrs. Roosevelt, wife of the wartime president, but also Abraham Lincoln, a wartime president himself. And the Band of the Royal Marines, in their distinctive white solar topees, was joined by the U.S. Army Field Band.

On Sunday afternoon, the president and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, reboarded the royal yacht Britannia to watch a flyover by 100 vintage planes, including a tiny, slow-moving Swordfish torpedo bomber of the type that attacked the German battleship Bismarck, and to review the flotilla in the Solent, between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

Vessels of all sorts, some of them carrying Normandy survivors, others Normandy survivors themselves, were drawn up in two parallel lines, with cabin cruisers and other sailing yachts swarming amidst them like pilot fish, leaving milky wakes in the green sea.

Among them were the QE2 and the Vistafjord, both passenger liners; the Canberra and the Fearless, which served in British operations in the Falkland Islands in 1982; the Waverley, a paddle steamer that took part in the 1944 landings; the Clio and the Croix du Sud, French minesweepers; U.S. naval ships ranging from the 1,040-foot George Washington, a nuclear-powered carrier, to the Harlan County, a tank landing ship; and the S.S. Jeremiah O'Brien, a Liberty ship chartered and sailed from California to southern England by a group of about 70 retired World War II merchant seamen and officers.

On the naval ships, sailors lined the rails at attention as the Britannia and its escort ship sailed slowly past. The heads of state and government stood with Queen Elizabeth II beneath a beige canopy on the verandah deck of the 412-foot yacht. A half-dozen little police boats zoomed around, keeping the pleasure craft at bay.

The queen told Clinton, he reported later, that it had been important during the war not only to rally to the cause but also to do everyday things so as to maintain perspective.

"The queen told me," the president said, "that on D-Day she went to the dentist."

Like the tales of dime-store crickets used as recognition devices by airborne troopers, and gliders made of balsa wood, the old planes and the old ships were reminders of how primitive mid-century tools of warfare were compared with the modern arsenal of lasers, computers, nuclear reactors, helicopters, and supersonic jets.

For all the horror of death and destruction, that very lack of sophistication, plus the passage of years, lends a romance to World War II that the Persian Gulf war seems unlikely ever to gain.

But Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, the new chief of Naval Operations, rebutted a suggestion on Sunday that this weekend's commemorative ceremonies in some ways constituted a glorification of war.

"When you see the veterans and you talk to them and you talk to their families, they're remembering a time when they feel they made a great contribution," the admiral said. "I think they did, too; I think most everyone does. It's appropriate to recognize that."