France’s president has launched the D-Day 70th anniversary commemorations by paying tribute to those who died on a day that “changed the world”.
Francois Hollande will later join the Queen and other world leaders and veterans at Ouistreham, one of the five beaches where Allied troops landed.
Prince Charles has already attended a service at Bayeux Cathedral in France.
There will be a re-enactment of the landings, which were the start of the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.
By the end of D-Day on 6 June 1944, the Allies had established a foothold in France – an event that would eventually help bring the war to an end.
Speaking in the city of Caen, Mr Hollande paid homage to all – “civilians and soldiers”.
“This day, which began in chaos and fire, would end in blood and tears, tears and pain, tears and joy at the end of 24 hours that changed the world and forever marked Normandy,” he said.
The day’s commemorations began at midnight with a vigil at Pegasus Bridge near Ouistreham, marking the first assault of the D-Day invasion when British soldiers began the first Allied action of the campaign.
At 00:16 on 6 June 1944, six Horsa gliders carrying 181 men from the Glider Pilot Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, landed silently to capture the strategically-vital bridge and another nearby.
Heads of state, including the Queen, Mr Hollande, US President Barack Obama and Russia’s Vladimir Putin will meet at Ouistreham – the beach codenamed Sword. Around 650 UK veterans are also expected to gather there.
In other events:
- US President Barack Obama is visiting Colleville-sur-Mer, where 9,387 US service personnel are buried in a war cemetery
- French President Francois Hollande was in Caen, honouring civilians killed during the fighting, many of them by Allied bombing raids
- The Queen left flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with Mr Hollande in Paris
- A flotilla led by HMS Bulwark sailed from Portsmouth to Normandy with four vessels from other countries
Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall attended a Royal British Legion service at Bayeux Cathedral.
Right Reverend Nigel McCulloch, national chaplain of the Royal British Legion, helped lead the service.
He said: “What you achieved here in Normandy and beyond validated the sacrifices made earlier in the war by thousands who, like my father, were killed in action”.
He added that the “self-concern and love for others” shown by those involved in D-Day “is the route of human justice, freedom and peace”.
In a reading at the cathedral, Brigadier David Baines MBE spoke of men who died “with no memorial”.
What was D-Day?
On 6 June 1944, British, US and Canadian forces invaded the coast of northern France in Normandy.
The landings were the first stage of Operation Overlord – the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe – and were intended to end World War Two.
Portsmouth’s D-Day Museum says as many as 4,413 Allied troops died on the day of the invasion – more than previously thought.
By the end of D-Day, the Allies had established a foothold in France. Within 11 months Nazi Germany was defeated, as Soviet armies swept in from the east and captured Hitler’s stronghold in Berlin.
He added: “But these were merciful men whose righteousness has not been forgotten.”
Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall are to join the Queen at a remembrance service at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, also at Bayeux, where they will meet veterans.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will attend events in Arromanches, near Gold landing beach where thousands of British troops came ashore on D-Day.
Cpl Bill Bryant, of the Royal Marines, has returned to Normandy to mark the anniversary and he told the BBC that “all hell was being let loose” as he landed on the beach 70 years ago.
“I was scared out of my life,” he said, adding that it was emotional to return to northern France as it brought back “too many memories”.
A 21-gun salute and a flypast will form part of proceedings at Friday’s ceremony, which will be attended by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
At the D-Day commemorations Fergal Keane, BBC News
The children saw the old men through the windows of the coaches. An excited clamour spread across the schoolyard. As the first figures in berets and regimental blazers descended from the vehicles a chant went up. “Merci, merci,” called the chorus of young voices.
The veterans from Norfolk were clearly moved to be back in Normandy 70 years after they had first arrived as part of the D-Day invasion force.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for anything in the world,” said Len Fox, who was 19 when he landed in France as a despatch rider with the Royal Army Service Corps.
Veterans and their families have been arriving in Normandy from all over Britain as well as contingents from the United States and Canada.
At the main German graveyard at La Cambe relatives of German soldiers laid simple floral tributes.
“We are the first German generation in 300 years that has not fought a war – and this is a good thing,” said Joseph Knecht, grandson of a veteran.
Mr Putin will be at the ceremony with Prince Charles, who reportedly criticised the Russian president while speaking to a woman during a tour in Canada.
Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko is expected to attend, amid tensions between his country and Russia.
In face-to-face talks in Paris, Mr Cameron said he gave Mr Putin a “very clear and firm set of messages” about the crisis in Ukraine.
D-Day heralded the beginning of an 80-day campaign in World War Two to liberate northern France.
Between 2,500 and 4,000 Allied troops are thought to have died and as many as 9,000 Germans are also estimated to have lost their lives on D-Day.
About 156,000 troops, mainly from Britain, the US and Canada, landed on Normandy’s beaches in one of World War Two’s key turning points.
Historian Antony Beevor said D-Day was “absolutely essential” in terms of the war in the West.
“The whole liberation of western Europe from Nazi domination actually happened here on these beaches,” he told the BBC.
“And in fact, of course, it defined the map of post-war Europe, because otherwise we could have seen the Red Army up to the Rhine or even further west.”