Seventy years ago today the largest seaborne invasion in history took place. The Normandy landings, or D-Day, was a massive and daring military operation which undoubtedly contributed to the eventual triumph of the Allied forces but which saw thousands of troops pay the ultimate price.
Today is therefore, primarily, a day of celebration and thanksgiving: we celebrate the precious freedom we take for granted and the immense bravery, selflessness and sense of duty of the almost one million troops from thirty-nine Allied divisions who participated in the Battle of Normandy. And we give thanks not only to those in the Armed Forces but to the millions of other men and women in the Allied countries involved in the preparations for D-Day.
The veterans are inevitably dwindling in numbers - the youngest amongst them are now well into their 80s - and as such this is likely to be the last significant anniversary the vast majority will witness which makes it all the more special and poignant.
Three years ago I visited the sites of the Normandy landings. As I walked along the beaches, the sun beating down upon my back, the waves crashing softly on the rocks it was nigh on impossible to imagine the horrific and hellish scenes that had occurred at this very spot almost 70 years previous. Were it not for the massive concrete dugouts and the stone tributes I could have been standing on just another pretty beach anywhere in the world.
The starkest and darkest of contrasts.
Bob Sales was only 18 at the time of the Normandy landings (having lied about his age) and recalls: "It was hell, I'll tell you. Men were dead everywhere. It was terrible."
"All I remember is mayhem", said George Allen who was a first lieutenant with a 1st infantry Division, "Bodies floating in the water, busted equipment. We lost a lot of good men that day."
Another veteran, 88-year-old Harry Billinge said: "It was a killing field."
More than 9000 Allied troops were killed or wounded on that first fateful and bloody day and at the conclusion of the Normandy campaign some eight weeks later those figures soared: over 200,000 casualties and fatalities.
The loss of life was not in vain, however. The Normandy invasion was a pivotal turning point in the war, the beginning of the end and the following spring, on May 8, 1945, the Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.
Thus from the darkness, devastation and selfless sacrifice the bright lights of peace and freedom emerged. Without freedom and the right to act according to the dictates of our own conscience we are nothing. So to those who fought and died to ensure we have that most basic of human rights we owe everything.
Photo by Brandon Beach, 21st Theater Sustainment Command Public Affairs