On Normandy's beaches, leaders and veterans recall sacrifice of D-Day

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By Johnny Cotton

OMAHA BEACH, France (Reuters) - Western leaders and ageing veterans gather on the shores of France on Thursday in a second day of events marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied amphibious assault that opened the way for western Europe's liberation from Hitler's forces.

An hour after sunrise, at 07:26 a.m., a lone piper will play atop the remnants of an artificial harbour built in the waters off Arromanches to resupply the invasion force, to mark the precise moment the first British soldier landed on Gold Beach.

Later, French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. President Donald and British Prime Minister Theresa May will attend events along the 80-km (50-mile) stretch of Normandy coast where more than 150,000 troops landed under a hail of artillery and machine-gun fire.

Macron evoked the spirit of D-Day to speak on Wednesday of the modern need for multilateralism and international cooperation, an area where the United States and its European allies have been increasingly at odds during 's administration.

"These allied forces that together freed us from the German yoke, and from tyranny, are the same ones that were able to build the existing multilateral structures after World War Two," Macron told reporters after an event in Normandy to honour the French Resistance.

"We must not repeat history, and remind ourselves what was built on the basis of the war."

The Normandy landings were the largest seaborne invasion in history, a feat months in the planning and kept secret from Nazi Germany despite a huge trans-Atlantic mobilisation of industry and manpower.

In blustery winds in the early hours of June 6, 1944, thousands of Allied paratroopers jumped behind Germany's coastal defences. Then, as day broke, warships pounded German positions before hundreds of landing craft disgorged the infantry troops.

Survivors recall the sea being red with blood. Thousands were killed on both sides on the beaches, codenamed Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah and Omaha by the Allies.

Lines of white marble crosses on the clifftop above Omaha Beach today mark the resting place of more than 9,380 U.S. soldiers who died during the landings and ensuing operations.

'THANK YOU'

Here, will watch Macron award the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest award for merit, to five U.S. veterans before the two presidents leave for a working lunch in nearby Caen.

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On the south coast of England, Britain's Queen Elizabeth led presidents and prime ministers on Wednesday in paying tribute to surviving D-Day veterans and their fallen comrades.

"The heroism, courage and sacrifice of those who lost their lives will never be forgotten," the 93-year-old monarch said. "It is with humility and pleasure, on behalf of the entire country – indeed the whole free world – that I say to you all: thank you." [nL8N23C0X1]

German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the sacrifice of tens of thousands of soldiers in a military operation that brought freedom from National Socialism to Germany.

"That I, as German chancellor, can be here today, that today we stand together for peace and freedom, is a gift from history that must be cared for and protected," she said.

read a prayer spoken by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, capping a three-day state visit to Britain where he had lavished praise on the U.S. ally and said wartime bonds forged the "greatest alliance the world has ever known".

's forthright diplomacy and "America First" policy have, however, shaken the NATO alliance and tested relations with erstwhile allies including Britain and France.

Amid the D-Day ceremonies, Russia told the West that the Allied war effort should not be exaggerated.

Speaking at a weekly news conference in Moscow on Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova offered a tribute to those who died on World War Two's western front and said Moscow appreciated the Allied war effort.

"It should of course not be exaggerated. And especially not at the same time as diminishing the Soviet Union's titanic efforts, without which this victory simply would not have happened," she said.[nL8N23C3QQ]

(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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