LONDON -- Veterans began gathering Thursday on the Normandy beaches -- some of them perhaps for the last time at such a major commemoration -- to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings of World War II, even as their political leaders grappled anew with the conflict's legacy of East-West division.
On June 6, 1944, almost 160,000 Allied troops crossed from England to storm five beaches in northern France for an invasion that turned the fortunes of war against Nazi Germany. The huge operation was billed as history's biggest amphibious assault.
Among British veterans of the landings, some 650 former military personnel planned Thursday to retrace their route aboard a British warship to attend a ceremony at the easternmost of the five beaches, which was code-named Sword. The others, from west to east, were known in military planning as Utah, Omaha, Gold and Juno. U.S. troops landed at Utah and Omaha beaches.
At a time when American attention has been focused
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on the fate of a single soldier captured in Afghanistan, the commemoration is likely to recall the vast scale and the huge, human odds at play during D-Day.
"It was a killing field," Harry Billinge, an 88-year-old British veteran, told the BBC, "I hope they will not forget the poor devils that died here."
Thousands of U.S., Canadian, British and German soldiers died as the Allied forces established the crucial bridgehead that began Operation Overlord -- the invasion of northwestern Europe as the Soviet Red Army pushed on Berlin from the east. French civilians also sustained heavy losses.
The defeat of Nazism led to Europe's division into hostile ideological camps, and to the Cold War -- the rivalry between Moscow and Washington that many analysts depict as having been revived by the crisis in Ukraine.
World leaders set to attend the 70th anniversary celebrations Friday include President Barack Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Queen Elizabeth II of Britain alongside the country's prime minister, David Cameron.
While some Western leaders, including Cameron, Merkel and President Francois Hollande of France, have scheduled meetings with Putin during the anniversary, there is no immediate plan for Obama to meet the Russian leader.
On Wednesday, Putin offered to meet Obama during the celebrations, which began Thursday evening with a series of dinners in France. "There is no reason to think President Obama does not want to talk to the Russian president," Putin said. "It's his choice. I am ready for dialogue."
Hollande will shuttle between encounters Thursday evening with the U.S. and Russian leaders in Paris, holding separate dinners with each of them, French officials have said. Hollande also plans to try to broker a first encounter between Putin and Ukraine's president-elect, Petro O. Poroshenko.
Obama, visiting Europe this week, has been seeking to persuade allies in Central and Eastern Europe that the United States is being tough enough with Russia over its activities in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are fighting government forces in the east and Moscow has annexed Crimea in the south.
Obama has also been trying to convince Western allies, most of which have powerful economic bonds with Moscow, to maintain pressure on Russia over the Ukraine crisis.
On Friday, the showcase international event grouping some 18 foreign leaders is scheduled to be held on landing beach Sword near the Normandy village of Ouistreham at its eastern extremity.
The dignitaries are to lunch nearby at the 18th-century Chateau de Benouville, a few miles from the beach. During the war, the building was used as a maternity hospital whose director, Lea Vion, achieved renown for sheltering downed Allied aircrews and supporting the French Resistance.
On Thursday, Prince Charles of Britain joined veterans in the same area, where, in 1944, paratroopers landed from low-flying gliders hours before the D-Day amphibious landings to capture Pegasus Bridge on the Orne River and thus protect British troops who came ashore at Sword Beach.