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Remembering the Battle that Turned the Tide of World War II. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired June 6, 2019 - 04:00   ET




UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

BIANCA NOBILO, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Thanks for joining us, I'm Bianca Nobilo in London. This is CNN NEWSROOM. We bringing you live pictures you're looking at from Normandy, France, as we bring you the events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

It was exactly 75 years ago today, June the 6th, Operation Overlord, the top-secret Allied mission that turned the tide of World War II, it's best known now as D-Day, when wave after wave of Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, under heavy German gunfire.

Today at a time when the Atlantic alliance is strained, the U.S. and French presidents will stand together at an American military cemetery in Normandy to remember their cooperation and shared losses.

The site which overlooks Omaha Beach holds 9,000 American graves. Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron will then hold private talks and share a working lunch. We're also expected speeches by both leaders.

Last hour, we saw British Prime Minister May join the French president to honor those killed at Gold Beach, the coastal area the British were tasked with capturing all those years ago. The leaders laid the first stone of what will become a British memorial at Ver-sur-Mer.

EMMANUEL MACRON, PRESIDENT OF FRANCE (through translator): This monument will also be a powerful, singular symbol of the unity of our two nations, United Kingdom and France. Nothing will wipe them out. Nothing will ever wipe out these links and these shared values.

THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: It is incredibly moving to be here today, looking out across beaches where one of the greatest battles for freedom this world has ever known took place. And it is truly humbling to do so with the men who were there that day. It is an honor for all of us to share this moment with you.


NOBILO: Let's bring in our Jim Bittermann in Arromanches in Normandy.

Jim, describe to us the scene that you're seeing, the meticulous planning that's gone into this.

What are the events that are going to take place throughout the day?

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: Well, there will be a lot of events going on later in the day, Bianca, but in terms of meticulous planning for D-Day, it was an era where you had to use pencils and typewriters and not Excel spreadsheets.

Every single man and every single unit had a mission and those missions were all timed out, one after the other on D-Day and the days beyond that.

Now I can show you a little bit of what the planners had to deal with. This is the beach at just about low tide or maybe the way it was back then because there was a big argument between the Army and about Navy whether they should land at low tide. The Army wanted high tide because there would be less of a beach to run across.

The Navy wanted low tide because they could see the obstacles that the Germans had placed in the water. It's just one of the things the planners had to deal with. You mentioned the withering gunfire that came on the beaches.

I wanted to show you what they had to deal with, what the Germans had built up in defenses and these are all along the D-Day beaches and well beyond the D-Day beaches. This is a machine gun nest that was used to cover the beaches down there. And you can see there was a straight line of sight down from the beaches from this machine gun nest. So even though it was 2 feet thick concrete, they had to deal with this and neutralize this before they could safely get the troops ashore -- Bianca.

NOBILO: D-Day and the plans that you're describing were ingenious.

How long did it take to devise this strategy and who came up with it?

BITTERMANN: Well, with months of planning and it was all of the Allies working together who came up with it, there was a great deal of arguing about exactly how this thing should come about.

In fact, right up to the month before the D-Day landing, some of the top generals were not convinced that this would be the best place to do the landing. Others thought there would be other places along the French coast and even beyond where it might be smarter to land.

But at that point the planning had proceeded to where they were picking here. In fact, in the end, the Germans weren't expecting this at all, because here at Arromanches, there's no harbor at all. There's nothing to bring ships close to shore and bring trucks off the ships.

And so Germans figured that the Allies would probably go to one of the big ports --

[04:05:00] BITTERMANN: -- and try to take a big port so they'd be easily able to bring things ashore. But in fact, they built something out here in the sea, these mulberry harbors, they're called, these caissons of cement that were used as a breakwater to bring the ships in close and bring all of the tons and tons of materiel onshore that they needed to support the troops that were coming onshore -- Bianca.

NOBILO: What stories you have been told or heard directly from the veterans that have stuck with you about their participation in D-Day?

BITTERMANN: Not so much stories. Some of those memories are a little faded. But I think one of the most impressive things is so many of these veterans who have come back have kept themselves in great shape. They're all in their 90s now. If you were 18 at the time, you're at least 93 today.

So the idea that they kept themselves in good shape is pretty amazing. And from the stories, too, they have dramatic memories. Sometimes, the memories don't always correspond to what happened. You have to remember that a lot of them were not here for very long. They were only here, sometimes, for a matter of hours before they pushed onward inland.

But that run across the beach was enough to impress them for some time to come and they're still kind of talking about that. Not only across the beaches but I should mention the airborne troops, we saw yesterday 97-year-old Tom Rice, who dropped out of the sky, recreating his jump from 75 years ago, to be exact.

How dramatic that was for him to come back here. He had very dramatic memories of the idea of coming down under gunfire as opposed to what he did yesterday, which was kind of floating out of the sky in a tandem jump -- Bianca.

NOBILO: Jim, you mentioned the fitness of the so-called greatest generation. World leaders have been paying tribute to their stoicism and resilience.

How are other generations in France, Britain, people who are visiting today, commemorating and remembering this in their own way, for their children of the veterans who are involved and the grandchildren?

BITTERMANN: Yes. I mean, I think that the children and grandchildren, many times, in many cases have come along with the veterans; they've had to, in some cases, to support them in their effort to return.

It's interesting, too, what's happened in France, because up until maybe 20 years ago, there wasn't a lot of discussion about civilian casualties. The fact was there were a lot of civilian casualties. In fact, some say there were more civilians killed than soldiers in the leadup to the D-Day landings.

In any case, the civilian side of things, was -- people are of two minds. Basically, they were liberated, that's true; but at some costs because many families were hit with their own injuries or deaths within the family. So that side of it has come out over the last couple of years as they've commemorated these D-Day landings -- Bianca.

NOBILO: Jim, what message do you think the generation involved in D- Day, those who are still living now, want to give to the current generation after the sacrifices that they gave for us?

BITTERMANN: Well, I think one of the messages that the current generation ought to be aware of is the value of multinational actions. We're talking so much today about Brexit and unilateral kind of actions, as we see from the United States.

But, you know, the value of a multinational action can't be discounted. And you see something like D-Day, which was meticulously planned among Allies who had a great deal of diversion about their opinions, about how it should all take place.

But in the end, they hammered out their differences. And acting together, they were able to thwart the German takeover, invasion of Europe. So you have to say that's a real lesson that could have resonance today.

NOBILO: Jim, our viewers are looking at live pictures from the U.S. Cemetery where President Trump is going to be later today. In an hour or so, he'll be speaking there as well.

As you mentioned, this is a truly multinational commemoration. It was a multinational effort.

What are those from other countries, be it America or Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Czechoslovakia, how are they all remembering today?

BITTERMANN: Well, you know, there's no international ceremony this year, Bianca. The French have told us that, in fact, it's because of the fact that this is not an even-numbered year, it's not a 60th or 70th. There's not an international gathering like there have been in previous years for the 60th and 70th anniversary. Nonetheless --


BITTERMANN: -- I think part of it has to do with the fractious nature of the world right now because some of the countries that took part in the Allied invasion don't see eye to eye anymore, for example, the Russians who have been invited on previous occasions but not this time.

The Germans, I think, would see eye to eye with the French. But they're not going to be partaking in any big way, either. You have the British and the French. You have the French and the Americans. But the other ceremonies that we've seen in previous years just aren't taking place. The French say it's the fact that this is the 75th and not the 70th or 60th or one of the others.

NOBILO: Thanks, Jim, let's listen in and give our viewers us a sense of the atmosphere where you are today in Normandy, France.


NOBILO: Our thanks to Jim Bittermann reporting there where the commemorations are taking place. We'll have much more on the events D-Day as we continue on CNN NEWSROOM.

The U.S. president is scheduled to arrive in Normandy soon to commemorate the sacrifices made on the French coast 75 years ago today.




NOBILO: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. World leaders are gathering in Normandy, France, to honor the valor of those who fought and died 75 years ago. U.S. president Donald Trump is expected to join French president Emmanuel Macron at a ceremony at an American military cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

Their cooperation remains intact despite disagreements over issues like trade, climate change and the nuclear threat from Iran. Earlier, we saw a ceremony to launch the construction of a British memorial overlooking Gold Beach for thousands of British troops who died there in the weeks that followed the D-Day landings.

Melissa Bell is also in Normandy, she joins --


NOBILO: -- us now.

Melissa, from what I understand now, yes, you are on the sea, talk about the significance of this maritime aspect of the invasion.

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You mentioned, Bianca, Gold Beach, that is just behind us. And we've been taken on board by one of the many people who turned out today with their equipment.

This is one of the amphibious trucks that was used in World War II. In that day he drove it all the way across the Channel. We're only going to head to the beach, because we're getting very close now.

But these are the trucks that were particularly useful on that day, in the second wave. Because they brought things like the equipment that was needed before that artificial harbor that Jim was talking about could be built.

Here's what's left of that harbor. There's wave breakers still around the beach here. Nothing beyond those wave breakers is left of the extraordinary engineering feat at the time. The artificial harbors, two were built, one here and one at Omaha Beach.

But by the end of June, they'd been destroyed. So the Allied forces were really dependent on trucks like this to bring in every day the many thousands of tons of equipment they needed to bring to the troops.

We're just heading up on to the beach now, as they would have done on that day. What an extraordinary feat of engineering this was, these boats that are still going. There are many hundreds on the beach here today, to mark this 75th anniversary, an extraordinary feat at the time, that they could have achieved this.

And as you can see on Gold Beach, so many people have turned up for the address of the day, in their military uniforms of the day, driving the tanks and the trucks of the day and the amphibious vehicles like this.

There is an awful lot of emotion and excitement being here for all of the people who care very much about keeping alive the memory of what was done on that day on beaches like this one.

NOBILO: Melissa, what memories have been shared with you by veterans or their family members that really stuck with you, that you find especially poignant that you can share with us?

BELL: There have been so many stories shared. And also news stories emerging over the course of the last few days. I think one of the most unbelievable things that we saw was the 97-year-old veteran who yesterday successfully repeated the parachute jump that he had done as a 23-year old, a little further back from the beaches, which was considered, of course, a crucial point since it allowed all of these beaches that had been secured to be linked together.

The 101st Airborne division was responsible for those parachute drops. Several days of fighting then with bayonets to liberate the town. This part of the training in the last few months to see if he could repeat it. And he did, landing successfully yesterday.

So many amazing things being achieved here once again. It's important to remember, that all of the veterans who were here, who have come back, are in their 90s and many of them are very frail. One of the most moving things was the playing of "Taps" and "The Star-Spangled Banner," those veterans that could managing to stand, Bianca.

NOBILO: Melissa, you follow French and European politics very closely. Obviously there's an effort to almost politicize the events today. But they do underscore what the alliance was able to achieve during World War II.

What significance do you think that the various leaders, Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May, Donald Trump, will be drawing from commemorating the shared effort and sacrifice?

BELL: I think that's exactly what's going to be so interesting about this ceremony. The main one that we're expecting at the cemetery, where all of the heads of state will be gathered. What the French did in the 1980s, these commemorations which have largely be military, that was maintained and make it much more political and much more of a celebration, not so much of victory but the peace we've having endured since. That is remembered every year, of course, the big days were the 60th

and the 70th and now the 75th. That common peace, everything that's managed to endure, thanks to the alliances, that were built in the rubble of Europe after World War II. I think --


BELL: -- that is likely what we're to hear from so many of the European leaders over the course of the day, as they try to remind their American counterpart, the importance of the alliances that he has put into question so vehemently over the last couple of years.

Showing you here an extraordinary scene, all around, being repeated up and down the coast of Normandy today. The weather is extraordinary. We've been very lucky; 280 events in all, for people who want to relive it and want to re-enact it, want to remember it, want to act praise and pay tribute to the courage of the men on that day.

And then in a little while, a much more formal political event that will be all about remembering the peace that was built and how it's endured since.

NOBILO: And, Melissa, of course, those remarks that President Macron made about the friendship between the U.K. and France outlasting current events are particularly poignant. This was a gesture of France wanting to mark the British sacrifice at D-Day.

What do you make of that, given the current climate?

BELL: I think it's been something that's been typical of Emmanuel Macron the last couple of years whenever he's found himself with the American or British leaders, is to remind them of the strength that has endured. He's said it with Theresa May, he said it's poignant moment.

Prime ministers come and go. But I think as a champion, all sort of institutions that are being brought into question, currently, the current climate, Emmanuel Macron is trying to position himself as a representative of that old liberal order that understood the importance of partnerships, understood the importance of organizations and understood the importance of the countries trying to work together.

Every time you have an event like this, that is about history and it is about remembering the postwar consensus and institutions, he really goes out of his way to remind the politicians there are, whatever the current situation and their personal political platform, there are things that are much deeper much longer term and that it is important in these moments particularly to remember them, Bianca.

NOBILO: Melissa, what difference have you noted in terms of how the different generations of interacting with the commemorations and how they're remembering it and understanding it from the veterans themselves, from their children and grandchildren?

BELL: I think one of the most moving aspects of being here is -- we'll just show you some of the people on the beach, the veterans have come, many current military personnel have come, but so many people turned up with their families, people who have fought themselves or are interested in what happened on D-Day.

All of the generations that are here, the very elderly and the very young we've seen young children in uniforms as well, paying their respects, marking the moment and learning, being told about precisely what happened here.

That's a huge part of these commemorations and these celebrations, is passing on to future generations precisely what went on here and just how brave the young men in those successive waves came on to the beaches that cost their lives so often to remember their sacrifices and why they had been made.

Of course, many people have made the point, as this is the 75th anniversary, it could well be the last major anniversary in living memory. That is, we will soon not have amongst the people here on the day. I think that's why so many people have turned up. Local authorities believe about 1 million people have come into Normandy beaches to mark this event.

NOBILO: And those people who are from the so-called greatest generation, their resilience and stoicism has been praised by world leaders today, what message do you think they want to send to future generations?

Obviously it's important to pay tribute, to remember and thank them for their sacrifice.

But beyond that, what do they want to see this generation do so that the men that did fall weren't in vain?

BELL: I think it is -- we're talking about a generation of men who lived through horrors. We can only imagine, what we hear from them over and over again, is the importance of reminding younger generations of the importance of the peace that followed, of the peace that was built.

That is of course, Bianca, the main message that we've heard from the veterans that have been speaking the last couple of days, being honored in so many ways. It is about remembering the sacrifices that were made and telling future generations of the need to maintain that peace, to continue to cherish it and to continue to build it in every way. Things about memory but also the future and about the transmission of messages and that's --


BELL: -- something that we've heard expressed a great deal here, by the very many veterans who have turned up and wanted to make the effort to be here. Traveled some of them, from the United States, traveled far away to be here today, often in very frail health. And it's a really remarkable thing that so many have managed to turn out.

NOBILO: And Melissa you are coming to us from an amphibious truck, a replica truck, I think you said. Talk us through some of the ways that these events are being commemorated. I think there are other replicas involved and certain military demonstrations.

What else are you seeing there on the beaches?

Oh, I think we may have lost Melissa. She's floating on the sea in a boat. Perhaps we'll get her back. We'll let you know.

Melissa Bell talking about the importance of commemorating, of remembering and of recording the history and the memories of the veterans involved in the D-Day landings and how all generations of people in France are remembering the day.

And not just France, from other countries as well, who have come especially to come to the commemorations.

We're also hearing that President Trump has arrived to participate in the D-Day commemoration. He'll be arriving, I believe, at the American Cemetery. You're seeing live pictures there of the event, ready to hear president Emmanuel Macron of France and president Donald Trump of the United States give their remarks today.

We've already heard from Prime Minister May and Emmanuel Macron, both giving appropriately poignant addresses, Emmanuel Macron thanking Theresa May for her service. Theresa May talking about the importance of duty and how it's almost impossible to imagine, on a fine and beautiful day like this on the beaches, how tragic and unbearably terrifying it would have been for those who landed on those days. Both leaders making very moving remarks there.

Once again, you are looking at live pictures of the U.S. Cemetery in Normandy as we wait for President Trump and Emmanuel Macron to deliver their speeches later today.

We've been hearing from our correspondents who are all around the events. We brought Melissa Bell back to you, I think, she is coming to you from a replica amphibious truck.

Melissa, are you there?

BELL: Yes. We're on one of the very trucks, amphibious trucks that was used, of course, on that day, we've been going on and off the beach, exactly as they would have on the 6th of June, 1944.

Of course, these trucks were crucial in bringing in some of the equipment.

You're one of the very many people who turned up with your amphibious truck. Tell us what it means to be here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, for us, it's very important because we realize what happened 75 years ago. And by being here, we honor also the people who did this for us and who gave us basically the freedom in which we are living, which is so important.

BELL: It's an important message to pass on?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely. That's why we also take our children here, to tell them the stories and to also show them how important it is to be free.

BELL: Tell us about your vehicle.

How hard is it to maintain it?

It's extraordinary that it works so well all these years on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very hard to maintain, because in the salt water -- it was only built for a few hundred hours. And it's now already 75 years old.

BELL: It's amazing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And salt water corrodes everything. So we have to do a lot of work to keep it rolling.

BELL: And it rolls.

Can we head up once more up to the beach?


BELL: Thank you for a head up this beach.

These amphibious trucks were used not so much in the first wave but in the second because they were crucial in bringing supplies up here. And crucial, of course, once the artificial harbor at Gold Beach had been destroyed, which it had been by the end of June, of bringing in all of the supplies needed for the Allied forces to sustain their operation.

What we're seeing is what an extraordinary complex logistical operation this must have been, with communications as limited as they were and with land, air and sea operations, so many different countries trying to come together, to achieve landings on an improbable part of the French coast, where there simply wasn't a harbor deep enough to sustain the kind of operation they'd embarked on.

And it was these kinds of vehicles that allowed it to happen.


NOBILO: Thanks, Melissa, Melissa Bell, coming to us from one of the amphibious trucks, a replica of one of the trucks that was used in the D-Day landings.

We've also been hearing from Jim Bittermann, from one of the bunkers from which Germany troops were firing on the military when they arrived.

I'm Bianca Nobilo in London. We'll now join CNN's "EARLY START" with Christine Romans and Dave Briggs for complete coverage of events from Normandy, marking today's 75th anniversary of D-Day.