'We're all eternally in their debt': King Charles honours D-Day heroes in first public speech since cancer diagnosis

5 June 2024, 11:52 | Updated: 5 June 2024, 13:33

Charles gave a speech to mark the D-Day anniversary
Charles gave a speech to mark the D-Day anniversary. Picture: Alamy/Getty

By Emma Soteriou

King Charles has honoured the heroes of D-Day in his first public speech since being diagnosed with cancer.

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Speaking at a commemorative event in Portsmouth, the King called on everyone to "remember, cherish and honour those who served" on D-Day and to "live up to the freedom they died for by balancing rights with civic responsibilities to our country".

"We are all eternally in their debt," he said.

Charles and Camilla were introduced on stage by host Dame Helen Mirren to a standing ovation and applause from the crowd.

Delivering his speech, Charles said: "The stories of courage, resilience and solidarity which you have heard today and throughout our lives cannot fail to move us, to inspire us and to remind us of what we owe to that great wartime generation, now tragically dwindling to so few.

"It is our privilege to hear that testimony, but our role is not purely passive.

"It is our duty to ensure that we and future generations do not forget their service and their sacrifice in replacing tyranny with freedom."

Read more: King Charles 'adamant' to attend D-Day anniversary in person as commemorations get under way in UK and France

He concluded saying: "While it was the frontline troops who faced the greatest personal dangers, the privations and sacrifices of war were endured by so many more.

"The Allied victory was a truly collective effort, born of the fortitude and hard work of those who remained on the Home Front, toiling in factories, under our land in the mines, out in the fields, or working in secret - men and women alike.

"Their collective industry, ingenuity and commitment helped our soldiers, sailors and airmen to prevail."

Charles and Camilla on stage
Charles and Camilla on stage. Picture: Alamy

It comes after it was revealed that the King was 'adamant' that he would attend commemorations as it is the last milestone that D-Day veterans will be able to witness themselves.

He was also joined at the event by Prince William, marking 80 years since the largest seaborne invasion in history that saw thousands of soldiers killed.

William said: "We will always remember those who served and those who waved them off."

The Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, went on to lay down the foundations for the Allied victory.

Read More: LIVE: King Charles to join veterans at D-Day 80th anniversary commemorations

Read More: Last of D-Day veterans in France to mark 80th anniversary of Normandy landings and pay tribute to fallen friends

Rishi Sunak was also among those in attendance, alongside a slew of dignitaries and veterans who fought on the beaches in 1944.

Reading an address by Field Marshal Montgomery, which was delivered to the troops ahead of the D-Day landings, Mr Sunak said: "The time has come to deal the enemy a terrific blow in Western Europe. The blow will be struck by the combined sea, land and air forces of the Allies together constituting one great allied team, under the supreme command of General Eisenhower."

He continued: "To us is given the honour of striking a blow for freedom which will live in history; and in the better days that lie ahead men will speak with pride of our doings. We have a great and a righteous cause."

Prince William speaking during a commemorative event for the 80th anniversary
Prince William speaking during a commemorative event for the 80th anniversary. Picture: Alamy

It came after Charles and Camilla hosted four D-Day veterans at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, hearing moving personal stories and seeing their poignant keepsakes.

Football boots carried on the straps of a military backpack, dog tags still bearing blood, and photos of a much cherished wife were among the mementoes shared with Charles and Camilla.

Charles, in turn, read aloud from his grandfather's handwritten diary, recounting George VI's D-Day entry about the breaking news of the "successful landings" in June 1944.

Meanwhile, dozens of other Second World War veterans, including former D-Day soldiers, once again made the journey from Portsmouth to Normandy, retracing their steps 80 years later.

Veterans John Life, and Donald Jones return to Sword Beach in Normandy, France, where they landed on D-Day
Veterans John Life, and Donald Jones return to Sword Beach in Normandy, France, where they landed on D-Day. Picture: Alamy

On Wednesday afternoon, tributes will move to the beaches of Normandy, where hundreds of allied defence personnel will parachute into a historic D-Day drop zone to commemorate the airborne invasion of 80 years ago.

Anne, the Princess Royal, will join British and Canadian military veterans across the English Channel in Normandy.

In her role as Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Regina Rifles, a Canadian military unit, the King's sister, joined by her husband Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence, will unveil a statute of a rifleman from the regiment and later attend a reception with former soldiers.

Nicknamed "The Johns", the unit was one of the first infantry regiments to storm Juno Beach 80 years ago with other Canadian forces.

Later, Anne and Sir Tim will join Normandy veterans and French representatives at a Royal British Legion service of commemoration at Bayeux War Cemetery, where the princess will lay a wreath at the Cross of Sacrifice.

Normandy veterans (left to right) Alec Penstone, 98, Gilbert Clarke, 98, Richard Aldred, 99, Henry Rice, 98, Donald Howkins, 103, Mervyn Kersh, 98, Stan Ford, 98, Ken Hay, 98, and John Dennett, 99.
Normandy veterans (left to right) Alec Penstone, 98, Gilbert Clarke, 98, Richard Aldred, 99, Henry Rice, 98, Donald Howkins, 103, Mervyn Kersh, 98, Stan Ford, 98, Ken Hay, 98, and John Dennett, 99. Picture: Alamy

The Bayeux War Cemetery is France's largest Commonwealth cemetery of the Second World War and is the final resting place of more than 4,000 military casualties. The site is run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, an organisation the princess supports as president.

During her day in Normandy, Anne will attend the annual service of remembrance at Bayeux Cathedral where she will read a lesson and take part in a procession, led by pipers from France, Germany and the UK.

It will return the royal to the military cemetery for a vigil where she will lay a posy at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier and give a speech on behalf of the nation.

The day will also see hundreds of Armed Forces service personnel take part in a parachute drop into a historic D-Day zone to pay tribute to the contribution of airborne forces 80 years ago.

Paratroopers from the UK, Canada, Belgium and the US will take part in the commemorations near Sannerville, followed by a display by the British Army's Red Devils.

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