France honors African veterans of World War II landing
PARIS — It’s sometimes called “the forgotten D-Day,” the crucial but overshadowed Allied invasion of the French Riviera to push back the Nazis.
France held an elaborate military ceremony Thursday to remember it 75 years on — and especially, to honor the many soldiers from Africa sent from French colonies to take part.
“You gave back our country its freedom and dignity,” French President Emmanuel Macron told veterans from several countries at a necropolis in the French town of Saint-Raphael.
“You gave back our flag its colors and its motto to our people … It’s our duty to preserve it, hand it down, to make it bear fruit against darkness and ignorance.”
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara and Guinea President Alpha Conde also took part in the ceremony.
Starting on Aug. 15, 1944, French and American troops — 350,000 in total — landed on the French Riviera.
U.S. forces drove north while French troops — many from French colonies in Africa — moved along the coast to secure key ports. Marseille, France’s second city, was liberated on Aug. 28.
Africans made up as much as half the French contingent, indigenous soldiers from what are now some two dozen independent countries.
Soldiers from the Normandy landings, known as Operation Overlord, met troops from Operation Dragoon on Sept. 12 near Dijon, in the eastern region of Burgundy. Most of France was under control of Allied forces by the end of September.
The fighting for Paris took place in late August 1944. The French Resistance staged an uprising against German soldiers and vehicles and built barricades in the streets of the capital.
Spanish forces entered Paris on Aug. 24, and Gen. Philippe Leclerc’s 2nd French Division, equipped with American tanks and followed by U.S. troops, entered the capital on Aug. 25, as the Germans surrendered.
Gen. Charles de Gaulle arrived the same day in Paris, whose streets were filled with French civilians celebrating.
“Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated!” de Gaulle declared outside city hall. A French flag was raised on the Eiffel Tower, where a Nazi flag had risen four years earlier.
Allied troops on the western front lines also moved into Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — but ran into a stinging defeat in September 1944.
At Thursday’s ceremony, Macron urged French mayors to name streets after African soldiers, acknowledging that for decades they “didn’t have the glory and esteem that their bravery deserved.”
A military choir sang “The Song of the Africans,” while some veterans joined in. Fighter jets flew over the necropolis, trailing blue, white and red smoke to represent the French flag.
There is no definitive Allied death toll, but the French Defense Ministry says that 1,300 Allied soldiers died in the operation’s first two days.