TENS of thousands of courageous D-Day servicemen were returning to Britain today after a voyage to northern France to join emotional 60th anniversary tributes to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to liberate Europe.
The veterans, who had arrived on a flotilla of warships and ferries, heard poignant tributes to their courage from a host of world leaders at a series of ceremonies across the historic front.
Hundreds of former soldiers, sailors and airmen proudly marched before the Queen as anniversary events reached a moving climax yesterday on the seafront of Arromanches, where many British troops had come ashore in 1944.
In a heartfelt tribute to the veterans, many now in their 80s and 90s, the Queen said: "Thank you on behalf of the whole nation."
During her address, she confirmed that the parade yesterday, which involved about 900 old soldiers, would be the last mass march in France organised by the Normandy Veterans Association.
She said that the priceless sacrifice of those who fought must never be forgotten.
And she promised that the troops would continue to provide each other with support and friendship at home in Britain.
"What for you is a haunting memory of danger and sacrifice one summer long ago is for your country and for generations of your countrymen to come, one of the proudest moments in our long national history," she said.
Sixty years ago, some 156,000 Allied troops had landed on the five invasion beaches on June 6, 1944 in an operation which wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as "undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever taken place".
It marked the beginning of an 80-day campaign to liberate Normandy which involved three million troops and cost the lives of 250,000 people.
Today, as the veterans leave France in a procession of ferries, trains, buses and cars, the final events were taking place to mark the famous battles.
In Cambes-en-Plaine, a path from Mathieu to the British Cemetery of Cambes will be named after the Royal Ulster Rifles.
In a stirring international tribute at Arromanches yesterday, French president Jacques Chirac presented the Legion d'Honneur medal to 14 representatives of the Allied Nations of the Second World War.
They represented Britain, the USA, France, Belgium, Australia, Canada, Greece, New Zealand, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Norway, and Luxembourg.
Following a 21-gun salute from the French frigate Cassard, a total of 142 Allied veterans received thunderous applause as they led a parade before heads of state, including The Queen, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr Chirac, US president George Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin.
For the first time, Germany was represented by its leader Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
He said that the invitation proved the shadow of war had finally been lifted from his country.