Allies prepare to mark D-Day’s 80th anniversary in shadow of Ukraine war  

Carentan-les-Marais, France — Agnes Scelle grew up listening to her parents’ stories about life in occupied France, living near the Normandy town of Carentan-les-Marais. She heard of the knife pushed up against her father’s throat for trying to block a strategic river, of how German soldiers held her mother at gunpoint.

“They were very afraid,” said Scelle, a former postal worker and village mayor, who still lives in her family’s ancestral home. “Even when the American soldiers had landed, they didn’t know what was going on because there were bombings.”

As Normandy prepares for the 80th anniversary of the Allied landings on June 6, locals like Scelle are focusing on another war, as Russia gains ground in Ukraine.

“The war is at Europe’s doorstep, so of course we’re afraid,” Scelle said. “We need to stick together, the Americans and the European Union, in case we see another conflict on our soil.”

That message is expected to resonate next month, as onetime D-Day allies gather to mark the 80th anniversary of landings on Omaha Beach, roughly 30 km from Carentan-les-Marais. But the celebrations come as some Europeans worry that decades-old transatlantic ties may unravel, along with a U.S. commitment to Kyiv.

The war in Ukraine is shaping this latest D-Day commemoration in other ways. Host France has invited Russia to the official ceremonies, but not Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even including Moscow has reportedly sparked tensions on the part of other WWII allies.

“I can’t say what the solution is for this commemoration,” said Denis Peschanski, a World War II historian at the Sorbonne University in Paris. “What’s certain is we refuse to deny the fundamental contribution of the Soviet army in the liberation. We would never have had a successful landing in Normandy if there hadn’t been 180 German divisions that were blocked on the eastern front’’ by Soviet soldiers.

Like other towns across Normandy, Carentan-les-Marais — known to locals as Carentan — has a full schedule of D-Day events running before and well after official ceremonies. Among them: a parachute drop in period clothes, a parade of World War II military vehicles, and an opportunity to meet Ukrainian war veterans and view a phalanx of donated ambulances bound for Ukraine’s battlefields.

There’s also the wedding of 100-year-old U.S. World War II veteran Harold Terens to 94-year-old Jeanne Swerlin. Carentan’s mayor, Jean-Pierre Lhonneur, will officiate at the ceremony.

“If you come here for the 80th anniversary, you’ll see we almost live in an American state,” said Carentan’s deputy mayor, Sebastien Lesne. “There will be many American flags flying from windows here to celebrate the peace we got back — and especially to say thank you to the veterans who are coming back this year, and who return every year.”

Price of freedom

A strategic crossroad, cut through by highways, waterways and a railway, Carentan saw a pitched six-day battle before American forces defeated the town’s German occupiers on June 12, 1944.

Scelle still remembers her parents’ accounts of German occupation. Troops lived in her home in the village of Baupte, a few kilometers from Carentan. “It was a regular army,” as opposed to Nazi troops, she said. “If you were nice to them, things went well.”

But when her father threw stones into the village river to try to block German passage, the soldiers threatened him with a knife. After the D-Day landings, they demanded of her mother at gunpoint that she disclose the location of arriving U.S. soldiers. Her family fled their home under falling bombs and found it ransacked when they finally returned.

Roughly 20,000 French civilians died during the nearly three-month Battle of Normandy — along with about 73,000 Allied forces and up to 9,000 or so Germans. Overall, Normandy lost many more of its citizens during its liberation than during the entire German occupation.

“My village didn’t have a lot of deaths, but people wouldn’t have been bitter anyway,” Scelle said. “For them, it was the price to pay for freedom.”

Today, Scelle is helping out other war survivors. Since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, dozens of Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Carentan and surrounding villages. Many have since returned to their homeland. But Ukrainian student Kateryna Vorontsova, 19, and her family remain and count among those Scelle has helped to settle in and learn French.

“I would like to stay in France,” said Vorontsova, although she wants to eventually return to her homeland in peace. “I like the weather, the landscape, the culture.”

Of D-Day, she added, “it’s important to remember the landings. They’re our common history.”

Ukraine ties

Carentan has other ties to Ukraine. Donated ambulances line a field next to the D-Day Experience Museum, just outside Carentan. Some are funded by U.S. donors, others by European entities like the government of Madrid. Just after the D-Day anniversary, volunteers will drive them more than 2,000 km to Ukraine.

“According to doctors I’ve talked to in Ukraine, every ambulance saves an average of 250 lives a month,” said Brock Bierman, president of Ukraine Focus, a nongovernmental group based in Washington and Ukraine, which is spearheading the effort. He is in Carentan organizing the convoy’s departure.

“Our volunteer drivers have delivered them literally to the front lines … in Bakhmut and Kherson, in Odesa and Mykolaiv,” he added, naming towns in Ukraine. “There’s a lot of work to get this done, and we couldn’t do it without an alliance of people from all over Europe and the United States.”

A former senior official with the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Trump administration, Bierman strongly backs U.S. aid for Ukraine, including the $60 billion finally passed by Congress in April. Uncertainty about whether those funds would be approved lingers and is among issues feeding doubts in Europe about long-term U.S. commitment to Ukraine and — if Donald Trump returns to office — to the NATO transatlantic alliance.

Bierman believes the costs will be high if Washington does not stand by Kyiv.

“If we fail to support Ukraine’s independence, what we could be looking at is a longer-term conflict in the next decade — which could involve boots on the ground and possible American lives lost,” he said.

At Carentan’s town hall, Deputy Mayor Lesne believes the Normandy landings offer lessons for today.

“I think the most important message is in two words: to remember,” he said. “Not to forget what happened, so it won’t be repeated. Millions of people died in the Second World War — we can’t have that happen again.”