The sky was overcast but the sea was calm as a dark green amphibious vehicle rose up out of the gentle waves in Courseulles-sur-Mer, France, on Monday afternoon. 

On board the restored Second World War-era vehicle, Jim Parks watched the shoreline of Juno Beach approach just as he did on June 6, 1944, as a 19-year-old member of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. 

The sea voyage was a surprise for Parks, a 99-year-old Canadian, arranged by Dutch friends who specialize in historical re-enactments. 

"It was truly amazing," said Marie Eve Vaillancourt, executive director of the Juno Beach Centre, who watched as the group toasted with shots of Calvados brandy.

Parks is among a dwindling group of Second World War veterans returning to the French shore where they made that fateful landing on D-Day 80 years ago. 

Almost 160,000 troops landed on the beaches of Normandy that day, including some 14,000 Canadians.

June 6 marked the beginning of the bloody 77-day Battle of Normandy and the start of the Allied liberation of France.

More than two million Allied soldiers, sailors, pilots, medics and others from a dozen countries took part in Operation Overlord in western France. 

It took much longer than hoped. Planning for the operation started about a year before it began, said Julie Thomas, chief curator at the Canadian Army Museum in Halifax. 

"There were a number of different operations put forward, suggestions of what they could do to open up this western front, which were all rejected," she said. 

In the end, the toll was enormous: 73,000 Allied forces were killed and 153,000 wounded. Around 20,000 French civilians were also killed, many as a result of Allied bombings of French villages and cities.

Historians estimate about 22,000 German soldiers are among those buried around Normandy, and between 4,000 and 9,000 of them were killed, wounded or went missing during the D-Day invasion alone.

The region's cemeteries are also the final resting place for more than 5,000 Canadians, including 359 who were killed on D-Day.

The Battle of Normandy was the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

"It's the operation that starts to give the Allies hope," Thomas said. 

This week, Normandy is playing host to surviving Second World War veterans, along with thousands of tourists and school children. 

Canada's delegation includes 13 veterans between the ages of 99 and 104, a much smaller group than in years past. Veterans Affairs Canada does not have precise numbers of how many Second World War veterans are still alive. 

They arrived at the airport with almost no fanfare Monday morning, where a group of French firefighters took it upon themselves to form an impromptu honour guard as the veterans' wheelchairs were brought inside.

That welcome is a sign of how deep the Canadian imprint still runs in Normandy, Vaillancourt said. Canadian flags are flying throughout the villages that surround Juno Beach.

"Those who were liberated by Canadians are still alive today. Those who were children and teenagers remember this like it was yesterday," she said. 

The Juno Beach Centre, which is now more than 20 years old, is a permanent memorial in France to the Canadians who served in the Second World War. It will also be the site of this year’s national commemorative ceremony Thursday morning. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to attend, along with Veterans Affairs Minister Ginette Petitpas-Taylor. 

Trudeau and the Canadian veterans are also expected to take part in the international ceremony at nearby Omaha Beach Thursday afternoon. World leaders from 25 countries are set to attend, including Germany, Italy, and Ukraine. 

Officials expect a crowd of around 45,000 to take in the event, which is likely the last major anniversary that will include any surviving veterans of the Battle of Normandy. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2024.

— With files from The Associated Press