09 June 2013

Normandy: Blood, toil, tears and sweat

Normandy's D-Day beaches have a tight grip on the mentality of much of Western Europe. And rightly so, considering the vital importance of the June 1944 Normandy landings that finally hastened the end of the Second World War. Even the countless coaches of tourists trudging along coast can't diminish the impact of seeing first hand the scenes of such bravery, ingenuity and, ultimately, horror.

It was unseasonably chilly when I visited, just two days before the 69th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The wind was quite fierce along the Pointe du Hoc between Utah and Omaha Beach, the desolate spot where US Rangers took on the Germans on a rocky outcrop. The gun emplacements are still there, along the with giant craters created by falling bombs. I've seen photos of children playing in the gaping holes, oblivious to their significance. On the day I visited, only a few people were walking sombrely in the dips and hollows, visualising what the soldiers had to endure.

Just east of here is Omaha Beach, where an enormous, stark memorial on the beach is flanked by a modern sculpture that sits in the sea. A middle-aged American man wearing a Vietnam War veteran's jacket stood at the foot of the memorial, lost in thought.

Most visitors head straight to Omaha Beach's American cemetery and memorial, where the simple white crosses of the gravestones stretch into the distance towards the sea. The memorial museum is intensely moving and enlightening – and doesn't just focus on the American aspect of the operation. I thought I knew a lot about the invasion, but, thanks to one display in particular, I learnt about the vital role of the Ruperts, the 500 dummy parachutists dropped during Operation Titanic to fool the Germans. I shan't think of the name Rupert in quite the same way again.

Further east was Juno Beach, where the Canadian soldiers played their valiant role in the invasion. There is no cemetery here; in its place is an evocative and simply eloquent memorial consisting of countless names of the dead on blue plaques. On the way to the beach is a grey sculpture showing Paul Verlaine's poem "Chanson d'Automne", which was the signal the BBC used to alert the French resistance to the invasion.

Summertime on the Normandy coast brings out the crowds on the beach, eager to bask in the sun. It also evokes the memory of so many thousands of Allied men and women, whose sacrifice is inescapable.

Images © Adam Batterbee

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