Normandy still remembers and pays homage to the martyrs of D-day, when Allied forces landed to a savage welcome from German gunners. This was the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. - PRAKASH PHILIPOSE

The bus was full. I was on my way to the beaches of Normandy, about 280 km from Paris. It was a nice bright day, not in keeping with the sombre mood as we were on the way to visit the beaches where so many perished during World War II. These were the beaches where the Allied forces landed in their push to Berlin. This was to be the beginning of the end of Hitler's Third Reich. We had on board two guides, French ladies who had mastered the history of the time and kept up a running commentary of the events and the places we were visiting. The bus was full of Americans and the British and a scattering of Canadians. Some were going to relive the journey their fathers or grandfathers took on that fateful day on June 6, 1944. Some were there for the curiosity value and some, like me, had a day spare to relive history.

In the footsteps of a veteran

Our first stop was for a comfort break. That's when I ran into Major J. Crawley, retired from the British Army and now settled in Singapore with his Singaporean wife. He was on the trip to the beaches of Normandy because his father was on the first wave of soldiers that landed in Gold Beach (Le Hamel) which was the landing site assigned to the British forces. His father survived the murderous fire and the charge on the German batteries up a rocky face which I thought was impossible when I saw it. He must have seen his friends die around him as he charged up the hill. As we discussed what he must have gone through, one theme emerged. He never spoke of this experience to anyone least of all the family. It was as if he never wanted to relive those moments again in his life.

Normandy is a region of France famous for its runny cheeses and its apple brandy and liquors. It is considered one of the best culinary destinations in France. We drove through sleepy villages to reach our first destination, the war memorial at Caen.

The Memorial is regarded as the best World War II museum. It has a comprehensive collection of war memorabilia from jeeps to rations, from rifles to cigarette lighters. There are videos and pictures and continuous replaying of speeches of the leaders of those times, Hitler, Winston Churchill, De Gaulle to name a few. Another attraction was the screening of a powerful film on the War. We were treated to a good lunch at the memorial restaurant. The mood of all the persons visiting the memorial was purposeful, as of each had a mission to accomplish. Could one of them be to end all wars for ever?

Surprise meeting

The bus took us to the first of the three landing sites of that fateful day, Omaha (Pointe du Hoc). This beach was the one assigned to the American forces. It was on this leg of the journey when I discovered that we had among us in the bus one of the original soldiers who landed in Normandy. This was truly a great find as there are not many alive that had experienced the Normandy Landing some 60 years ago. Mr. Teddy Mcgive (Corporal) (name changed) was travelling to see the beaches he had landed not with the first wave but on the second wave as a sharp shooter for General Patton. I got this information from one of his daughters who was travelling with him. He was a fit and alert man, not showing his 84 years. As she said, “He was only a boy when he first landed on the Beaches”. He was on this visit accompanied by his second wife, two daughters from the first wife and a grand-daughter. “A typical American family,” said the daughter.

The beach is cordoned off with barbed wire. The reason is that it is a sheer rock face. The beach itself is small. The soldiers had to land on the beach and then climb the sheer rock face. As we looked over the cliff face at the tiny beach and the calm English Channel waters bathed in a warm summer sun it was frightening enough. How this cliff face was scaled on that rainy June day with enemy fire cutting down soldiers all around boggles the imagination. There are remains of German bunkers and gun positions. These have been left behind as a reminder of what took place so many years ago. The rest has been covered over by a fine type of grass that thrives on this sandy soil. I saw Mr. Teddy Mcgive walking around with his family keeping a close eye on him. I could not help approaching him and shaking his hand as one of the few survivors still left alive. He said he remembers landing with General Patton and said the scene was one of utter destruction, nothing like the calm, warm day that was today. He did not offer much further information. However, he did look wistfully at the German bunkers and whispered, “I wish they had removed these and not left them for people to see”.

Our next stop was the American Cemetery where 25,000 American soldiers lie buried, each a Cross or Star of David, facing Omaha beach. This cemetery is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Those who recognised names of family or friends laid flowers and said a quiet word of prayer. It is striking that the bulk of the names on the tombstones are from ranks of corporal and sergeants, foot soldiers. The American flag flies over this cemetery and a small memorial nearby. The government of France has given this portion of Normandy to the American government as a gesture for the sacrifice its soldiers made to liberate France from Nazi rule.

Thriving resort

The next stop was at Gold Beach were the British troops landed. This had a bigger beach leading on to a not-so-steep cliff face. There is a small museum which has an interesting collection of British war memorabilia. Here, out to sea, you can see the remnants of the British plan to tow a harbour, called a Mulberry, from England across the Channel so that troops and transport and even tanks can be landed in what is relatively shallow water. The whole area is today a popular holiday destination with hotels, restaurants and even a circus. Do these holiday makers even know or even imagine the tragedy and the sacrifice that took place on this beach 60 years ago?

Our last stop was Juno (Saint-Aubin) beach where the Canadians landed. This is also a popular holiday resort. This is a flat long beach now full of families swimming in the sea with children running around. It is difficult to imagine the confusion on these beaches as the troops landed so many years ago. The mood in the bus as we drove back to Paris was as sombre as the outward journey, a combination of tiredness and reflection of all that had been seen. We learnt from our guide that the British Cemetery close by has 7,000 tombs and there is also a German cemetery with 18,000 tombs. A total of half a million soldiers died in these operations. There must have been many who had similar thoughts to mine. Has mankind learnt anything? Will war ever happen again? The inscription in the War Memorial continued to haunt.

Pain broke me; brotherhood lifted me,

From my wound sprang a river of Freedom.