Travelling in the footsteps of heroes.
Thursday 5th June 20:45 hours. The weakening sun sinks slowly, bidding farewell to the day while casting an orange glow across the late evening sky. I check my uniform, making sure that all pockets are done up, boots clean and belts and buckles secured. I check my pack and I'm all set to go. I'm dressed in my Second World War British infantry uniform as I'm meeting re-enacting friends on the beach when we arrive in a few hours time. This is the trip I’ve been wanting to do for years but didn't think I'd make it. As I look down from the car park, the glints of headlights from motorcycles arriving at the ferry port flash a Morse-like signal as they navigate the rough ground at the entrance. They tag on to the end of a few hundred other bikes resting with their owners. British flags donned upon their rear bars and boxes flutter every now and then in the breeze. The car park is jammed and I seem to have been lucky enough to grab the last space.
As I make my way over to the terminal I'm filled with a little more hope as a WW2 jeep roars down the marked out lanes towards the boarding point. It looks like there's only one or two people occupying it. The reason for my hope is that my journey and stay in France is still packaged with uncertainty. My first problem is I have to work out how I'm going to get from Ouistreham to Arromanches. I'm relying on several military vehicles arriving in Normandy on the same ferry as me and hitching a lift with one of them. This is the first period vehicle I've seen. Maybe that's my lift to Gold Beach! I'm hoping that my uniform will help me. Two weeks ago I received a letter from Brittany Ferries advising me that the French authorities are imposing a restriction zone all along the Normandy coast, covering the landing beaches. From the moment I step off the ferry I'll be in the zone! In order to move through it I had to apply to the French authorities by email or through a local town hall in Normandy for a sticker, even as a pedestrian. I wrote to the authorities in France but received no reply so now I'm hoping I don't get stopped and can make it through to Arromanches. If I manage to get a lift in a military vehicle, there's a good chance they’ll have a sticker and my route through will be clear.
The ferry terminal has signs up welcoming the heroes who fought for liberty and the departure desk is beginning to get busy. I book in and get another reminder of the restrictions in place in Normandy and head off to the departure lounge. By the time we're called to board, it's packed with people and the atmosphere is starting to build. I have to wait for two buses to do drop offs at the ferry before I manage to get on one to be taken to board. On the bus there's only one topic of conversation. Everyone is talking about what will be happening in the morning, which beach they're heading to and where they've travelled from. Some have made long journeys whilst others, like the man almost opposite me, made a last minute decision this morning and jumped on the boat. He's talking to a group of younger men, telling them how he's seen all of the media coverage during the week and decided he wanted to be there on the day for the commemorations. He isn't bothered which beach he ends up at, as long as he makes it to a beach. He's planning on settling for the day on Sword beach at Ouistreham just a few steps from the ferry terminal. That's where most of the Heads of State will gather for the main commemorations this year. This man will be heading home on the last ferry of the day.
We're dropped off and climb the helter skelter ramp up to the passenger deck and enter the ferry. It's like entering a wasps nest. People are rushing around in all directions, trying to find their cabins, the cinemas and bars. It's obvious from the moment I set foot on the boat that many people are in my position of not having anywhere to sleep for the night. All the cabins had been booked up months ago so we’re left to race for prime places to rest for the journey. Some people just head for the nearest place out of the walkways. The central area underneath the stairs is popular, a group of eight or ten drop their bags and claim this spot which has been roped off. As I walk past I hear one man suggesting he might pitch his tent there. There's a stark contrast to what would have been happening on board ships heading for Normandy at exactly the same time seventy years earlier. I pass a man perusing his iPad, another stretched, relaxed across two padded seats. We're in the luxury of a heated ship with soothing lighting adding to the comfort. Our main concern is sleeping arrangements. How insignificant compared to the men who were preparing to face those beaches in just a matter of hours on that historic morning.
I decide not to find a place to settle down just yet. I want to have a walk around and soak up the atmosphere. I head to the rear of the boat as I want to look back at Portsmouth as we leave. The Spinnaker tower is dressed in red and blue lighting, dominating the skyline as we drift quietly away from the quayside. The reflected orange glow of the lights on buildings on the harbour side light our passage to the channel. There is a special atmosphere on board which can't be put into words. I stand against the rail on the rear deck looking back for a few minutes. Behind me three people sit in the shadows of the restaurant outdoor deck drinking a toast to friends or relatives, or perhaps strangers they never knew who made this trip on D Day. Seventy years previously the invasion fleet were ordered to maintain radio silence in order to protect the veil of secrecy over their forthcoming arrival in French waters. Not so tonight - mobile phones are ringing out, text tones punctuate the background chattiness that drifts out across the water back towards home. People are sending texts and checking and posting to Facebook and other social media sites.
The rear deck begins to quieten as more people head inside. I hear one lady say to her husband "We've got to get some sleep. We're going to be tired tomorrow." Again, another reminder of the differences in the concerns we're experiencing on this trip and how minuscule and unworthy they are. In the peacefulness of the channel late at night with a half moon for company, it's difficult to contemplate what must’ve been going through the minds of the men as they looked out across the invasion fleet. Some would’ve found comfort in the sheer number of ships they were with. However, looking out across the moonlit water trying to consider the possibility of being on board one of those ships doesn't bear thinking about. The prospect of transferring to a landing craft in a few hours time in rough seas five miles from the French coast to then be transported to a beach to be shot at and facing the very real prospect of being killed, is a terrifying thought. Seventy years on, imagining that brings a deeply unsettling feeling. Whilst I'm trying to put myself in the position of those men as the site of the English coast grows smaller, thoughts automatically turn to home and who I've left behind. As a new father, having recently become engaged, it's difficult to imagine the prospect of not seeing my family and friends again. That possibility makes you start to appreciate things we see everyday.
I decide to escape the cool midnight breeze and head inside to search for a place to rest. The buzzing of people calms as the cinemas fill and cabins are occupied. I search for somewhere sensible to bed down but the dimly lit seated areas are already occupied, the quiet corners behind doorways have been claimed and now people are settling for whatever space they can get where they won't get trodden on. I walk towards the front of the boat, passing a couple under a single sleeping bag opened out, both wearing eye masks and snoring. As I reach the café I have to come to a decision. The seated area outside the café entrance is full and although the rest of the café is almost empty, it's well lit and I don't want to be in the middle of it when people start heading in. To the left of the entrance door is an alcove just big enough to stretch out in. The glass partition of the café segregates me from the dimly lit seating area I was unable to get a place in. It's feels a bit like I imagine being a zoo animal with people staring at you through glass but the man on the other side looks keen to get his head down too and turns away from my direction to settle into his sleep on his chair. I position my bag at the glass divide so I know it's secure, take off my battledress jacket, roll it up and use it for a pillow. It takes me a while to drop off but sometime around 12:30 much needed sleep arrives.
At 3am a strong American male voice cuts through my sleep. It's met by an equally strong Australian female. They're comparing showers in Scottish hotels to others elsewhere and it's amazing to hear how long the subject can be spun out for! I'm determined to get some more sleep before the long day ahead but after 25 minutes there was no chance of sleep combating the decibel levels that we're being produced two tables away! The whole café is empty and they chose a table virtually on top of me. I'm lying looking up at the mirrored ceiling thinking about my next move. I remember the announcement when I first came aboard telling us that breakfast would be served between 4am and 6am so I decide I'll go for mine at 4. I look out of the window as dawn is threatening to break through the morning sky. This is a moment I want to experience, catching the first glimpse of the French coast as early as possible. I make my way outside to the front of the ferry to be greeted by a mild breeze and there it is! Three tiny twinkling lights first and then a few more. France! Imagine the moment on board those ships at the first sight of the French coast. Just a matter of time before you have to face that beach. The reality of the situation is now staring you in the face.
I go back inside. The early risers are making their way inside the café and the clanking of plates and cutlery fills the air. There's an older American couple in front of me as we make our way along the procession of breakfast options. They greet me with a good morning and ask me what my uniform is for. We chat about the uniform and where I've travelled from then I return the question. I then ask them where they're headed. "Omaha beach" replies the man in both a proud and sensitive voice. I was expecting him to tell me about a relative of his who took part in the landings but it was in fact his wife's father who they were making the trip for. She re-joined the conversation to say, with a tear in her eye, that unfortunately he was too ill to make the trip this year so they were doing it on his behalf. It would be the first time they’d visited the now famous shoreline where he’d helped to make history. He survived the terror despite being in the first wave to hit the beach. I can see it is a very emotional thing for her to talk about her father so I don't take it any further. We part at the tills and wish each other a safe onward journey and an enjoyable time in France.
I find a table by the window on the east side of the boat. There is a stunning sunrise exploding through the clouds. At this point seventy years before the men would’ve been climbing down the side of the ships into their landing crafts to assault the beaches. On D Day the weather was pretty awful, the channel was rough and a lot of the men had battled sea sickness during the crossing. Now they had to scramble down the netting onto their flat-bottomed boats which were jumping up at them as they moved lower. If they’d escaped sea sickness up to that point, the journey into the beach would be a fresh challenge! To make it worse, if you were in a craft that was ready first, you had to wait a while, being thrown around, while the rest of the assault wave was loaded into their crafts.
I’ve been conscious of looking around carefully for anyone else in a military uniform who might be driving a military vehicle, perhaps the jeep I had seen in Portsmouth. However, out of the huge number on the boat, I seem to be the only one in a uniform. I finish breakfast and go outside to look at the coast as we draw nearer. When we’re close enough it’s clear to see why Slapton Sands in Devon had been used to practise the landings, not without a huge disaster and loss of life and the concern that the plans for the Normandy invasion had been discovered.
Sword beach grows wider and longer as we approach and again, the thought of having to cross that expanse of wet sand after the rough journey whilst the enemy is doing everything possible to kill you, would've filled me with absolute dread. A few yards beyond the beach, a huge stage area with a white arched canopy roof has been constructed with it's back to the sea, forcing its audience to view the incoming tide on which the men came ashore.
We arrive in Ouistreham at 6:45am exactly - forty minutes before the first wave of British troops are due to arrive here on Sword Beach on the day itself. We’re also forty-five minutes ahead of the British assaulting Gold Beach at Arromanches, and the Canadians heading into Juno Beach. The Canadians had been due to land on Juno ten minutes earlier but had been delayed by the rough weather. The US Rangers will land at Pointe-du-Hoc in twenty five minutes, where they'll have to scale the cliffs in the face of the enemy to take a gun battery at the top. The Americans are already fifteen minutes into their assaults on Omaha and Utah beaches at the western end of the landings.
I find the exit deck and the door and wait ahead of the crowd for the doors to open and to be invited to leave. When the moment arrives there's a rush and I surge ahead of it with clear, sloping, zig zag walkways ahead of me on the way down to Customs and the terminal. I'm keen to get outside as soon as I can to attempt to get my lift to Arromanches. I have to wait at customs for a short period for them to open for us. Then I'm out and putting on a pace to get to the entrance of the port. The first vehicles are already driving out and towards the centre of town. I hope I've not missed my chance.
I reach the first junction. On the side of the road there's a mass gathering of civilian motorbikes and a large number of Gendarmerie. I stand on the side of the road looking out for a possible ride as the steady flow of traffic continues to head inland. It seems to be just delivery vans, lorries and motorbikes at this point. Then I get disrupted suddenly by a man riding a well-used mountain bike dressed in modern leisure grey combat trousers with a t shirt on. He's obviously noticed my uniform because he's stopped to ask me if I know the way to Arromanches. Luckily, I’ve planned which route I’d take if I had to go on foot or hitch several lifts, so I’m able to tell him which way he should be going. He doesn't have a permit to travel through the restricted zone either! We both wish each other good luck on our journeys and he sets off, disappearing round the first right turn towards the coast road.
A minute or so later another cyclist stops to chat. This time it is just for a chat. He asks me where I'm headed and after responding I return the question. He's heading for Merville Battery, a strategic objective for British paratroopers in the early hours before the beach landings began. Their job was to assault the battery and destroy the guns that were positioned to fire on Sword beach. The paratroopers ended up missing their drop zones and were scattered all over the countryside when they landed and their commander, Major John Urqhuart, with a massive shortage of men, far fewer than he needed to seriously carry out the attack successfully, had to decide whether the mission could be attempted.
There were several machine gun positions to negotiate not to mention the obstacles spread across the ground on which the battery was located. The attack went ahead and is yet another example of the courage and bravery that was shown by the allies to make D Day a success. Against the odds, the paratroopers overwhelmed the battery and silenced the guns.
My friend on his bike has made the journey several times before but this year he's bought a genuine WW2 paratrooper's bike to make the journey on and mark the special anniversary. We also wish each other a safe onward trip and he heads off straight through town.
About thirty seconds later, amongst the flow of white delivery vehicles moving continuously past me in two lanes I hear then catch a glimpse of what looks to be the back end of a WW2 jeep. It emerges on the far side of the road in the gap between the moving vehicles. It has two passengers in the front but is otherwise completely empty! My lift? I shout excuse me across the road, the driver turns, sees me and slows quickly. I ask if he's going to Arromanches. Before he can say yes, he's already pulled to the side of the road, ushers me over and tells me to hop in. Everything is going well, really well...too well.
After the introductions we get onto the topic of travel permits. Although Ed is aware of them, he decided not to bother applying for one and was happier just to give it a go and see how far they got. He and his nine year old son Oscar are staying in Bayeux tonight. It's Oscar's first trip to Normandy and it all seemed to come together last minute for them. Ed tells me he collects classic cars and with the 70th anniversary of D Day fast approaching, he wanted something appropriate to drive to Normandy in. Three weeks earlier he bought this 1940's RAF Jeep. He knew nothing about it in terms of its mechanical status or service history. However, he was given a photo to accompany the purchase showing it in Eindhoven, Holland after being part of General Montgomery's doomed Operation Market Garden - the large operation to skip across the Rhine and into Germany in a bid to end the war months earlier than planned.
However, as the true film title tells, it was a bridge too far and the whole thing failed. Ed then tells me that he only took it out for a run two days before this trip and only went down the road and back. They had come from Berkshire and this was the furthest they had driven in it so far and...the fuel gauge didn't work properly.
Nevertheless, we pushed on with the journey, navigating the French roads on a mission. We passed through the town of Colleville-Montgomery, where other military vehicles were lining up in readiness to set off on their journeys. Ed had no planned route and didn't know the roads so his plan was just to follow his nose to keep as close to the coast road as possible. The pavements in Colleville- Montgomery were filled with metal barriers like the ones you see around roadworks or festivals. They were ready to be placed on the road to allow the convoy of dignitaries, veterans and military vehicles to pass through at some stage. As we turned at one junction, we were met by a large gathering of Gendarmerie who looked like they were about to be given a briefing. Two of them then stepped into the road ahead of us and waved us down to a halt. Ed spoke in French to tell them we were trying to get to Arromanches and amazingly they sent us on our way through giving us directions but advising that they wouldn't expect us to get all the way through. We stopped to look at Juno beach at Corseulles-sur-Mer and then again to look at the monument marking the bridgehead that the Canadians created on D Day.
The roads open up from then on into beautiful Norman countryside where fields are split by the road and the lack of hedgerows gives us great views to the coast and inland. It’s from here we get our first glimpse of the broken remains of the Mulberry Harbour lying out at sea. I've definitely got the most fitting journey to Gold beach.
After forty minutes of travelling and dodging checkpoints, we reach the small coastal village of Asnelles. It's here that we think we've gone as far as we can go. At the junction ahead, there is a police roadblock. The traffic ahead is being diverted off the main road back inland. When we arrive at the checkpoint a female Gendarme meets us with a smile. Ed asks if there's any way we can go through to Arromanches but she tells us that we must follow the diversion and the road will take us to a big car park and we can walk into Arromanches from there. Ed says thank you and we turn onto our new route. A little way down that road we come across a right hand turning. It's barriered off to the pavement on both sides but Ed decides to test his new jeep out and we're suddenly up on the pavement and cutting back through towards the coast road again. We rejoin it right on the outskirts of Arromanches where we're flagged down by a policeman in the road. This is our journey's end. We're told to park up in a field where others have been doing the same during the morning and over the previous day and night by the look of the camps that have been set up. After parking up, Ed and Oscar wish me a good time and I return the sentiment and thank them for my lift. Ed refuses to take any money for the journey and says he was just happy he could help.
I walk down the long right hand bend curving down into the town. The roadsides are jammed with parked cars. There are plenty of people heading into Arromanches with me as we walk down the hill. I'm following a young English couple with two toddlers. We walk through the back streets after being guided in by more police on road duty, we pass the police station , which looks empty, we pass the town hall and then follow the stream of visitors or locals ahead of us down a snicket and suddenly we're in the main street. I've never seen a place so busy at 7:25 in the morning. Every shop and restaurant is open but there's hardly any room to manoeuvre. There are large groups standing talking, what seems like hundreds of re enactors mulling around, and some of the shops are taking advantage of the occasion by extending outside to sell commemorative souvenirs. I pass a small group of musicians dressed in American period uniform entertaining the early crowds. I make my way through to the car park in front of the D Day Museum. This is where I've seen the past ceremonies I’ve watched on TV and I'm finally here to see it myself.
Although I’ve only just arrived, I decide that now’s the time to explore the commemorative goodies on offer from the shops. I don’t want to miss out on something that might sell out later in the day, and it’s only going to get busier as the day goes on. There’s so much on offer, the usual fridge magnets, mugs, caps, badges, hoodies and polo shirts you normally find at a special event, as well as replica war items from the smaller issued items of the period, to uniforms and helmets. I purchase my hoodie, fridge magnets, mugs, D-Day beer and replica US Army Cricket, pack it all into my rucksack and head down towards the beach.
The seawall is invisible, veiled by the crowds. The museum car park to my right is sectioned off ready for the ceremonies to begin. At the opposite end to the museum, where I’m walking, a white marquee stretches across the bottom end of the car park. I can just make out through the gap where the sides have been left off, a large amount of seating under the cover.
I continue on towards the beach, stopping at the seawall to get my first idea of the scene the German defenders would have looked upon each day before the invasion. Today though, the beach is packed full of static military vehicles of all shapes and sizes, all in tip top shape and proudly lined up side by side as if on parade. I look out to the shoreline, which is a fair distance away, leaving the dark brown sand exposed to the hot summer sun already beating down at this early hour. To my right, I notice a huddle of people down on the beach. In the middle of them, BBC Radio 2 presenter, Chris Evans, is interviewing the Historian and Author Antony Beevor live on his breakfast show, whilst three landing craft sit on the wet sand in the distance.
I take my first steps onto the beach, feeling grateful that I’m here. There are plenty of others feeling the same. A happy group of re-enactors arrange themselves against the seawall defences for a photo opportunity. The sand is warm on the soles of my feet, still sodden and the ripples have trapped pockets of water for me to paddle in as I continue my stroll.
I want to get up closer to the landing craft so that I know I’ve connected in as many ways as possible to the events of seventy years ago whilst I’m in the places they happened. They’re not the same as those that were used on D-Day but they’re based on their design.
It’s hard to ignore the snaking line of huge concrete blocks a little way on that look like part of a giant’s broken lego set discarded on the sand. These blocks were towed across the channel seventy years ago and constructed to form a floating harbour. The size of the blocks up close give a clear appreciation of this great achievement of engineering and the strength of the storm that hit the coast almost a fortnight after the landings. Reported as being one of the fiercest storms in decades, it caused a huge amount of damage, destroying the artificial harbour that had been erected at Omaha Beach and partially destroying this one at Arromanches.
After inspecting the remains of the Mulberry on the beach, I decided I couldn’t come to Gold Beach and not go for a paddle in the waves. Another must on my to do list to bring me closer to the events and those who took part in D-Day.
I paddle for a while, contemplating what the scene where I was stood would’ve been like. A while passed before I noticed amphibious vehicles heading into shore from a newly arrived landing craft. I left the waves behind and headed back up the beach, occasionally glimpsing behind me to ensure I’d taken it all in. I take the opportunity to fill a bottle with sand as a memento.
I make my way to the right hand side of the beach where all of the vehicles are sat basking in the sunshine. My next challenge is to find my friend, Richard and an American vehicle called “Detroit Doozy”. It’s an impressive display of vehicles of all shapes, sizes and purposes, all with their own unique stories to tell. Many of them have been here before! Trying to find one particular vehicle amongst them is going to be tricky. I walk through them line by line admiring the great care that the owners have taken in restoring and looking after their vehicles. When I eventually reach the end, I haven’t yet found Detroit Doozy! I start again, this time from the back. A few rows in and I get a sense I’m close. There’s a huge vehicle with unique and humorous wording on a box secured on the bonnet. The owner of Detroit Doozy is a member of the Devon Military Vehicle Trust and this box suggests I’m in the right area. A few more steps and there she is! But there’s nobody around. I wait a while but there’s no sign of Richard. The heat is increasing so I decide to go and grab a drink and come back later.
I go through the rows of vehicles again to have another look at them all whilst also wondering if I’ll find Richard chatting to others somewhere amongst them. Visitors to the beach are making the most of the opportunities to talk to the owners of the vehicles as well as snapping photographs of this part of the commemorations.
I head off the beach. The amount of people now here in Arromanches has grown and it’s only when I look back onto the beach at the vehicles that I appreciate the numbers gathering to mark the occasion. And it’s still early!
I wander through the crowds and down one of the streets to explore the shops. I decide it’s not worth venturing into any - it’s far too busy. I hear a marching band in the distance, so I head towards where the music is coming from. The area is packed out. I stand next to jeep that’s been crocheted - another unique site! I listen for a while and then go back through the crowds to a café at the top of the slipway. There’s a long queue to be served but anywhere selling food and drink today is going to be really busy, so I join the queue. There’s about fifteen people in front of me. Gradually, the line reduces and there are three people in front of me waiting to be served when suddenly, there’s a tap on my arm. I turn round to find a man a couple of places behind me turning and pointing behind him. With a big smile on his face and a thumbs up towards me, it’s my first cycling friend, who’d stopped to ask me directions to Arromanches after getting off the ferry in Ouistreham. Having been unsure if we’d make it, it felt like a mutual acknowledgement and moment of celebration in getting here. We wished each other a good day and I was called to the serving hatch to order. Food and drink options were already limited as demand had been huge and staff were rushing off to get additional supplies. I take my drink and venture off to find the bakery I’d spotted after arriving in Arromanches. After queueing again, I finally take my much needed refreshments around to the slipway to try to find some shelter from the sun.
The slipway is busy, it provides a resting point for people to perch and eat their refreshments but it’s also a great vantage point to watch the live TV footage of the events happening elsewhere in Normandy. The huge screen at the top of the slipway is showing veterans and dignitaries taking part in the commemorations in Bayeux. I manage to find a small patch of shade by the wall and sit down to watch the screen. This gives me a good view of the vehicles on the beach. I can look out for Richard amongst the passing people, have a break from the heat and enjoy my food and drink whilst watching the events going on in Bayeux.
A while later, I decide to go back to Detroit Doozy and see if Richard is there. I haven’t taken more than ten steps down the slip before a lone figure dressed in American uniform and sunglasses is saluting at me with a smile. Richard has found me! It’s great to see him. Before this moment, I began to wonder if we’d actually meet up. We walk down to the vehicle and catch up on what’s been happening in Arromanches. It’d been a very early start for those involved with bringing the vehicles onto the beach. Richard tells me about what they’ve already been doing whilst they’ve been in Normandy. There’s a group of them who are enjoying several days over here centred around the anniversary commemorations. I ask Richard about the camping situation. I’m still very welcome to stay with them for the night, which I really appreciate. There’s just one problem. There’s no guarantee I can get back to Ouistreham in the morning! Richard travelled over with a huge number of vehicles from Devon and he seems to think someone will be heading my way in the morning but it’s up to me if I want to take that chance. Thinking about it, I don’t really have a choice. I don’t really know what else I’d do tonight and the chances of getting a lift from the campsite are likely to be far higher than me trying to find an alternative from Arromanches. So I decide to take the risk. Richard then introduces me to Lesley (the owner of Detroit Doozy) and his son.
Soon after, the owners are being called back to their vehicles. The tide is on its way back in and it’s time to leave. We’re heading back to the campsite. I climb into the back and wait for our departure. One by one the engines fire up around us, there’s a lot of noise and once again, I begin to appreciate the very authentic sounds that would’ve been heard here decades before. We’re about to re-enact their journey too. One of the vehicles decides it doesn’t want to go and is refusing to start. With some persuasion, it eventually kicks into life and joins us as we make our way along the sand to the slipway.
We slowly wind our way out of Arromanches, passing re-enactors and other military vehicles heading back towards the beach. This again paints a picture of what the same roads may have been like on D-Day and the days that followed. As we continued our journey, our convoy grows, creating quite a spectacle. We pull up at a petrol station and hypermarket to get some food for our evening meal. The petrol station is full of German and American period vehicles. It’s here that I begin to gain a real understanding of just how much fuel is needed to keep these vehicles moving!
Back in convoy we weave our way through the French countryside to our campsite - Reine Mathilde in Etreham. It’s absolutely packed. Wherever you look there are military vehicles, groups of people sat out in front of tents, enjoying the early afternoon sun. We park up and Richard shows me to the tent and where I’ll be sleeping for the night. I drop my bag in and then one of the group asks if he can have some of my sand from the beach as he meant to get some himself but forgot. I hand him my bottle for him to decant some. I now understand why re-enactors like the American uniform for more than just its looks. In my British uniform I now feel like the hot contents of a thermos flask! I walk over to the toilets and change into civvies and my body breathes a sigh of relief. I’m still very anxious about how I’m going to get home so I drop my uniform off at the tent and Richard and I head off around the site to try to find anyone who might be able to get me to the ferry in the morning. Everyone is very friendly but nobody is going my way. Some are travelling on the ferry after mine but aren’t then arriving early enough for me to catch my boat, some are travelling back today, in an hour. Nothing is tying in. I’m beginning to worry.
After spending about forty minutes walking the site, we venture into the clubhouse to ask in there. Richard asks the lady on reception if she knows of anyone leaving in the morning who we could ask. She’s unable to help. A man waiting to speak to her overhears our conversation and says he’s heading to Ouistreham tonight in three hours time if I want a lift. I thank him for his offer and tell him I’ll come back and find him shortly to see if his offer’s still available. We’re still hopeful that out of the hundreds of people camping on the site, there must be one vehicle heading to the same ferry as me tomorrow morning. I spend another period of time circling the site, asking those who I haven’t already if they can help me. Eventually, there’s a glimmer of hope. One man tells me a friend of his is heading off to Ouistreham early in the morning. He directs me to his friend’s pitch and I head on over. I realise the problem immediately on seeing his tent. There’s a World War 2 period Royal Enfield motorbike parked up and a man dressed in Despatch Rider uniform busying himself. The tents around him also have bikes parked up. They have their own group area by the look of it. Even if he was kind enough to take me, I couldn’t carry my backpack with me, and having never ridden on the back of a motorbike before, I’m not sure I could even do it without a backpack! I walk on.
Time’s ticking and I’ve decided to take up the offer from the man we’d spoken to in reception. I go back to find him. I search the restaurant, outdoor seating area, reception, everywhere. There’s no sign of him. You know those moments where you’re looking for someone and lots of people you see seem to resemble them. Your eyes start playing tricks on you. One man, who I thought was the man I was looking for, turned out not to be and I totally confused him when I asked if he was the man I’d spoken to about a lift to Ouistreham tonight. Time for plan B.
I return to the reception desk and ask the lady how long it would take me to walk from the site to Ouistreham - hours, too long. I had no idea where I was but I began to get a good idea that it wasn’t the easiest place to get out of, particularly using public transport. I’m told that the nearest bus stop is about ten minutes walk away but the buses are a bit irregular and timetables and routes may be affected by the D-Day commemorations. The nearest taxi company is twenty-five miles away in Caen. I’m thirty-five and a half miles away from Ouistreham. I ask the lady on reception in her honest opinion how safe is it to hitch-hike in France. “It’s safe” is the response. She tells me that she has hitch-hiked many times and people are very friendly. Decision made - I’m heading off on foot back to Arromanches in the hope of picking up a lift to Ouistreham from there. The receptionist hands me a map, apologises for not being able to help any further and wishes me good luck.I return to Richard at the tent and tell him I’m leaving straight away to give myself the best chance of getting back to Ouistreham tonight. I say goodbye to the group and begin my walk.
Heading back down the narrow country lane that leads to the campsite, I pass a field with low hedgerows where a simple, beautiful site draws my attention. I have to look twice to appreciate what I’m seeing. There standing tall amid the long green grass blowing gently in the summer breeze, are delicate flowers bringing a sea of red patches across the stretch of greenery - poppies bob their heads too and fro to join in with natures dance. A fitting site to see on a D-Day visit to Normandy.
About twenty minutes into my journey and I reach a junction. I don’t recognise any of the place names and I’m unsure which way to go. I consult my map for a moment and it seems that either way will do. A minute or so later a convoy of three ww2 vehicles approach. The first car stops at the side of me. There’s a lady in the passenger seat on my side, in period uniform heavily laden in make-up, with bright red lipstick punctuating her smile. The driver leans across to speak to me. He’s what I would describe as a young looking Captain Mainwearing but slighter in figure. He wastes little time in asking me abruptly if I have seen any other military vehicles heading this way. I tell him I haven’t. He seems cross. His passenger informs me that their convoy has been split up and they don’t know where they’re going. I tell them I’m in a similar predicament and ask if they can advise on the best way to get to Arromanches. The driver appears like he doesn’t have the time to help me and seems impatient. The lady points me in the direction they’ve just come from. I thank her, wish them good luck and walk on. A few minutes later, they pass me again from the opposite direction.
About twenty minutes go by of thumb waving without anyone stopping. Then suddenly a car approaches from behind, slows down and pulls in in front of me. I quicken my steps and open the passenger door. I ask if the driver speaks English. No. I say in broken French that I’m trying to get to Arromanches. The driver nods, I get in and shut the door. I thank him and he says something to me in French, which I don’t understand. He smiles, grabs his phone and begins to tap away at the screen. He passes it over, Google translate has happily put his greeting and confirmation that I want to go to Arromanches into English for me. I laugh and respond with a very enthusiastic and relieved “Oui!” For the next ten minutes or so we hold an entertaining conversation through Google translate, with each part of the communication beginning with one of us saying something that the other doesn’t understand, the phone changes hands and Google does the rest! I discover that my driver, Orielle, is in his twenties and lives locally. He used to live in town but his family then moved out to the country. He likes it there but misses being around his friends, although he still sees them a lot. He tells me that he will take me to Arromanches but he wants to show me a few other things before I depart for England. We drive into Port en Bessin. This is an added bonus for me as it wasn’t on my plans to visit. This tranquil fishing village was the scene of an important battle, a seemingly impossible nut to crack for the Royal Marine Commandos. Their job, after hopefully surviving their beach landing at Arromanches, was to march on to Port en Bessin behind enemy lines and sneak up on the village, which was very heavily defended. Four hundred and twenty-seven men were tasked with capturing the port. By the evening of June 7th they were in a desperate situation. They’d reached the edge of the village but were depleted in number, exhausted and low on ammunition. That night, twenty five men attacked the main defences under the cover of darkness and shortly after, the Germans were surrendering.
Port en Bessin became the location for PLUTO - the pipeline under the sea, which pumped millions of gallons of fuel over to France in the months after D-Day.
We drive onto the quay and park up. He walks towards the sea wall so I follow. Orielle points down to the water swirling around the wall. I wonder what he’s pointing at to begin with but as the tide recedes momentarily, thousands of shells appear clinging to the seaweed below. I’d never seen so many in one place before. It was certainly something I hadn’t expected to see and one that I couldn’t help but be amazed by. Orielle (still via Google Translate) explained that he was a fisherman here in Port en Bessin and as we drove back around the harbour he pointed at the boat he works on and the restaurant they supply to.
We drive on to Arromanches and at each police roadblock Orielle informs the Gendarmerie that he’s dropping me off. We eventually reach a point at which we’re told we can’t go any further and we’re directed onto a field being used as a car park for the day. It’s now 4:30pm and more people are leaving the car park than those who are arriving. I offer Orielle some money for the lift but he refuses. We say our goodbyes and I leave him talking to a friend who’d spotted him as we pulled into the field.
I head down towards the gate and notice a motorcyclist in full gear struggling to move his bike. The stand’s got stuck in the soft, furrowed ground and he can’t gain enough momentum to set it free. I ask if he wants some help and a northern British accent happily accepts my offer. After a minute or sow we finally manage to rock the heavy bike forwards over a troublesome lump of earth and set it free. The biker thanks me and he sets off on his way out of Arromanches.
When I reach the seafront there’s still a huge number of people around but it’s significantly quieter than when we’d left it just after lunchtime. The TV studio on its scaffold stilts is now unoccupied and the beach is void of military vehicles. All scheduled events have now been completed and it’s easy to walk along the seawall to the front of the D-Day Museum, where the wreaths were laid earlier in the day.
After some time reflecting here, I move back down to the beach. The tide is heading back out and whilst people walk along the sand and children play, I refill my bottle with sand. I stroll along the beach for a while and then return to the car park area in front of the museum where a crowd is starting to gather again and a convoy of coaches are queueing up.
One by one, veterans board their coaches and as each of the vehicles depart, the crowds break into applause for the men who are leaving the place they helped to liberate seventy years ago. It’s a truly moving and humbling experience. The appreciation from the crowds is met by waves from the windows of the coaches.
After half an hour or so, the last of the coaches leaves and the crowds disperse. I now have to work out what I’m going to do about getting back to Ouistreham. With a very long walk ahead of my with a heavy pack on and the warmth of the summer sun still giving, I decide to return to the café I’d called at this morning to stock up on water.
With my stocks replenished, I take one last look at the beach and my surroundings and begin my long walk out of Arromanches. Heading up the hill around the bend coming out of the village, I’m reminded of a radio documentary I’d heard about a Despatch Rider who’d gone ashore on D-Day. He described how a Despatch Rider colleague had made a very simple error in this area in the days following D-Day. Going down one of the side roads to my right, the rider had forgotten that traffic drove on the other side of the road in France. As he went on his journey on the wrong side of the road, he met an allied tank coming the other way and was killed.
I reach the top of the hill and I’m met by a scene which strikes my heart. A statue of the Virgin Mary, one of the many war memorials in Normandy, stands high on the cliffs overlooking Arromanches and Gold Beach. What a sight it must have been seventy years before. As the waves calmly and silently wash into the shore, I have an unshakeable and comforting feeling that she’s watching over and protecting the sacred sand where so many fell.
As I leave Arromanches behind me, I remember the final police roadblock we’d been stopped at on our journey this morning and the Bed & Breakfast sign on the side of the road. I’m intending to walk back to this B&B in the hope they might have a bed for the night. The walk gives me time to reflect on the journey the men would have made on the same route out of Arromanches on the evening of D-Day and the lives that had been lost and changed forever that day on the Normandy coast.
When I finally reach the bed and breakfast, the police are still manning the roadblock and the same police lady is on duty. The B&B is full, so I ask the police officer if she knows of any other places to stay nearby. She says she doesn’t know the local area well and neither does her colleague. I thank them for their time and continue walking on. I’ve no idea where I’m going to end up but I know if I’m going to have any chance of making my boat home in the morning, I have to get as close to Ouistreham as possible before I stop.
I walk on for a while before I come across a stall on the side of the road, which is attracting a number of people. Under the white polythene roof in numerous plastic baskets are various inert world war two ammunition. I’m very interested in the German stick grenades and I’m contemplating buying one to take home. At the last minute I question whether or not I’ll be allowed to take it on the boat home. With this is mind, I decide not to buy one and continue on my way.
The last of the sun’s rays have now disappeared and the onset of nightfall arrives by the time I reach a large campsite on the main road at Asnelles. The sign on the entrance tells me that the Dorset Military Vehicle Trust are staying on the site. I’m encouraged by this and even more so when a few military vehicles start pulling in and coming out. To the right of the entrance outside of the site perimeter, a white van selling pizzas is being kept busy by the campers. As I approach one of the people waiting to be served, a roofless American Willy’s Jeep drives out of the site and pulls up. Two men dressed to complement their vehicle climb out and join the queue. I approach them and ask if they know of anyone travelling to Ouistreham tonight. After a short period of conversation between them, trying to solve my problem, they can’t offer me a solution. I thank them and head inside to the reception office. It’s closed but there is a clear sign on the door stating that there are no pitches available and the site is full. Decision time again.
Darkness is falling rapidly and the streetlights and headlights of the passing traffic are much needed. I phone Jacqui, my wife, to let her know where I was and that I thought it might be a good idea to pitch my tent here on a small patch of grass at the front of the site. I have the security of being right outside a campsite full of English people, and as they are members of a military vehicle trust, I would be in with some sort of chance of getting a lift to Ouistreham early in the morning...perhaps. The opposite kept crossing my mind at the same time too! My mobile phone battery’s now on red so Jacqui suggests she rings a taxi for me and I can finally secure a ride to Ouistreham. I give her the name of the campsite and we hang up.
A few minutes later my ringtone disturbs my thinking. Jacqui tells me she’s having problems getting through to the taxi firm. I decide to continue trying to hitch a lift after all to try to get closer to my final destination. I agree to stay put whilst I do this but let Jacqui know if I’m successful in moving on. She will continue trying to get hold of a taxi.
I decide to walk on slowly, sticking my thumb out as the sound and headlights of cars appear from behind me. The first half a dozen pass by as if I’m not here, then a few minutes of silence. As the next vehicle approaches I get the feeling it will continue on. I’m wrong. It slows down and pulls over next to me. I open the passenger door to the Range Rover, which lights up the interior and the face of a bald man I guess to be around his mid-fifties with a round face and glasses. I ask if he speaks English - no. I say I want to go to Ouistreham. He says he can take me to Corseulles-sur-Mer. I am tempted but at this stage with a potential taxi on the way, I thank him and decline his offer.
A few minutes later, a large, old, white transit van drives past and pulls into the side of the road in front of me. I open the passenger door to reveal a large dog looking down at me. Taking a rapid step back, I then catch sight of a tall, unshaven man around his early thirties, wearing a black baseball cap. I ask him if he’s going to Ouistreham. He replies in English that he’s not but he can take me to Corseulles. With yet no word on the taxi, I decide to take a gamble and accept his offer. He calls Rocky (his companion) away from the door and assures me he won’t bite. I thank him for that, climb into the passenger seat and strap myself in. The fifteen minute journey is an interesting one.
My driver tells me he’s half- Norman and half-Morrocan, spending half the year in each country. He works for a company selling fruit and veg whilst in Normandy. I begin to feel uneasy about five minutes in when he announces his dislike for the police, who’ve pulled him over several times. He then adds that the road closures and diversions that are put in place for the D-Day commemorations really get on his nerves! At this point, I’m quickly searching for alternative reasons for my being in Normandy in case he asks.
He speaks good English and his next frustration is aimed towards my lack of ability to speak a lot of French. This journey is beginning to become uncomfortable! He then brings his mobile phone out and begins fiddling with it before calling someone. I try to think of a reason to be dropped off sooner than planned. After finishing his call, we’re approaching the outskirts of Corseulles. he blasts his horn at a passing vehicle and then tells me it was his boss. As we arrive in the centre of Corseulles, he shows me where he lives and asks me what time my ferry is. I tell him I’m on the last boat out tonight. Suddenly he waves at someone on the side of the road and he says it’s his brother. He pulls the van over and winds his window down. I undo my seatbelt, thank him for the lift, grab my bag and open the door. He looks over to me says “Good luck my friend” and holds out his hand to shake mine. I meet his gesture, then leave them talking.
To my surprise, we’ve pulled up right outside a large holiday park with lots of people mulling around. I’ve been out of signal during the journey but now in its last efforts of battery life, my phone begins to ring. Jacqui tells me the taxi is on its way...to Asnelles! I explain I’ve now moved on and Jacqui leaves the call to phone the taxi company back to give them my new location. I’m concerned my battery life will give out before I get confirmation that the taxi driver has my updated information. A few minutes later, Jacqui calls again - the line was very bad when she spoke to the driver but she thinks he got the message. I hope he’s got the message. As I wait, I start to make plans in case the taxi doesn’t arrive.
Across the road there’s a large piece of grassland. It’s being used as a temporary car park by the look of it. One of the vehicles on it is a huge car transporter. There are no cars on it. I decide it might be a good place to shelter under if I’m here for the night.
about ten minutes later, a taxi pulls up. A short man with glasses and cropped black hair gets out and looks around. I offer my name. He doesn’t speak English and doesn’t appear confident about who he’s supposed to be picking up. This must be my taxi!
We load my luggage into the boot and climb inside. It’s about a half an hour journey to the port but again, it feels much longer. I try to make conversation in French, attempting to pull at the GCSE knowledge lying dormant somewhere down a long, dark corridor in the back of beyond in my memory. My efforts are met with very short, unenthusiastic responses. I surrender to his apathy and sit uncomfortably in the silence. Perhaps he’s tired. I know I am. It’s approaching eleven now. I’m watching the meter ticking by, panicking that I may not have enough money for the fare and will need to communicate to the driver that I need to go into the terminal to get some money out to pay him. I breathe a sigh of relief when we arrive at the port a few euros within the money I have in my wallet. The driver helps me to retrieve my bags, I pay and thank him and head quickly into the terminal building. May be I can get a boat tonight. It’s now eleven o’clock.
When I ask at the service desk I’m told that the last sailing left ten minutes ago. I ask if they know of anywhere I could get a room for the night. The male behind the desk is very polite and helpful and points towards the entrance doors at a sign lit up in yellow and green across the road. he tells me it’s a hotel and I might be lucky. Without hesitation, I thank him, grab my bags and rush over the road.
It’s a very vibrant, clean and modern place inside with bright coloured furnishings jumping out from the neutral white backgrounds and flooring. A small white desk with a lady sat at a computer greets me with a friendly smile and a “Bonjour!” I reply with the same and then ask if she speaks English. She does - Phew! I ask if they have a room. Only two left I’m told. “I’ll take one please!” The words pour out of my mouth in relief. I pay the bill and take the key after listening to her directions.
Quite frankly, the room could’ve been in any condition and I wouldn’t have minded. It made me realise that the stress and discomfort I had experienced in getting to this point and the tiredness that had now fully hit, was nothing in comparison to what those men, who’d made it through the day seventy years ago, had experienced. Some had lost friends, perhaps witnessed their deaths, some were lying wounded here in Ouistreham and all along the invasion front, some were back in hospital in England, and others were on their way back there with allsorts of injuries. I imagined sitting quietly as an allied infantryman in Normandy that night in a brief moment of respite, trying to come to terms with what had happened during the day. A silly idea - not possible! I can’t even begin to imagine what it must’ve been like and how those men dealt with what they’d had to endure and witness.
My room was modern, spacious and very comfortable. After ringing Jacqui to confirm I had a bed for the night and easy access to my boat home in the morning (something else the servicemen and their families weren’t able to do on the night of D-Day), I get my head down and sleep very well...until a huge thunder and lightning storm breaks the peace in the early hours. The pink flashes and loud rumbles keep me awake for a while but as the storm moves away, sleep returns.
Half past five calls me out of bed through the alarm on my now fully charged phone. After a quick shower I gather my luggage and head down for breakfast. The room us bright with retro colours contrasting the grey clouds of the early morning exterior. I collect some croissants and coffee and sit down at the far end of the room. I’m not the first down for breakfast. Three men, who sound like they’re from the north of England and around their late fifties, are already chatting and making use of the buffet on offer. They’re talking about their plans for the day. I’m guessing they’re over here for the D-Day commemorations but for a longer period than me. Two more of their group come down to join them. The room is now full of anecdotes and questions about whose sleep was interrupted by the thunderstorm. I don’t have a lot of time, so I finish breakfast, thank the hotel staff as I return my key and head across to the ferry terminal.
I’m not the first here either. I join a very long queue to check in. I’m going to be here a while so I drop my bag on the floor next to where I’m stood to save some energy. The line of people is full of strangers but they’re soon talking like old friends. I can’t help but overhear a conversation going on in front of me. The couple are from the Manchester area and came over a few days ago for the D-Day anniversary. They’ve been staying with friends who live in Normandy. They’d never been to any D-Day sites before and their highlight had been walking the complete length of Omaha Beach. The man they’re talking to has a fascinating story. He’s the great nephew of the Westlake Brothers, George, Albert and Tommy, from Canada. Their story is one that could have inspired Saving Private Ryan. All three brothers landed on Juno beach on D-Day. Having made it through D-Day, twenty-three-year-old George was executed on June 7th. Tommy, 29 and Albert 26 died together manning the same sub-machine gun trying to take the village of Mesnil-Patry on the 11th June 1944. There is an association set up in their name and work is ongoing in Canada to ensure the brothers are never forgotten. It’s believed they’re the only family in Canada to lose three members in June of 1944 after the invasion. You can find out more about them here:
This man travelled with his father to Normandy for the first time ten years ago and he wanted to be here again for the 70th anniversary.
Eventually, we check in and climb the ramp onto the ferry. We leave a wet and gloomy Ouistreham behind, giving one last reminder of the landings on the beaches, which were made in unfavourable weather conditions. As we head out to see, the weather obscures the view along the French coast so I head to the entertainment stage on board.
There’s a group of women dressed in period costume singing songs from the war period entertaining a large group of passengers gathered. It’s a great way to end the trip, seeing youngsters enjoying songs from the wartime period.
Just a few minutes before we arrive back in Portsmouth I head down to the exit deck. There’s already a huge amount of people there and the wartime singers are talking to BBC Radio 5 Live presenter Richard Bacon. When they’re finished I head over to say hello to him and grab a quick photo. It’s another memento of a trip I will never ever forget.
The wartime singers break into song as we all await the arrival of the ramp at the door and then we’re off down to the terminal and back home!
I’ve experienced atmospheres and feelings on this trip that I can’t put into words and I’m unlikely to ever experience again. I’m so grateful to have been able to make this trip and to have stood in places where heroes once stood and fell. We will always remember them.