That our visit to Normandy coincided with the celebrations of the 66th anniversary of the D-day landings was a complete accident. We arrived by ferry at Ouistreham-Caen on Friday 4th June, stayed in Lisieux for the following three nights, and then finished off staying in Bayeux for the Monday and Tuesday nights. We did not therefore take part in any of the D-day Festival events, but were able to follow the extensive coverage in the local newspapers, and were accompanied on both the outward and return ferry journeys by people visiting for the anniversary.
1. The people of Normandy do celebrate the anniversary of the D-day landings, and do so in a very big way. There is still very much a sense of gratitude to the soldiers who liberated them. Events take place along the whole length of the Normandy coast on which the landings took place. In Arromanche, for example, the principle Mass on the Sunday was celebrate out of doors in front of the D-day museum on the sea-front of this small town. This then integrated with the civic ceremonies of the morning. The newspaper reports of similar events suggested that a ceremony like this would have been attended to two or three thousand people. Another event that caught my eye was a picnic along the sea front - I can't remember where exactly it was. Tables and chairs were set up along a considerable length of the sea wall, and an open invitation extended to residents and visitors to bring along their own picnic. Apparently those arriving a little late rather than early had to perch themselves on the sea wall etc.
2. In Normandy, the events of the D-day landings and the subsequent Battle of Normandy are still very much seen as events that restored to France their freedom. There is a strong recognition of the sacrifice of those who died or were injured during the landings as being a sacrifice made in order to secure freedom, and particularly the freedom of France. The gratitude addressed towards the nations whose soldiers landed on D-day appeared to me to be as strong as ever it was. This is something that I wonder at, given the extent of French civilian casualties caused by Allied bombardments of towns such as Caen and Lisieux.
3. The scale of the D-day landings is brought home when you realise that, for a length of some 80 km along the coast of Normandy, there is hardly a stretch of beach that was not part of one or other of the Allied landing beaches. And that is before you take account of the airborne landings which took place at either flank of the sea borne landings. Each significant town has its own museum of the events, and memorials dedicated to the military units that landed there.
4. We visited three museums during our time on the Normandy coast. The third was the 360 degree cinema at Arromanches. This cinema is arranged with nine screens forming a complete circle around the audience, who watch the film standing. The film shown is entitled "The Price of Freedom" and blends news reel film and still photographs from the 1944 landings with present day film of the same locations as those shown in 1944. There is no commentary. One striking sequence shows a farm building that was used as field hospital during the Battle of Normandy. Another striking sequence, filmed I suspect from a helicopter, travels up to what is recognisable as Omaha beach if you have visited it before seeing the film. The sequence takes the audience up the beach, across the sand dunes behind the beach and on up the bluff behind the beach, and then over the large American cemetery that overlooks the beach. Circling over the cemetery, you gain the impression of a never ending field of crosses, each marking a grave. The second was the visitors centre at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha beach. As well as telling something of the story of the landings themeselves, the centre also includes a number of individual stories. This is well worth a visit. The first museum we visited was that at Ranville, where British glider borne troops succeeded in capturing intact two key bridges at the very beginning of the D-day assault.
5. A bit by accident (I had missed the turning I wanted to take to get to Cabourg), we visited the British and German military cemeteries just outside Lisieux. This is a beautiful spot in the middle of farmland, set a little back from the main road. An interesting feature of these cemeteries is the "peace way", a smartly arranged path way that links the two cemeteries. Mid-way between the two cemeteries is a monument dedicated to reconciliation, indicating that the initiative for this path way came from a range of local French civil organisations. The German cemetery is, in part, maintained by volunteers from Germany on summer camps.
6. At a time when British and American service men are seeing action in Afghanistan, a visit to Normandy does prompt a reflection on how one might understand and value the work that these service men undertake.