D-Day to me had always been a movie; an adventure movie, starring John Wayne. It wasn’t quite real, until yesterday.
On 7th June, 68 years and one day after the landing in 1944, I joined an American tour group visiting the Normandy beaches.
The Longest Day was the first war film I’d ever seen, in a cinema in Melbourne, sitting next to my father. It was exhilarating, and funny too. I laughed out loud when the paratroopers landed in the centre of a town, one snagging his chute on a church steeple, while another plummeted down a well. My father sternly reminded me that this was not a joke, but a man’s death.
Nevertheless, despite having seen the images of the landings on the Normandy beaches over and over, from Hollywood and History Channel, I still had trouble connecting the events to real humans.
D-Day was cowboys v Indians, good v evil, and though some of our brave team fell trying to save Private Ryan, the American goodies won and the bad, anonymous Germans were killed or sent running. It’s not right, it’s not fair, it’s not true, but that’s how it seemed to me.
That may be because we Australians traditionally commemorate our soldiers through First World War events. We know all about the campaigns on the Western Front and Gallipoli, tragic, poorly led and unnecessary, where nothing was gained by the appalling carnage on both sides.
D-Day on the other hand was presented as the start of a glorious victory for freedom-loving people. There were military blunders and brilliant strategies. There were the expected sacrifices along the way, but we were assured of a happy Hollywood ending.
Our visit to the landing sites began with a bus ride from Rouen, with local guide Anne-Marie skilfully filling us in on the history, connecting the reparations demanded of Germany after the Treaty of Versailles to the rise of Hitler’s National Socialists.
We stopped outside the Musee du Debarquement in the village of Arromanches for a ceremony, celebrating the involvement of the Dutch Prinses Irene force in the invasion of Normandy.
A little way down the road, German bunkers have been preserved. The young Germans who manned them were probably not so lucky.
Normandy’s coastline is dotted with pleasant little seaside towns, with Carrefour supermarkets, Renault dealerships, souvenir shops and cafes.
At Colleville-sur-Mer we paused at the American War Cemetery and memorial.
The recorded carillon played the national anthem, the bugle played the last post and we each placed a rose on a young man’s grave.
On Omaha Beach, D-Day began to become something that really happened.
The writer was the guest of Viking River Cruises.