D-DAY NORMANDY IMPRESSIONS
"It's the red sea that the veterans most remember," Brigette, our Normandy D-Day tour guide, tells us. I look at the gentle waves rolling into Omaha Beach and try to imagine them red, stained with the blood of the 7000 men felled by the deadly 88mm gun behind me. It's positioned to fire, not out to sea, but down the beach. It can kill a soldier ten kilometres away. I follow the line of the gun imagining what the Germans would have seen: 37,000 soldiers jumping from their metal boats into the icy water and racing across the flat expanse of sand. Today it's quiet - just a few tourists dotted on the golden sand, their hair whipped by the permanent wind that sweeps across from England. This salty wind flavours the grass giving Normandy mutton a distinctive seasoned flavour. Hovering above the cliffs like brightly coloured poppies are a handful of hang gliders. It's peaceful, calm, and nothing like what it must have been at 6.30am on the sixth of June 1944.
I try to imagine running up this beach, stomach churning with sea sickness, uniform sodden with seawater, caught in the cross fire of these deadly 88mm guns stationed all along the beach. I look at the clear sweep of sand and imagine trying to run, tripping over hundreds of my dead and injured comrades, and dodging the deadly Rommel asparagus's which are not vegetables but wooden asparagus shaped mines sticking out of the sand. I listen to the birds singing and imagine the deafening noise of gunfire, shouting and young men screaming. I expect to feel something bad, an echo of the horrors that occurred here but there's nothing.
Of all the war sites we have visited over the past two days the only places that feel creepy are the German bunkers. My 12 year old son disagrees. He clambers through the dank bunkers and runs into and out of the massive shell holes. They look as though a giant has repeatedly punched his pudgy fist into the otherwise flat landscape. The looming grey bunker looks bizarrely out of place sitting amidst a field of bright wildflowers. That's the feeling I have wherever we go. The countryside and the towns are so pretty, so quiet and yet everywhere there are reminders of the war: museums, cemeteries, bullet holes in buildings, memorials and flags to honour the men from England, US, Canada, New Zealand, Poland, Australia and elsewhere.
At the American War Cemetery the white crosses spread across the pristine grounds in perfectly symmetrical rows that seem to go on forever. It all looks so neat and ordered now and yet I can't help but imagine the horrific sight it must have been as they dug up the soil to bury so many thousands of young men. The scale of death is enormous and sobering.
Unlike the Americans the Commonwealth soldiers are buried in cemeteries all over Normandy, usually close to where they died. Every gravestone has a personal message from the young man's family and I feel tears prick my eyes as I feel the grief of a mother for her teenage son in the words: "My only child. He gave his all. Til we meet again. Mother."
We so often overlook the enormous blessing it is to live in a safe country. Next time we start worrying about our weight, our job, running a household or planning a party, spare a thought for the thousands of young soldiers who never had that chance and who gave their lives so we could enjoy peace. Lest we forget.