By James Bourhill
Normandy, the 6th of June, 2014.
I’m sure that for those who were at the ceremonies in and around the cemeteries, there was an opportunity for reflection, but only invited guests, royalty and the like, were allowed access to these events.
For the rest of us rubber-necks, there was plenty of action but little opportunity for reflection. By all accounts, the TV coverage was superbly sensitive, but what follows is my personal experience on the ground.
On the afternoon of 5 June, without any planned itinerary, I decided to head for Pegasus Bridge on the River Orne. This is where British paratroops landed virtually on the bridge, took their objective and held it until the commandos arrived to relieve them. I like to think that I am somehow connected to Brigadier Simon Fraser who led his men from the beaches with his piper, Bill Millin, playing.
En route to Pegasus Bridge, I got caught in a massive traffic jam and had to park on the side of the road. The attraction was a mass parachute drop, and I was just in time to see it all. First there was a flypast of two Spitfires with the distinctive D-Day stripes on the wings, they growled low overhead a few times as if attacking ground targets.
Then, as they probably would have done seventy years ago, they waggled their wings and departed. The first paratroopers jumped out of an old DC-47, then came about eight modern giants, each carrying thirty men. They dropped into a field of wheat in the same spot where the originals landed on the night of 5/6 June 1944.
Like them, I walked the rest of the way to Pegasus Bridge. The road was bumper to bumper traffic, much of it consisting of beautifully restored military vehicles. The sheer number and beautiful condition they were in is what left me with my over-riding impression of the event. This and the thousands of men women and children, dressed up in period costume or military uniforms, riding on the vehicles or pissing it up in the beer tents.
The most popular street food on sale was a boerewors roll or rather a baguette with spicy sausage and fried onions piled on. Also doing a great trade were the souvenir shops, selling T shirts, mugs, flags, toys and lots of army memorabilia. Which brings me to my second key observation.
It seems that for many this is a celebration, not of peace, but of militarism. This is not a judgement, just an observation. Military men were everywhere. Old soldiers, serving soldiers and wannabe soldiers. At worst, it is a gathering of cult followers, at best they are primarily enthusiasts, collectors and restorers of vintage vehicles
At midnight there was a fireworks display at each one of the landing beaches along the 80 kilometre front. I decided to try Omaha Beach because it is a bit more remote and it is where the most dramatic events of D-Day occurred. There were no noisy crowds here, perhaps a thousand or so pilgrims picnicking on the beach or walking along the water’s edge imagining the scenes which took place here.
The fireworks did not disappoint. The ground shook with the explosions, giving an inkling of what the German defenders must have experienced under the opening bombardment.
As you can imagine there was no available accommodation, so when the fireworks were over, I went back to my car and slept right there. I wasn’t the only one. A policeman armed with a flashlight came to tell me that I was welcome to sleep there but I needed to be gone by 6.00 a.m. Otherwise I would be compelled to stay exactly where I was for the whole of the next day since no vehicle was permitted to go anywhere. There was no negativity on the part of the police or other officials, rather an attitude of “welcome to our liberators”.
Speaking of police, I have never in my life seen so many cops. All the way from Paris, busses and vans transported a large portion of the gendarmerie of France to protect the likes of Barak Obama, Vladimir Putin and Prince Charles. There were thousands of immaculate, fit, young policemen ready to protect and serve.
To their credit, the townspeople tried hard to accommodate the influx of visitors. As the announcer quipped, “we were not expecting such a large crowd, but when you arrived here in 1944, we were not expecting you either”. The entertainment for the occasion included a concert show in exactly the same spot where a performance was put on for the troops. An old photograph shows the men sitting on vehicles and on the ground in front of an improvised stage in the town square.
There were 1,200 American “musicians” in town which consisted almost entirely of high school marching bands. There was going to be a parade of these marching bands. It was going to be an “unprecedented sight” and worth waiting for. Against my better judgement, I stayed on and missed my chance of getting out of town before the mad rush.
What a disappointment for all those thousands of people who waited and jostled for a view. At the best of times, an American marching band with their bling uniforms and feathers stuck onto cardboard hats are a bit of a joke, but on this occasion they were wholly inappropriate. Never mind the carnival style marching, I was fascinated by the appearance of the kids themselves.
They bore no resemblance whatsoever to the lean and mean paratroopers who marched through the town on a previous occasion. This pimply lot looked as though they had never missed out on a MacDonald’s meal, and could never possess the fortitude to run a man through with a bayonet. But this is what the German intelligence effectively said about the American soldiers back in 1943.
Among the Band-of-Brothers lookalikes, it was easy to forget the real human beings who dropped in seventy years ago. One such example was a parachutist who got snagged on the church steeple and remained there during the fighting. The ringing of the bells deafened him but he survived to jump and fight again and again. He died of cancer in 1969 at the age of 57. The commentators and journalists who did the story well, concentrated on the stories of such individuals.
So was it a celebration of a commemoration? I suppose that it is a lot like Christmas. Only a few think about the true meaning. For the rest it is all about consumerism and consumption. I reckon that if I was one who had parachuted into the night or who had bled to death on the beaches, or who had been bombed in my home, as happened to thousands of French families, I wouldn’t care how the day is celebrated or commemorated, so long as people (especially children) learn something.