On June 6th 2017 I woke up, on the anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, about 100 meters away from the sea at Lion Sur Mer. I would quite like that to be on my gravestone if possible, that’s how excited I was about this coming day ahead. I had slept with my window open so that I could see the grey English Channel as soon as I woke up and try to image what it would have felt like, as a French Citizen living in that time, to see the huge armada closing down to provide deliverance.
Showered and ready for the big day ahead, in the most overly complex and useless shower I had ever seen, I packed up and checked out of my room. I was just about to set off when the hotel owner, who must have anticipated how useless I was, had been into my room to make sure I had left nothing behind, bellowed at me out of the window and threw my blue tooth speaker down to me below. Suitably embarrassed, I headed for Arromanches as the hotel receptionist had told me that was the centre for events that day.
As I made my way along the coastline, my excitement really built up. Pretty much every village had a green that had been turned into a makeshift campsite that was filled with period military vehicles such as jeeps and trucks, each one surrounded by enthusiasts dressed up in military regalia. There were English, French, Germans and Americans and there were soldiers, paratroopers and nurses. It all felt like I was in the middle of the preparation for D-Day on the other side of the water.
I followed the sea road west until the road turned sharply to the left and there was a car park on the bend full of trip buses and hundreds of cars. I didn’t stop but slowed enough to see what all the fuss was about. Opening out below was the town of Arromanches and there, quite clearly visible still in a broken semi-circle out to sea, were the remnants of the Mulberry Harbour.
This was a giant floating harbour that was built in the United Kingdom and dragged over to France just after the D-Day landings. Without a port or a harbour being liberated, there had to be somewhere to land supplies to keep the advance powered. It would take a long time to liberate these strongholds and so we decided to bring our own with us in the meantime. Here, 70 odd years later, I would say that 15% of it still stands. Yet again, I felt like I was slap bang in the middle of history.
I followed the road down into the town and quickly found a overfull car park full of motorhomes and men with interesting beards and even more interesting sock and sandal combinations. I got lucky and managed to pull straight into a space as someone was leaving, I didn’t see one other person in the next 20 minutes get parked in there.
I was as close to the centre of town as I could have been as the centre had been cordoned off to make it a pedestrianised zone. There were security guards rummaging through bags, no doubt with the recent attacks in London and Paris still in people’s minds. The centre was alive with people and I stopped and got a croissant and a coffee and spent 20 minutes people watching.
The high street was full of two things, cafes or gift shops; the only thing breaking them up were the two museums. In terms of people, there appeared to be five groups:
- ‘Allied’ tourists, like me, there to pay their respects and feel part of history.
- ‘Axis’ tourists that, in my mind at least, seemed to be tip toing around and not being too German in case it upset anyone.
- Veterans that were being dropped off on coaches and delivered by London black cabs. They wore blazers, caps and their medals with huge pride and, the majority of them at least, seemed to wear dubious stains on their trousers.
- The military fancy dress enthusiast. I would class these as military re-enactment types that take things seriously making sure that look as authentic as possible. Not to be confused with;
- Fancy dress types that buy a camouflage jacket from a gift shops and walk around as if they are in the army for a day.
It was group 5 that annoyed me the most. If I had been one of the veterans, there to remember my lost comrades and show my respects, I am not sure I would have been too happy to see people trying to get in on the act by wearing a polyester cap and desert fatigues. Anyway, who was I to judge?
My coffee finished, I watched the Dutch military marching band come down the main street and form up in the town square. Shortly afterwards about 20 jeeps turned up with reenactors waving at the crowds. There was then a short ceremony and speeches in the town square and a moment’s silence and reflection.
I wandered around the shops and picked up a few gifts and, no, I didn’t wear anything remotely military all day. Outside of the museum there seemed to be a crowd gathering and so I wandered over to see what was going on. There was a veteran sitting on a bench with his hands over the head of his walking stick looking like a sorcerer staring into his crystal ball. He was just telling his D-Day story and had a crowd of maybe 50 people around him in raptures. I say ‘just’ but it was totally remarkable hearing a first-hand account of the day.
He was laughing and joking and making it sound like a lads’ day out by saying things like ‘We got a hell of shock when the bastards started to fire back at us, we didn’t think that was fair’. But you could see an underlying pain in his eyes that were, I’m sure, slightly filling up. God only knows what sort of horrors he saw and how many friends he lost on that day and the months that followed. I felt uneasy, like I was intruding on his grief, and so walked down to the sea front and walked on the sands for a while and just took in the emotion of the day.
I didn’t want to be stuck for accommodation again that night and there was a break in the proceedings so I walked back to the car and headed back along the coast to the east. I had passed a campsite on the way into town and thought it looked ok so there, on the main road at Asnelles, I headed into Camping Quintefeuille.
The guy behind the counter did not speak a word of English and so I tried my very best to speak to him in French. It didn’t make the transaction any quicker, but it was a good test and I seemed to make myself understood.
I got my tent put up and headed back down into Arromanches. My prime parking space gone, I parked on a farmer’s field just outside of town and wandered back down into town. I took the longer route to walk along the sea front and watched the dozens of jeeps and various other vehicles form up on the beach for a parade. Pretty much the second the last vehicle formed up, it began to lash down from the heavens to such a degree that you could see rivers of rainwater forming on the sand.
I stood huddled into the sea wall until the downpour passed and then made my way for another coffee in town. Heading back to the town square, I passed another crowd which had formed around a veteran. I missed his story, he was just finishing when I arrived, but realised that he had a Geordie accent. I waited until the crowd had gone and introduced myself as a fellow Geordie and shook his hand and thanked him for his service. It turned out that he worked in the civil service and had taken a few trips to a stately home very close to my house and, although he didn’t live in the North East any more, seemed touched that I had taken the time to chat. Maybe it’s true what they say, a true hero has no idea that they are a hero.
Making my way around the sea front, there was a guy dressed in full on English country gent fancy dress: yellow pants, tweed jacket, checked shirt that only farmers wear and yellow brogues. My first thought was ‘bloody hell, a French Nigel Farage’. It wasn’t until the news crew following him came around the corner that I realised that it was him!
I followed him back down onto the beach as there was clearly something going to happen. I got chatting to a veteran as we walked across the sand to the piece of the Mulberry Harbour that had been detached and washed up on the beach. Right next to this, around nine or ten veterans had gathered with a lady dressed in black. It turned out that her father had been coming to these celebrations for years but this was the first one that he had missed as he had passed away. Words were spoken by his daughter, salutes were made by the veterans and a minute’s silence was held as his ashes were spread on the golden sand. With white topped waves crashing in the background and the wind whipping up the beach, one chap just said, ‘Lie in peace, back with your mates’.
It was one of the most emotional things I had ever witnessed.
As I walked back up the beach I chatted to one of the veterans and said that I thought there would be more things happening in and around the town, that it was supposed to be the centre for activities but there was very little organised. He explained that the organisers didn’t have enough money for anything else as they were saving up for the 75th Anniversary in 2019. As each passing year goes by, the numbers of veterans that are alive and fit enough to make the trip dwindles. It was a privilege to be there and see them.
He also told me that the vast majority of the veterans in town that day were ferried there by London taxi drivers as part of an annual charity event. They drive in convey from the UK and are looked after by the drivers.
With no further activities organised for the day, I made my way back up the hill to my car and headed back to the campsite. There was to be a firework display at midnight and it should have been visible from the sea front just down from my campsite.
Heading back east along towards the campsite, I spotted an older guy hitchhiking and I couldn’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t stop. He jumped in and I drove him along to his hotel as he had been separated from his sons. It turns out that he was a taxi driver living in Portsmouth but was born and raised in Sunderland, it really is a small world.
Back in my tent, I relaxed with my book and a brew and sampled some fine dining (bread, butter and a tin of beans) and relaxed until it was time for the fireworks. I walked down to the sea front and was surprised to find myself alone down there and, in typical French fashion, to see all the houses down there in pitch darkness and looking as if they had just evacuated in anticipation of a super storm hitting the beaches that night.
I walked about a mile up the beach, it must have been 12.15 by the time I gave up and got back to my tent. Just as I was undressed and tucked into my sleeping bag, the fireworks started. I leapt into my walking boots and pulled my shorts on and ran down to the sea front just to catch the last few whizzes and bangs. Shivering and with tears in my eyes, caused by sand being whipped up from the beach rather than emotion, I walked up to the tent and had the best night’s sleep of the trip so far.