Driv­ing to D-Day

The Peterborough Examiner - - CANADA REMEMBERS 2019 - By Mark Stevens Pho­tos by Sharon Matthews-Stevens

When my wife and I de­cided to visit France there was one non-ne­go­tiable mustdo on my Gal­lic bucket list. Af­ter at­tend­ing a Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­mony at Ot­tawa’s Na­tional War Me­mo­rial, I’d promised my­self I would one day walk the beaches of Nor­mandy, re­flect­ing and re­mem­ber­ing, im­mers­ing my­self in the lessons of D-Day, his­tory’s big­gest am­phibi­ous in­va­sion, a June 6, 1944 as­sault by the Al­lies to take back Europe. First we’d ex­plore Paris, im­bib­ing his­tory, cul­ture and cui­sine, then we’d pick up a rental car at Charles de Gaulle Air­port and em­bark on our own pil­grim­age of re­mem­brance. We would drive to D-Day.

Strate­gies and Tac­tics

You can en­list a va­ri­ety of strate­gies and op­tions dur­ing your own cam­paign, de­pend­ing on your time com­mit­ment and how deeply you want to ex­pe­ri­ence the re­gion and its sem­i­nal events. Our first choice (given my hes­i­ta­tion about driv­ing in France) was to book a hand­ful of train tick­ets, but re­search quickly proved this would be im­prac­ti­cal. Sites are spread over a dis­tance of roughly 80 kilo­me­tres. Some lo­ca­tions boasted lim­ited rail ser­vice; some had no ser­vice at all. Bri­tish writer Dixe Wills booked a self­guided e-bike tour last­ing sev­eral days, a be­spoke ad­ven­ture wherein ac­com­mo­da­tions were pre-booked and lug­gage was wait­ing at each overnight stop. The web­site for Juno Beach Cen­tre (Juno Beach was the lo­ca­tion of the Cana­dian land­ing) of­fers links to a num­ber of es­corted tours. For ex­am­ple, LinkParis.com runs a Cana­dian-themed day trip from Paris once weekly, while GlobusJour­neys of­fers five-day D-day tours, though they don’t fo­cus on the sig­nif­i­cant Cana­dian sites. We chose to take the ad­vice of “Na­tional Ge­o­graphic” mag­a­zine, which sug­gested a self-driv­ing quest as the most ef­fec­tive strat­egy. By driv­ing to D-Day we had the op­tion of choos­ing which sites to see and how much time to give to each one.

A Beach Called Juno

Our first stop would be on a beach called Juno. The Al­lied in­va­sion, com­pris­ing pri­mar­ily Amer­i­can, English and Cana­dian groups, con­sisted of si­mul­ta­ne­ous land­ings on five sep­a­rate beaches, each with its own code name. Seventy-five years ago this past June, roughly 14,000 Cana­dian sol­diers landed right here. More than 300 didn’t sur­vive the day. It was a rainy, blus­tery morn­ing when we ar­rived at the Juno Beach Cen­tre, a build­ing formed in the shape of a styl­ized maple leaf, de­signed by Cana­dian ar­chi­tect Brian K. Cham­ber­lain. Waves from the English Chan­nel, an ex­panse of white­caps mar­bling gun­metal grey wa­ters like veins of fat in butchered meat, as­saulted the beach. They crashed into the shore like an ar­tillery bar­rage. Winds howled, lash­ing the flags flap­ping beyond the dunes, turn­ing grains of sand into pro­jec­tiles that stabbed my face. In­side the cen­tre it­self vis­i­tors are in­tro­duced to the “big pic­ture” of the First World War, but equally im­por­tant, they’re in­tro­duced to Canada’s role in the in­va­sion, as well as the hu­man cost in­volved. One of the seven rooms here, built for re­flec­tion, is re­plete with an ex­am­ple of the wooden crosses that orig­i­nally marked makeshift graves. The guided tour of the grounds in­cludes a de­scent into pe­riod Ger­man for­ti­fi­ca­tions and fin­ishes on the sands of Juno Beach it­self. A woman in our tour group, com­posed en­tirely of Cana­di­ans, wiped away a tear as she walked be­side me to­ward the beach. “My grand­fa­ther was here,” she said, as if em­bar­rassed by her emo­tion. “He died on this beach.”

Mul­berry Har­bours

Driv­ing west along rain-slicked roads, fog ob­scur­ing much of the view of the sea, it seemed to me as if I could feel the very weight of his­tory. That feel­ing con­tin­ued as we stopped at a clifftop lo­ca­tion just east of the town of Ar­ro­manches. Here a 360-de­gree the­atre tells the story of the 100 days of the Bat­tle of Nor­mandy, fea­tur­ing HD footage shown on nine screens, much of it archival ma­te­rial re­vealed for the first time. It is vis­ually com­pelling, dis­turb­ing and in­struc­tive, per­fect ori­en­ta­tion for those whose grasp of this chap­ter in his­tory may be less than ex­haus­tive. A group of high school stu­dents wait­ing for en­try to the the­atre it­self were ram­bunc­tious and rowdy. When they ex­ited they were strangely quiet. When we ex­ited, strolling out­side, we noted that the fog had bro­ken, re­veal­ing our lo­ca­tion high above the sea­side town of Ar­ro­manches. The wa­ters off the shores were lit­tered with mon­strous hulks of steel, strangely in­con­gru­ous, omi­nous and for­bid­ding. Called Mul­berry Har­bours, these leviathans were both dra­matic rem­nants of the in­va­sion and fas­ci­nat­ing feats of en­gi­neer­ing, dom­i­nat­ing the sea views from our van­tage-point and guard­ing the shores of Ar­ro­manches it­self. Af­ter the mis­takes learned at Dieppe, Al­lies re­al­ized that nec­es­sary heavy equip­ment for the in­va­sion couldn’t be off-loaded and any ex­ist­ing havens were still un­der Ger­man con­trol, so they cre­ated these man-made “har­bours,” con­sist­ing of float­ing break­wa­ters, great

con­crete barges and road­ways. For a more com­plete ex­pla­na­tion of these en­gi­neer­ing feats, check out the mu­seum here in the town square. A piece of his­tory in its own right, the D-Day Mu­seum at Ar­ro­manches opened one day be­fore D-Day’s 10th an­niver­sary, the first such un­der­tak­ing to com­mem­o­rate what many call “The Long­est Day.”

His­tory Comes Alive

As we jour­neyed west on the D-Day roads, we no­ticed that the very ve­hi­cles shar­ing the road with us con­trib­uted to an un­set­tling il­lu­sory feel­ing, a sense that we were lost in the winds of time. En­gines grum­bling, tires hiss­ing on the wet tar­mac, army jeeps, am­bu­lances in green, red crosses stark in the grey day, a troop trans­port, passed us by. To­day was June 5, but one day be­fore the an­niver­sary of the in­va­sion. Each year around this date re-en­ac­tors con­gre­gate across the re­gion, men in pe­riod uni­forms form crowds just out­side that Ar­ro­manches mu­seum. While the 75th an­niver­sary this past June fea­tured spe­cial events from air shows to pe­riod dances to a mul­ti­tude of pa­rades flood­ing the Nor­mandy coast, these peo­ple come ev­ery year to pay trib­ute in their own way. “Twenty years I’ve have been com­ing here on the an­niver­sary,” says French na­tional Rene Felix. He drives a unique ve­hi­cle, just one in a his­toric con­voy gath­ered here. His jeep sports Cana­dian in­signia. “It landed at Dieppe and never got off the beach,” Felix ex­plains. “I was able to get the rights to it and I brought it back to life.” He stops, gazes thought­fully over the rem­nants of the At­lantic Wall. “Twenty years.” For a moment it seems to me, look­ing at them, G.I.’s and tank com­man­ders, medics and even WACs, that his­tory has come alive. Then a greater epiphany strikes: for them, his­tory never died.

Set­ting up Camp

Should you choose to in­vade the D-day beaches for more than a day trip, one tac­tic in your grand strat­egy will be your de­ci­sion on where to set up camp. The town of Bayeux is an ex­cel­lent choice for many vis­i­tors. This me­dieval mas­ter­piece, un­like many of the towns and vil­lages close to the Nor­mandy coast, sur­vived the war rel­a­tively un­scathed, so at day’s end you can re­group and par­take of a much longer his­tory – and even check out one of Bayeux’s chief claims to fame: a 70-me­tre long em­broi­dered ta­pes­try that tells the story of William the Con­queror and his own sem­i­nal in­va­sion. Bayeux is also con­ve­nient – par­tic­u­larly to the more west­erly Al­lied land­ing beaches. It’s lo­cated a mere 11 kilo­me­tres from the coast. We choose to set up camp a lit­tle fur­ther afield, but for us it is the per­fect base for op­er­a­tions. Hon­fleur is a re­sort town at the mouth of the Seine River. It boasts nar­row cob­bled streets fronted by pic­turesque shops and homes that in­spired painters like Monet, a nearby tourist beach and a har­bour pop­u­lated by fish­ing boats and plea­sure craft, dec­o­rated ev­ery few me­tres by an­other shore­side bistro boast­ing a lo­cal must-do: mus­sels and fries. Hav­ing de­cided that we would need to de­brief af­ter daily ex­pe­ri­ences we were sure would be fraught with emo­tion, my wife and I opted for this charm­ing vil­lage. His­tory buff that I am, my de­ci­sion was also partly in­flu­enced by this bit of trivia: Cham­plain be­gan his voy­ages to Canada here in the har­bour at Hon­fleur.

Their Name Liveth For Ev­er­more

Sur­rounded by un­du­lat­ing farm­ers’ fields, some grow­ing early crops, some pop­u­lated by ru­mi­nat­ing cat­tle, six tow­er­ing maple trees dom­i­nate the land­scape of the Cana­dian ceme­tery at Beny-sur-Mer. The grass here is green and well-tended. Twin lime­stone struc­tures guard the en­trance. Three thou­sand Cana­di­ans who died in the Bat­tle of Nor­mandy are in­terred at the other Cana­dian ceme­tery at Bret­teville-surLaize near Caen. Here, at Beny-sur-Mer, not far from those for­mer bloody beaches, lay 2,000 dead. I stop at one row of graves: ev­ery soldier buried there per­ished on D-day. Here is an­other row. I stop at one grave, har­bour­ing the re­mains of a pri­vate in the med­i­cal corps. He was 19. I won­der about the lady I met back at Juno. I won­der if she has come here yet. I won­der if she has found her grand­fa­ther’s grave. I walk back to our car; I stand there gaz­ing up at those maples stand­ing silent sen­tinel over this Cana­dian bas­tion in the coun­try­side of Nor­mandy; I re­flect on the words carved into the fa­cade of a lime­stone plinth near the ceme­tery en­trance. “Their Name Liveth For Ev­er­more.” I am filled with sad­ness, but I am also warmed by a sud­den tiny flush of pride. This place is part of my her­itage; I have done my tini­est part in help­ing those names live on. I have re­mem­bered. And, to­gether with my wife, I have driven to D-Day.


• For more in­for­ma­tion on plan­ning your own pil­grim­age to the site where the Cana­di­ans landed, click on www.junobeach.org • For other use­ful in­for­ma­tion go to http://en.nor­mandie-tourisme.fr/

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