a trip to hell and back

THE suzi feay COLUMN
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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT'S GETTING a bit late for this year but if you ever fancy a weekend away with a difference I heartily recommend you "do" the Normandy beaches: Utah, Omaha, Juno, Sword, Gold, the whole D-Day shebang. You can do it with a guidebook, or you can go the whole hog like we did with a tape-tour, warming yourself up every now and again with nips of Calvados as you cower on a windswept strand thinking noble thoughts about pro patria mori.

Our first stop was the new memorial museum in Caen, "a museum for peace". And peace doesn't come cheap. Two tickets and a guidebook at the present ruinous rate of exchange won't leave much change from 20 quid, and for a museum it's surprisingly artefact-free. The whole place is heavy with the sort of ponderous symbolism the French adore. "The north facade is divided into two equal parts by a fracture. This break is meant to recall the breach made in the Atlantic Wall by the Allies, on the morning of 6 June." Then there's a symbolic descent into war via the time-spiral, a circling path down though a cylinder. It's all very baffling and post- modern: you have to grab at info while you can, with screens flickering, voices crackling, and messages flaring. Benumbed by all this portentousness we bumped out, blinking, into the peace park and back to the car, to pick up the D-Day trail proper.

It works like this: you get two tapes, maps and a booklet; you begin at Ouistreham, where the Brittany ferry docks, and following the instructions stop at certain places along the coast, play your tape, then wander about moodily soaking up atmosphere. This is of course the recipe for holiday nightmare: it entails a lot of sitting in the car, painstakingly following directions, which, no matter that they're written in English, prompt bursts of anguished Franglais: "Why didn't you tournez a gauche, you moron?" But gradually, as you work your way up Sword, Juno and Gold, hearing the voices of veterans and examining the sites where they struggled and saw their fellows die, all the spirits of the Calvados coast can't take the chill out of your heart.

At Graye-sur-Mer we saw the AVRE tank at the beach and heard the testimony of sapper Bill Dunn, its driver, who still, interviewed in 1993, faced a leg amputation due to injuries sustained on this beach. Imagination sweeps away the holiday villas and car-parks, replacing them with miles of defences: concrete, ditches, barbed wire, and great jags of twisted tank-cripplers. The weather was filthy on D-Day, and many of the troops staggering ashore had spent the previous hours racked with sea-sickness. Tales of heroism - the machine-gunned officer who flung himself on the wire to make a bridge for his men - conflict with sheer horror: a man cut in half, bobbing on the tide; the "secret weapon" floating tanks, many of which sank before reaching the beach.

We heard Michel Grimaux, mayor of Graye and a boy of 11 during the landings, recount a Just William bliss of fraternisation with Allied troops and midnight feasts on their food parcels. Germans Hans von Luck and Hans Siegel observed wryly but with no real regret that of course if Rommel hadn't been recalled to Germany, if they hadn't been hampered by incompetent command, if they'd been given their head ... later, in the Battle of Normandy Museum in Bayeux, among the photographs I spotted - I'm sure - a youthful Von Luck on a country road. "We knew every orchard, every house," his voice hissed sadly on the tape.

The last stop was the British Military Cemetery in Bayeux, where the tombstones sparkled like teeth in the sun. My companion, who is interested in war but not in its concomitant, death, fidgeted as the padre spoke, movingly but not briefly, over the "Last Post".

On the ferry home I spotted a group of jaunty veterans, whose cap badges I recognised from the coast's many memorials. I smiled at one, but while I was wondering whether to do something more - buy a drink? deposit a kiss? - the squaddies I had seen earlier barging round the deck marched over with slopping beer, taking it in turn to have their photos taken next to these shrunken, smiling men. True heroes.

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