On this embattled shore, 50 years ago: Normandy is preparing for a new invasion on 6 June, reports

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The Independent Online
ON CRUMBLING cliffs above the Normandy resort of Arromanches, a pale, life-size Christ on a cross overlooks the English Channel. Fifty yards to the right, a larger-than-life-size statue of the Virgin, her white garments stained with rust, is similarly turned northwards, where the Channel waters recede into mist. Their gaze is doleful, as though recollecting an unspeakable event.

Between the statues, men with hammers and saws and lorryloads of concrete are also engaged in the business of recollection. They swarm noisily over a squat, half-completed building bearing an uncanny likeness to the Second World War German bunkers still ranged along the Normandy coast. When its timber roof, shaped like a flat mushroom, is sealed and painted grey, it will resemble, in particular, a massive German wartime emplacement on a cliff at Longues-sur- Mer, a few miles to the west.

The aim is to complete it in time for the 50th anniversary of the Allied D-Day landings on 6 June. The new building will be a cinema with 'wrap-around' screen. Thanks to computer technology, visitors will be able to experience what German defenders of Occupied France saw from their bunkers in 1944: British, US, Canadian and Free French forces fighting their way on to the Normandy beaches, scaling cliffs, and dying in their thousands. Film from Allied and German archives will be screened also, leaving audiences in no doubt about the extent of the sacrifices.

The June visitors - among them the Queen, President Clinton and President Mitterrand - may be surprised at how many artefacts of the war have defied nature. Clifftop pillboxes survive where the land around them has slipped away. Down the 100 miles of coast from Quineville to Cabourg, Sherman tanks, naval guns, landing craft, and caissons for Arromanches' British-built artificial harbour have outlasted the corrosive elements.

The German batteries at Longues-sur-Mer are an awesome example. Vast sections of cliff have collapsed, yet, for the most part, the walls and roofs of the anti-naval batteries seem imperishable. One of the 155mm naval guns that responded to the British fleet's bombardment of Gold Beach pokes skywards. Another barrel droops towards a field of baby beet. A third, smashed by a direct hit from an Allied bomber, lies partly buried in mud. Steel rods that once reinforced the roof are fossilised tentacles, silent in the salt air.

It is a desolate place. Yet the grim structures offer a refuge of sorts for lovers and others. A wall carries a message from a lesbian seeking 'girl for love every Saturday afternoon'. Less tender is the sentiment opposite - 'Fuck the Germans' - by a 1990 visitor from Hull.

How will the people of Normandy cope with the 50th-anniversary visitors, 7,000 of them British Normandy veterans? Signs of problems are starting to appear. Although German government representatives have been excluded from the celebrations, the first nostalgic forays by British newspapers have resulted in a rumour that Germans have reserved most of the region's hotel accommodation. In fact, Americans have been booking solidly over the past four years, leaving little room for others.

In Arromanches, the woman running the tourist bureau is having difficulty with a British couple who are planning a grand arrival in their yacht on 6 June. They will be part of a flotilla from Poole and wish to anchor in the artificial Mulberry harbour established by British forces. 'You will not be able to enter the harbour,' the official says, pointing out that warships from several nations will be anchored there. 'But we are bringing 50, or maybe 150, boats,' David and Penny Edwards persist. The official rolls her eyes.

The Edwards' problem will be tiny compared with the organisational demands of 10 Allied warships and a dramatic recreation of the landings from HMS Fearless.

Nobody knows how many visitors will be pouring on to the famous beaches - Sword (stormed by British and Free French forces) and Juno (Canadians) to the east of Arromanches; Utah and Omaha (Americans) to the west - or through the small coastal towns and villages. Mark Worthington, a British guide at the Landing Museum in Arromanches thinks there may not be room to move. 'Between 350,000 and 400,000 pass through the museum every year,' he says. 'I can't imagine what June will be like.'

Between now and June there will be international 'liberty' conferences, a D-Day book fair, memorial films, a veterans' art exhibition, sand- yacht races, D-Day jazz concerts and 'peace walks'. The celebratory atmosphere is visibly quickening, as council workers build stairways to hillside bunkers and install floodlights to illuminate the relics of war.

Restaurants are already in the mood, as the recorded voice of Vera Lynn hangs up washing on the Siegfried Line over lunch most days of the week. There are Omaha Beach Casinos, Gold Beach souvenir shops and Overlord newsagents ('Overlord' was the codename for the operation). Shops are fully stocked with supplies of calvados, some of it with 'D- Day 1944' labels. There will be much merrymaking in June.

It is only when one enters the military cemeteries that the full significance of what is being celebrated sinks in. In the US cemetery at St Laurent, between Port-en-Bessin and Arromanches, one's blood freezes over. There is a spot, between two flagpoles, where a visitor may stand in shock and disbelief, staring at rows of white marble crosses (10,000 of them) stretching ahead. Not all the Americans' Normandy dead are here: the remains of a further 12,000 were taken home after the war. But, possibly because British and Canadian casualties are not concentrated in one area (they are in small graveyards throughout the region), D-Day's harvest of death is most numbingly displayed in these acres.

Memorials abound in Normandy. Some, among them the US National Guard monument built on the site of a battered German pillbox on Omaha Beach, are thoughtfully designed. Others, such as the holed landing craft engulfed by every tide a mile away, are equally compelling.

But it is to the terrifying beauty of the St Laurent cemetery that one feels compelled to return again and again. A wreath from 'Roswell High School Chorus, Georgia', has been left beside a magnificent bronze figure of a near-naked soldier rising, as though from the sea, palms turned upwards in hope and supplication. The words on the monumental masonry are inspiring: 'This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is forever hallowed by the ideals, the valor and the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen.'

As a Channel breeze snaps at the US flags and agitates the surface of a reflecting pool nearby, I remind myself that I was a small child when these soldiers were sacrificed for a purer, newer world order. It is all very moving. Rooks fuss in the distant trees as a party of South Koreans pauses respectfully before the graves.

Beyond, Normandy seems peaceful, grateful, contemplative. En route to the Cherbourg ferry, the news on the car radio is all about Sarajevo, UN calls for air strikes, Soviet moles . . . and a French plan to purge their language of English words and phrases.

(Photograph omitted)

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