Veterans battle with bureaucrats to liberate wartime cafe: D-Day 'shrine' faces closure weeks before 50th anniversary celebrations. Frank Barrett reports

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The Independent Online
MADAME Arlette Gondree-Pritchett was standing at the back door of the cafe with the phone wedged against her ear. 'Inimaginable. Incroyable,' she repeated again and again to an interviewer from a local radio station. 'The cafe has been closed. Perhaps it will not be open for the 50th anniversary celebrations of D-Day. Where will the veterans go if they cannot come here?' At this prospect, her voice cracked and she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.

Outside, a French TV news team was unloading its equipment. The reporter had been here in November to report the controversial removal of Pegasus Bridge, famous as the first target to be taken by the British airborne forces shortly before midnight on 5 June (a moment famously recreated in the film The Longest Day).

The local authority said it needed to widen the canal, which meant constructing a new, bigger bridge. Despite a spirited campaign waged by Madame Arlette and the D-Day veterans, the old bridge was removed (it now sits in a field of rubbish close to where the D-Day gliders landed). 'Crazy - only in France,' the TV reporter said, drilling his forefinger into the side of his skull. 'And now they want to close the cafe.'

Situated next to the bridge, in the village of Benouville, the Cafe Gondree claimed the distinction of being the first house in France to be liberated by the D-Day forces. Madame Arlette remembers sitting on the lap of a captain of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry and being given the first chocolate she had ever tasted. Her father dug up the champagne he had buried in his garden at the beginning of the war and served it to the British, who then had to hold on to the bridge until more troops arrived from the beaches.

But just three months before the 50th anniversary celebrations of D-Day, Madame Arlette has been told by the council that her cafe is unsafe. 'They say the floor will not support the veterans. What nonsense]' she said.

She stands in the darkened bar and rails against the local authorities. Six years ago, she assumed the cafe's future had been assured after an inheritance squabble was resolved when she bought it with the aid of money from veterans. But now a dispute with the local council, a complex issue involving leases and liquor licences, could close the cafe for good. 'We have had the massacre of Pegasus Bridge, and now this] This cafe is a shrine, a place of pilgrimage for British troops. How can they close it? It's incredible]'

'It's politics,' the TV reporter said. 'It will be sorted out, believe me . . . for the 50th Jubilee anything can be sorted out.' Meanwhile, the local authority has agreed to make a new inspection of the cafe next Thursday. The war is not yet over.

(Photograph omitted)