Pegasus Bridge veterans vow to liberate museum

Ian Burrell
Sunday 30 March 1997 23:02

As a four-year-old girl, Arlette Gondree welcomed the Allied forces into her family's Normandy cafe, the first building in occupied Europe to be liberated from the Nazis.

Now, 53 years later, she wants them out of the historic site, which has become a shrine for British war veterans.

The Gondree Cafe is home to the Airborne Forces Museum. It commemorates the Allied action at Pegasus Bridge, which inspired the film The Longest Day.

The land adjoining the cafe, on which the museum is built, was awarded by Mrs Gondree's mother to the old soldiers, subject to a 25-year lease.

The lease expires at midnight on 5 June - exactly 53 years after gliders carrying a raiding party led by Major John Howard landed within yards of the bridge.

But Arlette Gondree is unsentimental. "My lawyers and a locksmith will be there at 8am on 6 June and they will have to leave," she warned. "The building is in desperate need of repair and I am fed up with 25 years of bad behaviour."

Mrs Gondree vehemently opposes a proposal to develop the museum into a memorial park - "some kind of Disneyland" as she refers to it.

"I do not want to see commercialisation," she said. "It is the cafe that is the living memorial and the real museum."

The dispute has become a personal battle between Mrs Gondree and Raymond Triboulet, the 91-year-old president of the Comite du Debarquement (the Normandy Landings Committee), which runs the museum. Veterans have rallied the support of the nine surrounding communities and Mr Triboulet is planning an operation to liberate the cafe and museum from Mrs Gondree.

"With the collaboration of the English, we are going to do everything so that the landlord, Madame Gondree, is turned out," he said. "It is the only solution to maintain the museum and its collection."

The museum is also preparing for the worst and has made plans to remove all the exhibits and store them with the local mayor.

Wally Parr, who was a corporal on the wartime raid, and is now United Kingdom president of the Safeguard Pegasus Bridge Association, said he was confident that, with the support of the local communities, the museum would be saved and the memorial park constructed.

"Things are now looking good and there is no opposition from anywhere except Mme Gondree," he said.

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