PETER and ANN FROST try to get to Normandy as often as possible. Heroic history, the best of French food and the holiday beaches call them back year after year.
It is dawn on the 6th June 1944; D-Day. A young British infantryman is crowded with the rest of his platoon in belly of a landing craft off the coast of Normandy. The vessel has two naval ratings on the rear deck. One is steering, the other navigating and handling the deck work.
Suddenly a stray shell explodes close to the craft. The two sailors are blown into the water never to be seen again. The landing craft drifts out of control. The young army officer in charge desperately asks if any of his men have any boating experience.
Our young soldier has done just a little sailing before the war,his fellow soldiers propel him up to the helm and he realises the challenge he faces. He has never been so scared in all his life.
The original boat crew had compass and charts that showed the location of enemy mines and underwater obstructions. Compass and charts were blown away with the crew. Smoke and spray and the watery dawn light mean that visibility can be measured in feet. Anyway our new helmsman has no idea which way to steer.
Suddenly out of the noise and smoke of the battle another landing craft sweeps by at speed. Thinking quickly our amateur sailor opens the throttle and desperately follows the other craft.
He knows his life, and that of his comrades, depends on him getting them safely to the beach. His best hope is to stick with someone who seems to know the way. His strategy works. The other landing craft twists and turns as it heads towards the beachhead. Our man shadows their every move.
At last he sees the landing craft ahead run on to the beach and he does the same. The ramp goes down and he leaves the tiller, picks up his rifle and pack, and wades ashore to become a soldier again in the battle to liberate Europe and win the war.
He never thanked or even met the crew of that other landing craft. They had long gone by the time he and his comrades had got ashore.
It is June 1994, Ann and I are at a rally on a campsite in Normandy. The event has been organised for those who took part in the D-Day landings. The French have minted a special medal to mark the fiftieth anniversary.
Every participant in the landings will be presented with the medal at ceremonies all along the coast. Some have come in their caravans and will have a holiday as well as collecting their awards. Hence the campsite rally. Most have never been back since the war.
Fifty years on, these are old men, exactly the sort of old fellows you meet on any caravan site at home or abroad. The kind of ‘good old boys’ whose most exciting story you expect will be about the steak they burnt on last night’s barbecue.
But no, the stories are amazing, of modest heroism, of ordinary people doing unbelievable things. One or two have bought souvenirs of those momentous events fifty years ago; an army pay book, a scrap of uniform, a few old faded photographs.
Outside on one camping table is a small hand made model of a landing craft. The old chap who made it sits beside the table sipping a cup of tea. Another old man passing is halted in his tracks. The model hypnotises him.
He questions the model maker. Why has he made that particular landing craft? Why that particular number? The man’s answer is simple. “It was my boat, I was the helmsman, and I landed it on the beaches on D-Day.”
Fifty years on a young infantryman, now in tears, at last has the chance to say thank you to the man he never met, the man who had saved his and his comrades lives. It was quite an evening outside the caravan that night.
It is blazing summer on the holiday beaches of Normandy earlier last summer. The only battle today is on the beach volleyball court. The skies are busy above the beach. Huge bright kites are pulling surf boards on the water and buggies on the sand.
That’s the contradiction and the fascination of today’s Normandy. Colourful French beach life played out on one of the most monumental battle fields of living history. Many of those landing beaches now fly the blue ‘clean beach’ flag and holiday makers enjoy the soft sands with little thought of what happened here in June 1944. It’s the reason Ann and I have been coming here, and writing about it for nearly forty years.
Most visitors will want a mix of the two different faces of the Normandy Coast; some D-Day memories and some up to date holiday experiences. We met one couple who found their first invasion museum so upsetting they weren’t going near anything else anything to do with D-Day. They were still enjoying a great holiday with plenty to do and see.
Another couple were keen to see every beach, every memorial and visit every D-day museum. Their caravan was full of books and marked up maps and other stuff all about the landings and both of them were D-day experts.
In fact despite its tempestuous history Normandy is a place of astounding peace and quiet. It is a region of sleepy fishing villages, and of silent lanes with high hedgerows fruitful with blackberry and elder.
It is a rural idyll of fat contented cows munching in rich meadows producing half of the milk, butter, cream and cheese consumed by the whole of the rest of France. In the quiet orchards apples and pears ripen slowly ready for the even slower art of making cider, poire, pommeau, and Calvados apple brandy.
Normandy’s pride and joy is its seafood – especially the amazing shellfish. There are clams, whelks, winkles, scallops and of course oysters. Mussels are common and make a very cheap but delicious Normande meal – mussels and frites.
If you tire of fish the meats of Normandy are pretty good too. Duck is common and the pork is very good, particularly cooked in a sauce of local apples and cream. On the salt marshes around the Mont St. Michel they graze sheep to give mutton with a really distinctive subtle flavour. Look out for it on local menus, it will be called pré salé lamb.
Ann and I first visited Normandy nearly forty years ago it was our first camping holiday abroad and we took our young son. A year or so ago he took his wife and two children to Normandy and back to some of those campsites we used on that first holiday.
We too have been back many times since, delighting in Normandy’s rural beauty and simplicity, its beautiful coastline and the heroic part it played in the war, and enjoying the food and drink that are such an important part of French life here on this spectacular and fascinating coast.
Don’t try to explore all of Normandy in one weekend. Concentrate your weekend on one of the many localities with lots to do. The area of the American landings around Utah Beach for instance would keep you busy for a few days, or visit Pegasus Bridge where the battle of D-day started with the landings of three fragile plywood gliders.
Towns like Cherbourg with its port and maritime museums, Caen with its amazing Peace Museum or Bayeux with its impressive Cathedral and the famous Tapestry that tells the story of the Battle of Hastings would each make good weekend base.
Of course you might just want to chill out, relax and enjoy a few meals out. If so then the many pretty peaceful villages are just the thing. Stroll along little lanes colourful with flowers and with pretty water mills, farms and half timbered building.
Here are some of the places we most enjoy when in Normandy.
The Bayeux tapestry
Harold’s journey to Normandy and William’s less than friendly return trip to Hastings are all told in a seventy metre long embroidered comic strip sewn by monks in Kent. The Bayeux tapestry still has the power to keep you fascinated right to the very end of the story.
Mullberry Harbour Museum, Arromanches
Sixty years on the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches is still visible at low tide. Storms have washed one caisson on to the beach and you can take a close look or even climb inside to get a better idea of the scale of the whole project.
Pegasus Bridge, Benouville
Pegasus Bridge was the first target for D-day. At twenty minutes after midnight British gliders landed within yards of the heavily guarded canal Bridge. They took the bridge, keeping open the main supply lines for the landings. The tide of war had turned. You can still have morning coffee in the first building, a cafe, liberated on D-day.
French Holiday Towns – Honfleur, Trouville and Deauville.
These three typical pretty resorts each offers a chance to see the French way of holiday life at its best.
The last time we were in Trouville, one of our favourite French holiday spots, we came across a festival. The trip boat took us out to sea where the fishing fleet had assembled.
Boats had bands on board or the priest to bless the nets. Flowers were scattered on the water and then we all sailed back to the fish market for a right royal feast; only in France.
The D-Day Beaches.
Drive on along the landing Beaches that have now adopted their D-day code names.
Juno, where the Canadians came ashore. Gold beach, from Courseulles to Arromanches. British Armoured Divisions operated specialist tanks and other strange war machines known as Hobart’s Funnies. Sword was another beach where British troops came ashore. Omaha and Utah were the beaches where the American troops landed. All have their stories to tell and all have their cemeteries and memorials that speak of both the heroism and the futility of war.
This article is a compilation of many such articles Peter has written on the subject. One article won a major travel journalism award in 2004.