News of the ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy has taken me back to a river cruise I did on the Viking Pride last year. A day tour to the Normandy beaches was one of the highlights of the cruise, and an excellent introduction to the momentous event that marked a turning point in World War 2.
Viking’s Normandy cruise travels along the Seine from Paris to Rouen, a beautiful historic city with numerous points of interest, including the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. From Rouen, passengers do a free tour by bus to the Normandy beaches. Viking offered two separate tours, one with an American focus and one with a Commonwealth focus, to cater for the demographic of those on board.
For me, the highlight of the Commonwealth tour was a visit to the Pegasus Memorial, thanks in no small part to the incredible knowledge and enthusiasm of its British-born curator, Mark Worthington. His passion for his subject transported me instantly to the early hours of June 6, 1944, when six gliders delivered men from the British 6th Airborne Division to capture two road bridges that would provide the only exit eastwards for British forces landing on Sword Beach.
Both bridges were heavily defended by the Germans and wired for demolition. The Brits need to take the bridges intact for the D-Day landings to succeed. It was a daring operation conducted in the dead of night, and when you see the small space that these enormous gliders landed in, practically nose to tail, you can appreciate what an incredible feat it was.
This was the first Allied victory on D-Day and it was re-created in the movie, The Longest Day, with an image of a piper walking across the Pegasus bridge at Benouville. Mark told me he had met the piper the role was based on and the piper had assured him that he ran (not walked!) across the bridge.
There was such dismay in recent years when plans were underway to replace the Pegasus Bridge that the Pegasus Memorial salvaged this vital piece of history and preserved it in its grounds, within sight of its original location.
A re-creation of one of the original Horsa gliders is also in the grounds. These enormous gliders could carry up to 30 troops or a jeep trailer and eight men.
After watching the Memorial’s very moving film, They Were The First To Arrive, we walked across the replacement Pegasus Bridge to Café Gondree, a small café built near the bridge on the Caen Canal in 1865.
Bought in 1934 by Georges and Therese Gondree, this was the first house and family liberated by the British on D-Day and it became a field hospital in the early hours of D-Day. Their daughter, Arlette, was 4 years old and hiding with her family in the basement at the time of the liberation. On the day of our visit, she was working in the café. Sadly, photographs inside the café were strictly forbidden, but this close connection with such an important event was yet another highlight for me.
Our group had lunch at Arromanches-Les-Bains, where there is a D-Day museum, and we visited the Juno Beach Centre, which pays homage to the 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives during World War 2.
We paused to reflect at the Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery at Reviers, where more than 2000 Canadians are buried. This is one of 28 military cemeteries in Normandy and it’s a poignant sight driving past so many graves of those who made the supreme sacrifice.
Our Viking Pride tour was informative and conducted at a comfortable pace. As most passengers did the American tour, the small size of our group was a bonus. The tour also included a visit to the Bayeux tapestry, created in the 11th century to tell the story of the Norman conquest. It’s an impressive sight and I’m thrilled it was included along with the D-Day points of interest.
Commemoration of the Battle of Normandy will continue until August 21. For more details, visit www.normandiememoire.com