I’ve spent the past few days in Normandy, the site of 1944’s D-Day landings, attempting to retrace the footsteps of my grandfather Robert Parker. Called to serve in the infantry, the young Bob found himself in an unforgiving Northern Ireland before being sent to the British south coast to train for that fateful invasion.
On the morning of June 6th, 1944, aged just 20 years old, Bob landed at the Gold Beach sector of the Normandy coastline. Standing on the edge of the water on a randomly chosen stretch of sand somewhere between Ver-Sur-Mer and Arromanches, I look back at the beautiful and serene landscape. Aside from seagulls and the lapping of the English Channel, the landscape is still and calm. Holiday homes, shuttered for the winter, nestle into the gently undulating cliffs and dunes. In the distance a dog barks, its owner throws a stick for it to chase. On that fateful day in 1944, Bob recalls that this place I stand was where for him “hell had opened its doors”.
I close my eyes and try to recreate the intense sound of mortar fire pounding the sand, planes screaming overhead unleashing waves of rockets and bullets cracking the air around me, missing me by millimetres. When I open my eyes again I try to picture wave after wave of men running for their lives into that hell.
Yet what I see before me is so far departed from the horrors of war described to me by grandad Bob that I fail in my attempts to relive that moment. People as fortunate as myself will never feel the fear that was suddenly put upon those brave young men, will never hear the air exploding around them and never have to accept they’ll probably not be around to see another morning.
I will not have to bear witness to the ocean turning red before my eyes as my friends and comrades fall around me. Standing with the clear waters washing over my boots, taking in the scene before me, I feel a chill in my spine and the sounds of the beach become an eerie drone, slightly unsettling, and I realise this is not a time to try and relive my grandfather’s bravest of steps but to respectfully recognise them and enjoy the privilege of the freedom he and many others gave their all for us to live by.
That night I sleep in Bayeux. Grandad often says what a lovely little town it is and I’m inclined to agree. Unfortunately I don’t have time to visit the tapestry that he recommends as being impressive, but I will return for Normandy and the charming landscape in this very rural part of France. As I tick off the locations of Bob’s battlegrounds and tour the endless single-lane roads, stone farmhouses, well-tended orchards and pristine hedgerows, I find it difficult to truly imagine this land as one where death and fear lived at every turn. Monuments to the liberation stand all over, subtle yet powerful symbols of remembrance and thanks.
The sat-nav takes us through an ocean of fields on a stony track for a good three miles as the rain lashes at the car, and in the middle of nowhere stands a small cross marking the point where an Allied Typhoon fighter Squadron was once based. These small gestures ensure this beautiful landscape itself will always be the greatest monument to my grandfather and his comrades’ great effort. From such a powerful and brutal war rises a beautiful and pleasant land that we can enjoy alongside our remembrance.
Finally I stop at Ver-Sur-Mer, another landing site. In the pouring rain I stand one last time to look at the beach and take in the majesty of my grandad’s brave actions. As my hair soaks I feel a great sense of pride and wish that Bob were here with me so that I can put my arm around him and simply say ‘thank you’.
This Guest Post was written by James Eaton