Remembering those who fought them on the beaches

THEY ran and ran. With soaking uniforms and heavy packs, they ran until their lungs felt fit to burst and they could hear their blood pumping through their skulls.

Saturday, 22nd September 2007, 10:29 am
Updated Saturday, 22nd September 2007, 10:30 am

The Canadian soldiers who landed at Juno beach on June 6, 1944 were not thinking about the end of the war. Nor were they were thinking about the end of the day.

They were thinking about the next five yards, the next few seconds and how to avoid intersecting arcs of fire from enemy machine guns along the coastline.

Sixty three years later, I'm standing on the same Normandy beach with Dr Jean-Pierre Benamou, a French dentist, who divides his time between the aural care of his patients and preserving the memory of those who gave their lives to liberate his country.

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Dr Benamou, who was awarded the OBE for his work with campaign veterans, believes in bringing history to life. He formed the innovative D-Day Academy, to allow tourists to relive those momentous events by utilising period memorabilia.

And it works. He drives me around in a World War II Jeep staff car, shows me original artefacts - a Lee-Enfield rifle, food rations, items used by the first journalists into France - and talks with great knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject.

"By offering a 'hands on' experience, we fill the gap left by traditional museums, whose displays are behind glass, separated from the visitor," he says.

There are plenty of formal tourist attractions in the region. A good starting point is The Battle of Normandy Museum, in Bayeaux, which has just completed an extensive refurbishment.

Its exhibitions may be traditional in delivery but they offer a clear and edifying means of presenting the facts. Indeed, it is appropriate to have such a museum in picturesque Bayeaux, for this was the first town to be liberated by Allied forces.

Further inland, close to the infamous Pegasus bridge, the Bunker Museum at Merville Franceville is another impressive destination.

It aims to recreate, on the original site, the atmosphere of an almost-suicidal raid by a depleted force of British paratroopers to silence a German gun battery that would have reigned shells onto Sword Beach and the eastern flank of the Allied invasion.

A sound-and-light show of the attack is particularly realistic and vividly reproduces intense Lancaster bombing, German artillery fire and the daring assault by the 9th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment to capture the battery.

For the most extensive illustration of D-Day, the imposing Caen Memorial, with its bold displays and film shows, not only examines the events of World War II but also the causes and lasting consequences of the conflict.

It was here that I had a chance meeting with a veteran of the Normandy campaign - 82-year-old Ted Thurston, who served as a sniper with the 10th Battalion Highland Light Infantry. He has been back to Normandy every year since 1957, the year the nightmares from his horrific experiences ended.

"Before that, it was too emotionally difficult," he says. "But it's a necessary pilgrimage to come here. There is no glory in war but we owe it to the people who fell.

"From our original complement of 800, only 20 survived without being killed or wounded. You had no time to make friends."

Perhaps the most striking Normandy attraction is the New American Visitor Centre at Colleville Sur Mer.

The $30m development, which is free to visit, overlooks the infamous Omaha Beach, where US troops suffered the heaviest casualties of the Normandy landings - events that were immortalised by the opening sequence of Steven Speilberg's epic film Saving Private Ryan.

The visitor centre cleverly forges the triumvirate of D-Day education on one site - museum, cemetery and landing zone. Visit all three and there is everything you need to know.

A winding path allows visitors to amble down to the beach. Perhaps this is where the greatest appreciation of D-Day can be gained. The desolate stretch of sand opens up to the vast expanse of cold, grey English Channel and allows your mind to recreate the events of 63 years ago in unnerving and vivid detail.

The American cemetery is vast, with more than 9,000 graves. There is a similar one, for 4,000 Commonwealth servicemen, near Bayeaux.

The most striking and moving facet of visiting them is how immaculate they are - pristine crosses and headstones gleam against a backdrop of manicured lawns and floral tributes.

People visit the Normandy D-Day sites for many reasons: veterans striving to make peace with their demons, relatives wanting to appreciate what fathers and grandfathers fought for, tourists curious to understand more about the 20th century's most pivotal times.

It is difficult to walk around the sites without tearful eyes and a lump in your throat.

So every November, when you buy a poppy, think about Ted Thurston, the thousands like him and what they went through.FACTFILE

Brittany Ferries has three routes to Normandy - Portsmouth-Caen, Portsmouth-Cherbourg, and Poole-Cherbourg. Summer fares start at 140 return for a car and two adults. Ferry-inclusive hotel breaks start at 79 per person for one night at the Hotel Mercure Omaha Beach, including return ferry crossings with car (based on two people sharing). Book online at www.brittanyferries.co.uk or call 08705 360 360.

For regional details www.normandy-tourism.org www.calvados-tourisme.com

Visitors can buy a Normandie Pass, for €1, which gives discounts off many main attractions. Visit www.normandiememoire.com

For details on the Jean-Pierre Benamou's D-Day Academy and to book online, visit www.ddaca.com

Information on other attractions can be viewed at www.batterie-merville.com, www.abmc.gov, www.junobeach.org

I stayed at three-star Hotel Le Dauphin in the centre of Caen, which is a perfect base for the region. Visit www.le-dauphin-normandie.com