In the footsteps of the fallen

13th February 2004 at 00:00
The 60th anniversary of D-Day means visits to Second World War siteswill be in high demand this year. Renata Rubnikowicz looks at tours specifically catering for school trips

June 6 this year is the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, the turning point of the Second World War, and an opportunity to disabuse students of the idea that it was just like Saving Private Ryan.

Under the banner "Normandie Memoire: 80 Days of Emotion and Celebration", countless events are planned until the end of August in the many excellent museums, the vast cemeteries, and the towns and tiny villages liberated by the Allied troops.

"Although veterans and their families are central to the experience, youth is a theme of many events," says Stephen Rodgers of the local tourist board.

So who would benefit?

The founder of Anglia Battlefield Tours, former colonel Alain Chissel, says: "We try to discourage Year 9s: the First World War is easier for them to understand. Year 10s and over have a better understanding of warfare generally," he says. "I'm an ex-soldier and I remember battlefield tours as being turgid - maps and so on. We try and show students what it was really like."

Hugh Williams of Leger Holidays emphasises that schools must be free to design a tour to suit their own needs. "We provide sample itineraries, but we understand that individual teachers and schools have their own agenda," he says.

Each of Leger's coaches carries a battlefield guide. The company usually takes D-Day groups from Year 9 upwards. Some will even combine their Normandy trip with a visit to Disneyland Paris.

"It can't be all bombs and bullets. It can't be all cemeteries," says Bill McQuade, a former tank soldier and "Cold War warrior". For 20 years, he has been a specialist battlefield guide for Leger and Anglia, among others.

A week to 10 days before a trip, he says, "we get the kids and parents together. I take a slide or PowerPoint presentation, so the kids already have images in their subconscious to help them cope with the reality of what they're going to see. There were 3,000 casualties on Omaha Beach alone. That's a hell of a figure.

"The battlefield is an esoteric, detached place, so I like to make a link on a personal level. I ask the students to imagine being great-grandad landing on the beach, or we look for great-uncle Bob's grave. We go down to the waterline and look at the bluffs behind Omaha. How would you react as a soldier landing there? How do you feel as a German soldier training your gun on that beach?"

Guides used by NST, the UK's largest educational tour operator, are former teachers who know the area well. "Our guides are specifically educationists," says NST's Martin Donohoe, and the company makes a point of tailoring visits to the curriculum at teachers' request.

David Holmes, a language teacher at Holy Family high school in Thornton, Liverpool, travels with NST. Over the past 15 years he's been taking his students all along the Normandy coast, so he's probably justified in saying: "We're better than any guide." His is a six-day language trip, of which a day-and-a-half is spent on D-Day. "It doesn't directly fit in to the curriculum - but so what," he says. "The kids develop so much respect.

"We go to St M re Eglise, Utah Beach, the cemetery at Omaha, which they know about from Saving Private Ryan, the Pegasus Bridge, Pointe de Hoc, the museum and 360-degree cinema at Arromanches, the Battle of Normandy museum and the British cemetery at Bayeux.

"They are more moved by the British cemetery, especially when they see how young some of the dead soldiers were."

The rest of his groups' five full days in France is taken up with visits to markets, the Bayeux tapestry, a goat farm and other language activities.

Jane Walker of the travel company Destinations also believes in mixing it up. "Children as young as top juniors can take in some of the Second World War history of Normandy as part of a twin-centred, multi-curricular group trip incorporating Paris, Disneyland and Monet's Garden, so covering culture, language, history and art," she says.

She advises against going during the main anniversary period of June 4 to 8. "There is accommodation, but it will be very busy and there will be high security, so you might not get into some of the sites," she explains.

Keith Sharkey, a former language teacher, founded Halsbury Travel in 1986 as a secondary school group tour specialist. Many of his staff are former teachers. "Very often, the teachers are quite knowledgeable and they'll have their own slant," he says, but he arranges guides locally for teachers who prefer people with local knowledge.

Travelbound-Schools Abroad's own chateau at Le Molay-Littry, half-an-hour from the beaches, is an alternative to hotels for teachers who don't need a guide.

Anglia Battlefield Tours Tel: 01245 231 991; Tel: 01494 773 3576; Halsbury Travel Tel: 0115 940 4303;; www.halsbury.comLeger Holidays Tel: 01709 833 811;; Tourist Board Tel: 0117 986 0386;;; info@normandiememoire.comNST Educational Travel Tel: 01253 352 525;; Abroad Tel: 0870 900 3200;

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