Join the landing party

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Sixty years after D-Day, Renata Rubnikowicz takes a moving tour of Normandy's beaches, bunkers and battlefields

They didn't know it was impossible, so they did it." Our guide, military historian and battlefield guide Mike Woodcock, is explaining how, in the early hours of June 6, 1944, a small company of British paratroopers, which included his father, took the strategically important Merville battery from numerically superior German forces. So began the D-Day Normandy landings, 60 years ago this year, which signalled the start of the Allies' liberation of Europe at the end of the Second World War.

The communications equipment had failed, so news of A Company's success was relayed back to Britain by carrier pigeon. "Good old British technology," says one of our coach party, but the tiny museum housed in the battery itself, crammed with the real guns that were fired, "a piece of shrapnel, one of four removed from the lung of Private Frank Delsignore", and other personal mementoes of those who fought there is sobering. "When the fighting ceased," we read, "only 69 paratroopers of the original 150 stood on their feet unwounded. The mission was accomplished. At Sword Beach, the landing could begin."

We have already stopped at Pegasus Bridge, looming out of the early morning mist, and seen the narrow spit of land on which the Allied forces' gliders crash-landed. Our coach, one of two making the five-day trip this week, each with its own guide, carries an assortment of tourists, many of them families with teenage children. On the other coach is a veteran of the landings. The guides are keen to talk to him and add to their extensive knowledge. Few of the coach party are military buffs, and none remains unmoved by the sites of the battles.

Our first cemetery - I lose count of how many we visit, each memorable and moving in its own way - is Ranville, where many of the paratroopers are buried. At each cemetery, Mike tells the story of some of those buried.

Jerusalem, the smallest, holds the graves of 48 Britons and one Czech. In the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach are the graves of 9,386 American soldiers, all facing west towards the United States, and a garden of remembrance for 1,557 of the missing who have no known grave. He points out the graves of the Niland brothers, Preston and Robert, lying side by side, whose story echoes that of the film Saving Private Ryan, but says there are 33 other sets of brothers in this cemetery as well as a father and son, buried side by side.

At Ranville, we see the grave of Private Robert Edward Johns, who lied about his age to join up and, after his death, was found to be only 16.

Here, too, Mike points out the grave Canadian Private Emile S Corteil shares with his "paradog", Glen, who had jumped in his own parachute, his task to sniff out the enemy. Mike answers questions from the simple to the highly technical, always leading back to the realities of war. "If you're on a beach being shelled," he reminds one of our group, "it doesn't matter if it's a two-inch, four-inch or six-inch gun."

At the Arromanches museum, overlooking the beach codenamed Gold, we see the remains of one of the "Mulberry harbours" constructed to help land some of the 150,000 men who arrived in Normandy that day, spearheading the biggest invasion force the world has ever seen. It is well explained and comprehensive, yet our eyes are drawn back to the long window and the place where the troops landed, trying to imagine how it must have been.

Even more well-stocked with guns, tanks and memorabilia is the museum at Bayeux, "one of the finest military collections in Europe", according to Mike, though I find the smaller museum at St M re glise, with its glider, transport plane and soldiers' letters home, more informative. The little town of St M re glise was already on fire as the paras drifted down into it, providing easy targets. Private John Steele, commemorated to this day in a life-sized model hanging on the steeple, survived when his parachute caught on the church roof.

The landings were followed by weeks of bloody hand-to-hand fighting in difficult terrain where the slightest ridge afforded an advantage. Mike walks us across some of the landscape to see the obstacles the troops faced. Even here, after seeing so much of the destruction achieved by the weaponry of both sides, some find its power difficult to comprehend. Mike explains how the "iron harvest" of the war is still being dug up by farmers. On occasion, his tourists have found ordnance, too. "One chap found a live mortar shell," he tells us. "He said, 'Can I take it back on the coach?' The fool. Imagine that going off in the Channel Tunnel."

Leger Holidays battlefield tours have departures throughout the year including over the 60th anniversary in early June. Prices start at pound;159 for the four-day D-Day Beaches of Normandy tour including three nights'

bed and breakfast; the five-day tour costs from pound;195, with four nights' bed and breakfast. Walking the D-Day Landings, also a five-day tour, costs from pound;249 and departs in April, May, June and August. All are accompanied by specialist guides and include coach transport with free coach pick-up from hundreds of departure points throughout England and Wales. For more details, tel: 0845 458 5599 (group bookings: 01709 833811); Going Places with The TES next week: 28 pages of school travel, including D-Day landings tours

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