The dead are guaranteed.
Whether brief or prolonged, the hallmark of any armed conflict is the trail of bodies it always leaves behind. Noble or ignoble cause, at home or abroad, whenever two sides meet in opposition on the battlefield, what surely follows in the wake of the violence are the graves. Marble or stone rows, innumerable and stern in their testament to the cost of solving differences in this way. A veritable sea of consequence.
If there is one thing that Normandy has plenty of, it’s war cemeteries. We had previously seen the American burial grounds at Colleville-sur-Mer and day three found us in plans to pay visits to some of its British and German counterparts. As the main order of the day was chasing a parachute drop somewhere over the fields of Banneville-la-Campagne, we decided to also stop at the British war cemetery located near the small Norman commune.
The largest military cemetery in Normandy is near the village of La Cambe. Situated near the American invasion beaches of Omaha and Utah, and completely out of the way of our own hamlet of Cabourg, it houses the graves of more than 21,000 German soldiers. We thought it proper to balance out the day by paying respects to the other side of this history and to those who gave their lives for the German cause.
In commemoration of the grand anniversary, the day would witness a collection of American, British, as well as a multi-national assortment of current paratroops and veterans, dropping again from the skies, in a seventy-five-years-later recreation of D-Day events. It would also be a day of commemorating the somber side of Operation Overlord – the dead, and the final resting places of the bodies that were their fateful instruments in war. A long day of driving and exploration was ahead of us. It was time to head out.
As we approached Pegasus Bridge
we found the famed site swamped with people. D-Day 75th fever was raging here also. Reenactors, your average, run-of-the-mill war tourists and just about everyone else had constricted the narrow passage and were engaging in all manner of activity, from gawking at the history to eating their fill at the nearby Café GondréeAs we meandered under the bridge, the structure itself, spanning the Caen Canal, was impressiveHappy-looking tourists were taking advantage of the rides given on classic military craft. We had heard about this and were interested ourselves, but no information or organization of any sort was offered anywhere. As we looked around, it seemed that this was the lot of the privileged fewIt did not seem worth it to stick around. The place was swamped and we were having a difficult time even finding a quieter place from which to take a few unobstructed photographs. We thought it better to move on and see what else was offered in the vicinity. As we had woken up somewhat late and our regime had lapsed as a result, we soon found a location much more enticing to our interests – it was snack timeCider, calvados and a selection of fruit were duly purchased and consumed in a picturesque grove. War history aside, Normandy still has plenty of enticements on offerMuch fuller and consequently happier than before, we next set our sights on Banneville-la-Campagne. Disorganization and lack of reliable information were quickly becoming the trademarks of the D-Day 75th festivities, and once again burdened by their load, we headed toward the tiny commune in anticipation of catching the parachute drops that were set to occur “sometime around 3pm.” Better early than never.
A classic car show
is the last thing we expected. As the perennial tourist clog followed us around, we had barely been able to find parking in a nondescript, grassy lot just minutes earlier. Now, as we walked the streets of the lovely Norman commune, we were suddenly confronted by Sprites and Midgets. Yes, Austin Healys and MGs had taken over the streets of Banneville-la-Campagne. Ferried over the Channel by their proud British owners for the big event, no doubt. In excellent condition and outfitted in vibrant colors, these classic vehicles made for a pleasant surprise in what was so far turning out to be a rather uneventful day of mostly driving around On then, we walked, along with crowds of tourists, large and small, mostly European and mostly American, but garnished with an occasional variety from all parts of the globe. Our aim was the nearby D675, the route in whose vicinity, according to the vague descriptions of official web sources on the matter, the paratroop drop events of the day were to happen. We soon came across the larger motorway, and turned right, in what we hoped was the right direction.
After a while of walking, the intermittent questioning of random people and what looked like press photographers, we decided that we were close enough. Tired and exasperated by the ambiguity and the crowds, we decided to pay a visit to the British war cemetery right next to the D675 and its fields, and take a brief respite. There looked to be no sign of planes carrying parachute troops, no crowds gathered to watch. We were either in the wrong place or the drop was cancelled, but we were sick of waiting passively.
A neat, grassy entryway ushers you in
to the War Cementery 1939-1945 at Baneville La Campagne. Soon, the lush carpet gives way to rows of gravestones that form a vast sea. In the distance, a large cross looms over them all, keeping watch over those Commonwealth soldiers who never returned from beautiful and bloody NormandyThere were few visitors at the grounds and we could walk about and look at the graves in peace. The place was extremely well kept and beautiful, with flowers and various vibrant plants lining the pathways. As always, the unknown soldiers were also presentThe American graves at Colleville-sur-Mer are poignant and touching in their white, marble simplicity. In contrast, we found that the British memorial stones were made of a softer, colored stone that was beautiful in a different way, and were also engraved with poems and personalized messages from the families the soldiers left behind. It was a down-to-earth, personal way of grieving, and looking upon it time and time again, filled me with sadness We spent a while longer at the compound, resting for some minutes at the small covered memorial. It provided some shelter for us and a few other visitors from the intermittent rain that had started to fall. When the skies at last showed some mercy to our spoiled, first-world lot, we meandered back onto the grassy runway and headed back to the D675. We were, of course, wondering if we would be seeing any parachutes falling from the sky today.
It is worth noting, that the entrance to the Abbey of Saint Martin of Troarn stands right outside the war cemetery. It is a marvelous sight, encroached on all sides by lush, Norman shrubberyThe suspect weather, aiming to drop water and perhaps thunder and lightning on our heads at any moment, provided plenty of suspense – without its cooperation, the air drop stood the chance of being cancelled at the last minute. Still unsure if we had the right location, we stood by the wayside, aimlessly loitering along with a few other lost souls.
And then, the small dot appeared out of nowhere
Distant on the stormy horizon, yet definite in its presence, it grew larger and larger, until it at last revealed itself to be the outline of a military transport plane. Up until now, we had held our breath in suspense, but were yet enveloped by the inevitable stupor that is the eventual lot of the tired tourist. The sudden change of fate was like a jolt of energy and it sent us in frantic scrambling for our telephoto lenses.
We barely had time to attach them to our cameras before on they came – dropping from the large, prop-driven military aircraft, like weird, misshapen creatures spawning from a proud and relieved mother. A wave of excitement and ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ emitted from the small gathering that had formed by the roadside. Cars on the D675 began to pull over, oblivious to others that wanted to continue on driving, and drivers and passengers emerged to take in the spectacle. Against the storm-laden sky, the sight was indeed dramatic We knew in advance that different military personnel would be jumping from various craft and in various configurations, and we soon noticed another kind of parachute, gapped and bell-shapedIt was a fascinating spectacle that went on for a while. As it did, we began to realize that we were quite far from the action. The fields outside Baneville-la-Campagne were vast and numerous, and the paratroopers were dropping a distance away from us. Though we could see the sight well enough (and were grateful to be able to see it at all, after the uncertainty), we also wished we could get a closer look. After taking enough pictures from this location, we decided it was now a safe enough gamble to head over to the Peugeot and try to drive closer to the fields. Back the way we came then.
As Eastern Europeans, we really thought we’d seen it all, until we ran into this marvelously restored 101st Airborne, 506th Willis Jeep, bearing Croatian plates, on the way to our carEventually, we did find a route, between houses and through small alleyways, to a nearby field, where we could stand closer to the men falling from the sky. The bell-shaped parachutes kept on dropping, and we were able to get a closer shot of the descentsPegasus Bridge had underwhelmed us with its crowds and the drive to Baneville-la-Campagne was a chore that we were not sure would be rewarded. However, after our almost-miraculous intersection with the parachute drops, we were considering that our fortune for day three might be starting to turn.
Still, La Cambe was far away
But that’s where the German War Cemetery was, and we were determined to see it. Sixty-six kilometers and forty-five minutes later, we had arrived. I had seen the place on my previous trip to Normandy in 2016 and had found it very peaceful and atmospheric. Nikolay hadn’t been here before. Nevertheless, both of us soon realized that this one would also not be a straightforward visit. Closed roads, detours and police showing the way to the cemetery spoke to the presence not only of visitor hordes but of a special event. As a result, we did not have access to the grassy lot, conveniently located right across from the cemetery’s entrance, but had to park a distance away and await a bus that would ferry us to the grounds. Being present for the 75th anniversary of D-Day was so far proving to be mostly a collection of delays and hassles.
We parked in a large, improvised lot, managed by (what we assumed to be) volunteers from the German armed forces. Our uniformed guides showed us the way to the roadside bus stop, also improvised, and already crowded with people. The bus took a long while to arrive and fatigue was beginning to overwhelm us again. Thoughts of food had begun to assail us.
When we finally arrived at the cemetery grounds, we were greeted by a commemoration ceremony that was taking place there. German soldiers bearing flags lined the space before the cross-laden mound, while speeches, in French and German, reverberated through the airOn top of the imposing mound, two soldiers stood guard over the proceedings, burning torches in their handsTheir French and American counterparts were also present, equally dapper and bearing more flagsStill, the cemetery was not overcrowded and we broke away from the ceremony to visit some of the graves. The unique design of the memorials and gravestones is striking and plenty of unknown graves are to be found here, as wellThe cemetery is vast and contains the remains of over 21,200 German military personnel – a testament to the loss of life that marked the Battle of NormandyThe long day of driving and the fact that also here, we were beset by the crowds and speeches and could not visit in silence, was taking its toll on us. Tired, we decided to call it a day and begin the strategic retreat back to our Cabourg quarters for rest and respite. Little did we know, the day was not over yet.
As luck would have it, on our way back, we were beset by lovely, ancient scenery that we could not pass up and a little while later, by a crêperie we could not resist. We weren’t that tired Thus, we made it a point to mark the end of day three in style – with Kir Normand and crepes extraordinaire