Visit the British Normandy Memorial, a remembrance site commemorating D-Day, which opened in 2021.
Walking amongst the white stone columns of the British Normandy Memorial on a stunning blue-sky day, I can’t help feeling that my father would have thoroughly approved. In June 1944, the 20-year-old farmer’s son landed at Sword Beach as part of the D-Day landings that kick-started the liberation of France. He had never been out of England before and he wasn’t to see home again for nearly three years. G
They were difficult years but at least my father came back. He resumed his legal training, met my mum, and together they worked hard to build a future and a family together. Fast forward to my teens and we enjoyed many holiday road trips round France, but we never went to Normandy. Maybe there were just too many memories for a conscripted ex-soldier.
A moving memorial
But strolling around the tranquil cliff-top site at Ver-sur-Mer with its sweeping views over land and sea, I know my dad would have loved this stunningly beautiful commemoration of the comrades he left behind. He rarely showed emotion but my father was moved to tears by the television coverage of the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014. A month later, he slipped quietly away aged 90, perhaps to meet up with some of those who never caught the troop carrier home.
For many years, families of Allied soldiers have been able to visit memorials, museums and beaches on the Normandy coastline in the footsteps of relatives who fought for freedom in Europe. But only now is there a memorial to the British soldiers who didn’t return from the conflict, a spot where relatives can see the names of lost family members inscribed for posterity.
A long campaign
The campaign for the British Normandy Memorial began in 2015 when D-Day veteran George Batts, formerly of the Royal Engineers, pointed out to BBC broadcaster Nicholas Witchell that no national memorial in Normandy recorded the names of all those under British command who had died on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy. As a result, the Normandy Memorial Trust was established and the project began to move forward.
In March 2017, the British government pledged £20 million towards the construction of the Memorial on farmland overlooking the shoreline codenamed Gold Beach. The site was formally inaugurated on 6 June 2019 in the presence of then British Prime Minster Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, and construction work began soon afterwards. Despite delays due to the Covid pandemic, the Memorial was officially opened by video link by HRH The Prince of Wales on 6 June 2021.
‘Stonehenge by the Sea’
Carved on 160 stone columns are the names of 22,442 individuals – British personnel and other nationalities serving British units – whose lives were lost in the Normandy campaign. Also included are members of the RAF who supported the mission, and secret agents and Special Forces personnel working behind enemy lines. Names are listed in chronological order of death, day-by-day, and grouped by branches of the armed forces. This huge undertaking was greatly aided by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and supplemented by other military institutions and individuals.
But you don’t need a family connection to enjoy a visit to this special place which is easily reached by car, midway between Bayeux and Caen. Buses also run from both towns, except on Sundays, stopping outside the Memorial gate. Admission is free with just a 3€ parking charge that goes towards the upkeep of the site. Visitors will find toilets at the entrance and a picnic area near the car park, but no visitor centre, no shop, no guides, and no cafe. Nothing that detracts from the tranquillity and beauty of the site. If you need snacks, the village shops are just five minutes’ walk away.
Access to the Memorial is via a level gravel path, suitable for wheelchairs and walking aids – expect an 8-10 minute walk from the car park. Along the way, stone information panels are carved with the story of the D-Day landings, English on one side, French on the other.
As the Memorial came into view, my first thought was ‘Stonehenge beside the sea’, its uniform stone columns topped with a lattice of timber. The full beauty of the design doesn’t hit you until you get close and can see the layout, a rectangle criss-crossed by paths in the shape of a Union Jack, which flies on a tall flagpole at the centre beside the French tricolore.
A worthy memorial
More flags fly on the grass between the columns and the natural meadow that overlooks the sea, ablaze with a Monet palette of wildflowers during my June visit. I stopped to take in the dramatic sculpture of three soldiers ‘running’ in from the beach, an iconic moment frozen in time that could so easily have shown my dad.
Then I crossed the grass for a close up view of the five wrought iron panels designed by sculptor Charles Bergen, each one pointing towards a D-Day landing beach and illustrating key elements from the battle – the British soldiers at Sword beach to the east and here at Gold; the Canadian assault between the British beaches at Juno; and to the west, the American targets at Omaha and distant Utah. On such a clear day, the floating Mulberry harbours at neighbouring Arromanches were clearly visible, and beyond them, the headland of Pointe du Hoc pinpointed the beaches of Omaha and Utah, a unique and moving panorama.
Turning my back on the waves that brought the Allied troops to France, I stopped by the tablet commemorating the many French civilians who also died in the summer of 1944 in Normandy. And to read the stirring words spoken as the assault began – the D-Day broadcast by King George VI, the address by General de Gaulle on BBC Radio, and the speech by Sir Winston Churchill.
This Memorial may be long overdue but it’s a fitting tribute to all those young men who sacrificed their futures in France. A real must-see on this beautiful stretch of Calvados coastline.
Further information from www.britishnormandymemorial.org
For tourist information on Calvados, visit www.calvados-tourisme.co.uk
For the best battlefield and memorial tours of Normandy see sophiesgreatwartours.com
Gillian Thornton is a writer who specialises in France and lifestyle.