Thursday, June 19, 2014

Normandy 1994

Not very much at all to report on the modelling and painting front over the last few weeks, I’m afraid! With the month that’s in it, however, I thought a quick – albeit slightly late – update with a D-Day theme might be in order.

Normandy has always held a very special place in my affections; above all else because it was the scene for me of an extremely formative introduction to military history. A rummage through the family photograph drawer this week has bought back some cherished memories.

I’d just turned six in June 1994 when my parents, sister and I decamped to France for a fortnight in a self-catering rental in the Norman countryside. This was fairly typical for us at the time: Mum is a French teacher and for as long as I can remember has had an affinity with the country that borders on passion. Quite a few summers saw us cram the family Golf with enough picnic supplies, stuffed toys and mutual patience to sustain us for a week or two of puttering around Gallic back lanes and town squares.

This particular trip saw us settling into a stone clad cottage just outside the village of Fierville Les Mines. In 2014, a little bit of armchair browsing with Google Earth allows me to confirm that Fierville lies inland from the western side of the Cotentin Peninsula. Potentially more significantly, the village is within reasonable driving distance of the main US sea and airborne landing zones of D-Day. And much more significantly again, that June of course marked precisely the fiftieth anniversary of those landings…

Now, this had been entirely coincidental as far as my parents were concerned. Neither have any especially profound interest in history; much less in the campaigns, cannon and colonels of military history. Regardless, the past was very hard to get away from that summer in Normandy.

Every last village and hamlet we visited during those two weeks seemed to be festooned in the bright blues, reds and whites of British, Canadian, American and French flags. War memorials had been cleaned, burnished and marked with wreathes.

We ended up visiting nearly every significant location of the US invasion sector, from the windy dunes of Utah and Omaha beaches to the central square of Sainte Mère Eglise. None of us can seem to remember visiting the British and Canadian sectors, further east – probably because they were too far away from our base. If we did, no photographs have survived.

As a young boy, this was heady stuff. The lifelike effigy of the 82nd Airborne’s Private John Steele hanging from the church steeple of Sainte Mère Eglise was a source of particular wonderment to me, and I became enthralled by the story of the paratrooper’s hapless ordeal during the early hours of D-Day. I was able to clamber on plinth-mounted Sherman tanks and peer through the gun slits of shattered concrete bunkers. Young though I was, it was impossible not to begin to perceive that something quite extraordinary had clearly happened here.

That trip to Normandy was a game changer for me. Exactly twenty years on, I have an MA in military history, an album of personal snapshots of battlefields from the Boyne to Passchendaele, and an enduring fascination with the history of conflict.

That passion might have developed anyway, but I’m able to tease my parents today that, but for their choice of location in the holiday brochure that year, I might still have grown up with slightly more conventional interests at heart. My television highlights this month might have featured overpaid athletes booting balls around Brazilian arenas, rather than pensioners in blazers and mounted medals taking perhaps a final opportunity to retrace their footsteps as young men seven decades ago.

I wouldn’t change a thing.


  1. Great post Peter. It would be hard to not to be drawn into history on a holiday like that!

    1. Thanks, Paul, glad you liked it. I've been back to Normandy since, but that first trip will always be incredibly memorable. Kicking myself now that I didn't get my act together in time to head over for the anniversary this month!