Tuesday 12th June, 2001
On Passage to Amsterdam
Writer : James Frankham

I’m sitting on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. This place seems to represent what was given by so many during wartime, wherever they fought. It embodies what you suffered and bore witness to in places like this; defending a cause that you knew to be good and true for the sake of your country ... and me. I want to express my overwhelming gratitude and let you know that what you and your comrades sacrificed is appreciated today, if not understood. Thanks Poppa.

There is a chill in the air and a 10-knot onshore breeze tops the green-brown waves with white crests. An overcast sky paints the hillsides grey. A steeple pierces the skyline. The waves surge behind us and an eight-kilometre beach stretches out on both sides.

The crew climb over the bow and carry the equipment ashore as I anchor the tender and swim in. The water is thick and debilitating cold. Standing wet on the beach under a grey sky, it suddenly becomes real. It would not have been any warmer on June 6th, 1944.

On that day, a force of 152 000 Allied soldiers from the United States, Britain and Canada stormed the beaches of Normandy where they were supported by 23 000 paratroopers. D-Day was the largest seaborne invasion in history and a crucial turning point in World War II. The massive assault led to the liberation of France and final victory over Hitler. However, the cost was vast.

Omaha Beach.
[ photo - James Frankham ]

We climb the steep, grassy hillside that overlooks the beach and past the gun emplacements of Wn62, a German outpost on Omaha Beach. Seven thousand Allied ships assembled under the cover of darkness along this coast, many miles farther west than Hitler had anticipated attack. Bombers flew overhead, counting the seconds from the ships beneath to release their bombs on the defences. They allowed two seconds extra to protect their own landing parties. However the contingency was too great and the barrage landed well behind the German lines. The naval artillery began shelling and the first Special Forces landed to clear the obstructions, mines and devices that would hinder the progress of the amphibious personnel carriers.

Only 35 soldiers manned the machine guns and cannon of ‘Widerstandsnest 62’ that claimed the lives of so many. One German gunner estimated that he took 2000 Allied troops on that one day alone. It wasn’t until these emplacements were finally taken from behind that forces were able to break through the occupying defences.

On a hill behind the ‘Tobrouk’ gun emplacements is the most sobering illustration of the devastation that occurred here nearly 60 years ago. Nine thousand, three hundred and eighty-seven servicemen and women are buried here. Simple white Latin crosses adorn each gravesite, arranged in long symmetrical rows over 172 acres of grassland. It is a brutal reminder.

[ photo - James Frankham ]

Old servicemen wander between the headstones of their fallen colleagues, stopping momentarily to mutter a prayer or pay their respects. Young children bow in appreciation for what they will never comprehend and offer flowers to the grandparents they never met. We nod as we pass other visitors of all nationalities, acknowledging that War itself is the true enemy.

I have never been so deeply affected by a place. It is the scale of the sacrifice here that makes it so significant. The bloodied battleground at Omaha serves to remind us of the price that was paid for our freedom; that gift of inestimable worth that we have been born with.

Lest we forget.