On a Beach in Normandy

Jessica and Dominic Green and Their Children Visit Normandy,
France on June 6, 2019 to Commemorate the 75th Anniversary of D-Day


Words and Photography By Dominic Green

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Jessica, Henry, Dominic, and Oliver Green at Utah Beach.

Utah. Omaha. Gold. Juno. Sword.

Those names are imprinted indelibly upon my memory, as surely as any other school-boy rote, like my times tables, or the order of the fate of Henry VIII’s six wives (“divorced, beheaded, died...divorced, beheaded, survived” …if you don’t know).

Growing up in the small, somewhat sleepy seaside town of Gosport on the South Coast of England, the events of the 5th and 6th of June 1944 seemed an ever-present fixture in my childhood. Gosport lies upon The Solent, a broad body of water that separates mainland U.K. from the Isle of Wight.

Sandwiched between the major naval port of Portsmouth to the east and the commercial port of Southampton to the west, The Solent has witnessed its fair share of history. Henry VIII watched his Flagship, The Mary Rose, topple over and sink before his eyes here in 1545 (the wreck was rediscovered in 1966 and I remember watching live on television as it was raised in 1982. The ship now lies in a museum in Portsmouth).

Spithead, Gosport is a natural promontory from where the King or Queen of England traditionally reviewed the Royal Naval Fleet. Crowds waved goodbye to RMS Titanic from here as it sailed off towards Cherbourg, in Normandy, France in 1912.

Operation Overlord

But 75 years ago, this part of the South Coast of England held the eyes of the world, as the departure point for the thousands of ships, planes, and soldiers that formed Operation Overlord, the invasion of occupied Europe to defeat the Nazis, and end World War II.

My old high school, “Bay House”, (a Grade II listed former country manor, built in 1838) lies a few hundred yards from the shingle beach of Stokes Bay. In the warm, early-summer months, we would sneak out at lunchtime to lie on the pebbles, soak up the sun, take a dip in the sea. Even then, I was aware it was from that very beach that Canadian troops had embarked on June 5, 1944, bound for the beaches around the French seaside towns of Courseulles-sur-Mer and Bernières-sur-Mer, on a stretch codenamed ‘Juno’, the landing site that lay between the British beaches of Gold and Sword.

My American wife, Jessica, and I have visited Normandy before together, and again years later with our children, Henry and Oliver. Jessica surprised her grandfather, Barrington resident Richard Duchossois, there five years ago during the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, when he was presented with the French Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur (the French equivalent of a combined Congressional Gold Medal and Congressional Medal of Honor, being both civilian and military). But this was an anniversary we did not want our sons to miss, being, as it is, the 75th, and possibly the last significant anniversary to be attended by veterans of World War II.

On the World Stage

Staying just outside the picturesque, medieval fishing village of Honfleur, about 40 miles East of Sword Beach (the far Eastern flank of the invasion), our first stop on June 5, D-Day 75 minus 1 would be the inland towns of Ranville and Bénouville. Straddling the River Orne and the Orne Canal, narrow waterways running parallel to each other about a quarter of a mile apart, from the English Channel at Ouistreham, south to the strategically important Norman city of Caen—these villages would find themselves at the very forefront of the world stage shortly after midnight on June 6, for one important reason—bridges.

It was here on June 6, 1944 that Major John Howard and D Company of the British “Ox & Bucks” (the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment), lead the first mission of D-Day, landing in giant, plywood ‘Horsa’ Gliders shortly after midnight. The pilots had released into the darkness a few minutes before with nothing more than the light of the moon, a stopwatch, and months of training to guide them. They landed on the narrow strip of land separating the river and the canal mere yards from their intended target—the bridge at Bénouville—in what British Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory described as, “The greatest feat of flying in World War II”. Their mission to take the bridge intact was achieved in 10 minutes. It was later renamed Pegasus Bridge in their honor (the winged horse being the insignia of the British Airborne).

Left: Ninety-eight-year-old Denzil Cooper places a wreath of poppies at a memorial at Pegasus Bridge. Right: Oliver Green meets veteran Sherwin Callander in the museum at

First Impressions and Mixed Emotions

On our own approach to the bridges, we started to get a taste of what a D-Day anniversary in Normandy looks like. We began to see WWII Jeeps, driven by men and women in period uniform. The closer we crept, the more we saw—original British war-time motorcycles: Norton, and Matchless, and Enfield; 1940s trucks, more Jeeps. The atmosphere was carnival-like— thrilling and celebratory—yet at the same time somewhat strangely at odds with the occasion. Certainly, this was a celebration of the veterans present, the victory accomplished, the freedoms achieved, but a certain solemnity was also palpable.

As we walked towards the bridge, we began to hear sounds of the 1940s, too. The poc-poc of vintage engines, the static crackle of songs of the era on the radio, and, as the towering, pale structure of the bridge itself loomed before us, the live voice of a ‘40s singer, performing “for the troops” from the back of a period truck. In the air, the smell of damp canvas, burnt gasoline, and pipe tobacco all helped transport us back in time.

We discovered that we had arrived at the bridge just as a small memorial was to take place, right at the point where the first gliders had landed. Groups of contemporary soldiers milled about, some wearing fatigues and the sky-blue berets of the British Army Air Corp, others in formal brown uniform and peaked caps. An elderly man was brought forward in a wheelchair, wearing the maroon beret of the British Paratroop Regiment, sunglasses, a handsome, silver mustache, and the fixed, resolute expression of a man who understood in a way that perhaps no one else present could, why he was here. He drew more attention from the crowd this day than I imagine he does at home, when he is out and about ‘sans beret’. Glances and whispers, and occasionally a request for a handshake or even an autograph. Many a “thank you for your service”.

Ninety-eight-year-old Denzil Cooper was co-pilot of a Horsa Glider that landed at Pegasus Bridge on D-Day, one of the last remaining. The ceremony was small, low-key, respectful, and the gathering grew silent as he was slowly wheeled before the monument, where he laid a wreath of poppies and gave a strong, purposeful salute. Later, we would read his story in the Pegasus Memorial Museum, and on our final day find his ‘banner’ atop a lamp post in the nearby town of Ranville. The exhibit and banner will be there to visit for many years, but cannot compare with the privilege of witnessing Denzil Cooper’s courage and dignity in person on that day.

Soldiers rest at the bunker wall by what is now Cafe Roosevelt, Utah Beach, June 1944. Right: Henry and Oliver Green pose by the Cafe Roosevelt wall at at Utah Beach.

An Unsuspected Café Spy

We headed on across the bridge to the western side, passing the spot where Lieutenant Den Brotheridge was shot and killed by a German sentry, and is generally considered the first Allied soldier killed in action on D-Day. On the other bank lies the Café Gondrée. Full to overflowing today, Café Gondrée was owned and run by Thérèse and Georges Gondrée in the early 1940s. Thérèse spoke German but was able to hide that fact from the German soldiers who frequented her cafe, lulling them into the comfort of talking freely in her presence. Any useful information she overheard was passed to the resistance, then on to England. Thus, Major Howard and his Paratroopers knew that, for example, the button to detonate the explosives under the bridge was situated in a machine-gun pillbox on the eastern side of the bridge.

The Pegasus Memorial Museum is located next to the bridge, detailing the raid and its aftermath. It is here that the actual bridge lies upon the grass (the bridge that crosses the canal today is a replica), preserved, yet still bearing the scars of the battle that night. In later years, Major John Howard led the charge to save the bridge and the cafe from development, proving instrumental once again in ‘taking the bridge’.

A Marvel in the Sky

Later that afternoon we headed east again, towards the towns of Ranville and Sannerville. It was here that Paratroopers of the British 6th Airborne Division landed as a part of Operation Tonga, tasked with destroying bridges over the River Dives and the German Gun Battery at Merville (and, for whose possible withdrawal, the bridges over the Orne waterways needed to be captured intact). We made our way to the lanes and broad fields of wheat that lie between the towns, in time for an impressive display. Along with the hundreds of other spectators who had made their way here, we gazed skyward towards the north, waiting. Eventually a series of small specks appeared, slowly growing bigger until we could hear the faint but unmistakable drone of vintage radial engines. One by one, in a loose formation, 12 C-47 transport planes, or “Dakotas” as the British called them, turned and passed overhead, each one dispatching a ‘stick’ of 12 parachutists. This was a ‘static-line’ jump, with the round, billowing ‘chutes opening directly upon exit, just as they had 75 years ago. As the sky filled with white mushrooms of silk, the planes made a wide turn and came again, dropping more jumpers, around 250 in total. It was thrilling to witness and made for a moving and memorable end to a moving and memorable day.

Revisiting D-Day

On Thursday the 6th, the 75th anniversary of D-Day proper, we rose early. We left the house at 6:30 a.m., and it is only now as I am writing that I realize this was precisely ‘H-Hour’ on most of the beaches—the actual time designated for the first waves of landing craft to hit the sand and the seaborne invasion to begin, shortly after sunrise and low tide. A storm had been moving through Normandy this week, but fittingly—just as happened the first week of June 1944—there was a break in the weather today, on the June 6.

We drove to an assembly point in the city of Caen, where we boarded shuttles to take us to the anniversary ceremony due to occur at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, near the town of Colleville-sur-Mer. By contrast with the previous day, the roads were empty. Gendarmerie motorcycles escorted us 30 miles down Route N13, a main highway that had been shut down specifically for this reason.

The famous cemetery lies atop the bluff above what was code-named Omaha Beach. Enough has been written and said about the horrific experiences the soldiers tasked with taking this stretch of coast endured on D-Day, suffice it to say the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions suffered around 2,400 casualties in the first few hours.

We have visited the cemetery before, and it is a beautiful, sorrowful experience. This day was a little different. A ring of steel secured the area for Presidents Macron and Trump. Both had spoken at the International Ceremony the day before in my home city of Portsmouth, and both gave moving speeches again today. But the spotlight that day, and the reason many of the 5,000 guests were there, was for the 60 or more veterans of D-Day and World War II in attendance. Every live image of them seated soberly upon the stage and projected candidly upon the giant screens set up around the cemetery elicited spontaneous applause and standing ovations, often for minutes at a time. It was clear we all had an acute sense of the significance, and the honor, of the occasion.

Presidents spoke of sacrifice. Jets flew past streaming colored smoke. The sun shone through the clouds. And in our midst walked representatives of the last of The Greatest Generation.

Henry and Oliver Green look at a rations crate packed by the Jewel Tea Company, Barrington, Illinois, at the Utah Beach Museum.

In France, Yet Close to Home

Our final day, on Friday, June 7, was spent with local guide Anthony Kratavil. Anthony was born in California to a French mother, returning to her home in Calvados when he was a child. It had been three years since we last visited Normandy with our sons (who were 8 and 5 at the time) and we decided to return to the western flank of the invasion at Utah Beach and the U.S. Paratroop drop zones in the fields and villages beyond. It was at Utah Beach that Henry and Oliver’s Great-Grandfather, Richard L. Duchossois, had landed on July 31, 1944, eight weeks after D-Day, as a Captain in the 610th Tank Destroyer Battalion of General Patton’s 3rd Army.

We visited Sainte-Mère-Église, the village made famous in the movie adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s definitive book, “The Longest Day”, due mostly to the enduring image of Private John Steele hanging by his parachute from the church steeple. As with Pegasus Bridge at Bénouville for the British, Sainte-Mère-Église has become a hub of commemorative activity for American visitors. The square has an equally carnivalesque atmosphere, especially during anniversaries.

Small crowds in the square indicated where a veteran was present, each respectfully if awkwardly ‘mobbed’ by those craving a glimpse. It was difficult to gauge their feelings about their own celebrity, as we overheard one daughter struggling to move her father past camera-wielding admirers mutter, “All he wants is to get an ice-cream...”

I can tell you it was a pleasure to briefly meet 99-year-old Sherwin Callander at the museum in , Sainte-Mère-Église and he certainly seemed happy to speak with us. A survivor of Pearl Harbor and D-Day, Mr. Callander has an infectious smile, and wears a pin that declares he has “survived damn near everything!” Later, in the museum at Utah Beach, we would see Sherwin Callander again with other veterans, brought to Normandy by the group “Forever Young, Senior Veterans”.

Likewise, it was an honor and a privilege to spend a short time with another British veteran two days later, at the Merville Battery museum east of Sword Beach. He was generous with his time, and patient with our questions. But he was not happy with the museum. He felt it was too commercial, and misleading in its depiction of how it was 75 years ago. He used stronger language. “What about the boys buried under here?”, he wanted to know, jabbing at the turf with his walking cane. It provided another insight into the experience of these aging soldiers, both then and now.

And, already, I cannot remember his name.

Every impromptu encounter with the veterans was special, and unique. The beaches of Normandy will always be there to visit, along with the ancient towns and villages where decisive battles took place on June 6, 1944. The fine museums will be filled for many years ahead, and the history books will be there to read. No doubt in this age of information, the hundreds of documentaries and videos, visual and oral histories of World War II will be available at our fingertips for a long time to come. But our living connection to this part of history will soon be gone forever. For their sake, and ours, I hope we will continue to remember.

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Dominic is a native of England and has lived in the United States for the past 15 years (10 years in Chicago, five years in Barrington). He has, at various times, been a world traveler, sailor, actor and organic farmer. He has always been a history enthusiast. He lives in Barrington Hills with his wife and two sons.