Seven years ago we took an extraordinary vacation with our four sons to France. One of the highlights was a tour of the D-Day beaches with Colonel Oliver Warman, a retired British officer and war historian. Col. Warman majored in modern history and war studies at Oxford, lectured at the Royal Military Staff College, and served as a former military assistant to the British Prime Minister in addition to seeing tours of duty in three wars.
In arranging our trip, a Normandy beaches tour company recommended that since we had rented a minivan for the week, a private guide would cost us less money than tickets for a family of 6 on one of the charter tour buses. We connected with Col. Warman by email before the trip and arranged to meet with him Caen for a day-long adventure of history.
At the time our sons were 10, 12, 13 and 17. To augment their limited understanding of World War II history, we bought the DVD set to the miniseries Band of Brothers and a copy of Saving Private Ryan. The boys took these along with a portable DVD player to watch on the plane and in the car as we drove around the French countryside. Just like on family vacations to the Rockies and the Gulf Coast, the DVD player helped mitigate sibling car fights and the proverbial road trip question “are we there yet?”
By the time we met up with Col. Warman, the boys had watched Saving Private Ryan several times and were more than half-way through Band of Brothers. Col. Warman hopped in the car as co-pilot and gave directions to our first stop, Gold Beach. Deciding Bob was a better name for my husband than Bill, he would chirp, “Straight on, Bob.” The boys relished in their dad’s new name and teasingly still give him driving directions in a mock British accent, “Can you get a move on it, Bob?”
As we drove along, Col. Warman narrated the trip, pointing out landmarks, including the pox marks of mortar and bomb craters along the Normandy coastline, many that had been created by in the weeks leading up to the largest amphibious landing of 160,000 troops in addition to an air assault of 24,000 U.S., United Kingdom and Free French soldiers. He took us through back roads that led through private French farmland near Arromanches-les-Bainsto recalling the history of the Nazi occupation and the Allies invasion. Over the years, Col. Warman has cultivated relationships with the farmers who permit him to take small groups to places along their fields where important battle events took place.
Coll. Warman showed the boys the difference between Gold Beach, where the British came ashore and Omaha Beach where the Nazi’s had great geographical advantage because they were stationed high above the beach. He took the boys to the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach and showed them where the German machine gun nests were located. Later as we stood on Omaha beach, Col. Warman used his cane for a pointer and the beach as a chalk board as he drew a schematic of the assault by the allies. It was a chilly March day and a stiff wind blew across the English Channel, but the boys stood in rapt attention as this elderly war historian made a day of history come alive for them and their parents.
He told us of the sacrifices made by American, Australian, British and Canadian troops 66-years ago today to liberate Europe from the Nazi’s. Our tour ended near sunset at the American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer. We arrived in time to walk the colonnade and watch as an American World War II veteran lowered the flag, a daily ritual whenever an American World War II vet is available. Today, the youngest veterans of this historic event are about 84.
My father fought in the China-Burma-India theater, one uncle served in the Pacific, another as a bombardier who helped make some of those craters in northern France and Belgium in the weeks before the allied, and one uncle, First Lt. Charles A. Eckert, was shot down over Germany a week before D-Day and is buried in the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial outside Metz, France. Walking the hallowed ground of the Normandy battlefields was an unforgettable day, one that makes Memorial Day, the Anniversary of D-Day, the Fourth of July and Veterans’ Day have richer meaning.
We want to teach our kids that the liberties they enjoy have been purchased by people who have made tremendous sacrifices and have lived for causes greater than themselves. I hope the day in Normandy stays with them forever.
(If you are traveling to Europe and want to contact Col. Warman about a private or group tour of Normandy, click here.)
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