My 6 AM alarm might as well not have gone off on Friday, June 2nd. I’d been awake ten minutes before its annoying generic iPhone tune reminded me it was time to get out of bed. My bag was primarily packed with more clothes than I would need on the four-day trip. The weather forecast was good, but I armed myself with layers. I’d made a packing list the day before, which I think I’ll continue doing for every trip going forward. So after a quick brush of my teeth, all I had to do was rattle off the list, and I was ready 40 minutes before departure. Where to, you ask? Oh, just the We Happy Few 506 Normandy Tour.
Coming with me to Normandy was Sven, my physical therapist turned friend. I’ve known him for eight years, but only after mentioning the Normandy tour by We Happy Few 506 did we discover a shared interest in WW2 history. I’m fortunate to have friends who not only want to push me around all weekend but also want to drive to Normandy! Damn.
When we checked travel times a few days earlier, Google Maps warned us of increased traffic, possibly extending our drive from seven to ten hours. Better safe than sorry, we headed off at 07:15, bright and early. The trip only ended up being six and a half hours.
We stopped two times for a stretch and a toilet break. I have to say, they do try with accessibility, but for me, they hardly ever get it right. Grip bars on the wrong side, toilets super low to the ground, you name it. I need to accept that nine out of ten times, I will need help. At first, I felt like disappearing. But after a day or so, it was only mildly uncomfortable.
We stayed in Caen, in a cheap hotel with mini apartments rather than actual hotel rooms. They’d tried to be accommodating with accessibility, too, with a grab bar on the right side of the toilet. It looked alright until I tried to pull myself up on the bar and promptly pulled it out of the wall. Guess I won’t be using that. Ok, more help then.
After a rest and a quick hello to some friends in the lobby, we got back in the car to drive to our first event, A Night For Our Heroes – the VIP edition. The welcome was hosted at the beautiful Chateau de L’isle Marie. I brought my camera, but because I’m an idiot, I failed to take any photos of the actual chateau. The VIP reception was attended by Band of Brothers (and The Pacific) actors, but more importantly, by three amazing veterans. I’m not a shy person, but I didn’t know what to say to these men, who 79 years prior had fought in Normandy. But I was glad to listen.
The second part of the evening was held at the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église, where the veterans told of their experiences, and the Band of Brothers actors also shared what it was like portraying brave men like these. I was left pretty much in awe. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for them to be back there. And I can’t help but wonder for how many (or rather, few) years they’ll be able to come back, now well into their nineties. That thought alone reminds me of what an honour it was to listen to them—food for thought.
Day two, for us, was the first day of the We Happy Few 506 Normandy tour, led by historian Paul ‘Woody’ Woodadge. Learning more about world war two history was exciting, but so was seeing all my wonderful friends again. I would listen to someone reading a phonebook if it meant I’d get to spend more time with them. Getting on the bus initially was a bit of a struggle because my usual spot down the aisle wasn’t as easily accessible. So after the first stop, I switched to the front of the bus, which had smaller steps, better railings, and a better view. Hurray.
But anyway, I’m getting caught up in things that aren’t important. I liked Woody’s tour because it wasn’t just about Easy Company. Yes, we’re all big fans of Band of Brothers, and yes, Easy Company’s story is compelling and important, but it certainly isn’t the only one, and Woody made sure we knew it. Overall, Woody’s stories and retellings weren’t so much about strategies, objectives and outcomes but about people. We sometimes forget that World War Two was fought, won and lost by ordinary people who did extraordinary things. I was glad to be reminded of that on this trip again. And also hella glad I’m not in a war. The first day was primarily spent in and around Sainte-Mère-Église, from some of Easy Company’s landings to Marmion Farm and Brecourt Manor. I must admit I had some trouble being present. This was my first time bringing my camera, and I’ve learnt I’m terrible at doing multiple things simultaneously. That said, I’m glad I have the photos because of my recent knowledge and understanding of the impact of having Aphantasia on my memory.
Anyway, day one of the tour concluded but then continued with drinks in Les Dèserteurs. I had a partly delicious, partly disgusting strawberry and rose water (I think) cocktail, followed by dinner with old and new friends at a French place trying to be Italian. And then, because we hadn’t had enough and I happen to be less disabled on alcohol, we went back to the pub, where everyone was already multiple drinks ahead of us. It was a good night.
Day three, or day two of the tour, was the best day for me. Woody showed us the location of the Bloody Gulch and brought us to a church in Angoville-au-Plain, where medics Robert Wright and Ken Moore of the 101st Airborne treated 80 injured American and German soldiers and a child—possibly my favourite story of the tour.
Halfway through the day, I attached my other lens to my camera (I brought my Fujifilm X-T5 with a 35mm f1.4, which I had been using up to this point and a 56mm f1.2). I wish I’d done that from the beginning because without even trying, my photos looked amazing.
I did it on time to capture some things at the most impressive location we went to: Omaha Beach. While all others felt like tiny pieces of history, the beach and its vastness gave me a real sense of the scale of D-Day. When we got there, it was quiet – but windy – but multiple buses had arrived by the end of our visit. It was nice to have a relatively quiet moment on the beach. I even got out of my chair for a while to feel the sand underneath my feet. Nothing like what it would have been like on D-Day, of course, but it still felt kind of meaningful to have a little walk.
We saw some of the bunkers, too, but after I walked on the beach, none stuck with me. I’m always sad when these tours end, but I’m also more and more aware of my limitations, and they had definitely been reached.
Having to say goodbye is the hardest part, but thankfully we did so over good conversation and dinner, meaning we could push it a little more. I honestly don’t know where I would be without these trips. They make me feel alive, like I belong and loved. Thank you, friends. I won’t name you all, but you know who you are. I love you dearly.