A Tin Full of Sand

I remember standing on the beach at Arromanches, one August day back in 1980, watching people sunbathing while the children played. Beyond them, the sea sparkled in the sunshine and all was as you would expect on a warm summer’s afternoon by the sea.

There was, however, one difference. On the horizon it was possible to make out what appeared to be the remains of a concrete wall, jagged edges like teeth visible above the waves; and on the beach similar concrete blocks stood as reminders of a turbulent and painful past.

It was of course one of the beaches which figured so importantly in the D Day landings in 1944. As any tourist would do, I stood and tried to imagine what it was like at the time, reflecting on the lives lost in those pivotal days of the war. Yet this was also a moment of personal revelation as I began to appreciate the part played by those in my own family at that time. I had been told before, that my grandfather and great uncle had both been among those who worked on the construction of the Mulberry Harbour, the remains of which could still be seen out at sea. However small, this role may have been, I felt proud that they had done their bit. But it was my father who occupied my thoughts mostly, then and on the subsequent days, as we explored this corner of Normandy.

Dad had not been among the first wave of troops that came ashore on 6th June, he was one of those who arrived over the next few days, sweeping ashore, up the beaches where those who had come first had marked out pathways through the sand, to guide the men through the mines. He always told the tale of how the man in front of him had dropped to his knees and scooped up some sand in a tobacco tin, planning to keep it as a symbol of the part he had played in liberating France.

Dad also recalled the welcome they got from the local people as they marched on towards Caen. He particularly recalled the glasses of home -brewed Calvados they were plied with as they passed through villages and small towns. I was able to take him a bottle home as a gift from a family we stayed with and I will never forget the look on his face as he sipped a glass, the taste bringing memories of those days flooding back.

Perhaps most poignantly, I remember the visits we paid to the war cemeteries, the row upon row of simple white crosses, stretching as far as the eye could see. When I told Dad of this when we returned home, he simply said, “I would have known some of them.”

I also recall how, in the 1970s, Dad went on a business trip to Brussels. On his arrival, he was met at the airport by a company contact and as they travelled into the city, Dad recounted his last visit to Brussels in 1944 and spoke of how he had stayed with a local family. Immediately the other man decided they should try to trace them and as Dad could remember the address perfectly, they set off. As luck would have it the family still owned the same house, and Dad was taken to visit the old lady who, all those years ago, had been proud to billet young RAF men in her home. It was an emotional reunion, the old lady producing photos of Dad and his friends and the celebrations were like those for a long-lost family member returning home.

Commemorating D Day always brings back these memories and I am so glad that I went to Normandy myself, as it was the first time I realised what my father had been part of and, at the age of 20, how young he was. I am also constantly reminded of how close the relationship was with the people he met. I often wonder what he would make of the situation we find ourselves in now, (he died in 1987) and how those bonds of friendship formed in 1944 are being jeopardised by those who are too readily forgetting the lessons of history.

I would like to think that what those who landed in Normandy in 1944 achieved, the peace and friendship that followed, is not lost in these divisive times. And that we don’t find ourselves left with just a tin full of sand.

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