Memorial Pegasus in Ranville, France // © 2017 Creative Commons user richardofengland
Feature image (above): Caen Memorial in Caen, France // © 2017 Creative Commons user Geert Orye
Inside Southwick House, the map room looks more like some kind of toy wall game — complete with miniature battleships — than its real purpose: the blueprint for D-Day.
Mr. William Dick, a Scot and retired master-at-arms from the Royal Navy, used a pointer as he demonstrated the top-secret plans of the largest seaborne invasion in history.
“This big area was a circle so that all the ships could go around,” he explained, describing a massive naval maneuver off the Isle of Whyte. “They nicknamed it ‘Piccadilly Circus’ after the tourist area in central London — something the boys would remember.”
This descriptive account of D-Day Operation Overlord in the actual war room was one of the incredible discoveries I experienced this past spring on an 11-day guided itinerary with Trafalgar.
The combination land-and-sea trip featured not-to-miss destinations in Western Europe involving World War I and World War II, as well as landmarks and commemorative events. This battlefields theme began in the gateway city of London with an overnight ferry crossing of the English Channel, followed by visits to smaller hubs in France and Belgium.
With the 75th anniversary of D-Day around the corner, to take place in June 2019, Trafalgar is ahead of the game, and travelers enjoy plenty of perks. For example, we bypassed lines thanks to advanced bookings and even secured advanced bookings to Southwick House in Southwick, England, to see the famous map room. We saw other unannounced “Hidden Treasures,” which are special inclusions and not listed on a regular schedule, as they are meant to surprise Trafalgar guests throughout the tour.
While the war theme sounds like it could result in a heavy trip, Trafalgar also infused the trip with post-war celebration via dancing, champagne drinking and dining in cities such as Reims, France, and Paris.
Overnight accommodations through Trafalgar featured guestrooms larger than what’s typical for Europe, and breakfasts were included. The motor coach equipped with Wi-Fi access was spacious, and the tour director announced plenty of stops along the way suitable for snack purchases and restroom breaks. The local specialists also provided good destination descriptions and offered recommendations during our plentiful scheduled free time.
Following are some highlights of the trip.
A local London specialist led a guided city tour of quintessential London featuring the gates at Buckingham Palace, the Changing The Queen’s Life Guard Ceremony and the Imperial War Museum.
The welcome dinner took place in South Kensington at the oldest building on the street, the Zetland Arms, which was once run by Charlie Chaplin’s elder half-brother, Sid.
We stayed at The Cumberland Hotel, a stylish landmark located by the Marble Arch across from Hyde Park. The four-star property is ideally situated for sightseeing, shopping the along famous Oxford Street and accessing the iconic London Underground.
Rock legend Jimi Hendrix held his final press interview at The Cumberland Hotel before his untimely death. Spot a large painting of the late musician by the main floor elevator, and catch more Hendrix-themes in the Jimi Hendrix Suite.
We drove through the backroads of Normandy to see the major Allied cemeteries of WW I and visited charming local seaside villages to pay tribute to WW II battles by Juno and Omaha beaches.
In Caen, we visited Memorial de Caen (Caen Memorial) museum, which was built atop the post of German major Richter, commander of the 716th German infantry division. Museum-goers can see the hidden German bunker as well as heart-wrenching exhibits of the two wars and artifacts from the French Resistance.
When we stopped by Memorial Pegasus, which crossed the Caen Canal in Normandy, Hollywood movie “The Longest Day” came to mind. The epic 1962 film was based on the surprise Allied invasion in the first operation of D-Day. The actual event took place on the bridge one moonless night.
It was there I met one of the last living survivors from that Allied Liberation. Madame Gondree was opening her quaint coffee house and gift shop inside her historic home that morning. I had a quick coffee in her shop bric-a-brac of postcards and patriotic souvenirs while she offered me a brief account on the day the American soldiers gave her candy.
In Reims, the capital of the Champagne region, there was a private champagne tasting and tour at Champagne Lanson, one of the great Champagne houses in this city dating back to 1760. Besides the welcomed champagne sampling, the other trip highlight was a tour of the Museum of the Surrender.
One afternoon, we had free time and so I found myself in front of a building located on Rue du President Franklin Roosevelt. It was the site of a technical high school that became General Eisenhower’s headquarters, and it served as the location where the declaration to end the war in Europe was signed.