Earlier this month, on the 78th anniversary of the D-Day Landings that drove the Germans out of France and began their defeat in the west, I read Pegasus Bridge by Stephen E Ambrose. I read the book in a day, a rare feat for me. It was gripping, describing how the first action of the D-Day Landings took place just after midnight, in the early hours of June 6.
It was a formidable achievement carried out by British paratroopers to protect two bridges over the Orne in Normandy that, if blown up, would have exposed the landings’ eastern flank.
I had bought the book a few years back when one summer I visited Pegasus Bridge and the café, the first liberated building in France. I had breakfasted there with my youngest son and Phil Ryan, who helped me start The Big Issue. His father had been a paratrooper in the Second World War.
I had been at Pegasus Bridge for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day Landings, having flown over in a frighteningly small plane from Southampton. It was a stunning experience, but no less moving was my later anniversary visit, again with my son and Phil. And what an extraordinary feeling of joy in the streets around the town of Arromanches, near where the landings took place. Joy at reliving the experience of all those years ago. A friendship with the Normans kindled by memories of the war.
In two years’ time it will be the 80th anniversary, and I wonder, will we be celebrating the biggest event in the Second World War calendar? It is the taking of Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of June 6, 1944 that is considered the finest moment.
How much of our modern world, with its many problems, flows from that war? A war that successfully saw off a belligerent dictatorship but, in the process, created a wide gap between east and west that still lingers in the ether of our everyday politics.