Standing on a cliff in Normandy and staring out to sea I try to picture the scene on June 6, 1944 when an armada of 6000 battleships and troop carriers steamed into view.
"As you know the D-Day landings were delayed because of the bad weather," says Alessandro, my young guide. "Most of the American GIs were sick on the crossing, so they arrived on the beaches in a pretty weak condition."
While the Battle of Normandy was a brilliant Allied victory, it came at an enormous cost. At Omaha Beach, thousands of GIs were slaughtered in their landing craft or on the sand. Villages and towns along the coast were obliterated.
"Every field was a battleground," explains Alessandro, a history graduate with French and Italian ancestry. "Normandy was seriously destroyed during the Second World War. At least 20,000 French civilians died in Caen alone. The fighting was very long, and bloody."
Today it is difficult to grasp the sheer scale of death and destruction that followed the D-Day landings when 156,000 troops from the United States, Britain and Canada landed at five beaches along the Normandy coast.
As we drive into Arromanches-les-Bains, the pretty seaside town where British forces landed, there's something of a festive atmosphere, with plenty of bunting and flags, World War II jeeps and people in period costume. Despite the passage of time, locals are passionate about keeping the memory of their liberators alive. Black and white photographs of individual soldiers – complete with name, rank and regiment – hang from lamp posts. Many villas and shops across the region have handwritten signs in the window; one reads simply "merci".
While the D-Day story is told in great detail at the nearby Le Musee du debarquement, it is not until you walk across the hard flat sand that the events of June 1944, really strike home. The crumbling remains of a so-called Mulberry harbour rise out of the shallow water, like a macabre Ferris wheel, broken, rusted and sinister.
The brainchild of Winston Churchill, these Mulberries – temporary harbours built in the UK and transported and assembled at the French coast – played a vital role in getting troops and equipment ashore during Operation Overlord, until the French ports could be captured. The temporary harbour at Arromanches, nicknamed Port Winston, was used to land 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tonnes of equipment.
Guests on Scenic's Normandy and Gems of the Seine cruise have the opportunity to visit several important D-Day landing sites after their luxurious ship, Scenic Gem, moors at the medieval port of Honfleur. Apart from Arromanches-les-Bains, the excursion includes the Normandy American Cemetery, Omaha Beach and the German battery at Longues-sur-Mer. The tour includes a multi-course lunch at an atmospheric old farmhouse surrounding by lush Norman countryside.
According to Alessandro, after the war, much of the traditional bocage landscape – small fields, lanes and copses of trees – was destroyed to allow more intense farming. But the bocage, which the Germans used to slow the Allied advance, is now being restored to its former glory.
"The bocage protects the fields from the strong sea breezes," he says. "But it is also vital for the ecology of Normandy. The bocage supports 10 times as many butterflies, birds and other species than open fields."
War casts a long shadow and this is especially true in Normandy, which still bears the scars of Nazi occupation. Longues-sur-Mer, one of the best-preserved German gun batteries, is a powerful reminder of Hitler's arrogance.
The five concrete pillboxes, though pitted, are largely intact and their powerful naval guns still point menacingly out to sea. But on this summer's day there are no battleships – just the sound of school kids having fun. Baie de la Seine, achingly beautiful under a cloudless sky, stretches unblemished to the horizon.
British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to London via Singapore, with connections to Paris. See britishairways.com
Scenic's 11-day Normandy and Gems of the Seine cruise sails from Paris to Paris via Honfleur and includes escorted day trips to the Somme battlefield and Omaha Beach, plus shore excursions to Monet's Garden, Chantilly Castle, Rouen, Honfleur, La Cote Fleurie and Auvers-sur-Oise. Prices from $6945 a person, twin share. Tariffs include all meals and drinks, Scenic Freechoice activities, airport transfers, tips and free Wi-Fi. See scenic.com.au
Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Scenic.