Europe: The Invasion of Normandy, 2004 ; Next Week, Thousands of War Veterans Will Arrive in France to Commemorate the D-Day Landings. John Lichfield Toured the Coast and Found Modern-Day Armies Already in Residence

Article excerpt

D-Day minus nine and the American army has already scaled the grassy bluffs of Omaha Beach. "Bloody Omaha", beautiful Omaha, the wildest and most picturesque part of a largely dull coast, swarmed with American soldiers this week, just as it did 60 years ago next Sunday.

Some of the soldiers of the class of 1944, will remain here always. Some of their luckier comrades walked, and fought, all the way to Germany.

The new, invading army - here to protect President George Bush and other dignitaries when they arrive a week today - prefers not to walk anywhere. The GIs in the Omaha class of 2004 travel around in white golf buggies.

A thousand GIs are camping for two weeks in makeshift splendour next to the Colleville-sur-Mer American Military Cemetery: the living GIs next to the dead ones.

The dead have plain white crosses. The living have a complex of elaborate, white tents and pre-fabricated buildings, housing amongst other things, a cinema, television rooms, games rooms, shops and a clinic.

Lorries with German registration plates were still arriving yesterday, piled with new luxuries from US bases across the Rhine. Such as golf-carts.

American soldiers in camouflage uniform riding in golf buggies on the cliffs above Omaha Beach? Didn't anyone in US army public relations think that might look a little, say, inappropriate? I asked a beefy captain, who was bumping along in his cart beside the cemetery gates. He said that the golf carts were intended, eventually, for the hundreds of American veterans who will come to the 60th anniversary ceremony next Sunday. "We're just kind of testing them," he said.

All the same, to see young American soldiers wheeling around in them here - the bloodiest of the five D-Day beaches, where the Americans suffered more than 4,000 casualties on 6 June 1944 - was bizarre. Surreal.

It was not the only bizarre sight on the world's most famous beaches this week. Remembrance is an odd business. We have to do it, we must do it, but we don't seem to have the right language for it, the right kind of theatre. Remembrance often becomes grandiose, pompous, officious. Parades, fly-pasts, speeches, flags, martial music are the best we can do; the best language that we can find.

Sixty miles of the Norman coast will be cut off from the world next weekend by 24,000 French soldiers, police and gendarmes. No one without a pass will be allowed in and out of the beachheads. The vast army of officious police will be there to protect the veterans but mostly they will be there to protect the 17 heads of state and government, including the Queen, Tony Blair and also (for the first time) the German leader, Gerhard Schroder, and the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.

I drove around the beaches this week to see how the preparations were coming along. Many invasion armies have already seized footholds all down the coast, though not in such luxury as the Americans. I came across vast encampments of gendarmes; convoys of cars marked "press advance"; convoys of vehicles with German registration plates, full of reconnoitring German television crews; convoys of British Army vehicles; an entire temporary air base for the French air force.

Regiments of technicians are building temporary viewing stands beside Omaha Beach and on the cliffs above the ill-fated "Mulberry" temporary harbour at Arromanches. Armoured divisions of television trucks are already deployed to turn the Norman coast into a giant, two-day photo opportunity. The remaining veterans - American, British, Canadian, Polish, Belgian, Norwegian, French and, yes, German - deserve their day in the TV lights.

For many of them, in their late 70s or early 80s, this will be their last visit to Normandy. It will be the last big anniversary with a "0" or "5" at the end that they will live to see. For that reason alone, next weekend is an important rite of passage: D-Day, like the First World War, is about to pass over the horizon of living memory. …