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Cruise Diary ~ BALTIC CAPITALS

Dover, UK to Le Havre, France
From the white cliffs of Dover to the beaches of Normandy 

Take it from me, the granddaughter of Norwegian immigrants, nothing is more exciting than the prospect of seeing your "homeland." The Baltic Capitals cruise itinerary offered that and so much more... the opportunity to see Oslo and other places I'd only dreamed of or read about in fairy tales or the works of Shakespeare.

First, though, we had to get to Europe. Dover, to be exact. After departing JFK in New York, we didn't have the hassle of a long transfer from Gatwick or Heathrow because we flew on a charter flight directly to London Manston Airport near Dover. Off the plane, through the terminal, and right on to motor coaches, we'd arrived.

Kent--the "Real" England on London's Doorstep

Our small group began the day with a drive through the brilliant green English countryside to Walmer Castle, a favorite of the Queen Mother. What a treat to cross the moat for a stroll through the private royal apartments. We enjoyed champagne and juice on the terrace where the beloved Queen Mother entertains at annual cocktail parties overlooking the sea. I felt as elegant as one of her personal guests, even though we'd just completed a transatlantic flight and I was, frankly, a mess.

No wonder the Queen Mum loves Walmer Castle--the gardens are delightful, particularly the one presented to her for her 95th birthday. It's said she was particularly pleased with this gift because people had always given her flowers but she'd never before received an entire garden.

After a hearty English breakfast at Walmer and a walk through the formal gardens, we were off to Dover Castle and a dramatic introduction to the part played by the "white cliffs of Dover" in World War II. Behind the chalk white cliffs, an extensive labyrinth of tunnels housed secret wartime operations. Plans to evacuate Dunkirk were made from the headquarters located underground here and an entire field hospital provided treatment for the wounded. During the war, the tunnels were such a major communications center that more telephones could be found in their strategic underground headquarters than in the city of Dover itself. The tour of the secret war tunnels recreates the chilling days of Britain at war.

There were plenty of sea birds circling the famous white cliffs as we made our way to the new port facility to embark on our vessel. As in the past, a painless procedure--we handed over our passports and made our way on board. Luggage awaited unpacking and the boat drill signaled our readiness to sail but fog accompanied our departure and obscured the famous cliffs.

The Beaches of Normandy

Words can hardly express the range of emotions inspired by the memorials dedicated to the combined Allied invasion at Normandy... horror, sadness, and intense pride. That the operation worked at all is testament to the superior planning and execution of the Allies, notwithstanding that America's part was fraught with disaster. Amazing hardly describes the creation of an artificial harbor, an engineering feat that enabled the landing of supplies and troops after the initial air strikes and invasion from the sea.

Seventy-seven days of intense fire resulted in over half a million casualties. The first wave of American troops, 1500 strong, were immediately wiped out at Omaha beach. The second wave suffered as well and during the first four to five hours of the operation 3000 were killed. However, by the end of the day 34,000 had landed. Seeing the German bunkers and other obstacles they faced, not the least of which were the bluffs arising from the beaches, feelings of pride mingled with a sense of dismay at the near impossible task those young troops faced.

The price paid at those infamous beaches was horrible. The marble crosses and Stars of David stand in the American cemetery at Omaha Beach as mute reminders of the upheaval of war. Sobering in scope, the simple markers stretch as far as the eye can see. Most moving are those inscribed, "Here rests in honored glory a comrade known only to God." Did that soldier's mother, sweetheart, or wife await a letter that never arrived? 

Although I grew up in the French sector of Germany during the Cold War and visited many similar sites in France during the 1960's, the impact of the cemetery and memorial at Normandy captured me somewhat unprepared. Taps began playing as I read the Memorial inscription--"This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is forever hallowed by the ideals, the valor, and the sacrifices of your fellow countrymen." Every American who can, should visit Normandy's beaches. 

Life goes on at the seashore and families picnic in the sunshine while children play in the surf. It's as it should be. But up above Omaha Beach's bluff, bomb craters and shattered bunkers remind us of the terrible cost of war. And the simple, dignified, marble markers represent men who put the freedom of others before thoughts of themselves.

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