Memorial Pegasus, Normandy, France
There are more than 40 sites across Normandy that are official museums, memorials or historial sites from the D-Day campaign and the subsequent Battle of Normandy. The events were among the most important in the 20th century and they were the beginning of the end of World War 2.
The only one of these sites that is dedicated purely to British forces is the Memorial Pegasus in the small village of Benouville. It tells the story of the 6th Airborne Division that had the initial task of securing a key bridge on the morning of D-Day… but then continued to fight for the next 100 days until Normandy had been secured.
The curator of Memorial Pegasus is British-born Mark Worthington. I sat down with him to find out a bit more about what it’s like to be presenting the story of D-Day to new generations and how he collects the right information.
You can listen to my interview with the audio below or read the transcript beneath it.
Mark Worthington: Well, I came to Normandy 25 years ago to study French at university. I’ve always been interested in the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy and members of my family – 7 uncles were all serving, one was a paratrooper here – and I’d heard vague remarks about the battle and I think that marked me to a certain extent without consciously knowing it and I enjoyed my time at university here and needed a job and decided I would stay in Normandy and work in one of the D-Day museums.
Time Travel Turtle: I suppose at that point you started learning more about it? In those early days, what was your impression of what happened here?
Mark Worthington: I think it was the losses involved in the Battle of Normandy. We often talk abut the landing on the beaches which is the most famous part of the Battle of Normandy but in fact the battle lasted over 100 days with tens of thousands of people being killed.
Time Travel Turtle: And do you find even all these years on you’re still learning new things? You’re still finding out new stories?
Mark Worthington: Every day. Every day veterans will come in tell us their wartime experiences. You think you know things and find that we’ve been saying the wrong thing for the past 20 odd years. That’s the most rewarding part – meeting the veterans, actually being associated with these men and women, because women were involved as well.
Time Travel Turtle: You’ve said that it’s the personal stories that paint the picture of what happened here, not the numbers or the facts and figures.
Mark Worthington: That’s right. I think 20 or 30 years ago people were interested more in the battle in general but now time’s going by and they’re interested in the personal stories. And also the German personal stories, the stories of the German veterans as well because there aren’t many veterans left so they want to know what happened before they pass away.
Time Travel Turtle: With the museum here, what’s the main message or the main thing you’re trying to educate people about?
Mark Worthington: I think the role of the troops involved. The dedication and sacrifice of these young men who were 19 or 20 years of age – they weren’t 40 or 50, they were kids when they came here.
Time Travel Turtle: How does this particular museum fit in with all the other sites and things you can see here in Normandy about D-Day?
Mark Worthington: Well, there are 42 sites in Normandy. This is uniquely British and it is completely focused on one particular action – the role of the 6th British Airborne (British and Canadians) on the eastern flank. We don’t talk about what happened further along the coast. People can go down to the coast and find that out. It really is focused on this particular battle – which makes it easier for people to understand.
Time Travel Turtle: And do you feel you, as the curator, have an obligation or a responsibility to tell things in a certain way to make sure people are educated about something? How do you see your role personally here because it’s a huge historic event we’re talking about and you’ve got the job of memorialising it.
Mark Worthington: We’re not trying to glamourise what happened here, we’re trying to keep it factual. But we need to make it interesting for people when they come into the museum. Now, as the curator here, and being British, I do feel that I have a role to play in telling the story of my compatriots who were involved in the D-Day landings. Maybe the French don’t feel quite the same way as I do.
Time Travel Turtle: That’s an interesting point because there were different countries involved here – British troops on French ground with Germans on the other side. Can you be objective and tell the true story if you’re looking at it from a British perspective?
Mark Worthington: We try to but we also try to tell the German story, the role of the Germans involved in the Battle of Normandy. I have veteran friends – Germans – who live in Normandy and we bring them in and get them to talk to the school kids so the British have their story and the Germans too. Most of these young German boys didn’t want to be here more than anyone else. They had a job to do and I’m sure they would rather have been at home with the families as well.
Time Travel Turtle: There was a period when people tried to forget what happened but there’s been a resurgence of interest at the moment. Why do you think that’s the case?
Mark Worthington: I think for many years, veterans went home and they had a living to make, kids to bring up, and they wanted to put this behind them. None of this was pleasant for them. I mean, they had great friends during the war but they wanted to go home and forget – try and forget – about the war, although none of them completely forgot. And I’ve noticed it’s only been since about the 40th anniversary that the interest has increased because before that, let’s say they were 20 when they landed, the 40th anniversary they would be 60, they were just starting to retire, and then I suppose when you do retire you start to reflect on when you were younger and it’s since the 40th they’ve started coming back and the interest has increased. Before that, even people here, Normandy was completely destroyed in the war and they were trying to forget about it as well. But now, time is a great healer I think, and with time people are starting to look back. Now it is a part of history but 30 or 40 years ago it was maybe still too recent.
Time Travel Turtle: What do you think about the future? Are we going to be as interested in 50 or 100 years?
Mark Worthington: I think the interest will remain. To what degree, I don’t know, but I can tell you that at the museum here we have more visitors every year, the number of visitors is increasing. And if you look at First World War sites, from a hundred years ago, the number of visitors is increasing at these sites. So especially when there are major anniversaries – this year is the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli and the Sommes (sp?), I think that increases the interest in the conflict.
Time Travel Turtle: And finally, is there anything in particular you still want to achieve in the next couple of years?
Mark Worthington: From a memorabilia point of view, we’ve got about everything we need in the museum – we’ve probably got too much – we can’t display all the artefacts we have. But I think we need to speak more with the remaining veterans and get them to tell their stories before they pass away.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Atout France but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.