Battle bus pilgrimage: As moving D-Day film The Great Escaper is released, hop on board for a historic tour through Normandy
- Neil Simpson travels on ‘The Great Escaper’ coach tour with Leger Holidays
- The tour was inspired by a new film, of the same name, starring Michael Caine
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Sitting by the window on a surprisingly comfortable coach, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. My head is full of scenes from the new Michael Caine film The Great Escaper, which opens on Friday.
It follows the true story of WWII veteran Bernard Jordan who crept out of his care home in 2014 and travelled to Normandy, without a ticket, for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings.
And, now, I’m following in Jordan’s footsteps on a new The Great Escaper battlefields tour with Leger holidays. As the tour begins, I occasionally bite back tears, replaying the moment Caine finally finds his lost comrade’s grave. Then I laugh out loud, remembering Glenda Jackson as Jordan’s wife gleefully tucking into an unexpectedly large portion of fish and chips back in England.
Battlefield tours are the Cinderellas of holidays, often overlooked but irresistible when you get to know them. Perhaps it’s no surprise that this one is run with military precision. In the early hours, feeder coaches for Leger’s holidays had set off from over 100 joining points across the country, ours leaving London bang on time.
Some passengers are heading to the Italian lakes, the Austrian mountains or the canals of Amsterdam — and just before Dover we split up at a service station where our main coaches and guides are waiting. ‘Do I have to collect my suitcase?’ one traveller asks as we step into the fresh air. ‘No, we do it all for you. You’re on holiday,’ replies one of the cheery Leger staff.
Neil Simpson travels on ‘The Great Escaper’ battlefields tour with Leger Holidays, which was inspired by a new film, of the same name, starring Michael Caine. The film follows the true story of WWII veteran Bernard Jordan who crept out of his care home in 2014 and travelled to Normandy (pictured), without a ticket, for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings
The five-day coach tour starts in Portsmouth with a visit to The D-Day Story centre (pictured)
For Great Escaper guests, the service station transfer means an instant upgrade. Our main coach is one of Leger’s Silver Service vehicles. As well as extra legroom, reclining seats, refreshments and an on-board loo, we get a lounge to relax in.
Being introduced to our guide is the other big moment of the five-day trip. The guide can make or break a holiday like this one — and Leger’s roster of them are all historians, academics, authors, enthusiasts or all four combined. They tell remarkable stories of the stoic, heroic men of WWII.
These come alive at the start of the tour in The D-Day Story centre in Portsmouth and are commemorated on a visit to the city’s Naval Monument for those lost at sea. Each Battlefield Tour takes a slightly different itinerary but all include the area’s most evocative beaches, graveyards and memorials. We visit Sword, Juno, Gold and Omaha beaches.
Memorial: Above is Omaha Beach in Normandy, which is one of the D-Day beaches that Neil visits on his tour
Neil’s ride is one of Leger’s Silver Service vehicles. He writes: ‘As well as extra legroom, reclining seats, refreshments and an on-board loo, we get a lounge to relax in’
Above is Michael Caine with Glenda Jackson in the film The Great Escaper, which opens in cinemas on Friday
We step on to the sand to be enveloped in memories, just as Caine’s Bernard Jordan was. More moving still are the graves. We stop to see small clusters of them in easy-to-miss village churchyards. Then we arrive at the British and American cemeteries. British graves mark soldiers’ ages rather than just dates of birth and death. Seeing so many 19s and 20s is what touches my group the most.
Putting aside the sadness, guides say there’s always a lot of laughter on battlefield tours and there certainly is on mine. We stay in a mix of three-star hotels with breakfast included, like the Ibis in Falaise, France.
We explore the seaside streets of Arromanches, full of ice-cream parlours and crepe stalls. Add in stories of pigeons relaying messages home and the D-Day dogs who arrived by parachute and it’s easy to see why the best battlefield tours keep everyone interested. They offer the best of France — and celebrate the very best of British.
The next five-day The Great Escaper tour departs on June 24, 2024 from £649 pp on a Silver Service coach. Leger offers other guided battlefield tours this year and next from £379 pp (01709 914 860, leger.co.uk).
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