Day 1 - Arrival in London

Sunday, June 1 - Feels like being home again - in London, that is

My tour of England and France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day began with my 8:00 a.m. arrival at Heathrow. I was met by a driver and we waited a bit for a family from North Carolina to arrive and join us - JC, a WWII veteran, accompanied by his daughter and granddaughter. I immediately liked them and was heartened to learn that my fellow passengers on this tour would be interesting and amiable.

The driver took us to the Edwardian Vanderbilt Hotel on the Cromwell Road. I had requested early check-in and was immediately given a key to my room. This is an essential stratagem after an overnight flight with early-morning arrival. Otherwise you have to wait until 3:00 p.m. to get into your room, and the intervening 6 or 7 hours after your arrival can be rough.

Lord Baden-Powell
It was a rabbit-warren of a hotel with fire doors every 6 yards, but my room was bijou. Tiny but more than adequate - comfortable and with a big window overlooking the high street. One becomes accustomed to smallness of accommodations in crowded capital cities.

At the V&A
I had free time until 3:00 p.m., so I used it to walk up the Cromwell Road, past Baden-Powell House and the statue of Lord Baden-Powell, past the immense and visually stunning Natural History Museum, which I had scoured when I was in London with my son a few years ago, and to my destination, the V&A - The Victoria & Albert Museum of the Decorative Arts. I hadn't been there since college, when my brother and I were on a fog-bound three-day layover between Cape Town and Boston. Although I was tired from traveling, I reveled in the pure beauty and inventiveness of the antiquities on display.

At the V&A
I decided not to overdo things this early in the trip. I had had major surgery only seven weeks prior and I had not slept more than four hours for two days. So I returned to the hotel and rested briefly until the tour group was due to meet up for the first time at 3:00 p.m.

I met the tour leader, Dr. Paul Winter, a military historian of the first water, as he greeted our large group. Paul had been hired to share the wealth of his knowledge on this tour, but instead (or, I should say, in addition) he was saddled with all the nuts and bolts of handling 46 guests ranging in age from 16 to 92. Of course, Paul stepped up to his unexpected responsibilities with integrity and aplomb. But I am a born ADC and all my instincts to jump in and render assistance came to the fore. I assigned myself to be his helper, and it was the beginning of what was to become an enduring friendship.

Here I am in London again!
Our first and only outing that day was to visit the underground Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum, in the same location. We duly arrived in the City of Westminster by coach, only to find out that the tour company had not remembered to send the paid vouchers to Paul in advance. After much going up and down of stairs and in and out of underground holding spaces, eventually we had to cancel the outing and spend our remaining free time walking around the area. I joined another WWII veteran, Johnny, a B-52 pilot who had flown in the invasion on D-Day, and his family group, to stroll around towards Big Ben, Parliament, Downing Street, etc.

Poor Paul was by now getting a taste of things to come - sloppy logistics from the tour organizers with the fallout on his shoulders, as our point man. Recriminations came later (from the guests to the tour operator - absolutely no blame attaches to Paul) but I'm all about realpolitik and dealing with the situation on the ground. I wasn't of much practical use, except in France where I became the unofficial translator with our coach drivers, but I supported him where I could. 

Our first briefing
We had a pleasant dinner at the hotel and our big group started to get to know each other. Paul arranged for us to meet after dinner for a briefing on D-Day. He had maps of the Normandy coastline pinned up on the walls and it was thrilling to feel our journey really beginning as he gave us an overview of the general strategy of the invasion, including the geography, high-level tactics, and key military and political players.

An elderly gentleman in our group, George, did a wonderful favor for me this night. At dinner he had overheard me saying that just before I left home I had discovered that the batteries of all three of my watches had run down, so he brought me his spare watch to use for the duration of the trip. It was a large, black watch with a frayed strap and an eminently readable face. I wore it every day with enormous gratitude for his gesture. And I was never late.

After that, I believe everyone fell into bed thankfully, to try and overcome the jet lag of the last 36 hours.