THE tide was in when I visited the beaches of Normandy a few weeks ago. The sun was shining, and young families were making sandcastles and playing at the water’s edge. The sea was tranquil and the breeze was warm.

I walked along the exposed sands, firm under foot. Certainly firm enough to run across without any problem – unless you were confronted by a hail of machine gunfire.

And that is exactly what happened there on Omaha beach 80 years ago. At 6.30am, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, thousands of American troops landed and faced fierce Nazi resistance. They suffered 2,400 causalities. The American efforts came close to failing, but by the end of the day, more than 34,000 US troops had made it ashore.

Above that landing ground today stands the US military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. I was greeted by row upon row of marble crosses. All perfectly white. All perfectly presented in acres of green lawns.

A part from the bird song in nearby trees, there was no other sound.

There were many visitors, but they walked along the paths surrounding the 9,388 graves in silence and sombre reflection.

To the east of Omaha, the British, including the Durham Light Infantry, had landed at Gold Beach. Still standing sharply out of the waves are the remains of the rows of metal obstacles placed by the Nazis in anticipation of an Allied invasion.

Fishermen were casting their lines from the beach into the waves hoping for a bite. A pastime, I thought, that they pursued on most days.

The sandcastles of Omaha Beach and the fishermen of Gold Beach, all in the bright sunshine glancing off a quiet sea, seemed completely out of place with the terrible stories I was hearing about what had happened on those beaches 80 years ago, until you realise that those sacrifices on those same beaches made peaceful, everyday life possible once again.

To this day, there is great respect among the French for the British, American, Canadian and other Allied forces who played their part in what General Dwight Eisenhower called on the eve of D-Day “the great crusade”.

As I drove through the small hamlets from Bayeux, where I was staying, there were British, American and Canadian flags hanging alongside the French tricolour on flagpoles, balconies and memorials.

I stayed at Bayeux because I wanted to visit the British military cemetery which is on the outskirts of the town. Of the 4,648 servicemen buried there, 3,935 are British.

Like the US cemetery, the cemetery in Bayeux is beautifully kept. Instead of marble crosses, the Portland Stone headstones stood to attention, row after row after sorrowful row, the number too large to take in, the sacrifice of those who found their last resting place there too great to comprehend or to forget.

There is a certain intimacy about the British cemetery. I walked among the gravestones, each carved with the emblem of the regiment the fallen soldier had belonged to. I was looking in particular for soldiers of the DLI.

Many gravestones carried a profound sentiment from loved ones. “He has gone to his Heavenly Father. His Duty Done” reads one in memory of Private George Groome-Laxton, aged 19, of the DLI. Another reads, in memory of Private Edward Dodd, 19, from Sunderland and a member of the DLI: “Not Just Today, But Everyday In Silence We Remember: Mam, Dad, Sisters, Brothers.”

And then there were the hundreds of graves with a name “known unto God”.

There are 22,442 names engraved on the walls of the British Normandy Memorial overlooking Gold Beach at Ver-sur-Mer. All were killed during the campaign, with 1,475 falling on D-Day.

Below the memorial, in the open fields leading to the beach, is the display of silhouettes known as “Standing with Giants”. I found the display the most moving part of my visit.

There are 1,475 life-sized silhouettes of soldiers, sailors, airmen and two nurses. They are turned away from the memorial, their heads bowed, destiny hanging heavy on their shoulders, as they seem to move as if returning to Gold Beach, their task complete, their duty done.

On the gravestone of Private AC Lockwood, 21, of the DLI, who was killed on the day after D-Day, is carved the inscription: “He died as he lived, bravely, and for others.” This is a sentiment I believe was true of all who landed on the beaches of Normandy 80 years ago.