Interview: Anne Ratterman (Battlefield Bus Tours)

A while ago I read a newspaper interview with Anne Ratterman, a 29-year-old Dutchwoman who, “despite having been born 46 years after D-Day”, organizes bus tours to important World War II locations all over Europe. I thought the interview was a little patronizing; for example, they made a big deal about her age (though, admittedly, owning your own tour company at 29 years old is impressive!) and the first question was literally, “Why is a young woman like you interested in WWII locations?” Though I understand where they’re coming from, it annoys me that our culture still sees the battles of WWII as something that women aren’t able to relate to; a (white) male affair, rather than something that concerned thousands of human lives and the fate of the world. This is why I’m always keen to make connections between the war and the present, because I believe there are lessons there for all of us, especially in turbulent political times like these.

I decided that I wanted to know more about Anne, her company, Battlefield Bus Tours, and her approach to war tourism (or ‘remembrance tourism’, as it is often euphemistically called). She graciously agreed to give me an interview.

An emotional approach

“They’re not just surprised that I’m a young woman, but that I’m a young blond woman,” she tells me, adding that she just shrugs it off. It’s a fact that the WWII tourism business is a man’s world—the rest of Anne’s team, bus driver Ben Burgers, tour guide Danny Frenken and her assistant Titus Wiltjer, are all men, so are most of the friends she has in the business, and the crowds who visit war sites like Normandy and the Ardennes are, as I can confirm, predominantly male. This is neither good nor bad, but it does create certain hard-to-ignore stereotypes and, for many women, the feeling that they may not ‘belong’. However, times are changing: there are increasing calls for more diverse and personal stories about the war that go beyond tanks and bunkers, and show it to be a conflict that affected all kinds of people, not just one group. Anne is one of many whose work is aimed towards a more inclusive view of war victims—and tourists.

Her first event was a one-off tour of D-Day locations in Normandy, but after taking over the Battlefield Bus Tour company, business quickly took off and she was able to add Auschwitz and the Ardennes to the list of locations. Her clientele is extremely diverse, she tells me: “There are real war buffs who always want more details, and there are people who have never been to Normandy and have no idea what to expect. It’s up to us to find a balance there. Some people think it’s a kind of seniors’ trip, but it’s literally for ages 10 to 90. On average, the majority of our guests are in their forties. But then, in Normandy, we get these 10 or 11-year-old boys, about four of them each time, and it’s incredible how much they know. It’s often the parents, usually the dad, who plants the seed, or a history teacher who pays a lot of attention to the subject or takes them on an excursion. But they do a lot of digging themselves and it’s great to see that they know the answer to almost every question we ask them.”

When it comes to Normandy, it’s “95 per cent male”. “These are places that men tend to show more of an interest in than women,” she clarifies. “The weapons, the bunkers, the soldiers. Luckily, we see more and more women joining our Normandy groups.” Her Auschwitz journeys are more of a mixed bag, with more women and couples. Anne attributes this to the fact that so many women and children met their demise in the camps. It’s clear that the views we have of the war—Spielbergian images like Tom Hanks storming Omaha Beach or a little girl looking for her parents in a concentration camp—have a big influence on what audiences identify with and want to see. This also explains why lesser-known conflicts like the Battle of the Schelde, where Battlefield Bus Tours also offers a tour, are less popular with tourists.

I ask Anne if there is much difference in atmosphere between journeys with a group of male guests, like their Normandy tour, and those with more mixed groups, like their Auschwitz journey. “Not really – but they’re difficult to compare. They’re all emotional journeys, really, but with Auschwitz it’s much more noticeable that people feel down after their visit,” she says. She usually balances out the heavy-duty sight-seeing with fun communal activities in the evening, like a city tour. Still, the emotional impact of the locations they visit is at the heart of their programme.

“We never tell people, ‘Here’s a guidebook, here’s your Kodak moment, and let’s get on with it.’ Our goal is to provide an experience that people will never forget and that will be an inspiration for their own lives. On the Auschwitz trip especially, which of course makes a big impact on people, we really see that realization hitting. We ask them to try and imagine what life could be like back then, and remind them to treasure what they have and to be kind to others. In our way, we try to make the world a better place. I think it’s so important for individuals to pass this on to one another.” To that end, each visit to a cemetery, like the American one at Coleville-sur-Mer or the commonwealth graves at Ranville, is prefaced by stories about those who are buried there, told by Anne’s assistant Titus Wiltjer. He wants to make people conscious of the fact that these soldiers were more than just their headstones – to bring them back to life, if only briefly. And if they play a war movie on the tour bus, they remind the group to consider what the real situation might have been like.

Another way Anne aids understanding is by bringing along artefacts from the period, bought from a collector. For example, tour guide Danny Frenken brings along photos as well as a medic’s helmet on their visit to the church-turned-aid station in Angoville-au-Plain, where medics saved countless lives during the Battle for Normandy. In this way, the group is confronted with the daily reality of the period, much more so than they would be in a museum. “It really lowers the threshold for interacting with the location,” Anne agrees, “and for putting yourself in the shoes of these ordinary people. We really want people to realise that something this terrible must never happen again.”

The sound of silence
On the traditional Normandy trip, which takes place each year on May 4 and 5 (Remembrance and Liberation Day in the Netherlands, respectively), Anne plans something a bit more special. Prior to observing the traditional two minutes of silence on at 8 p.m. on May 4, she plays “The Last Post” and shows some of Robert Capa’s famous photos of the D-Day landings, as well as others depicting the mulberry harbour at Arromanches, to remind the group of what has happened on that very beach. Then, she invites the group to mull this over during the traditional two minutes of silence, which, Anne says, creates a very special, almost spiritual moment. “I tell them how many men came ashore here and how many died, and then ask them for two minutes of silence. And it’s incredible how hard it hits you when you’re sat there in silence, staring out at the waves, without any distractions. Usually when you’re in a group, you take a stroll or chat with the other group members; but if you actually force yourself to sit down and meditate on it, looking at the sea – it’s almost as if you can see it coming at you.”

These powerful moments of contemplation make the tours popular with their guests, who value the intimate and personal approach. Another factor that makes them unique is their small but devoted team, consisting of tour guides Danny and Titus and bus driver Ben, who each have their personal expertise. “As a team, we always take a moment for ourselves to really sit and contemplate where we are while everyone else is still walking around. It can be hard to imagine, because it looks so different 75 years later, but even without any visible traces you know it took place right there. We also often see group members discussing the events of the day among themselves, and, primarily on the Auschwitz trip, comfort each other, which is really lovely. People often add each other on Facebook, meet up to go to museums or go round each other’s house for dinner. I think that’s wonderful. It’s proof of the close, emotional connection that is created by being on the road together for five, six, seven days.”

Keeping the war alive
I mention that when it comes to discussing history, linearity and hard facts are traditionally associated with men, while a female retelling of events tends to jump around in time and focus on the emotional impact of events. Anne nods. “The sensitive part. I suppose I do encourage that in my own way, with my meditation moments and photographs and my efforts to put things into perspective, and touch people’s hearts with what we do.” Whether or not you believe there is any truth to this stereotype, I think the shift towards more witness-centred narratives is an important one, responsible for keeping interest in the war alive for all these years. A steady stream of novels, movies and video games attests to this, as do many war museums, offering interactive exhibits and simulation rooms, where you can experience a flight across the channel in a C-47 or an artillery barrage during the Battle of the Bulge. While games like Call of Duty have often been derided for encouraging violence in young people, and the World War II edition for presenting a myopic view of the war—shooting the big bad Germans and little else—Anne tells me the opposite is far more often true.

“I’ve played the game in the past, and I thought it was both beautiful and eerie,” she says. “You start off in the landing craft, then you’ve got to get onto the beach and up to the dunes. It actually made me cry. You’re one of many making their way forward while it’s raining bullets and your buddies are dying all around you. It was a little too real, to be honest, and I’ve heard the same thing from other people who have played it. In the game, you can die and come back, but of course, in real life, you couldn’t.”

I suggest that this level of emotional involvement makes people who play the game much more involved with events than people who only focus on facts.

“Yes, although of course there are two sides to it, which are both valid. There’s a danger that gamification of real war events makes them seem too ‘fun’, not to be taken seriously. War isn’t a game at all. But this way, you get a lot more people from younger generations involved in what’s happened, because it really triggers their interest. And I hope these people are then keen to go on a tour to see where it all really happened, which is nothing but a good thing.” With this year being the 75th anniversary of D-Day, interest in visiting war sites has spiked like never before. Anne expresses hope that the popularity isn’t just due to the 75th anniversary, but will continue to grow in the years to come.

Nights to remember
Anne’s own family background – with a sister, father and grandfather who served in the military – makes her especially suited to her profession. Mainly the story of her grandfather, whom she never knew but who fought to suppress the colonial uprising that occurred in the Dutch East Indies after the Japanese left a power vacuum in 1945, and suffered major trauma because of it, makes her sensitive to the plight of war veterans.

“I think most war veterans have these thoughts that run very deep. That makes it all the more important for us to pay attention to them and their trauma, and realise what these people have been through, no matter how unrelatable it may seem. We have to make sure we don’t forget who they were or what they did, and offer them the help they need.”

For Anne, war veterans provide an essential link to the past. During the special edition D-Day tour of Normandy, she encourages her groups to talk to the dwindling number of veterans who flock to the beaches around this time. She is also on a programme commission for Stichting Nederland-Amerika, which organizes ten-day tours for Canadian, American, British and Polish war veterans to visit wreath-laying ceremonies, parachute drops, and other commemorative activities. On this year’s tour of Normandy, with the 75-year-anniversary celebrations going on, she managed to organize a special evening for her tour group that was also attended by four of the war veterans she got to know through this programme, one of whom, Alan King, performed Churchill’s famous speech about never surrendering. They had also hired a band to play 1940s songs. Some veterans said they were happier to go to her party than to the festivities that had been organized by President Trump, who many thought was hardly the right person to come to Normandy and give a speech about the fight against fascism.

“It’s great that we’re still able to meet veterans in this way, because of course there’s fewer and fewer of them every year, which I actually find pretty frightening. It’s so important to get to know them not just as the guys who wear jackets with medals, but as these really funny, sweet guys who have so many stories, not just about the war. People often see them as celebrities, but that evening, instead of just getting an autograph, we got to know them, sit next to them, have a whiskey and talk about their children, their hobbies. Many of them love talking about their lives, the war—they were 18 then, with their whole lives ahead of them—but also about what it was like to return to the day-to-day. And for many others, it’s a time they don’t want to talk about at all – or have only started to open up about recently.”

Battlefield Bus Tours are working on expanding their programme beyond the ‘greatest hits’ – Normandy, Auschwitz, and Market Garden – to offer some more ‘off the beaten track’ war tours. They now include a tour of the Schelde in their programme, where they explore the heavy battles fought by the British and Canadians in the south of the Netherlands, and they will soon be adding the Hürtgenwald to the roster. There are also tentative plans for a WWII-themed tour to Norway. In addition, by popular demand, they have launched a WWI-tour to Ypres and the battlefields of the Somme.

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