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It’s dawn on June 6, 1944. You’re standing in an amphibious landing craft, crammed with 49 other men — all in full pack — and about to land on Omaha Beach in Normandy.

All around are battleships, landing craft and dinghies. Overhead there’s a deafening roar of engines from planes providing air cover. On the beach, dead bodies are scattered about as people run in all directions. There’s a constant boom from mines and a rapid rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns. It’s hell on earth.

Finally your craft stops and the front drops. Shaken and seasick from the rough conditions, you scramble out to find yourself waist high in water. Holding your weapon high above your head, you begin to run for your life.

Sixty years after the amphibious landing crafts — known as DUKWs or Ducks — played a key role on D-Day, they are taking on a new role as a major London tourist attraction. They transport visitors through the streets of central London before making a splashdown in the Thames.

And, you’ll be relieved to know, the locals are much less threatening than on the beaches of Normandy, and while the river may be choppy, there are no rough seas.

Started in 2000, the wacky Duck Tour has established itselfas a popular visitor attraction. In 2002, it was voted “London Family Attraction of the Year” by the Good Britain Guide.

So on a rainy winter morning, I went along to find out why.

“Hello everybody and welcome aboard,” said a friendly voice as we boarded the Beatrice and set off on our amphibious odyssey through central London.

“My name’s Bob Pearson and I’ll be your guide for today. The driver is called Colin. We’re going to take you through a little bit of Lambeth and Westminster and show you some of the sights.

“The vehicle you’re sitting in was one of around 21,000 made for the U.S. Army in 1942. … Originally there was no roof and no seats, and the vehicles were camouflage green. They looked like ships on wheels.”

The craft take their name from “D,” a code letter for the first year of production; “U” for the utility truck body style; “K” for front-wheel drive (GMC still uses that on trucks today); and W for the tandem axel rear-driving wheels. Seats and a roof have been added, and the craft has been painted yellow.

If our journey was anything to go by, the craft are real head-turners. As we drove along Whitehall, tourists gazed in wonder and amazement — the changing of the guard paling in significance as our Duck swept by. It was like riding on a carnival float.

The tour took in all the major tourist sights of central London. Bob provided a running commentary on places of interest, including amusing stories and anecdotes.

“There, to your left,” he said, as we reached the end of Westminster Bridge, “is a great big clock tower called Big Ben. At least that’s what most people think. But as some of you may know, Big Ben is not the tower itself. It’s actually the name of the bell. And it was named after Benjamin Hall, who worked on the building.”

Taking a left, we drove around Parliament Square, past the large statue of Churchill and the side entrance to the Houses of Parliament. Then we headed north along Parliament Street.

“The monument on the right,” said Bob, “is the Cenotaph. Every year on the 11th of November there’s a large procession here to honor those who died in war — especially the two World Wars.”

A little farther along we passed the Horse Guards and the Banqueting House — once an enormous palace where Charles I was executed. Soon we were in Trafalgar Square.

“The tall monument you can see in front of you,” Bob said, “is Nelson’s Column. Nelson was a naval commander. His great tactical stroke of genius was to send his ships headlong into the French and Spanish lines — so the enemy only had a narrow target to fire at. Previously they’d just lined up opposite each other and fired away until one ship was defeated.

“Nelson is also famous for putting a telescope to his blind eye and saying [of the enemy fleet] ‘I see no ships’ because he didn’t want to retreat.”

We drove on along Pall Mall, famous for its exclusive gentlemen’s clubs, and passed a blue plaque that marks the former home of Nell Gwynne, the most famous of Charles II’s 17 mistresses. Bob also pointed out St. James Palace, built for Henry VIII on his marriage to Ann Boleyn.

Seconds later, we passed the Ritz Hotel. “It’s one of the best hotels in London,” Bob said. “But you can just drop in for afternoon tea; it costs a mere 32 pounds!” He also told us that Charlie Chaplin and David Niven had once worked in the hotel.

Before long we reached Hyde Park Corner. Here is Apsley House, home to the Duke of Wellington and designated Number 1, London. There’s a huge statue of Wellington riding Copenhagen, a horse that reputedly carried him in battle for 16 hours. We took a left and drove past what Bob called “the Queen’s back garden.”

“Incidentally don’t do what Michael Fagan did,” he said. “He simply walked into Buckingham Palace one evening. Nobody challenged him so he kept on going. He found himself inside the palace and still nobody challenged him. Eventually he stumbled into the queen’s bedchamber. He sat down on the queen’s bed and calmly poured himself a glass of wine. Then he asked the queen whether she [had] a cigarette. They say the queen took it in her stride, but I think security was a bit upset! By the way, visitors are allowed into Buckingham Palace these days on tours — but you’re supposed to pay!”

We passed Wellington Barracks, where the queen’s soldiers are housed, before reaching the front of Buckingham Palace. Originally built for the Duke of Buckinghamshire, it was later chosen by Queen Victoria as the main royal residence in London.

We turned right into Buckingham Gate, passed New Scotland Yard — famous to readers of detective novels — and reached the impressive silhouette of Westminster Abbey.

“The abbey was consecrated in 1065,” Bob said. “William of Normandy rode in on a horse to be crowned there. And, to date, all British monarchs since then have had their coronations in Westminster Abbey.”

As we headed south along the river, we passed the Houses of Parliament, crossed Lambeth Bridge and continued down to the headquarters of MI5 and MI6, home of the British Secret Service (think James Bond).

This was also the the venue for the splashdown, the highlight of the tour. Quickly, the bus driver and boat driver swapped places and we set off slowly down the 45 degree ramp into the Thames.

None of us knew what to expect and weren’t sure whether to be excited or scared. There was an instant when we all expected to sink with the sheer weight. But suddenly we were out on the river, floating past the Tate Gallery. We sailed on for about 15 minutes, passing under Westminster Bridge — close to the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament — before turning round and heading back along the opposite bank.

Emerging from the water, we drove back to Chicheley Street to finish the tour.

It had been an unusual trip and a great way to combine the major sights of London with a short river cruise. And Beatrice’s outlandish appearance and bright yellow paint managed to turn the dull rainy day into a shining moment not only for us, but also for all who saw us pass.

— Richard Moverley is a freelance writer living in England.

If you go

You can buy London Duck Tours tickets online at www.londonducktours.com or by phone at (+44) (0) 207-928- 3132. Prices are 16.50 pounds for adults (about $30), 11 pounds for children up to age 12, and 49 pounds for a family ticket (two adults and two children). Tours last 75 minutes. They are not suitable for children under 3 or people with limited mobility.

Tours run from Chicheley Street, behind the London Eye, near County Hall. The company office is at County Hall, Riverside Building, Belvedere Road, London SE1 7PB. The nearest train and tube station is Waterloo; buses 12, 53, X53, 76, 77, 159, 341, 381 and all “hop on, hop off” sightseeing buses stop at County Hall.

There are plans for major trips in summer 2005 to link with the Imperial War Museum and to celebrate 60 years since V-E day (no details yet). In the meantime, why not go along and celebrate 60 years since D-Day?

There are several tourist information offices in London. A good one to try is the British Tourist Authority at Information Services, Thames Tower, Black’s Road, London W6 9EL, telephone (0) 20-8846-9000l. Also check www.visitbritain.com and www.visitlondon.com. Ask for a copy of London Planner, a monthly publication with useful London info including maps, sights, lodging and theater.

London can be an expensive city, but it doesn’t have to be. Look for hotel bargains on the Web (I found a single room in a four-star hotel for 36 pounds plus tax, reduced from 184 pounds on www.londontown.com).

During summer vacations, there are also bargains to be had in the university residence halls. Try www.imperial-accommodationlink.com, www.goldsmiths.ac.uk and www.lsevacations.co.uk.

You can save on dining out if you take advantage of bargain lunch offers of pre-theater dinners in the West End.

If you’re planning to visit several places, consider a London Pass, which entitles you to free entry to more than 50 popular attractions, restaurant discounts, and a public transportation option on buses, subway and trains where the transport option is purchased. Buy a six-day London Pass including travel and you get the seventh day of travel free.

Get information by phone at (+44) (0) 870- 242-9988 or on the Web at www.londonpass.com.

Transportation is a real deal in England’s capital city. A one-day Travelcard for central London costs a mere 4.30 pounds. There are also weekend Travelcards and family Travelcards. Reach London Travel Information by calling (+44) (0) 20-7222-1234 or going to www.tfl.gov.uk/tube for more details.

— Richard Moverley


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