Posts Tagged ‘Normandy’

We recently spent a few days on the Cote Fleurie on France’s north coast and apart from one spectacular thunderstorm we had good weather which should be regarded a bonus for this area – Normandy is green for a reason.

Once we’d done the beach-sitting, people-watching and strolling around the picturesque towns of Trouville and Deauville we availed ourselves of some of the freshest seafood you are ever likely to find. The Poissonerie on the quayside at Trouville is open from seven in the morning till seven at night and is frantically busy all day. Several small market stalls are crammed together side by side and compete for business, displaying the morning’s catch in ever creative ways, tempting tourists and locals alike.

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Each stall has its own tiny ‘bistro’ attached – in reality, a few stools and tall tables under parasols where you can sit and sample the shellfish, prepared in front of your eyes by friendly staff. They will supply a chilled bottle of wine to go with the food but if you want bread, you must visit the nearby Boulangerie. Paper napkins, wet wipes and an empty bucket for the shells and then you just tuck in with your fingers – delicious!

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So feeling replete, it was time to head out for a little sight-seeing – of the historical variety.

A few kilometres along the coast to the west lays the Orne River, peacefully flowing its way through lush Norman countryside out towards the English Channel, or as is politically correct from this side of the sea, La Manche. At this time of year the river-banks are full of reeds and wild flowers and the trees, heavy with leafy greenery, dip their branches into the water while fish surface occasionally, leaving lazy concentric pools.

We stopped near this rural idyll, just outside Ranville, the first village to be liberated by British forces on D-Day (6th June 1944) and whose cemetery is the resting place for many British soldiers killed in action after a short but epic battle to secure the bridge across the River Orne. This was one of the major objectives of the British airborne troops in the opening moments of the Normandy Invasion and would prove crucial in limiting the effectiveness of a German counter-attack.

Imagine flying into an area you’ve never seen – in a glider – under the stealth of a pitch black night and landing safely within yards of the river. This is what Major John Howard and his Glider Unit of the British 6th Airborne Division did. Transported from their base at Tarrant in Dorset, they travelled in Horsa Gliders towed by bombers and landed virtually intact. One plane did land some seven miles away, near Dives, but the troops made their way through German lines towards Ranville and were reunited with British forces.

There is now a memorial on the spot where Major Howard’s glider landed, a peaceful garden adjacent to the river.

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The bridge that Major Howard and his men were tasked with capturing crossed the River Orne from Ranville to the neighbouring village of Bénouville.

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Next to the bridge, on the Bénouville side, was a small restaurant, the Café Gondrée. Here Georges Gondrée lived and worked, running his small establishment but also working for the Resistance.

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Information about explosives under the bridge and the location of a switch in a pillbox was discovered by Georges, passed on to British Intelligence and was instrumental in the success of this operation.

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Nowadays, Café Gondrée is run by members of the same family and exists as a tourist attraction as well as a café serving the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted in France. The staff were offhand – not unheard of in France, let’s be honest – although this, I felt, was scaling things to a whole new level. Large hand-written signs warned customers not to take photographs inside the building. (Son told us on our return that the newer establishment across the road is the place to go, and is full of friendly information for the visitor as well as decent fare).

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The bridge was christened Pegasus on 26th June 1944 as a tribute to the British troops who wore the emblem of the winged horse on their sleeves. Today the original bridge resides in the grounds of the Pegasus Museum. A new bridge, constructed in 1994, now spans the river.

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The original Pegasus Bridge

The Pegasus Museum was officially opened in 2000 by HRH Prince Charles and is worth a visit. Weapons, documents and photographs as well as the old bridge, a tank and a Horsa Glider are on view. Explanations of the mission are simple to understand or there is a guided tour which takes about an hour.

Heading back through Ranville it is apparent that much of this sleepy little village was rebuilt after the war. It is possible to visit the nearby Batterie at Merville where British troops overcame German forces intent on building their ‘Atlantic Wall’ – but we had done this on a previous visit and more shellfish was beckoning…

With some 4000 memorials in Normandy, commemorating acts of bravery and heroism undertaken during the Invasion, there is plenty of history here so there is always something to see, however often you visit.

The French call this area the Musée à Ciel Ouvert – ‘Open- Sky Museum.’ It makes sense.

 

 

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Today is 6th June, the 70th anniversary of D-Day – one of the most significant dates which would change the course of World War Two. On this day the Battle for Normandy began. The American Airborne Division parachuted in ahead of  thousands of British, Canadian and American troops who arrived on the five landing beaches, many of whom made it no further. Thousands died on that first day alone, in a bloody battle which was to rage all summer.

With Son away this week in Normandy taking part in the commemorations and celebrations which occur every year to mark this event, I grabbed my chance and re-introduced a duster to his room. As he is generally responsible for the state of his chamber I very rarely venture in. It’s amazing how dense dust can get within a year. Was it Quentin Crisp who said: “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.”  I can see what he meant.

Anyway, as I was polishing along a bookshelf I came across a tiny sticker with the words:

“Enjoying your freedom? Thank a veteran.”

I was reminded of our extraordinary encounter last year with Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, a contact and friend of our son – an American Airborne veteran who stayed overnight with us while retracing his wartime steps through Europe. Son had taken him back to the English village where he had been billeted in 1943, to Stonehenge and to Bourne Woods in Surrey where “Band of Brothers” had been filmed before escorting him across the Channel to Normandy. Jim, age 92, astounded everyone by running some distance up hill, re-creating his tough training program in America before being shipped to England in 1943.

Some of you will remember that I posted a short film of his run last year. Here it is again, slightly longer to incorporate a second run he did when he got back to the States later that year: he ran up the original Currahee mountain in Toccoa, Georgia. It’s worth a second look. Make sure you have your sound turned up.

Son will meet up with Jim again in Normandy, over in Europe again to pick up an award. Thank a Veteran? Most definitely. Thanks to Jim and all those other young men who fought to give us all our freedom. May we never forget.

If you’d like to read more about Jim’s war, you can do so here, on my original post.

 

 

 

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At last, with much pride and an unashamed streak of nepotism, I can announce that Son has published his first book, an historical account of the 101st American Airborne’s time spent in our green and pleasant land prior to the D-Day landings of June 1944. ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

After three years of extensive research which has taken him from the wilds of Wiltshire in southern England to the American Wild West and from Normandy to Holland and back again, he has pieced together archive photographs, anecdotes and interviews with veterans, the aim being:

“… not only to tell the history of this famous division during an often overlooked part of their service but to give an insight into how their relatively short period of time in England has left its mark nearly 70 years later.”

The division was made famous in 2001 when the miniseries Band of Brothers hit our screens and it was from a fascination with this that Son began his quest to discover as much about the whole division as he could. His goal was for the book to be ready to coincide with 6th June this year – the 70th anniversary of the historic Normandy invasion which was the turning point of WW2. After a few close shaves with proofing and the fine print, his book is finally published and for sale on Amazon.

You can check out his book here for UK readers and here for America.

Son will be over in Normandy for the celebrations in June – they are always extensive but this year promises to be even bigger and better as the Queen, Prince Phillip and President Obama will be in attendance. As I did last year, I will be writing some Normandy related posts in the run up to the 6th  of June and re-blogging the wonderful video of Son’s 92 year old veteran friend running up the mountain he first ran in 1942.

Where to next, I wonder …

 

 

 

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This is Veteran Jim “Pee Wee” Martin.

He is ninety-two years old. 8944021905_2cc4329064[1]

He arrived in England from Ohio, America, last weekend to begin his three-week Trip of Remembrance through Europe, visiting the places he encountered during WW2. He is travelling with his companion, Doug Barber, a history teacher, also from Ohio. Our son (the Sofa Loafer), met them at Heathrow and drove them to Wiltshire, where they revisited places Jim remembers from 1943. He had a reunion with Rosemary, a young girl he met in the village of Ramsbury, where he was billeted prior to the Normandy Invasion.  They have corresponded ever since, know all about each other’s lives and families, but this was their first meeting in almost seventy years.

One of Jim’s ambitions was realised when, on the way back to Surrey to stay over at Chez Pellett, they made a detour to take in Stonehenge. After walking all around the site it was back in the car to a final stop at the Bourne Woods, Farnham. It was here that the HBO miniseries, “Band of Brothers” filmed the Currahee Mountain sequence and Jim had been impressed that the location used was sympathetic to the real Currahee – which he had run up and down many times during training at Camp Toccoa. He amazed everyone when, after almost two hours in the car, he got out and sprinted up the hill. Doug managed to capture it on a short video. You can watch it here.

They arrived at our house in the early evening after a brief stop at a typically English pub. I expected him to be travel weary, jet-lagged, even. I would have been. But Jim is an extraordinary man and we feel very honoured and privileged to have made his acquaintance. We had a light supper and talked till late in the evening, S-L showed us a DVD of Jim taking a tandem sky-dive at the age of eighty-nine – another of his ambitions was to jump out of a plane again. Very early the next morning, they set off for the Portsmouth to Cherbourg ferry. The Sofa Loafer delivered them to mutual friends in Normandy who will look after them while there. After four days they head to Belgium, Holland and Germany.

Tonight there will be fireworks  to celebrate the 69th anniversary of D-Day. There will be parties and lighting of beacons all along the coast. They’ll all be there and I have a feeling that Jim will be the last man to bed. As he said when we were watching the sky-dive video – “Life is not a spectator sport.”

A moment of quiet reflection

A moment of quiet reflection

All Photographs courtesy of Doug Barber.

Below is a brief description of Jim’s war.

Jim’s war began in 1942 when he signed up to the 101st Airborne Division and trained with the 506th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment), at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, moving to Fort Benning for their jump preparation before being shipped to England in 1943. His G Company was based in and around the beautiful village of Ramsbury where further training was undertaken until the start of Operation Overlord – the Battle for Normandy.

In the early hours of 6th June, 1944, Jim, aged twenty three, was one of over 13 000 American paratroopers who crossed the Channel in a C47 and was dropped by parachute into Normandy. He landed safely near the small village of St Cȏme Du Mont, near Utah Beach. Thousands of his compatriots didn’t: the Germans had flooded the drop zones and many troops drowned, unable to stay upright in deep water, the weight of their chutes and supplies dragging them down. Jim went on to fight in Normandy for thirty three days before returning to England in July.

 By September 1944, Jim had jumped again, this time into Holland where his Company fought to secure “Hell’s Highway” in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden. After seventy days of fighting in the Netherlands, Jim’s unit camped out in France until they were sent to Bastogne in Belgium to take part in the Battle of the Bulge during a bitterly cold December. After Bastogne, Jim took part in the Rhineland Campaign and ended his war at Hitler’s mountain home, “The Eagle’s Nest” in Berchtesgaden in 1945.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that you hadn’t crossed the Channel when you arrive in Arromanches, nestling between cliffs on the north Normandy coast. There is a distinct English atmosphere, underpinned by the permanent flying of union flags alongside the tricolour and it evokes, for me, an amalgam of childhood seaside towns. The place bustles with a constant stream of tourists ready to fill the plethora of bars and cafes, or, if you feel like a treat and want to splash out, the hotel on the seafront serves fantastic plateaux de fruits de mer. There are souvenir shops selling Calvados; crepe stands and ice cream parlours; shops selling all the usual beach paraphernalia – buckets, spades, flip-flops, sun lotion and postcards. In the corner of the small car park is an old-fashioned Carousel, which whirls around all day, tinkling out fairground tunes. Arromanches–les-Bains, to give the town its full title, appears to be a typical seaside town.

Sunset over the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches

Sunset over the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches

But look out to sea, over swathes of flat golden sand rippled by Channel tides and you cannot fail to notice the huge concrete monoliths, strewn in the shallows like a pod of beached whales; lasting souvenirs prompting a visual reminder that this modest little seaside town has an extraordinary history. These benign marine sculptures are remnants of the Mulberry Harbour, built by British engineers, creating a port to facilitate the supply of weapons and ammunition to troops during the battle for Normandy, code name: Operation Overlord.

Nick-named Port Winston, the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches was one of two artificial harbours towed across the English Channel in pieces and put together off the Normandy coast, after 6 June, 1944 – D-Day. (The other was further west, off Omaha Beach). Port Winston, off Gold Beach, was fully operational by 18 June and was capable of moving 7000 tonnes of equipment each day via six miles of flexible steel roadways floating on steel or concrete pontoons.

The construction of the Mulberry Harbour has been heralded as one of the greatest feats of engineering during WW2 and can be studied in detail at Le Musée du Débarquement* in Arromanches, right on the sea front, opposite the Carousel. With plenty of information and artifacts, it is well worth a visit.

With your appetite for historical knowledge well and truly whetted, it is but a brisk walk up the easterly cliff road to Arromanches’ 360 Cinema. Perched high on the cliff top this is a cinema like no other: it shows a film called The Price of Liberty, screening real war-time footage interspersed with how the battlefields look today. Viewers stand in the middle of nine massive screens as the film unfolds all around them. The film runs on a loop lasting thirty minutes and, I would say, should be compulsory viewing for all.

So, Arromanches is a seaside town with an incredible recent history.  Its people are welcoming and willing to talk about their town with pride. The celebrations that go on here to mark the D-Day anniversary are echoed right along the coast, with firework displays that go on after midnight.

21 years ago, on Gold Beach at Arromanches, the Mulberry Harbour in the distance. Who would've thought?

21 years ago, on Gold Beach at Arromanches, the Mulberry Harbour in the distance. Who would’ve thought?

This year marks the 69th anniversary of the day that changed history. Our son will be there, somewhere, watching those fireworks. The first time he stepped on to Gold Beach at Arromanches, he was fourteen months old.

Now, is that destiny?

 

 

 

*For anyone considering a trip to Normandy, I’d recommend purchasing the Normandie Pass which allows visitors discounts on Museum entry fees. It only costs 1€ and can be purchased at the first place you visit. It lists all the participating partners and any seasonal promotions being offered.

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Don’t get me wrong – the tapestry is fabulous – all 230 feet of it and well worth a visit. (Especially if it’s raining, which, believe me, it will. Normandy wouldn’t be Normandy without the rain – it’s what makes it so beautiful and green). Displayed under glass in the Grand old Seminary in the heart of Bayeux, the tapestry depicts, in scenes woven on linen, the Norman invasion of Britain and has survived almost intact for nine centuries. The French do museums and exhibitions with typical style: there is a good audio guide to accompany the tour which explains events scene by scene.

Bayeux Cathedral from the British cemetery

Bayeux Cathedral from the British cemetery

However, if you cross over the river Aure, towards the cathedral (also worth a look), and head south you will come to the British Military cemetery: a complete juxtaposition of historical events within a ten minute walk.

Bayeux was the first town liberated by the allies on June 7, 1944. Over 4 500 commonwealth soldiers are buried in the cemetery; a further 1800 are commemorated on a memorial opposite the regimented rows of white gravestones. Along the frieze of this memorial is an inscription in Latin which translates as

“We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.”

The grounds are kept in immaculate order by the war graves commission; all the white crosses have floral tributes. It is a sobering experience to walk along the rows, read the ages of the dead and contrast that with our own offspring, who at around the same age, are enjoying their gap years.

Opposite the cemetery is the Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie. This is probably one of the best places for a comprehensive overview of the Normandy invasion. Easy to understand, with an archive film in both French and English, there are displays of military vehicles, maps and strategies, uniforms, and lastly, a room dedicated to the work of the photo-journalist.

Outside, next to the museum, is a small, peaceful garden, dedicated to foreign correspondents all over the world, killed in the course of duty since 1944. Called the Reporter’s Memorial, it contains over 2000 names, chiselled by decade onto large white remembrance slabs. New names are added every year and, since 1994, the town has hosted the Bayeux-Calvados prize for war-correspondents.

The Reporter's Memorial Garden, Bayeux

The Reporter’s Memorial Garden, Bayeux

Wander along the winding path between the upright steles and some names may be familiar: Robert Capa, famous for bringing images of the allies arriving on Omaha beach and who died, aged 40, in Vietnam; Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident who worked for the BBC and who was mysteriously and fatally stabbed in the thigh near Waterloo Bridge in 1978; the Irish cameraman, Simon  Cumbers, shot in Riyadh in 2004 – the same attack that left the BBC reporter, Frank Gardner, in a wheelchair.  Journalists are often regarded with the same disdain afforded to estate agents or tax collectors: those that go out to report global combat should be set apart; they are not given military training, they put themselves in mortal danger to send the rest of us news and pictures that we are at liberty to switch off in the comfort of our living rooms. The Reporter’s Memorial in Bayeux is a fitting tribute.

Robert Capa's image, capturing the allied advance on Omaha Beach

Robert Capa’s image, capturing the allied advance on Omaha Beach

As Robert Capa said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

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Unusually for a household which includes family under the age of twenty-five, we have no game consoles.  My son had a play station when he was younger but preferred the great outdoors and often played by himself while his friends were attached to a handset.  I feel the affectionate use of the term Sofa Loafer when alluding to him may well have given some people the impression that all he does is lounge around watching Top Gear repeats on television. While he does do a fair bit of this, once he comes in from work, he is also multi-tasking. His laptop is constantly open so he’s either writing, researching, communicating or networking.  Or eating, come to think of it, sometimes all at once: impressive, eh?

Well, as I’ve been allowed to see some of the results of his research, I have to say that I think it probably is fairly impressive and it’s why I’m giving him a bit of free publicity.

With a passionate interest in WW2 history, his ultimate goal is to become a battlefield tour guide, but for now he has been working towards producing a book, containing anecdotes, historical facts and old photographs related to the American 101st Airborne division’s time in England, when they were billeted in Wiltshire before the D Day jump into Normandy on 6th June, 1944. His manuscript is almost ready for editing and he has sourced a publisher.  He has created a Facebook page where you can keep up to date with his progress, but his personal D Day is for it to be ready in 2014, in time for the 70th anniversary.

This year he’ll be escorting a very important person to Normandy for the celebrations – an American veteran who he met during his trip to America two years ago and who is now retracing his steps in Europe during a two and a half week stay on this side of the pond.  He and his travelling companion will be staying with us and revisiting his billet site (as well as Stonehenge, at his request), before the ferry journey across to France, from where he will travel on to Belgium and Holland, meeting up with other friends there.

While I am delighted at the prospect of this visit, my main concern at the moment is locating some Anglo-American bunting. This is most definitely an occasion for putting out the flags.

I’ll leave you with a few pictures from Normandy, a place now of tranquillity and historical interest, but whose inhabitants and the landscape saw some of the fiercest fighting of World War Two.

Utah Beach, late afternoon, now a peaceful place for a stroll

Utah Beach, late afternoon, now a peaceful place for a stroll

The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer where over 9,000 graves face west, towards home

The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer where over 9,000 graves face west, towards home

Stained glass window at a delightful little church in Angoville au Plain commemorating the Airborne

Stained glass window at a delightful little church in Angoville au Plain commemorating the Airborne

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