November 2006 Trip to Normandy.
This peaceful section of beach at Vierville, Normandy was codenamed "OMAHA". On June 6th 1944 beginning at 06.30hrs over 2000 American troops died, were wounded or listed as missing. I stood on this beach for almost 2 hours, listening to the sea, the birds and imagined what it must have been like for those young soldiers.
A few years ago I watched a TV series called 'Band of Brothers'. I had previously seen the film 'Saving Private Ryan', which, at the time, struck me as being a bit over the top in terms of very graphic violence. After seeing Band of Brothers, I decided to research a little into the events of D-day - June 6th 1944. The more I found, the more intrigued I became as to the bond that grew between these soldiers. The comradeship, self sacrifice, hardship, endurance etc, all qualities that these troops displayed, made me feel that I needed to find out more.
By the way, don't forget to follow the links shown in a different colour, and the weblinks. They are relevent to what you are reading and serve to put a little more meat on the subject.
To put it simply, I was totally hooked! So, together with a mate......Martin, I decided to plan a trip over to Normandy, with a view to seeing for myself the places that saw the events of D-Day and after.
Leaving at about 04.00 hrs, we drove to Dover, for a one hour ferry crossing. Then a three and a half hour drive to Bayeux, where we had booked 2 nights B&B in an English guest house. I had never driven in France before, and I was immensely surprised at the quality of the Toll roads and also the courteous nature of other French drivers, it must have been obvious that we were 'tourists' and they made alot of allowances for my hesitant approach.
Anyway we made Bayeux safely and found the guest house was owned and run by a Retired British army officer and his wife. Lieutenant-Colonel and Mrs Chilcott. A very quiet comfortable house provided the base we needed for three days of exploration discovery and experience; (not least the trauma of locating and successfully ordering a meal from a branch of MacDonalds in Bayeux!!) The rest of the day was spent in finding grub, (strangely not very easy in Bayeux), our way around and the delights of 'wrong way round' - roundabouts, if you know what I mean!
Sunrise over Calais
Approaching Calais, about 08.00. A good trip, great breakfast, and I left my bloody glasses on the ferry!!!
You can zoom in and out on the map above by clicking the + and - icons.
In Bayeux, we found our first museum dedicated to the liberation of France, I have included a picture of the Sherman tank outside, together with Martin, (He's the one in Red!!) That should keep him quiet. I won't bore you with dull photo's of the museum contents; sufficient to say that it just served to whet our appetites for more!
Day 1 - Longues-Sur-Mer, the American cemetery and Omaha Beach.
These guns are placed on the cliffs adjacent to Bayeux. I could'nt believe that they are in the condition they are, (there were 4 of them), virtually untouched. They fired on the advancing invasion force with 150mm guns. (thats BIG, by the way). We were able to walk around, down inside the magazine and generally do what we liked. No charge either; Can you imagine what admission charge the council would sting you for in this country? Thats if they would let you anywhere near them of course, with health and safety laws in mind, that is!
Click on the main title to find out more.
I included this one because it shows one of the other guns, supposedly destroyed by a direct hit from a British or French destroyer, after fire exchanges that lasted all day. Both claimed success inthe shelling of this batterie. But it was certainly walloped by one of the destroyers, it would be nice to think it was a British one.......OUCH!!
The American Cemetery, Colleville-Sur-Mer.
The American Battle Monuments Commision is responsible for the maintenance of this cemetery.The atmosphere in this place was total peace and serenity: a few people attending the graves of loved ones, the sun came out and added to the calm and tranquility. Was it good to be there? well normally you don't want to be too long in a place like this but actually it gave you a strange sense that all the people buried here are at peace, having given all they could possibly give; probably just me being all sentimental.
This website give alot of info. Its well worth a look.
This one really got me. If you have seen 'Saving Private Ryan' you will certainly remember the extreme battle violence that featured quite prominently throughout the film; particularly during the first twelve minutes or so. (See U-Tube video below). Many of the graves in the cemetery were like this one; no name specified because all that was recovered were body parts....not even the dog tags, and completely unidentifiable!
Very moving and powerful, these guys did it for their countries their children, and subsequent generations, thats you and me!
And here we are. Just before our descent to Omaha Beach. Yes, another picture of Martin; he will be getting big headed now!! (What a poser!).....I'm sure I've seen him in the Primark catalogue!!
I was surprised to see this stretch of beach all but deserted; just a few locals with their kids out making the most of a sunny November afternoon. We parked and walked past this memorial and straight onto the beach. Then it all hit me! The tide was going out, but on that fateful June day in 1944 it was coming in.... FAST. I imagined the scene that I have looked at so many times in books and films; the landing craft loaded with young soldiers, the ramps going down, the hail of bullets let loose from enemy MG42's, mortars, 70mm shells. The blood, shouts, screams, the carcophany of gunfire and explosions no doubt the cry of seagulls circling overhead, wondering perhaps...........? By the way, I have included the MG42 link just to show a single example of the fire rate of the machine guns they faced. NOT for any other reason. The fire rate of one of these machine guns was 1300 rounds per minute, but the barrel would become so hot, that it had to be changed every 300 rounds. One of these guns could easily cut a man in half, and there were many such gun emplacements overlooking this stretch of beach!!
I've included this link to the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, not for shock effect or any kind of wow factor. But so that you can see what I'm talking about. Try to watch it all, before you go any further, even if you are a bit squeamish, and remember.....this really happened. Give it some time to load a bit before you play the clip, especially if your PC is a little slow. Please try to share my sense of awe when I stood on this beach 62 years after these events took place.
Martin and I walked around for a few minutes and then just stood, saying nothing. We did'nt need to. How could it be that this beach was so peaceful? One would think that even 62 years after all that death and destruction, there would still be a sense of forboding and oppression..............Not a bit! I keep talking about the peace and serenity of this place; it was overwhelming, and a bit of a shock really. I think it took us both by surprise; sobering is a good word, almost like a telling off!
The men that survived this massacre told of the sea becoming red with the blood of fallen comrades, of young men, hardly more than kids crying out for their mothers as the hail of lead tore into their bodies and snatched away the very life that had seen so few summers. I wondered how far that blood had sunk into the sand; the very same sand that I was now walking on; and here was my contribution.....my footprints on their blood; almost sacrilege. And yet not sacrilege, because thats what they died for, was'nt it? My freedom to walk unhindered on a French beach, formerly soaked in blood or not! The least I could do was spend some time remembering and respecting; and thats what Martin and I did, for almost two hours.
Then came the gratitude, the awe and the welling up of tears to the eyes. And there I go again!!! Silly sentimental old sod that I am.
Some of the beach defences that survived. A great deal of the enemy fire came from flanking positions such as this......you see, you can kill a lot more soldiers from this kind of viewpoint.
The sun was starting to go down by now, we had seen and done quite a bit this day. I thanked God for the good weather and my freedom, bought by the spilt blood and guts of thousands of young men, not only American, and not only on this beach, all those years ago.
That night we drove around for about two hours trying to find a MacDonalds; not an easy task when you've left your glasses on the ferry, and the only ones you have are prescription sunglasses....at night! (I did get a few strange looks from French people, but only until they realised we were English!). We were pretty hungry you see, and thinking that a double Big Mac or Triple cheeseburger with mega fries would be easy to get hold of even in France, we set off into the wilds of the Bayeux suburbs at night.....Oh how wrong we were!
We had previously booked a Band of Brothers day trip for the following day. What a day we had in store!!
Before that though, permit me to fill you in a little concerning BAND OF BROTHERS, what its about and why I am such an ANORAK!!!
BAND OF BROTHERS TOUR.
So now, why Band of Brothers? Whats so great about just another TV series that shows a lot of war, combat and killing? There's more to this than meets the eye. Yes, all of the above are portrayed; but this series follows a single company of soldiers from training through D-Day, the allied advance through Europe, (France, Holland, Belgium), and on to the final invasion of Germany, including the liberation of one of the concentration camps, and even the capturing of Hitlers' stronghold, The Eagles Nest, in Bavaria. Remember that this series was made with an emphasis on factual events; and although some content has been adapted to suit a piece of TV drama, we know that real live veterans of Easy company were consulted, and indeed play their part in a powerful way before each episode begins.
We see the bond of comradeship grow through the grueling training at Camp Tocoa in Georgia, through Jump training and final preparations for D-Day in Southern England. On into the many battles and skirmishes that see our now familiar 'comrades' fight, die, comfort, and look out for each other. Through the crippling defeat of Operation Market Garden, the liberation of Eindhoven, Holland, the shelling and intense cold of The Ardennes, and the pain of suffering so graphically portrayed as they liberate the prisoners of Landsberg Concentration Camp, (a sub camp of Dachau), in South West Bavaria.
Where did the term Band of Brothers originate?
The term 'Band of Brothers' was coined, in relation to EASY COMPANY by the author Stephen E. Ambrose, in his book of the same name. It comes from the speech by King Henry in Shakespeare's 'HENRY V', just before the Battle of Agincourt. This was played by two actors over the years, first by Lawrence Olivier in 1944 and again by Kenneth Brannagh in 1987. Please, please, please forgive me for this little aside, and watch this speech before the battle opposite, (known as The Crispins Day Address). I think Brannagh plays a very gritty believable Henry V and the film is probably one of the best in the known universe!! perfect casting, perfect acting. I challenge you not to cheer with everyone else at the end of the address!
E. Company, 506th Parachute infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, or more familiarly known as "Easy Company" consists of the same young soldiers we saw in Saving Private Ryan, albeit a different part of the same army. You see, these soldiers saw their first combat the night before the D-Day landings of June 6th. Parachuting into Normandy with the sole purpose of softening up the German defences, and making the impending Allied invasion of the following morning less costly in terms of Allied soldiers lives. Unfortunately this softening up process failed badly in the area of Omaha Beach, for various reasons. And that is why it was subsequently called "BLOODY OMAHA". What impacted and inspired me most was the bond that grew between these men, not only willing to fight and die for their country, but also for each other. The powerful link we discover between them exists, I think only between people who endure intense danger and hardship together, would'nt it be good if we could live our everyday lives in this way, looking out of each other? The following Video shows a overview of Easy company as portrayed in Band of Brothers. This is someone else's editing and choice of music, but I think it is outstanding and shows the frail, human side to these men and a brief taste of what they endured.
Easy Company, part of 101st Airborne. (Also known as 'The Screaming Eagles).
So, with a little luck, by now you might just be understanding my interest in all things relating to The liberation of occupied Europe, and subsequent events through to the end of World War 2; specifically the D-Day landings and subsequent rout of the German occupation, and even more specifically the '101st Airborne'. If not, then you may have to face the fact that you might be in the wrong website and divert to the delights of Maisies cake decorating website; I wish you "Au-Revoir", "Adieu", and make mine a fondant fancy.......with little jelly things on the top! (red ones).
If you're still here, then welcome back.......yes, I know you checked it out, don't deny it!! Read on gentle surfer, and see what happened next.
So, with a little luck, by now you might just be understanding my interest in all things relating to The liberation of occupied Europe, and subsequent events through to the end of World War 2; specifically the D-Day landings and subsequent rout of the German occupation, and even more specifically the '101st Airborne'. If not, then you may have to face the fact that you might be in the wrong website and divert to the delights of Maisies Cake Decoration website; I wish you "Au-Revoir", "Adieu", and make mine a fondant fancy.......with little jelly things on the top! (red ones).
If you're still here, then welcome back.......yes, I know you checked it out, don't deny it!! Read on gentle surfer, and see what happened next.
Ho Hum! Back to our trip. We actually managed to find the departure point in the centre of Bayeux for our daytrip with relative ease, unlike the Macdonalds fiasco of the night before. It was laid on by a company called "Battlebus tours", not surprisingly, and involving a whole days excursion from 08.30 - 16.30 hrs.
One of the things Battlebus tours promised was to include a actual war veteran on their excursion. This picture shows Martin chatting to 'Ernie', an ex-combattant of Guadalcanal. One of the islands in the Solomon islands group, in the South Pacific; The battle went on there from August 7th 1942 until February 9th 1943. He spent the whole day with us and provided a heap of interesting experiences from the war in the Pacific.
Ok, Ok, I know this is'nt the most interesting photo! But what do you want....David Bailey? Actually this shows our BATTLEBUS tour guide Dale Booth, whose knowledge and expertise made the day very worth while. This part of the day was spent driving around to various spots in the countryside where we would stop and Dale would show places and landmarks where certain things occurred in episodes of Band of Brothers. Sounds riveting, does'nt it?..............Well it was, actually.
This memorial is dedicated to the crew and paratroopers on board the first C47 transport aircraft to be shot down on the night before D-Day. This aircraft carried a lot of the troops ammunition and also the then Commander of Easy Company, Lieutenant Thomas Meehan. As the many aircraft exited cloud cover, they were a relatively easy target for the German anti-aircraft gunners. The plane crashed near the village of Beuzeville-au-Plain (approximately 2 miles northeast of the town of Sainte-Mère-Église), killing the crew and the paratroopers aboard, including the entire company headquarters group of Company "E".
After a gruelling morning of what I can only describe as pure heaven, we stopped for lunch at a cafe near the UTAH beach museum. Full of relics, and wartime memorabilia, not least a number of tables signed by many of the original members of Easy Company; and guess what, I don't seem to have any photo's of them?.........Twerp!
Another museum? Oh dear! This one housed all the personal effects of the Company Commander that features most in Band of Brothers Lieutenant Richard Winters, (who, by the way was promoted twice through Captain to Major),and who donated them to this museums owner Michel de Trez. Loads and loads of gear all stuffed into a small building. Allied and German memorabilia, plus a small warehouse containing replica weapons, uniforms, etc. The gift shop is made to resemble the inside of a C47 Skytrain from which the paratroopers were dropped....All brill. stuff, I must say.
The museum is situated at a village called Ste. Come-Du-Mont , not far from Carentan. The road leading S.W of this museum saw one of the few Bayonet Charges of WWII, by members of the 82nd Airborne led by Lt Robert Cole as part for the battle for Carentan. Use the link above to see more of this brilliant place. By the way, the museum supplies alot of equipment for re-enactment groups and film companys. I could'nt resist asking Martin to take my picture holding the famous THOMPSON sub machine gun. Ok, I know what you're thinking, and I don't care; at least I don't dress up in all the gear and run around fields pretending to be a soldier.......Hmmm, now there's a thought!!
Winters personal stuff.
Tunic, packs, binoculars, foot locker, sidearm,(Colt .45) jump boots and loads of personal effects. It seemed quite surreal to view these things knowing to whom they belonged.
A couple of other sites followed throughout the afternoon, I won,t explore them because they were very Band of Brothers orientated.
We got back at around 16.30hrs as planned. After some fond farewells and loads of handshakes we strode off confidently into the centre of Bayeux again, looking for more grub.
Why is it that no restaurants open until 7.00pm in France? Very annoying. Still, we did have a chance to get lost........sorry, explore.
Last day, Pegasus Bridge and home.
Now. Give yourselves a pat on the back. You have stuck with it through thick and thin! We are near the end.................And who said "bloody good job?" I won't tell you again, Go to the back!
Do you remember I had mentioned Lt. Col. and Mrs Chilcot, our hosts? Well, sadly Mr Chilcot had been away. Mrs Chilcot, upon learning that we had visited predominently American memorials and museums, gave us a stern telling off, and suggested that the British also took part in the D-Day invasion. So, suitably chastised, we promised to visit Pegasus Bridge on our way home to good old Blighty! Read on therefore, patient wanderer; a great morning was awaiting us on our last day.
Please play the following U-Tube video while you read on.
Now I know full well that I have been focusing on the American contribution to the Allied invasion of Nazi occupied Europe......So far!
It has all been a very enjoyable learning curve, and I had to start somewhere. I will hold up my hands and admit that I did not realise that the first combat action of D-Day commenced at approximately 00.16 hrs on June 6th 1944. Even before the Paratroopers of Easy Company had parachuted into Normandy. And, I am proud to state that it involved D Company of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire light infantry; part of the BRITISH 6th AIRBORNE DIVISION. Their mission was to capture and hold a small bridge over the Caen Canal on the Ranville to Benouville road. The Company Commander was Major John Howard. The bridge in question was later renamed PEGASUS BRIDGE after the cap badge insignia of the 6th Airborne Division.
Three of these Horsa gilders landed within a few yards of their assigned landing area after being towed from England by Halifax Bombers. No mean feat, in almost total darkness, I have to say. 1st Platoon saw the first Allied casualty of the invasion when their platoon leader Lieutenant Den Brotheridge was shot on the bridge.
Looking over the site of a German gun emplacement, here you can see the first building to be liberated.
It was the local cafe owned by the Gondree family at about 00.26 hrs. D Company held the bridge all night against repeated German attacks and were relieved in the morning by the first special Service Brigade led by Lord Lovat who arrived to the sound of the Scottish bagpipes, played by 21-year-old 'Mad Piper' Private Bill Millin. All of this was a revelation to me and gave me a real sense of pride over our troops who fought, and still fight for our freedom.....(just a little plug there for all our soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan). I must also say that it was a welcome relief to know that some things had gone well on that night, including the capture of the Merville battery by Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway and the 9th Batallion. Walking across this bridge left me feeling all patriotic, it did, glad and proud to be British and all that, chaps!
The museum nearby contained a load of relics from the taking of the bridge and surrounding area, plus a gift shop where I spent far too much cash on bits and pieces that seem at the time to be useful. Also they still have the original Bridge sitting in a field, (it was replaced just after the war by a bigger version.)
A picture of yours truly next to the memorial plaque at Pegasus Bridge. The day was rapidly advancing in a northerly direction and it was time to make the final dash for Calais. We made it back to the ferry port much quicker than the outward bound journey, no doubt 'cos we were by now, totally seasoned continental motoring experts.
A great crossing back on the ferry, (it was very rough and Martin puked!!), made for a exciting culmination to our little adventure.
So, overall, a most exciting, moving absorbing and on the whole totaly wicked experience. And one I can't wait to repeat. Mainly because three days was not enough to see and do everything. So I bet you all can't wait for our next delve into the recent military history of Normandy and hopefully into Belgium to follow Easy Company into The Battle of the Bulge..........................Where's everybody gone?...... Oh, ok then........er.......BYE!........(For now, Heh, heh, heh!!!)
This is the closing scene from Saving Private Ryan.
Ryan, (present day, now an old man), saved, all those years ago by Capt. John Miller and his squad, returns to Normandy to pay tribute to the man who accomplished his salvation, having died in the execution of his duty. Very moving. Please remember these men and those like them who made the ultimate sacrifice for your/our freedom. I am including the following link to the 'Help for Heroes' website. Please have a look and consider contributing to support our soldiers and their families. The battles are still going on. The young men are still dying, and the wives and children and families are still suffering.