I hope you have a bit of time to read, because I know this will take a while to write. Sooo much stuff!
Last night I had plotted a route which would take us through various cemeteries, beaches and other historical points along the famous Normandy Coast of the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944.
From Caen our first stop was the Canadian Cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer/Reviers. The cemetery sits off to the side of a quiet road and has a gravel parking lot capable of holding about 30 cars if it had to. The place was nicely done. There was an area of reflection and dedication and a nice green lawn. Further in, you reached the border of the graveyard. There were two "watch towers" overlooking the graves with dedications within them. The graves were aligned along a left-right line and there were flowers and roses planted around the headstones. It was quiet when we got there. There was one vehicle there. As we were there one other vehicle came in. I felt sad to see so many graves in one place. Interestingly one of the graves in the cemetery is that of a French Freedom fighter. He is the only non-Canadian buried there. He apparently fought along with the Canadians on D-Day and had no living relatives. The Canadian soldiers were his family, so they "adopted" him as a Canadian. His grave was marked with the distinctive French cross style of marker with a steel plate and the commemorative words "Mort pour la France". It was a nice visit. It brought a lump to your throat to see all the 20-25 year olds that never got to grow old.
Next on the agenda was Courseulles-sur-Mer, so we started heading out that way. We arrived in Courseulles-sur-Mer and found that there was a "Juno Beach Centre". We arrived at the centre around 11:20 and it was raining pretty hard. That worked well – we would be able to head inside and stay dry while getting caught up on the regional Canadian specific history. We were offered the "beach tour" for another 2.50 euros. It was scheduled to leave at 1200, but we weren’t so sure… it was raining pretty hard. The kind girl working the desk said that if we wanted to go later we could just pay our 2.50 then. Perfect. We went into the museum and information section and the display is designed to help explain why Canada entered the war, and what the motivation was behind many of the Canadian soldiers of the time. We got about 1/3 through when the guide came and called all for the tour. "Is it still pouring out?" We asked.
"Not too much, but I have an umbrella for you if you need it."
Sold. We shelled out our coin and headed out to the beach area for the tour.
The tour pointed out some of the locations and talked about how Dieppe was a development stage for D-Day. The guide was a knowledgeable French Canadian student who was on a work term. He pointed out that the centre had not been built by the Canadian government by veterans gathering donations to have it built. Until the Juno Beach Centre existed there had been an American history centre and a British history centre but nothing regarding the Canadian involvement. With the funds raised from private donors they have built a great site of which Canada can be proud. After the tour we walked around on the beach and came across a German bunker known as "Cosy’s bunker" for the soldier who eventually took it. Juno beach also happened to be the place where Montgomery, King George and de Gaulle came on land after the initial assaults had cleared enough land. Looking at the size of the exposed beach at low tide and the small seawall, combined with the locations of the bunkers it was easy to imagine the horror experienced that day.
Interesting sidebar – Courseulles-sur-Mer is located on the 49th parallel. The same latitude as Vancouver.
From the centre we headed up the beach road in the direction of Gold Beach. The first location we came upon was Arromanches. It was at Arromanches that the Allies built one of two floating harbours (Mullberry A and B). The one here was known as Port Winston. The Brits and Canadians built it well, with the idea that it was going to be permanent. It weathered some nasty storms during the war, and even to this day there are pieces of it still in their original locations! The one built over at Omaha was viewed as temporary and was anchored down as such didn’t have quite the same building care put into it. It lasted for a short while but was torn apart by a strong storm within 10 days. From the cliffs above Arromanches you could see that the outline of the breakwaters for the harbour. It truly was a MASSIVE undertaking. The harbour at Arromanches functioned for 8 months and moved 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tonnes of supplies.
Our next destination was a battery of 4 German guns stationed at Longues-sur-Mer. The bunkers formed part of the "Atlantic Wall", and consisted of 4 guns spread out approximately 500m from the cliffs and a forward observation post near the cliff. The guns caused serious problems for the Americans landing at Omaha as well as the British at Gold. They continued to harangue the invasion fleet until 0845 that morning. Apparently the 4 guns had fired a total of 115 rounds. when you got out to see them they were in surprisingly good shape for having been hammered by intense bombing, and shelling from the Navy ships off shore. Two guns looked like they had taken a pretty bad hit, but 2 of them appeared to be in quite good shape, all things considered. I knew from looking at these monsters that I wouldn’t have liked to be on the receiving end of a game of catch with these guys.
Back in the car after having had my drenching again at this site (I wonder how much rain they had to fight through during the days of the invasion) we headed up the road toward Omaha beach, the location where Saving Private Ryan was set. The beach was set below a sweeping hillside that would have been pretty much devastating. We arrived down to the beach by a quiet little side road at "Easy Red, Fox Green" and had missed all the plaques and memorials higher above. We were down on the beach looking up. Much like the US soldiers probably were on D-Day. At the little parking lot where we were it was probably only a small percentage that ever got to see that view. Most would have died as they were in their landing boats long before even seeing this point.
While standing down there and looking at the beach and the hills overlooking it a pair of horseback riders came by and galloped across the beach with the wind blowing their horses’ manes. If not for the bloodstained history of the beach it could have been a simple afternoon on a country beach. The solitude and freedom of the running horses seemed a strong contrast to the chaos and crawling approach on the same beaches 64 years ago.
We walked up from the beach to the hill and came across a network of gun emplacements, pillboxes and casemates that would have rained hell down on the beach. I couldn’t believe that anyone would have got through that, never mind throwing in barbed wire, Czech hedgehogs and antitank and antipersonnel mines. We stood in awe at the thought and were glad that the young men of the US army DID get through. There were memorials to the different divisions that attacked that day on that beach and a reconnaissance map of how the German guns were laid out. Very interesting.
Above the beach on the very hills that were so well entrenched by the Germans is the American Military Cemetery. The cemetery is huge. It has to be to hold almost 10,000 dead. Most of the soldiers lost their lives in the D-Day landings or in the battles that ensued. The cemetery also has a semicircular "Walls of the Missing" on which are the names of the 1500+ soldiers that were never found.
The cemetery is also a popular "tourist" destination and there were 3 busloads of School Teens running, laughing and shouting at each other. This detracted from the feel somewhat but once you walked far enough down the very path between the columns of graves you got to the quieter end. There were many "known unto God" soldiers and it hurt to know that a parent out there never knew what became of their child or had that closure that we all need when dealing with death. The sheer volume of grave markers overwhelmed you and it was easy to have the individual names. I forced myself to read the names and the dates one by one to help remember that it wasn’t about companies, platoons, divisions etc. It was about individuals. Scared, young individuals that were killed fighting for the freedom we all enjoy today.
It was already 1800 by the time we finished at the cemetery. The visitor office had closed. We still had three more sites to see before our tour was over. It was going to be a long day. Lunch? We had some bread, cheese and water back at Juno Beach but that seemed a long time ago.
Our next destination was the first town liberated by the Allies on D-Day. It also happened to be WAY out of the way from the rest of the beaches but the treatment it got in "The Longest Day" had me wanting to get out to see the town. We drove and drove down the highway over to Sainte-Mère-Église. It was a bustling little town and very touristy. Seems they really market their role in the D-Day invasion. Well, we were a bit disappointed but stopped at the church and shot a few pictures of the paratrooper dummy hanging from the church like John Steele did during the heavy fighting of June 5/6. The cool thing was that the stained glass windows (all of course new since the fighting had destroyed them) had scenes from the WWII battle. One window depicts the Virgin Mary with Paratroopers landing around her. Another a night with the symbols of the 101st Airborne incorporated into it. Well done.
It was getting late, and we’d been driving around now for about 10 hours. We had two more sites that we HAD to visit so we drove back down the highway that we came and headed our way to GrandCamp-Maisy, home of Pointe du Hoc.
We got to Pointe du Hoc at around 1930. The visitor centre had closed at 1900 so the place was deserted other than maybe one other car. That was fine for us. We just wanted to see the area. We read the plaque explaining the Rangers’ mission to scale the cliffs and take out the guns. It must have been quite a surprise to get through all the fighting and find that the guns weren’t even there.
About 100 yards down the path, the open field of Pointe du Hoc opened up and you could see the place looked like it had been put through a blender. It was as if a giant had walked through a freshly poured concrete sidewalk before it hardened. There were craters that were 30 feet in diameter and 15 feet deep. Many of them just flowed one into the other. Where the casemates were there were blocks of broken concrete. I could almost imagine the area after the enemy bombardment – muddy, giant holes, and twisted steel and concrete. Despite all this, the casualties had been relatively low for the Germans and they were able to mount a strong defence against the Rangers with small arms. You could walk around the point and feel the size of the craters by walking down into them and looking up. You could really feel that even if you didn’t get killed by an exploding bomb or shell, the 5 tonnes of earth that was displaced would likely have done it to you. Nothing like dying from a rock flying through you 😦
The walk was very interesting. Mrs D rated as the most interesting part of the day.
At this point it was pretty late but I wasn’t going to go home until we’d visited the German cemetery at La Cambe. When we got there it was already 2000. The place was definitely closed. There were no other visitors other than ourselves and the sun was beginning to get that golden glow. We wandered throughout the cemetery. The graves were all marked with flat grave makers instead of stand up crosses. It made it hard to grasp the size of the cemetery. A little Googling brought up the fact that there were 21400 graves there. More than two times the number of the American cemetery but it was a smaller area, and the monuments were less grandiose. I felt that these soldiers got the raw deal. They had fought just as valiantly, they had fought for their comrades and helped and had no doubt been heroic in their attempted defence of the coast. They obviously got nowhere near the visitors that the American cemetery did, having only space for parking 2 busses and maybe 40 cars. compared to the room for 10+ and a few hundred cars at the American cemetery. Probably because of the setting sun and all, but I got the feeling that these soldiers had been forgotten. I spent a while reflecting and saying a prayer for them, knowing that before God they were every bit the soldier that the ones that got all the visitors were. Monuments in the cemetery talked of peace and building bridges. A contrast to Monuments in the Allied cemeteries talking of valour and courage. It sucks to be the loser. History and perspective is all from the winner’s point of view.
We headed back to our hotel. At 2100 we stopped at Bayeux and had McDonalds. We needed a quick meal and I wasn’t about to figure out where decent food was in town. I still felt cheated at the price of the McChicken combo 😦
While our 12 hour odyssey was long and tiring, I felt it was an important trip to make to learn and understand the very things that shape our world today. I thanked God for all the brave soldiers that fought to free France and Europe, and I hoped for salvation of those that fought to defend it. I reflected and realized that the reasons why we as Canadians fought in Europe are similar to the reasons we as Canadians are now fighting in Afghanistan – to keep a harmful radical ideology from spreading across the world. I only hope we succeed now as well.
Say a prayer for our soldiers. Say a prayer for peace.