As previously mentioned I went to Normandy in France to see the historic sites associated with the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944 to free the world of Nazi tyranny.
On the fist day we visited strategically important Pegasus Bridge the site of the first action when British commandos landed gliders and surprised the German defenders to captured the bridge with few casualties. Later we visited the Merville Battery where allied paratroopers attacked a heavily defended German artillery position encased in concrete and surrounded by machine guns, barbed wire and land mines. Expecting to have over 700 paratroopers for the assault the allied colonel in charge found he had only 150 men and none of the heavy equipment he needed. Knowing that the battery could fire directly onto the landing beaches causing massive loss of life they charged the battery anyway eventually routing out the last of the defenders with brutal hand to had combat. When the guns fell silent only 6 Germans were still unscathed from 130 and 65 allied soldiers were dead. The story of D-day is a lot like the attack on the Merville Battery. The chaos of the night time glider and parachute landing meant that Allied troops were badly scattered and often had to improvise and attack with who and what they had to hand. The Germans didn’t realise that this was the the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany defended bravely and both side suffered huge loss of life.
During the weekend we visited the Ranville War Cemetery and Ranville Churchyard, Bayer Cemetery, Normandy American Cemetery and the German Military Cemetery which combined contained tens of thousands of graves of young soldiers who fought and died in Normandy. The cemeteries are very well looked after and very moving especially when you consider how young they all were. One thing that surprised me was the number of allied veterans who visited the German Military Cemetery to pay respects to the young German men who had died trying to kill the allied veterans.
Our coach had six veterans on it. One from the Gulf War, one from the Korean War and four from the war against the Nazis in Europe. One of our veterans even got an OBE from the King for charging all over Europe shooting people with nothing more that a camera and a few spare rolls of film. Shortly after D-day he had to dive into a bomb crater with some other soldiers to escape a German fighter strafing the beach. When the danger had passed he got up and said “well that was close chaps” before he realised everyone else in the crater was dead. Another veteran I met at Arromanche called Dick was shot twice in the back while retreating from a German counter-attack in North Africa. A retreating Maori soldier picked him up and carried him to safety. He only found out what had happened weeks later when he woke up in hospital. He never met the man who saved him and he didn’t even learn his name. The more you talk to the vets and the more you hear their stories the more you realise that war is a complete lottery for all involved.
During the weekend we also visited Sword Beach where the Brits came ashore against relatively light defences and advanced inland several kilometres. Next we visited Gold beach where defences were stiffer and finally Omaha beach where the American 1st and 29th infantry divisions were cut to pieces by veteran Germans defending inhospitable terrain. The official record stated that “within 10 minutes of the ramps being lowered, [the leading] company had become inert, leaderless and almost incapable of action. Every officer and sergeant had been killed or wounded [...] It had become a struggle for survival and rescue”. Looking at the narrow gulley that the Americans fought their way up it’s hard to imagine how any survived.
On Saturday we tried to visit the Arromanche museum but it was close because of visiting dignitaries. Two hours later of standing in the rain with hundreds of veterans who were mostly over 83 years old and Prime Minister Gordon Brown turned up to rapturous booing from the British in the Crowd. The booing was so
much fun loud it made international news.
I have followed politics in NZ and England since I was a teenager and never before have I seen a politician unite the public against themselves so effectively. Several times during the weekend random people I was chatting to raise the subject of how much they disliked Gordon Brown. And I wasn’t even wearing my “I hate Gordon Brown” t-shirt :)
Heading home after a thoroughly enjoyable politician booing we realised that our coach was one veteran short. Two hours later we had finally tracked him down. Can I just say that there can be few harder places to find a white haired old veteran in a blue blazer with loads of medals on the front than at a Normandy beach on the anniversary of D-day. It was like a really hard version of Where’s Veteran Wally.
Overall the weekend was excellent an my coach full of oldies were excellent value. I might go back one day when it isn’t so crowded and I have more time to wander around the sites.