The 70th Anniversary of the D Day landings are rightly attracting a lot of media interest and it is predicted that 2014 will be the last time the surviving veterans will return to their old battlefields en masse to remember those momentous events that commenced in June 1944 and led directly to the liberation of occupied Europe.
I, with a couple of friends, had the honour to visit these same battlefields in the Spring of 2012. Our trip was made all the more informative by being guided by a retired British ex Para Officer, who was able to take us to the key locations and give us some in depth background to the strategy behind Operation Overlord, which was to become the largest amphibious invasion in history.
Most, with even a modest interest in WWII history, will know the code names of the Normandy landing beaches - Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Some will be familiar with the strategic importance of capturing intact the bridges over the Caen Canal and the River Orne, a task assigned to the British 6th Airborne Division. Café Gondrée is cited as the first house in France to be liberated and it is still owned by the same family today. In the nearby museum the amazing skills of the Glider Pilot regiment are highlighted, and to see the bullet scarred Para helmet worn by Major John Howard is something close to viewing the Holy Grail!
On the landing beaches themselves, little has changed over the last 70 years and it is possible to get an idea of what the allied troops had to face in terms of beach defences. Not only natural obstacles, but also Hitler's Atlantic Wall that had escaped much of the bombing campaign designed to obliterate it. The superb Mémorial de Caen Museum does much to build on the experience of visiting the battlefields and should not be missed. The Normandy American Cemetery, as featured in "Saving Private Ryan", contains 9,387 graves of young US service personnel and was perhaps the most sobering yet impressive place we visited in what was a very memorable trip.
Other highlights were the landing beaches themselves and in particular the visit to "Bloody Omaha" brought home the situation faced by the US 1st Army lead by Colonel Bradley. The German beach defences, including the "Dragons teeth" built at the instigation of Rommel, were largely intact due to errors in aerial bombing, as were the heavy defences on the steep bluffs above. The armour in the form of DD "swimming tanks" were launched too far out and were lost, whilst many landing craft were swept away by the strong currents. Sadly, over 2,400 US personnel were lost at Omaha although finally their objectives were taken and in total 34,000 troops had been successfully landed here by the end of D-Day. The beach at Arromanches, code named Gold, was in the British sector and the main assault unit was the 50th Infantry Division. The Brits had more luck than their US cousins as HMS Ajax had taken out the observation post guiding the heavy guns defending the beach and they were effectively blinded. As a result by the end of the day the 50th Infantry Division had landed 25,000 men with the loss of 400 casualties. Arromanches was the site selected for the artificial "Mulberry Harbours" which were operational for 10 months. In that time this harbour landed 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of goods and provided a critical lifeline into Europe long after D Day itself. Many of the huge concrete caissons remain to this day as a reminder of a superb feat of engineering achieved in
constructing ,in less than two weeks, a landing site that became known as "Port Winston".
It was on Gold Beach that Company Sergeant Major Stanley Elton Hollis landed. He subsequently won the only VC awarded on D Day - he took out a commanding German pill box single handed without regard for his own safety.
The above comments are not intended as a full feature but just a reflection on memories taken away after a personal trip of two years ago. If the opportunity allows and you have not visited the area yourself, I would encourage you to plan a similar trip. To whet your appetite we attach here a slideshow, in no particular order, of my own photographs featuring some of my personal highlights and which hopefully capture a little of the atmosphere and give a glimpse of the sort of experience that can be expected.
Click for the Slideshow
Where did we stay?
During our stay we were recommended by one of our French friends to stay at "Les Divettes" perfectly located at Sainte Honorine des Pertes, so ideally situated for a battlefield tour.
The owners, Marie and Franҫois Mathy, were superb hosts with Franҫois having both an interest in and knowledge of many aspects of D Day. We very much enjoyed a "home from home" experience and in the evening sat "en famille" in their lovely home ( which dates from 1757) enjoying local Calvados and stories from 70 years ago . Marie is also no slouch in the kitchen!
Our host and hostess with the added extra of speaking English!