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Thursday, 28 April 2011

Normandy 2011 - Day Eight 2nd April

The journey home.

After a quick tidy round (which proved to be insufficient to the owners!) we headed off for Calais. Once again we used the toll roads which cost us €20 per car.  We planned to stop off at La Coupole near to St Omer, a wartime V2 Launch Bunker, now a museum.
La Coupole
It did not disappoint, despite the €9 entrance charge. It was recommended that we needed at least 2.5 hours to look around it properly, but we had a little over 1hr to spare before we needed to head on to Calais to catch our ferry.
Greg, Dave, James & Bruce on their way to the entrance tunnel.
You start your tour at the bottom level of a quarry, entering tunnels cut into the mountainside by slave labourers 70 years ago. Tunnels off to each side contain displays telling the story of the build up to war, but we had to press on.
Bruce & Dave now deep inside the mountain
At the end of the tunnel a modern lift takes you up into the dome. Here you learn a mixture of how the Germans developed liquid fuel rockets (and the Vengeance weapons in particular) as well as how they did all this using slave labour and foreign nationals.
Highly detailed model showing how the site was intended to be used. Look at the scale thickness of the dome (5m thick)
The displays were modern and thought provoking, though sadly you are not permitted outside to view the giant concrete dome close up.
Dave examines a preserved V2 rocket motor
Thankfully, Ultra intercepts alerted the allies to what was going on here and a raid by 617 Sqn. (Dambusters) using 12,000lb Tallboy bombs, undermined the dome and knocked it out of alignment so it could no longer be used as a V2 Launching site.
Some of those who suffered in the construction of La Coupole
Finally after our hour visit we were off to catch the 15:40 ferry home. Another year over, another battlefield visited and better understood. Now to start planning for next year...............

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Normandy 2011 - Day Seven 1st April

Early start this morning as we are driving South to Bayeux. First stop the Bayeux CWGC Cemetery and the Memorial to the Missing.
Bayeaux CWGC Cemetery - 4,144 Allied Soldiers + 505 Germans
The largest British WW2 Cemetery in France, we took in Cpl. Stanley Bates VC's grave before marvelling at the largest collection of German burials we've ever seen within an allied cemetery.
Cpl. Sidney Bates VC - mortally wounded driving off a German attack single handed on 6th August 1944

One of many unidentified German soldiers in Bayeux Cemetery
Across the road the Memorial to the Missing listed 5 Hereford Regt. soldiers with no known graves amongst the others.
The enscription reads "Nos a Gulielmo victi victoris patriam liberavimus" which translates to "We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror's native land"
The missing of the Hereford Regiment amongst 1,800 names of those with no known grave.
Next door to the memorial was the Bayeux War Museum. In the grounds was a stone commemorating Robert Capa the photographer responsible for the dramatic action shots taken in the opening  moments on Omaha Beach.
Also in the grounds were a Churchill Crocodile (less its armoured trailer), an M10 Tank Destroyer, an M4 Sherman and a German Hetzer Tank Destroyer.
Churchill Crocodile Flame Thrower Tank
M4 Sherman
Rather tired looking Hetzer Tank Destroyer
Roland was back on form once more persuading 7 Scousers to join us as a "party" and getting the entry fee reduced from 7€ to 4.50€!!! This museum covered the entire Normandy campaign from D-Day to the German defeat at Falaise. Very good and well worth the visit.
Bayeux is a beautiful medieval town well worth the trip
Afterwards we take a walk around the town and have a Kebab for lunch before visiting the Bayeux Tapestry ..... Fascinating.
Some of the team - (left to right) Roland, James, Bruce & Dave
The temperature was now around 18'c so we spent the rest of the afternoon drinking Coffee and watching the world go by. Once we'd all finished we decided to venture out to Villers-Bocage about 15km south of Bayeux.
Wittmann's Troop of 4 serviceable Tiger I Tanks were harboured here unbeknown to the advance column of the CLY who had pulled up on the road behind the far trees on Hill 213. Wittmann took his tank and crashed through the hedge onto the road and began his rampage, whilst the remaining Tigers made themselves ready for combat.
Here we were able to retrace Michael Wittmann's famous attack on the 7th City of London Yeomanry (CLY) on Hill 213.
After Wittmann had shot up the HQ section of the CLY column, he charged down Hill 213 into the town of Villers-Bocage destroying any AFVs in his path. At the far side of the town he turned about and came back through, only to be knocked out by a 6pdr Anti-tank gun team he'd missed. He and his crew evaded capture and rejoined their unit only to die in combat in early August 1944.
Afterwards we stopped at the Jerusalem CWGC, which is Normandy's smallest cemetery with only 48 graves. The youngest soldier killed (Pte. Banks) aged only 16 is buried here.
Jerusalem CWGC Cemetery near Tilly-sur-Seulle
For our final meal we decide to dine out on the harbour front on Port en Bessin. Going to be an early start tomorrow to get back to Calais.

Normandy 2011 - Day Six 31st March

Our mop up day started in Arromanches with a trip around the Mulberry Harbour museum. Sadly Roland was unable to negotiate down the 7€ entry fee which was a shame as this was probably the least interesting of all the museums we visited never quite living up to its promise. It did, however explain how the harbour was built and worked which was good to know.
One side of the room was filled with cabinets containing detailed 1:43 scale models of the various aspects of the Mulberry Harbour. This did a grand job of illustrating how it was built and functioned.
After a bite of lunch and yet more tramp wine, the tide was out far enough to allow us to walk out to examine the abandoned piers close up.

We were all surprised to see how much of Mulberry B still remains to this day. Up close these bits are really impressive!
Then on along the beach road towards Ouistreham.
Taken from the cliffs overlooking Arromanches, Juno Beach with Ouistreham and Sword Beach in the centre distance
At Ver-sur-Mer we deviated to go and see the Green Howards memorial statue at Crepon. Here we learnt the story of Company Sgt Major Stan Hollis who won the VC on D-Day. He was a real boys own hero in the Captain Hurricane mould and is now my new hero!!
The Green Howards Memorial in Crepon. Believed to be based on CSM Stan Hollis' likeness.
On our way back to the main road we stopped at the Mont Fleury battery. It was a machine gun armed pill box protecting the battery (that had been missed by the forward companies of the Green Howards) which Stan assaulted single handed armed just with his Sten Gun and No.36 Grenades!!
Two of the four bunkers of the Mont Fleury battery were unique in that they were unfinished. The inner and outer faced Walls were complete just awaiting the reinforced concrete to be poured in between.
Back on the main road we drove along Gold, Juno and Sword beaches until we found the Grand Bunker in Ouistreham.
This six storey observation bunker is crammed with German equipment and weapons. On D-Day it was bypassed by Royal Marines and the 50 man garrison finally surrendered after Royal Engineers blew in the armoured door on 9th June!
Outside there was an 88mm Anti-tank gun, a V1 flying bomb, various armoured vehicles and the landing craft used in film Saving Private Ryan!
The LCA restored for Saving Private Ryan.
Very good and well worth the 7€ entry fee even though Roland couldn't work his magic!
M7 Priest recovered from the seabed off Omaha Beach in 1982 together with a V1 Flying Bomb.
Back along the beaches we stopped at various points to admire bunkers and other defences until we reached Courseulles and stopped for a coffee and a look at a DD Sherman before going home for the final "Come Dine With Me".
Another genuine D-Day veteran a real DD (Duplex Drive) Amphibious Tank. Now part of a display on the seafront at Courseeulles close to where Gen Charles de Gaulle finally returned to French soil.

Normandy 2011 - Day Five 30th March

Down to the Super U for the usual lunch supplies - Brie, French stick, spicy sausage and tramp wine! Mmmmm..........

Then off to Bloody Omaha!
Omaha Beach from the US Cemetery. This path leads down to the Wn64 & Wn65 Strongpoints. (a bit too steep for me!)

We started with the US Cemetery which didn't disappoint. Firstly we had to get through airport style security to get in (guess who's leg brace set the bloody thing off ?). A good display in the visitor's centre before we went outside to take a look around.
The immaculately laid out rows of crosses.
The Spirit of American Youth statue overlooks the neat lines of marble crosses - 9,000+ in all.
The Spirit of American Youth

We sought out 4 of significance -
- General Theodore Roosevelt Jr.  who won his Medal of honor for outstanding leadership on Utah Beach on the 6th June 1944 only to die aged 57 of a heart attack on 12 July 1944.
- the Niland brothers who's story formed the background for Saving Private Ryan. Their mother received telegrams on the same day to say two of her sons were dead and another one missing in action in the Pacific. On the back of this the remaining son was withdrawn from combat operations in Normandy and returned home. The missing brother survived to return home too.
- General Lesley McNair. Killed by friendly bombs near St. Lo whilst on a fact finding trip to the front. His death was kept totally secret as he was actually supposed to be on Kent having taken over command from Patton of the fictional army about to invade at the Pas de Calais! He was buried in the dead of night, his funeral attended by Bradley and Patton - the latter believed he was attending a dinner party with Bradley.
Preston & Robert Niland
We then went down onto Omaha Beach at the Colleville Draw exit and thoroughly explored strongpoint Wn62 (Mmmmmm........) which included remote flame throwers and a very deep anti tank ditch amongst it's substantial defences.
Wn62 defended the western side of the Colleville Draw beach exit facing Fox Green Beach. This was the beach that was portrayed being assaulted in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. The site has numerous concrete defences ranging from simple Tobruks for mgs and 50mm mortars, through 50mm Anti-tank pits to covered casemates mounting 75mm field guns.
WN 62 held out all day until 14:00hrs when the remains of the 22 strong garrison finally withdrew.
One of the two 75mm casemates. Sited to fire along the beach, Westwards, the opening for the gun is protected from Seaward fire by the concrete projection seen in the picture. The Anti-tank ditch can still be seen running left to right immediately in front of the parked cars. At the extreme right of the picture the ditch turns to the right protecting the strongpoints Eastern flank. At the point where it bends there was sited a remote controlled flame thrower!
Then it started to rain so we got back in the car and drove on to the Omaha Beach Museum to have our picnic lunch.
This time a far more original M4 Sherman (an actual D-Day veteran) displayed outside the museum.
Still raining after lunch we decided to have a look around the museum and Roland worked his magic for the fourth time and negotiated a group discount once again!!
A Landing craft actually inside the museum building! Also a good selection (inside and out) of beach obstacles.

Not a bad museum. Small but well stocked and with a very watchable 20 min film. After which the rain had eased so we set off along Omaha to Pointe du Hoc.

The view from the recently re-opened observation bunker on the tip of Pointe du Hoc. This bunker had been closed for a number of years as there was fear that the cliff face was about to collapse. Now it has been underpinned and allows unparallelled views of the beach and the cliff up which the US Rangers assaulted.
Pointe du Hoc .......... WoW!! The area is a vast moonscape created by tons of allied heavy bombs. The many concrete bunkers are simply smashed completely to shit.
A taste of the devastation that is in evidence everywhere throughout the site. In the distance is an observation platform built on top of one of the covered casemates.

Fascinating and spooky at the same time. Sadly it rained all the time we were there so after an hour and a half we were soaked through.
One of the casemates found to be empty when the Rangers finally captured the position.
After we drove past where the guns from Pointe du Hoc were actually hidden on our way to La Cambe German Military Cemetery.
The central mound with sculpture representing mourning parents. La Cambe was originally one of three US cemeteries. It was handed over to the German government in the mid 1950's

Here we found out the graves of Panzer Ace Michael Wittmann and his 4 man tank crew. They were interred here as recently as 1983 when their remains were discovered during a road widening scheme.
Wittmann and his crew's graves
Afterwards we returned home along the beach front road, stopping briefly to examine the outside exhibits at the Omaha Museum (which was closed until the main holiday season) including two landing craft, Rapier Aero engine, various beach obstacles and an 88mm Anti-tank gun. This looked to be a museum in the "Shabby Chic" style so beloved by the French. However if the quality of the outside exhibits was anything to go by, it would be worth a visit another time.
75mm gun, road wheel and length of track from a Panther Tank.
Finally Greg and I created an awesome three course dinner for our fellow travellers consisting of - oxtail soup, lasagne and chips and Greg's "Famous Omaha" pancakes!!

Normandy 2011 - Day Four 29th March

We're obviously overdoing it! A much later start today, after our daily trip to Super U for rations, it was off to Ste. Mere Eglise

On the way we drove along the coast road, past the access to Omaha Beach, the US Cemetery and Pointe du Hoc.

The town square today contains flower beds and seats facing the Cathedral. On the night of 5th June it was alive with American paras landing, Germans trying to shoot them and locals fighting a fire that was on the site of the present Airborne museum. There is a dress makers dummy dressed in combats suspended from the Cathedral roof by his parachute to remind us of Pte Steele who found himself in this unfortunate position on that night.
Ste. Mere Eglise Cathedral. With a dummy hanging from his tatty white parachute canopy. In reality Pte Steele was caught on the opposite face of the tower (Out of view to the action taking place in the square) hence why he survived to become a POW.
As the museum decided to close for lunch (a constant theme as we travelled around - guess it is better during the main holiday season?) we headed off to Brecourt Manor and the field where Lt Dick Winters nearly won a Medal of Honor attacking 4 hidden artillery pieces threatening Utah beach. This action has become famous through the second episode of the TV mini-series Band of Brothers.
Recently place memorial to the achievements of Easy Company 501st Airborne. Naming all their casualties on D-Day (including the load of a  C47 that was shot down without survivors leading to Dick Winters taking over command of the Company) and has an etching of a hand drawn map of the action drawn by Dick Winters  & the present owner of the Manor.
 Afterwards we went down to Utah Beach ....... Taking tea at the Roosevelt Cafe.
The Internet Cafe in an old communications bunker alongside the Roosevelt Cafe.

The museum was closed for refurbishment (in fact it was totally gutted and we couldn't see it opening in time for the main holiday season!).
Utah Beach Museum....in bits
This beach exit has a large number of memorials built into and on the remains of the defending bunkers at Wn5 detracting from what the site must have looked like in 1944. This part of the beach was of course, not the planned landing spot. Used in error it was found to be less well defended so the rest of the landings took place here instead of further North as planned.
Utah beach is large, windswept and the sand dunes are transient. Here a bunker has almost been reclaimed by nature.

Just a little way along the beach we found Strongpoint Wn8 abandoned amongst the sand dunes, which I have to say was absolutely fascinating to explore. This strongpoint should have met the planned assault landings, but by a quirk of fate it had been missed. This may explain the overall lack of damage as it was largely bypassed and could have been assaulted from inland at the attackers leisure.
Wn8's command bunker with its own Tobruk mg. mount for local defence (Where Greg is stood on top). This strongpoint covered an area about 200m wide x 100m deep and numbered at least 10 concrete bunkers. Connecting the bunkers you could still make out the zig-zag communication trenches. The main offensive capability was the standard 50mm Anti-tank gun in  open octagonal pits and open Tobruks armed with mgs. In evidence here are most of the team - (left to right) Roland, James, Phil, Chris and (on top), Greg.

A little further on was a well worn example of a M4 Sherman at Exit 4 where Free French General LeClerc landed later on 6th June.
An interesting vehicle. Close examination reveals that it has been assembled from a number of different vehicles. It has examples of every type of bogie wheel imaginable! There used to also be a M8 Armoured Car and a M3 Half Track here, but they are gone -  hopefully to be restored?
It was now time to head back to Ste Mere Eglise in time to look around the Airborne Museum.
The museum is housed in two buildings, both designed to look like parachute canopies. The one here houses the Waco Glider. The exhibits in the other are centred around yet another preserved C47 Skytrain (Dakota).
Once again Roland worked his Magic! Negotiating the 7€ entry fee down to 4.50€!!!!
Again the usual selection of US armoured vehicles were on show. This rather impressive 76mm armed M3A4E8 would not have been used in Normandy as the HVSS suspension equipped Shermans didn't enter service until December 1944.
What a museum! This has to be the very best collection of US and German small arms I've ever seen + they had a real life Waco glider! Amazing and thoroughly recommended.
The C47 was surrounded by dressed mannequins portraying the preparations back in the UK prior to setting off for Normandy on the night of the 5/6th June 1944.
Finally back to the Gite for Roland and Bruce's "Come Dine with me" experience!!