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Archive for the ‘D-Day’ Category

We should remember them.

In an age when you ask children what they think the word ‘heroes’ means, and they answer ‘Beckham’, or ‘Christina Aguilera’, or Beyoncé’, it’s important to remember true heroes. Men & women, often not much older than the kids who idolise the pre-mentioned celebrities; men & women who gave everything to protect, and ensure the survival of democracy. I took my own kids to Normandy a few years ago when we were on holiday in France. It was something I’d wanted to see for myself with a passion for many years. All my kids wanted to do was stay in the pool with their new-found friends on the campsite, or visit some money-spinning theme park. I wanted them to gain a sense of perspective. So, I took them to Pegasus Bridge, and to the war graves at Ranville. It’s not a massive war grave by Omaha standards, but it’s a vivid reminder of the massive loss of life here just a couple of generations ago.

Graves there are often marked not just with names, ranks, regiments and of course, the date of death; but also with the age of the soldier/sailor/airman. Our eldest, then 17 was visibly shocked to see many were the same age as he. He was more shocked when I explained that many of these lads had also lied about their ages to be able to enlist. So, when these kids were killed in battle, they were already battle-hardened young men. Warriors.

When I returned this June to the D-Day landings sites in Normandy, I came back to Omaha. The beach there is just stunning. It makes it even harder to imagine the carnage, the slaughter, the blood-bath that happened here on June 6th, 1944.

Omaha Beach. June 2010

Omaha is vast, it’s beautiful under a blue sky with the temperatures in the mid-twenties. There are families enjoying the sunshine, children laughing and playing in the small surf by the waters edge. They have no concept of what colour the sea was on that morning. They have no idea of the terror, the destruction brought about by man on this very beach.

But some do. Like the old man, bent to one knee, his wife holding him tenderly by the elbow as he knelt to fill a small capsule with sand from ‘Bloody Omaha’. He raised himself once more to his full height, and wandered off amid the laughing children, the young battlefield guides, recounting the events to small groups of people. He knelt once more, close enough to me this time to see the veteran’s cap he wore, and the tears in his eyes as he poured sand into the container. Grains at a time, falling from his shaking, elderly hands.

This is why we should remember them.

The Pointe du Hoc is a spit of land jutting out from France, like a finger, pointing the way to England from the invasion beaches. It was the scene of a bloody battle in June 1944. Heavily defended, it had the advantage of looking down, left and right, on both Utah and Omaha beaches, with the capability of reigning down a heavy barrage, using captured French 155mm heavy guns, an enfilade of fire that threatened the invasion. It fell to the men of the US 2nd Ranger Battalion to silence these guns. To do so, they had to reach the shore by landing craft, already soaked to the skin from the spray of a rough, stormy sea. Then they had to scramble to the rocky shore, weighed down by equipment, including ladders ‘borrowed’ from the London Fire Brigade. They fired grapnel hooks attached to rockets, and they climbed the sheer cliffs while the defending Germans machine gunned them, or threw grenades, or pushed the ladders away from the cliffside, and back into the sea.

The enormous gun emplacements at Pointe du Hoc

The Rangers took Pointe du Hoc, and then defended it against viscious counter-attacks for two days before reinforcements arrived. Of the initial force of around 225 men, only 90 effective fighting men remained.

This is why we should remember them.

From the Pointe du Hoc, it’s a short drive to the memorial centre at Omaha. Back where we started. Here lie thousands of men killed in battle. Not just on D-Day, but in the ensuing battle for Normandy over the next weeks and months. It’s here though that the scale of the Invasion, and its losses, hits the hardest. Cross after cross after cross. White marble stretching almost as far as the eye can see. Interspersed with Stars of David, this is where every school party should come to visit.

Omaha, from the beach to the war graves.

Remembering the brave

Omaha.

It’s heavy on emotion, visiting Normandy. It can drain you, thrill you, excite you and sadden you beyond belief. Man’s inhumanity to man is nowhere more evident than when you’re stood overlooking the most gorgeous beach you’ve ever seen, on a warm summer’s day, surrounded by nine thousand white crosses, gleaming in the afternoon sun. But each and every one of us, enjoying the lives and the freedoms that we do in the western world, should make the trip at least once. We owe it to the fallen, and we owe it to those that survived, everyone should take the hand of those old gentlemen, and thank them. It’s the very least we can do after what they did for us.

They remember them

Of course, as is the way with history, it becomes exactly that with the passage of time. We’ve seen it happen recently with the First World War. The remaining elderly, frail old men pass away and with their passing goes the living memory. All too soon, it will happen with the events of 1939 – 1945. We should remember them.

Do not call me hero,
When you see the medals that I wear,
Medals maketh not the hero,
They just prove that I was there.

Do not call me hero,
Now that I am old and grey,
I left a lad, returned a man,
They stole my youth that day.

Do not call me hero,
When we ran the wall of hail,
The blood, the fears, the cries, the tears
We left them where they fell.

Do not call me hero,
Each night I stop and pray,
For all the friends I knew and lost,
I survived my longest day.

Do not call me hero,
In the years that pass,
For all the real true heroes,
Have crosses, lined up on the grass.

Rob Aitchison

‘WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar’

We shall remember them.

Until the next time, au revoir!

TBC

All content © Le Chant d’Oiseau, 2006-2010

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We will remember them….

After the parachute drop at La Fière, I walked back to the car, and after a wait of around an hour to get off the field and back into Ste. Mère, I headed for Utah, the closest landings beach. Here again, the roads were full of WW2 jeeps, lorries and trucks. An amazing sight on these narrow French country lanes. The very same lanes that quite possibly saw some of these same vehicles all that time ago.

Utah was crowded with people. There were quite a few old soldiers there too, as there were all over Normandy this weekend, here to pay tribute to their fallen comrades, their brothers in arms. One such guy saw me sitting at a table in the café there, having a quiet beer, and spoke a few words in passing. Realising I was English, he had a short chat with me. Joking about his small stature, he blamed it on too many parachute drops, compacting him more & more each time. That he could joke about it was testament to the old soldier’s inner strength, or a softening of the memories as time had passed? I asked if any help was available to bring these brave men back to Normandy each year, from the UK government. Last year, explained his companion, a much younger man, there was a lottery grant given, but this year they were refused. No, the UK government won’t give any help, he said.

There can’t be many men left like this old guy, 87 years old and his last visit to Normandy. He won’t be back. He said so himself. They could barely afford the £900 it cost for them both for the weekend. To think that this man, and many more like him fought for the very freedoms we take for granted, and they’re given little in return. I got the distinct feeling from chatting to a few of these survivors, that this is their therapy. Returning to these beaches, these villages and towns is a big part of their coping mechanism. To deny them that, while at the same time spending untold millions on weapons is just wrong, surely?

I drained the last of my beer after shaking the hand of someone who was once a proud soldier, and is now a proud veteran, and wandered off to have a quiet moment or two on the beach.

Back in the car, I drove in the direction of Ste. Marie du Mont, another of the small villages that dot this farming landscape. The church here is famous for having hosted a mass for the liberating forces on the first sunday after the landings took place. I wanted to see it, and to take a picture from the exact same spot as the more famous one from 66 years ago.

The first mass for soldiers, after D-Day was held here.

The church is impressive, rising as so many Norman churches do from the surrounding bocage. It’s the first thing you see of the village from the distance as you approach, and it’s easy to understand why so many steeples were destroyed by both the allies and the beleaguered German forces. The vantage point offered from the steeple would give an immense advantage to snipers, as well as spotters. When I turned the corner into the village, I was stunned to see that the church once more had become the focal point, with a re-enactment of scenes from D-Day and shortly after. Tents were set up on the greens, first-aid posts, ammo stores. There were more GI’s strolling around, and many people in civilian dress, 40’s style. It was like a film set.

Just as it must have been....

Good looking girls, both of them!

Good looking girls, both of them!

Even youngsters took part.

It was amazing. The number of young people taking part in all of this was heartening. People should remember the events of June 6th 1944, and realise the part it played in the freedoms we enjoy today. The only way to continue to enjoy these freedoms is to ensure the stories, the dramas, the fears are played out in scenes like these. To make these events ‘real’ in the eyes and minds of the youth of today. Schools in the UK should organise more visits to these beaches. I seem to remember history began with the Tudors, and ended with the onset of WW1, when I was at school. Chatting to others, they’ve all said pretty much the same thing, and I was stunned to learn how little some people actually know about what took place here in Normandy.

There were small reminders everywhere of what it must have been like to live in an occupied territory. There’s a small museum in the church square, dedicated to the occupation. Outside, there’s a sentry box and a notice on the wall tells the visitor that this is where all young men were to come to be told where they’d be working for the German Army of Occupation. usually this involved being sent away from their homes, to labour camps from where they’d be transported each day to work on the coastal defences. Outside the museum was an old, beaten and battered Renault of the epoch. A notice on the windshield told the reader that this car was requisitioned by the German army (indeed, it had German army plates), but was re-requisioned in the name of the FFI on June 6th, 1944.

Re-requisitioned by the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur (FFI) on June 6th, 1944

I wanted to visit the church, and to stand in the same spot where a picture was taken at a mass, the first Sunday after D-Day, in 1944. I had goosebumps as I compared my shot to the one on the wall of the church in the entrance. The only differences were the lack of GI’s that filled the place, though their ghosts remained in my mind’s eye.

Their prayers live on. With grateful thanks to the Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA

Ste. Marie du Mont. The church where GI's celebrated mass on the first Sunday after D-Day.

L'Église de Ste. Marie du Mont

From Ste. Marie du Mont, I moved on, passing jeep after jeep. Drivers and passengers happy to be here in the Normandy sunshine, so different from that day. Happy faces on the roadsides waving and cheering as they drove past. It was like the liberation of France was happening all over again. Deeply moving and sad, yet happy too.

Back in Ste. Mère Église, a fireworks display was planned for the evening, so I settled down with a beer and watched the crowds gather, dancing to the band playing on stage. Though the atmosphere was good, it seemed somewhat at odds. People in uniforms and period dress dancing to electric guitars, bass & drums. Still, the crowd was happy, though I’d have settled more for Glenn Miller than Johnny B. Goode!

The fireworks, fired against the backdrop of the super little church, with its effigy of John Steele hanging limply from his parachute, were simply fantastic. The noise, the sudden flashes and booms really did give the crowd some idea of the kind of maelstrom of light and sound, confusion and disarray that would have been apparent on June 6th 1944. Rising to a crescendo after almost 20 minutes of awe-inspiring beauty, the display came to a close, the appreciative audience cheering loudly and clapping for more.

I do hope you enjoyed this ‘blog, to keep it (hopefully) interesting for the reader, Part Three will be along soon.

Until the next time, au revoir!

TBC

All content © Le Chant d’Oiseau, 2006-2010

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We must remember them.

Living in France makes me personally far more aware of events that unfolded across Europe in the 30’s and 40’s. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but there’s something more ‘palpable’ in France, linking back to those times. It may well be the sheer volume of monuments given over to a village’s war dead. It may be the museums dedicated to the resistance, or to a village erased by murderous SS thugs. It may be that some elements of a land under the jackboot still live on.

There’s the big difference. France was occupied, while the UK and America were not. Of course, Great Britain came close to being invaded in 1940, and should it have been, then I think the same sense of something etched deep in the collective, national soul would be evident there too.

I have visited the D-Day beaches a few times now, but never at the most important time. Never on June 6th. I desperately wanted to go up last year, for the 65th Anniversary, but time constraints and business here meant that I just couldn’t. This year though, I spent a few days there and the sights and sounds I saw, heard and felt moved me deeply. I’ve always had a fascination for that era, and for this particular time frame, but seeing it vividly brought back to life like this was just way beyond anything I’d prepared myself for.

To begin with, even on the drive from home up towards Ste. Mère Eglise, the villages were full of all types of vehicles of the epoch. Drab, camouflage painted jeeps, wagons, red cross trucks all outnumbered the usual Citroens and Renaults  in places. Men, women and even children were dressed in uniforms, or in outfits in keeping, and in common back in the day. It really was like stepping back in time. In the village of Ste. Mère, wherever I looked were reminders of what this place must have been like shortly after liberation.

Ste. Mère Eglise. La Fière dropzone

The 40's came to life...

Flower Power!

Give peace a chance?

The reason I was here, at La Fière, just on the outskirts of Ste. Mère Eglise was to watch a parachute drop on the very same dropzone used by the 85th & 101st Airborne troops back in 1940. More than 500 parachutists from the UK, Canada, Germany, France and the USA were to fall from the skies and land in the fields here, just as they did on the morning of June 6th, 1944. I desperately wanted to be a part of it all. I wasn’t disappointed. First of all came a flypast by one of the original Douglas ‘Dakotas’, a C47 Skytrain.

Skytrain above La Fière

The aeroplane made a couple of low-level passes before climbing to drop altitude. As the ‘plane drew over the fields, a steady stream of young paras fell to earth. The huge crowd of onlookers fell silent. Some of the old boys shielded their aging eyes from the brightness of the blue sky as they gazed at their modern-day counterparts, in full battledress hanging beneath their green silk ‘chutes. Just as they themselves must have done 66 years before….

paras fall from the sky above La Fière.

A leap of faith.

Once the troops were safely on the ground, they collected their ‘chutes and walked through the long grass, through the now cheering, clapping crowds to stow their gear before heading back to their waiting coach and off back to base.

This however, was just the beginning. A ‘warm-up act’. What followed was possibly the most moving thing I’ve seen in a very long time. There aren’t enough of the old Skytrains left flying to be able to drop 500 troops nowadays, so modern day reinforcements were flown in. From the north,  in the direction of Cherbourg came 8 troop carrying aircraft and one by one, they flew past, their human cargo pushing themselves out of the side doors, and into thin air. On and on they came. All eight aircraft made a circuit, before returning with still more troops. In no time at all the sky was full of young paras, and the sight was jaw-dropping.

Paras again land at La Fière. 66 years on.

Because of the potential for these young soldiers to land in the Merderet river, pompiers were stationed at intervals on either side of the water. Though not deep, it would be as difficult now, as it must have been then, for a soldier, wrapped in a ‘chute to free himself before drowning. Thankfully, all troops landed safely. No-one got wet.

Just as it must have been in '44.

Again, some of these troops had quite a walk back to their unit HQ, to stow their gear. The crowds parted respectfully, and the young soldiers smiled, and looked embarrassed as they were cheered, slapped on their backs and applauded as they made their way back through the appreciative audience. I’ll certainly never forget the looks on their flushed faces.

When the last para’s feet had touched the ground, and the crowds were steadily making a move back to the car parks, a gathering roar of aero engines could be heard. The aircraft were coming in low for one last fly-past. At little over roof height, and at somewhere close to full throttle, the pilots waved at the crowds with their wings. A truly awe-inspiring end to what had been a memorable and fitting tribute to the events and the men involved in June 6th 1944. I waved, unable to get to my camera in time and the ‘planes waved back. To me, and everyone else.

Part Two of my D-Day remembrance ‘blog coming soon.

Until the next time, au revoir!

TBC

All content © Le Chant d’Oiseau, 2006-2010

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