Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Normandy - Part II

Day 2: The American Beaches

Omaha Beach

It was a heavily overcast morning of drizzly rain when we were ushered out of the hotel far too early, after a few hours sleep and a rushed breakfast. We had a very full itinerary ahead of us, to get round the American beaches and museums and make it back in time so that the coach driver would get enough sleep to be able to drive legally on french roads tomorrow. Missing the ferry would not be an option!

The Omaha Beach cemetery was our first port of call and we arrived there so early that they hadn't had time to raise both flags. The Omaha cemetery is an extremely impressive site.
Omaha Beach cemetery: the reflecting pool viewed from the main war memorial at 0600 hours
The rows of graves, identical white marble and immaculately kept, give a true sense of the scale of the conflict to anyone who visits. It is extremely moving. 

Crosses in the cemetery
Remember the start of Saving Private Ryan? The grave used in the film for that of (the fictitious) Captain Miller (aka Tom Hanks) is the one in the foreground. All the gravestones are named, but this photo  shows them from the rear. And this is exactly what they did for that scene in the film, as they didn't want to cause offense by the name of anyone who was actually buried there to be visible on screen.
View towards the beach
The cemetery was constructed at the top of the bluffs behind the beach above what was Easy Red Sector, assaulted by the US 1st Infantry Division. The whole of the length of Omaha was heavily defended by the Germans on D-Day, and the terrain would have made it all the more difficult to assault. This is very clear to see why when you look towards the sea from this vantage point.

The museum (the Normandy American Visitor Centre) in the cemetery is small but very informative, and is as much a memorial to the fallen as a museum. It tells some interesting stories, including that of the Niland brothers, who were a major part of the inspiration for Saving Private Ryan.

The Niland brothers
Mrs Niland had four sons who served in the US armed forces in World War II. In summer 1944 she received three telegrams within a few days, informing her on the deaths of her sons Robert (82nd Airborne, somewhere in Normandy) and Preston (4th Infantry Division, near Utah Beach), and news that a third brother, Eddie, was reported missing in the Pacific. The fourth brother, Fritz, was sent back to the US. Fortunately Eddie also survived and was rescued later in the war from a Japanese POW camp.

Near the cemetery is the Omaha D-Day Museum. This is a very impressive place with a lot of interesting things to see and some pretty good static exhibits.

US infantry making use of a captured Kettenkrad
M3 halftrack on the beach
A Higgins boat
Hanomag SdKfz 251C halftrack
Go round the corner and you come face to face with a Panzer IV
German pioneers with a BMW, kubelwagen, and SdKfz 251/7
There were also a Borgward and a Maultier, both of which I have never seen before, but both of which were in places that made them very difficult to photograph! Outside the museum there were a few more vehicles worth a look.

Sexton self-propelled gun
M10 tank destroyer
M1A3 Sherman 76mm
From here we drove down to the beach itself, at the E-1 draw. This is in Easy Red Sector, below and to the west of the cemetery.

Easy Red Sector, Omaha Beach
The E-1 draw, a narrow road leading to the east side of the village of St Laurent-sur-Mer, was the position of a defensive strongpoint (Wiederstandnest) WN65, and close to WN64 a hundred yards or so to the east. The defences here comprised two concrete casemates with 50mm guns, a 75mm gun in an open pit, a 20mm flak nest and numerous machine gun positions and mortar pits. The whole area was laid with barbed wire which was mined in places, and the beach itself was strewn with stakes, Czech hedgehogs and other obstacles. In addition, a tank trap was positioned across the beach entrance to the draw.

View inland along the E-1 draw today. WN65 was on the raised area directly ahead

The 50mm gun casemate at the top of the E-1 draw (WN65)
This area, along with the whole of Omaha Beach, was also in the direct firing line of an 88mm gun in a concrete casemate set into the cliffs at the far western end of the beach (WN72). An inland artillery battery could also provide defensive fire to Easy Red Sector.

Further to the west the beach would also have been covered by guns at the top of the cliff at the Point du Hoc, had these not been moved back shortly before D-Day. This cliff was successfully assaulted on 6 June 1944 by US Rangers of the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions. Unfortunately our itinerary did not allow time to visit the Point du Hoc - so much else to see!

View to the west, showing the casemate of the 88mm gun position WN72 (left) and cliffs at the Point du Hoc (right)
Memorial to US 29th Infantry Division at Vierville-sur-Mer, D-1 draw, Dog Green Sector
After a brief stop at the D-1 Draw: WN 71 and 72, assaulted by US 29th Infantry Division, and featured in Saving Private Ryan (this will be my last reference to this film in this blog post, I promise), we moved inland to Ste-Mere Eglise, target of the landings of the US 82nd Airborne Division.

Ste-Mere Eglise
The church at Ste-Mere Eglise

The tale of the parachute landing at Ste-Mere Eglise is very well known. For all sorts of reasons many paratroopers missed their landing zones, often by a long way, and while the plan was to land nearby the town and assault it subsequently, some 30 paratroopers landed directly on the town itself. This was particularly unfortunate for them given that a fire had broken out in one of the local houses and many townsfolk and Germans were gathered in the town square as a result. The paratroopers did not stand a chance. Private John Steele, wounded during his landing, ended up with his parachute getting caught on the church tower, where he remained, feigning death, until he was captured by the Germans (shortly to be released when the town was captured later). His story and the memory of 82nd Airborne are celebrated by a life-size model paratrooper that hangs from the church tower, and a unique stained glass window in the church.

The stained glass window, Ste-Mere Eglise church

The tribute to Pte John Steele
To the west of Ste-Mere Eglise some of the fiercest fighting of the day took place at a small but strategically important bridge across the Merderet River known today as the La Fiere Causeway. The bridge was taken and defended by 82nd Airborne despite repeated German counterattacks, until it was finally secured on 10th June. There is now a memorial at this location.

The bridge at La Fiere Causeway, viewed from the memorial
The memorial "The Airborne Trooper" at La Fiere Causeway
 Utah Beach

The museum at Utah Beach is well worth the visit and is in my view one of the best and most interesting of all the D-Day museums. A few photos of the exhibits below.

LVT-2 Amtrac: I was under the impression that these were not used in Normandy but it seems that a few were used as transports at a later stage. I am not aware of any evidence that they were used during the actual landings.

B-26 Marauder

Another Higgins Boat

Nice diorama with PaK40 and DUKW

Old Renault tank turret Panzerstellung

The view of the PaK40 that you don't want to see
The museum is very near the sea so there was ample opportunity to visit the beach itself.
Utah Beach
Around the museum there were other interesting things to see.

50mm gun emplacement (not sure why it is aiming at the sky)

Another 76mm Sherman

US heavy anti-aircraft gun

Band of Brothers
It really was inevitable that at some point the exploits of E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne, would be mentioned. So we visited the site of Brecourt Manor (Episode 2 Day of Days for those who want to know). This was the assault on a defended gun position for which then Lt Richard Winters won his DSC and which is often cited (and still used in US military training) as a classic example of small unit tactics and leadership in overcoming a larger enemy force. Winters' force of 12 men faced around 60 Germans in a dug in 105mm gun position defended by emplaced machine guns. E Company are commemorated here by their own memorial.

The E Company memorial at Brecourt Manor

The terrain at the site (yes, it's a field) showing the hedge line where the Germans were dug in

La Cambe Cemetery

Though I've general been reluctant to put pictures of the cemeteries we visited (Omaha excepted) on these blog pages I have made an exception for La Cambe. This place is both unusual and interesting as it is a cemetery for the Germans who died in Normandy. It has a distinct style, with trees growing amongst the graves, and simple plaques rather than crosses representing the dead (the crosses are decorative and do not represent the fallen or their graves).

View of the cemetery

Amongst those buried here is one [particularly famous individual, the Panzer Ace Michael Wittmann.

Wittmann's grave

And then back to the hotel ready for an early start to the long coach trip home tomorrow.

Overall, an excellent (though very tiring!) weekend and highly recommended to anyone with an interest in World War II and particularly the Normandy theatre.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Normandy - Part I

It's been long overdue, but at last I have sorted through my photos of the battlefield tour that Al and I went on in May this year. 2014 is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, so we spent a weekend courtesy of Leger Tours on a whistlestop trip around the D-Day beaches. I've been before a few times, but it was great to be shown around with the help of an excellent guide, even if it did seem a bit rushed at times.

What follows is a small selection of the photos I took, with a brief narrative, as best I can remember, from the time. There's still quite a lot to show so I've split it into two separate articles, one for each day of the tour - which means effectively one article for the British, French and Canadian forces and another one for the Americans. As it happens this means that it's also (roughly) organised from east to west as you look at a map of Normandy, which is a convenient reference.

Day 1: The British, French and Canadians

Pegasus Bridge

We start at the westernmost extent of the D-Day landings, with the first action of 6 June 1944 - the coup de main airborne assault of the bridges over the Orne and the Caen Canal by C Company, Ox & Bucks Light Infantry, British 6th Airborne Division. Of the two bridges seized and held, the Caen Canal bridge (named Pegasus Bridge after the emblem of the Airborne; the nearby bridge across the River Orne was named Horsa Bridge) is the most celebrated and gives its name to the museum that was our first point of visit.

The original Pegasus Bridge
The bridge that was actually assaulted has since been replaced by a more modern structure and is now in the garden of the museum, less than a hundred meters from its original site. Also there, amongst other relics are a replica of a Horsa glider (the remains of the fuselage of an original one is in a shed) and a 17pdr gun

Replica Horsa glider
17pdr anti-tank gun
The focus of the museum is (obviously) the airborne landings but the museum also celebrates the Special Service Brigade commando force led by Lord Lovat that arrived from the landings on Sword beach to relieve them later that day. A particularly nice item in the museum are Bill Millin's bagpipes.

"It takes an Irishman to play the pipes", as Sean Connery would say
After a walk around the museum and the site of the landings themselves Al and I made a point of visiting the Gondree cafe. This was the first building to be liberated on D-Day.

New bridge on the right, old cafe on the left
Al takes coffee at the Gondree Cafe
As with many of the Normandy sites, a large amount of the concrete defences set up by the Germans have never been removed and in some cases even the guns have been left behind. This is the case with the anti-tank gun emplacement beside the bridge, shown below.

Concrete anti-tank gun emplacement beside the bridge
Sword Beach

The furthest east of the invasion beaches is Sword beach where the British and Free French landings took place, by the 3rd Infantry Division and including Lovat's commandos who moved from there to relieve 6th Airborne at Pegasus Bridge.

Sword Beach
Sword beach is generally low lying with a road running along the top of the beach and housing set immediately behind. At its easternmost end this is the edge of the town of Ouistreham.

Former 75mm gun casemate (now a private dwelling!)

Centaur light tank (near the Ranville Cemetery)
Churchill AVRE (at the side of a road junction)
Juno Beach

Juno beach
Juno lies immediately west of Sword Beach and is continuous with it. It's much the same topography, with a coastal road and housing forming the seafront, or dunes where the coast road moves a little inland. Juno, where the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division landed, almost immediately north of Caen, though strongly defended was the most successfully assaulted of all the landing beaches on D-Day. A very new Canadian museum has recently been opened and we were one of the first of Leger's tour groups to have visited. In my opinion a good museum, well laid out and a fitting memorial, though to my mind a little lacking on detail and therefore not a museum I would rush to visit again any time soon.

Juno is almost always identifiable from old photographs of the Normandy Beaches because of one particular house, which is now the only house of its age still standing in the area, which seemed to end up in all the old photographs.

The house, now, which makes it instantly recognizable as Juno Beach
The house in the distance, then. See?
And just in case you were in doubt, there is a huge Juno Beach war memorial next to the house now
Outside the museum various relics have been retained including selected beach obstacles and an observation bunker which, if you have the time, as a museum visitor you can be shown around by a guide.
 Juno Beach museum with an observation bunker in the foreground
Tetrahedral concrete beach obstacles
Gold Beach

Gold Beach
The other British landing beach, assaulted by 50th Division, lies immediately west of Juno. Again, it is a low rise from the beach to housing and open country. Along the main draw of this beach (King Red Sector, near the village of Mont Fleury) is a memorial to Stan Hollis, who won a Victoria Cross for his bravery on D-Day.

The Stan Hollis memorial information board
The Stan Hollis memorial bus shelter

Yes, the memorial is a bus shelter - but in 1944 it was an outside toilet. Apparently on 6 June, Stan Hollis approached this structure and thinking it to be some sort of enemy strongpoint, assaulted it with grenades. It is safe to say that if there were any Germans there, they probably were caught with their pants down...

View inland from King Red Sector, Gold Beach

Immediately west of Gold Beach is the town of Arrowmanches. This was turned into an operational port by the allied forces as soon as it had been captured by the use of Mulberry Harbours. These concrete structures were floated into place and used as breakwaters and harbour structures in combination with several scuttled ships so as to enable supplies to be rapidly moved to the beachheads. Remains of the Mulberry Harbours are still present in the sea near Arrowmanches, best observed from the top of the cliff. At its height the port made here was larger than Dover!

View from the clifftop towards Arrowmanches, showing the war memorial (left) and Mulberry Harbour sections in the sea
Day 1 over and back to the hotel. Tomorrow we would visit the American beaches.