2-3 April 2019
Moving further into Normandy, a leisurely drive round the scenic Cotentin Peninsular on the slow roads gave us an interesting day. An encounter on a narrow lane with an over-enthusiastic hawthorn hedge made us wince as we heard it making its presence felt down the sides of the van. Further on a group of ramblers were enjoying the freedom of the countryside – accompanied by stewards in high visibility vests carrying orange flags! At the most northerly point we got great views of the lighthouse which marks the rocks and dangerous tidal race between the peninsula and Alderney. With the fastest tidal currents in Europe, the French version of the RNLI put their very first lifeboat here and today have a major surveillance and operations post as it remains dangerous water for boats.
But our reason for bing in Normandy beaches was really the D-Day sites. In June 2014 we hired a motorhome to see if we could cope with it and part of that 2-week odyssey included an 8-hour whistlestop tour of the Normandy beaches. We had wanted to return ever since. Last time the weather was gorgeous and the remains of the 70th Anniversary celebrations were everywhere. This time preparations were under way for the 75th Anniversary celebrations, the weather was going to be chilly, but we would have time to really explore.
We prepared by watching The Longest Day again then made our starting point St Mère Église, at the base of the Cotentin peninsula. Strategically a very important village, in the early hours of 6 June 1944 paratroopers of the American 82nd & 101st Airborne were dropped in and around the village. Famously, a house-fire meant that the local Germans were out supervising the locals trying to put out the fire, and it lit up a number of parachutists coming down into the town many of whom were shot before they landed.
The Aire is only a short distance from the Airborne Museum and the town square with it’s famous church tower, the very tower on which paratrooper John Steele got caught up on his ‘chute on D-Day and hung for 2 hours playing dead to avoid being shot by the Germans. He was later cut down by them and treated for shrapnel wounds before escaping to rejoin his regiment, passing into D-Day legend. The town have hung a model paratrooper there, a permanent memorial to the incident.
The Airborne museum was really good, with plenty of well-done exhibits, a good movie and great explanations of the battle.
The town claims to be one of the first places liberated and has a stone in the square, Milestone Zero, marking the start of the path towards liberty for France. Roads round the square are named after some of the town’s liberators and it is clear the town has had an ongoing relationship with survivors. For some reason we felt impelled to buy a commemorative teatowel…..
Roads leading down to the landing beaches are moving named after soldiers who died during the invasion. Down at Utah Beach we parked up exactly where we had on our first visit in 2014 and re-visited the moving memorials before heading into the Musée de Debarquement. This was set up by a local who was wounded by the Allies during the invasion. They looked after him, even sending him to America for treatment and on his return he decided to set up a memorial. His son still runs it and it has continued to develop following a visit by 2 American brothers who recognised their dead father in one of the old photos – the first they knew of his involvement – and got involved in raising funding. Another excellent exhibition.
Moving on we passed a memorial to Dick WInters of Band of Brothers fame on route to Carentan and the C47 simulator experience at the D-Day Experience museum.
There is more there than that, such as the Dead Man’s Corner in an old house used by German paratroopers during the landings and outside of which a bombed American tank with it’s dead commander hanging out of the turret remained for days until the fighting moved away. But for Danny (who won’t ever do fairground rides) the main event was the C47 Simulator. A hologram gave us a briefing and then we boarded the plane. The sound and vibration of engines starting and then we were off for a 7-minute ‘flight’ with great views out of the windows, booms and shaking from the flak explosions and then the ‘crash-landing”. Got an A++ off Danny.
Another part of the museum told the story of the invasionaround this location, through tales of individual soldiers of Easy Company (Band of Brothers) who fought and died here. There was even Dick WInters own uniform, donated by him later with a letter from the great man himself.
Next stop Omaha Beach.