Posted: Monday 13 November 2017
South East Associates
A D-Day Tour
- 4th to 7th September -
Before dawn on Monday 4th September twenty-two South East Associates boarded a coach at the Egham site for a tour of the Normandy beaches.
We crossed the Channel from Dover to Calais and drove along the north coast of France while Clive Bowery, our guide, entertained us with interesting facts about
D-Day and showed videos on the planning and execution of the invasion.
Arriving at our hotel in Caen we met Helen & Paul Kowald who had travelled by car, and were staying on after we left.
On Tuesday we set off to tour the British and Canadian sector.
Our group at Omaha Beach
The Pegasus Bridge Museum now holds the original bascule bridge, which was replaced a few years ago, and this is now the centre-piece of the museum.
Five gliders led by Major John Howard landed within yards of the bridge by moonlight at 16 mins past midnight on 6th June 1944. They took the bridge within 10 minutes, taking the German defenders completely by surprise.
Lieutenant Den Brotheridge was shot on the bridge and Lance Corporal Fred Greenhalgh drowned when his glider landed in a pond, making them the first soldiers to die on D-Day. The first of thousands.
They held the bridge against German counter-attacks until reinforced by paratroopers then by the advance guard from Sword Beach led by Lord Lovat and his piper.
This was a major success in preventing German reinforcements getting to the beachheads and allowing British forces to cross the canal.
We then visited Sword, Juno and Gold beaches before stopping at Arromanches where the remains of the amazing Mulberry Harbour are scattered along the shoreline. This was an incredible feat of design and construction.
115 massive concrete boxes known as Phoenix Caissons were floated across the channel and along with old scuttled merchant ships formed a sea wall to protect landing wharves to get vehicles, troops and supplies ashore.
Although a violent storm on 19th to the 21st destroyed the American construction the British one at Arromanches was repaired and went on to play a vital role in the advance of Allied Troops in Normandy.
Our next stop was the Bayeux War Cemetery which is the largest Second World War cemetery of Commonwealth Soldiers in France, it contains 4648 burials.
The impressive memorial commemorates 1800 casualties of Commonwealth Forces who died in Normandy and have no known grave.
On Wednesday our tour was the American sector further west.
First stop was La Cambe German Cemetery which was very different to Commonwealth and American cemeteries. Very dark and dismal with dark stones, some flat on the ground, with many multiple graves and a mass grave.
2100 German soldiers are buried here and their ages range from 16 to 72, including Germany’s most famous tank ace Michael Wittmann and the truly infamous
Adolf Diekmann of the SS Das Reich Division who ordered the massacre of 642 men, women and children at Oradour-sur-Glane on 10th June 1944.
He was court-martialled but never brought to trial as he was killed in action a few weeks later.
Oradour-sur-Glane was never rebuilt and stands as a witness to the evil that the Allies fought to destroy.
Sainte-Mère-Église was the next stop, where the US 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne landed early on 6th June to secure the American right flank and stop German reinforcements coming from Cherbourg.
Many parachutists landed on the village and were killed by the Germans and famously John Steele’s parachute caught in the church spire and he was left hanging. He pretended to be dead until the shooting stopped then was cut down and taken prisoner by the Germans. He later escaped and rejoined his division, then the Americans took the village and held it against vastly superior forces until relieved by tanks from Utah Beach.
As a permanent memorial a dummy parachutist hangs on the church tower.
The museum at Sainte-Mère-Église is excellent, containing an authentic Waco glider and a C47 plane.
We then drove to Utah Beach which was the easiest landing, as defence was relatively weak. In fact the Americans lost more men training in South Devon when caught by German E-boats than they did on the landings.
Pointe du Hoc was the scene of one of the most famous actions on D-Day when the US Rangers were tasked with destroying the large gun emplacements which would threaten both Utah and Omaha beaches. They scaled the cliffs at huge cost only to find the guns had been moved but found them later in the day and put them out of action. They were not relieved for two days and of the 225 men who landed only 90 were capable of action.
The last beach visited was Omaha, the toughest landing which very nearly failed. The terrain with heavy German defences on high ground overlooking the beaches made a killing ground which decimated the disembarking troops.
The first DD floating tanks were unloaded much too far out in rough seas and 27 of 29 sank, depriving the infantry of much needed support.
The senior commander admitted that he came close to ordering a retreat.
By the end of the day they only had a tenuous foothold and it took three days to establish a reasonable beachhead. No official figures were recorded for US losses on the one day, 6th June, but estimates vary from 2000 to 4700.
The Colleville-sur-Mer American cemetery is on the high ground above Omaha Beach and from a viewing point looking down onto the landing area it is clear the desperate situation the landing troops faced.
The cemetery covers 172 acres and contains 9387 American dead.
Notable internments are Theodore Roosevelt, son of the ex President, General Lesley J McNair, one of the two highest ranking Americans to be killed in action in World War 2 and two brothers Preston and Robert Niland.
The memorial in this beautifully kept cemetery lists the names of 1557 Americans who were never found.
On our last evening in Caen we had dinner together after a memorable and thought-provoking two days which really brought home to us the sacrifices that the last generation made to ensure our freedom.
Clive made an interesting point, that we are rapidly approaching a time when D-Day and World War 2 will become true history as it will no longer be in living memory.
Jack Scott and Kevin Williams
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