D-Day Beaches - Great day!

Trip Start Apr 23, 2012
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Trip End May 12, 2012


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Flag of France  , Normandy,
Thursday, May 10, 2012

We met Eric Le Doux-Turnbull at 830am at our hotel.  He's originally from Scotland, about our age and moved about 6 years to Normandy to what he loves - WWII history.  He loaded us into his  wife’s VW SUV.  His normal vehicle (an 8-passenger van) had a stick shift failure, stuck in 4th gear and he probably burned out his clutch…

Eric started his commentary right away, driving along the freeway west and north up the Cotentin Peninsula, explaining all the while how the German defenses were organized and how the US airborne drops on the night of 5-6 June 1944 were supposed to work.  After driving non-stop from Bayeux we pull up into the little market square of St. Mere Eglise, highlighted with a church and church steeple ensnared with a paratrooper (a scene memorialized by Red Buttons in the movie The Longest Day).  We get out of the car, Eric grabs a half dozen laminated 11 by 17 sheets (of historic photos, maps and such) from his trunk and he starts to spin a word picture of that night in a little French village when a house catches fire and in the midst of the citizens trying to put out that fire, the 82nd and 101st Airborne start parachuting all around them!  

It was market day in St. Mere Eglise, and while Eric is story telling, a vendor’s charcoal-broiled sausage “fumes” waft thru the square, sometimes making concentration difficult.  Eric seems to have master control of the weather – as he finished up to let us loose in the Airborne Museum of St Mere Eglise, the skies opened up and the rain came down hard –and slowed down to a tolerable level as we left for our next stop.
 
We headed next toward Utah Beach but before getting there, we stopped at a typical Normandy hedgerow (in the light rain) and given a detailed discussion of the intricacies and effectiveness of German Army defensive tactics against advancing Americans in hedgerow country.  These are not the hedges you might jump over from your yard to your neighbors yard – these are piled stones and untrimmed trees separating small fields sometimes with sunken roads in between.  Each of these formed an instant fortification where a small number of Germans could hold up a huge number of Americans throughout hedgerow country.  And it did until the Americans figured to weld steel tooth-like rails to the nose of a Sherman tank, so as to allow said tank to dig thru a hedge and not rise up over it (and expose it’s soft belly to German fire).  The sunken road photo only gives an inkling - 70 years ago, Norman farmers didn't have mechanical trimmers, so brush was much, much thicker then.
 
Afterwards, Eric drove us down Causeway #3 leading to Utah Beach. In June of 1944, the Germans had flooded the marshlands between the beaches and the high ground.  Only the causeways provided a link between them.  And those causeways had 2 inches of water over them.  The 82nd & 101st Airborne Division's mission was to hold that high ground behind the beaches.   . 

When we got to Utah, Eric explained how the 4th Infantry Div was supposed to land about 1 miles north of where they did.  However wind and ocean currents drove them south - fortunately it turned out, as the defenses were much more favorable to the Americans where they did come ashore.  People note that the casualties at the beach were only about 200, compared to 3000 at “Bloody Omaha”, but Eric reminded us there were about 3000 causalities in the airborne troops behind Utah beach, so what was worse???
 
After a quick lunch at a lunch spot/gift shop right near the Utah Beach museum, we headed to a famous little church of Angoville-au-Plain.  Here, two 101st Abn medics, Robert E Wright and Kenneth Moore turned this church into an aid station. At one point, a German squad overran the church and burst inside, intending to kill all inside.  But when they saw Wright and Moore treating friend and foe alike, they backed out and moved on  Since the war, several commemorative stain glass windows have been installed here.
 
Next we headed east to Pointe du Hoc, which I'd never heard about until an NBC News special back in 1983.  Here was a 6-unit 155mm gun emplacement that could hit upon Omaha Beach, Utah Beach and the ships at sea. So it had to be attacked and taken.  Pointe du Hoc was hit by naval shells and aerial bombs beforehand, but that just made lots of craters. Again, Eric gave detailed description and painted a verbal picture of how the Rangers made it up the 90 ft cliff, and then worked from shell crater to shell crater to get behind the German fortifications and overwhelm them.  We spent a lot of time at Point du Hoc – it (like the American Cemetery) is own by the American Battlefield Commission and pretty much maintained as it was.  Except where Mother Nature is eroding the cliffs, it’s unchanged.
 
Next was the west end of Omaha Beach, near the village of Vierville-sur-Mer.  Eric parked his rig near some closed beach-type shops (looks like they’d open later in the summer season) and he treated us to another great lecture.  We learned how the conditions on Omaha differ from those presented by Steven Spielberg in “Saving Pvt Ryan” and how very, very little went according to plan that morning.  When we stopped, the tide was totally in, but as the afternoon progressed, it quickly and visibly receded (someday, we need to watch an entire cycle from high to low tide, to then imagine Omaha at dawn on June 6th, full of tank traps, beach obstacles and barb wire).
 
There’s a paved road right at the high water line that runs along the beach.  And what do you find on the inland side of this beach road?  Vacation homes! Seems a little strange, but there it is.

The last stop was the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha.  Here, Eric lets us explore on our own.  The perfectly aligned rows of white crosses and Stars of David put a poignant endpoint to what we saw this day – they represent the fellow soldiers of our fathers – the ones who didn’t make it home and in another way, how the ones who did were no doubt changed in the process.

It was an outstanding tour over roads that one could easily get lost on.  We got a taste of a historical and scenic area we'd love to visit again someday.  There's the entire British and Canadian sector we didn't even touch and a whole bunch of museums we just didn't have time to stop at.

We went back to L'Arthe' for another great dinner. After dark, we wandered back to the cathedral to get some pics of this well-lighted, beautiful church at night.
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