Last week Ross and I visited Normandy to explore a number of the D-Day sites with Leger Holiday’s Head Guide, Paul Reed. With it being a relatively short trip, just two days of actual touring in fact, we had quite a lot to try and fit in. Day One was focused on us visiting the British and Canadian landing sectors, whilst Day Two turned to us looking at the American D-Day story in Normandy.
Following an early wake up call, Day One started with us visiting the left flank of the Allied beach landings at Sword Beach where the British 3rd Infantry Division commanded by Major General Rennie landed around 7.30 am on 6th June 1944 with the aim to link up with the British airborne troops to their left and the Canadians to their right.
On our arrival, Paul called together an ‘O’ Group, where we learnt all about the important role that DD Tanks and the other selection of Hobart’s Funnies (as these specialist armoured vehicles of the 79th Armoured Division were known), were to play at Sword Beach and on the other British and Canadian landing beaches.
With a little time to wonder around and explore a nearby German bunker as well as a number of the memorials scattered nearby, I was particularly intrigued by the monument and story of Piper Bill Millin. Landing here along with the other commandos of Lord Lovat’s No.1 Special Service Brigade, he played his bag pipes all the way up the beach helping to drive the men forward.
Paul told us that a number of the German prisoners taken here had stated that they had been amazed to see this man playing bag pipes in the middle of a battle and had not fired on him because they thought he was mad.
It was Lord Lovat’s Commandos who would eventually relieve the men holding the perimeter around Pegasus Bridge, Benouville and Ranville. The first thing these men here knew of their arrival around 1pm on D-Day was the sound of Bill Millin’s bag pipes.
We then moved slightly further down the coast to the Canadian Sector to visit the Juno Beach Centre and learn more about the important role that Canada played not just on D-Day, but also during the course of the war as a whole. Of Canada’s 11 million population, around 1 million Canadians served the war effort in one form or another whether it be on active duty or on the home front.
Ross and I were particularly excited by our visit to Juno Beach as we had not known until shortly before that we would get the opportunity to explore some of the underground bunker defence complexes here. WN-31 made up a small part of the defences in this area. Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ was a string of assorted defences that stretched for hundreds if not thousands of miles along the coast from France all the way up to the occupied Scandinavian countries.
Descending the concrete steps into the dark confines of the bunker we entered a room which is believed to be where the local defence commander and his adjutants would be operating out of.
We then moved through a tunnel that was constructed later on during the war by forced labour and it was interesting to learn that the workers had actually carried out their own form of resistance in the way in which they had constructed these tunnels that had connected the Command Bunker to the Forward Observation Bunker. They basically weakened the structure of the tunnels by putting the concrete cinder blocks the wrong way and excluding the steel bars which helped lock the structure together. This was believed to be one of the reasons why when on D-Day under the weight of the Allied bombardment here the tunnel collapsed so easily.
This was part of the observation post which overlooked Juno and would help direct artillery fire onto the beach. It had hard wired telephone wires connected to the Command Bunker, Batteries and also to the HQ some 4 miles back in Caen just so the commander their could be kept abreast of any developments. The remnants of these telephone wires can be seen above protruding from the wall.
Interestingly it was in fact Paul Reed and Dan Snow who as part of the Dig WW2 team that helped uncover the WN-31 Bunker complex at Juno Beach in July 2011. And as you can see here, we spoke with Paul all about this incredible venture, which you can hear all about in our Day One Video.
Whilst the other half of the group took their turn to venture into the murky underground of the WN-31 Bunker complex, Ross and I ventured onto Juno Beach to see where the men of the 3rd Canadian Division under the command of Major General Keller landed at around 7.45 am on 6th June 1944.
Obviously it would not be WW2 Nation without a behind the scene shot or two of us filming for our latest video posts. Below is Ross filming a segment for the Day One Video in the sand dunes overlooking Juno Beach. Interestingly, Paul told us that the sand dunes you see here were not as high back in 1944 as they are today. If you looked at the observation bunker of WN-31 today, you would wonder how the men inside could see anything of the beach with the dunes in front, but these have grown over the past 70 years or so.
Before we left the Canadian Sector though, we stopped off to look at a Churchill AVRE Tank. Having landed on Juno Beach on D-Day it became bogged down in the flooded fields just beyond the beach, forcing the crew to abandon it. A Churchill bridge layer tank that was following up, then bulldozed it into one of the bomb craters and laid a bridge over it to open up the exit lane. The AVRE tank laid buried for over thirty years before eventually being recovered in 1976 by the Royal Engineers when the French kindly asked the British to come and retrieve their kit.
Having had a thoroughly fascinating first half of the day, we moved off to Benouville for lunch, which provided an incredible backdrop whilst we enjoyed our French baguettes.
Before we continued with the tour, we got the chance to have a quick explore around the bridge including inside the Gondree Cafe, the first house in France to be liberated on D-Day.
I had been keen to explore Benouville having read a lot about the fighting that took place here and was keen to see a number of the sites where the men of the 7th Parachute Battalion & those of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry had fought so gallantly to hold the perimeter and fend off repeated attempts by the 21st Panzer Division to retake the bridges.
Owing to time restrictions I was not able to venture too far from the bridge having to rejoin the group shortly for the rest of the day’s tour, but I did however get the chance to see the Chateau de Benouville, formerly a maternity hospital and the site of where some of the most intensive perimeter fighting took place. Lt. Colonel Pine-Coffin commander of the 7th Battalion had positioned the men of Lt. Atkinson’s platoon here who quickly found themselves facing several armoured German vehicles.
Rejoining the group, Paul discussed the events of those early hours on D-Day here, recalling the actions by the 90 men or so of Major John Howard’s 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment. The three gliders crash landed only a few yards from the target. Storming the bridge, the German defences were very quickly overwhelmed and the fighting for the bridge was over in under 10 minutes. The famous code-words ‘Ham and Jam’ were broadcast over the radio by Major Howard to signal that they had successfully captured the bridges.
This bronze statue positioned near the bridge, on the bank opposite the Gondree Cafe, is the site where the three gliders of Major John Howard’s force crash landed only a few yards away from their target. There are also three marker stones in the field besides the bridge which mark the exact spot of the nose of each glider that landed here on D-Day.
Further down the road we visited the Museum Memorial Pegasus which contained the original bridge taken by the Oxford and Bucks on D-Day. I was very impressed by the museum as it has a very remarkable collection of original personal items and kit including among other things Major John Howard’s helmet and beret.
In the early 1990s the original bridge was replaced by a new model although the design mirrored that of the original bridge which was moved to the museum just down the road. This was a personal highlight of mine of this trip to actually set foot on and walk over the original bridge. The bridge was a critical D-Day objective, as it would help secure the Allied left flank and by controlling this key crossing into and out of the bridgehead and the landing zone areas facilitate a breakout route into the rest of Normandy. It also denied the Germans from pouring reinforcements into the Allied flanks and rolling the invasion force up.
It was particularly intriguing to see all the battle damage on the original bridge. I later asked Paul about this, who told me it is believed this damage was caused by mortar fire.
Travelling just further down the road we stopped in Ranville to visit the War Cemetery and to pay our respect to the 2000 plus men buried here today. It was a very moving experience particularly more so because we had in our group, a man whose father from the 6th Airborne Division was in fact buried here. He had come on the trip so he could visit his father’s grave having managed to finally track down where he was buried. With some assistance from Paul he did eventually manage to find where his father’s grave was, this was a particularly poignant moment.
Strolling between the different rows, I was particularly struck by the age of so many buried here that I saw, so many young men just 18, 19, 20 years old. It is also at Ranville in fact, that the youngest British paratrooper killed during World War Two is buried. Private Robert Johns had lied about his age and was only 16 years old.
Lieutenant Den Brotheridge was the first Allied soldier killed by enemy fire on D-Day, he had been mortally wounded by German fire when storming Pegasus Bridge. The other man to die during this attack was Lance Corporal Fred Greenhalgh who is believed to be the first fatality on D-Day. Knocked out when ejected from the glider on landing, he was thrown into the pond and pulled under by the weight of his equipment.
From Ranville we turned our attention Gold Beach, our final destination of the day and also the final beach in the British and Commonwealth Sector of the D-Day landings. Part of British XXX Corps, it was here near to Asnelles and Arromanches that the British 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division landed.
Having earlier this year had the opportunity to speak with former British WW2 Tank Commander, Captain David Render, I was very keen to visit Gold Beach where the men from the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry landed in their DD Tanks on the 6th June. You can actually see in the top right photo above, one of the bunkers that caused so many problems for the men and tanks that landed here on D-Day.
It was also here on Gold Beach that the 6th Battalion Green Howards landed, including CSM Stan Hollis who was to be the only recipient of a Victoria Cross on D-Day. This was for his actions both in the beach assault and the Mont Fleury battery where he single handedly took out two German pill-boxes and a trench system which helped save many lives and open an exit from the beach as well as for his actions later in the day at the village of Crepon.
The Hut (pictured above) now known as the Stan Hollis Hut is a tribute to his actions on D-Day but it was also where Stan had open fire with his Bren Gun on it, from a distance believing it to be a German Bunker, but it later turned out to be just a waiting shelter for the local tram service.
I hope you enjoyed Day One of the Normandy D-Day Trip. Click here to watch the video.
The Photo Journal of Day Two of the Tour, exploring the American Sector of the D-Day Landings will be coming up next week on the blog.
If you wish to find out more about the trips Leger offer to Normandy to explore the D-Day story, you can do so by Clicking Here.