June 6th 1944, 156,000 Allied soldiers from over 12 nations took part in one of the largest amphibious invasions in human history, storming the beaches of Nazi occupied France. 2015 marks 71 years since this historic event and on the weekend of its commemoration, Ben Mayne made the short journey across the channel, visiting many of the key sites as well as meeting a few of those brave men who were at the heart of this critical battle to secure a bridgehead into Normandy.
I have been interested in military history for as long as I can remember and ever since my first visit to Normandy for the 60th Anniversary I have made many trips back including taking clients out on Battlefield Tours. Late last year I was approached by a client asking me to construct a personal one to one tour of Normandy to cover the 71st Anniversary of D-Day. He wanted to experience all areas of the Operation and attend services of remembrance over the four days that we would be there.
I knew it would not be as busy this year compared to last year’s 70th commemorations, but, I was immediately taken aback at the port prior to sailing to see so many veterans and historic vehicles heading across to Normandy.
Upon arrival and a quick stop off at the hotel to check in, we were straight out on to ‘Sword’ beach where we discussed the commando landings, HMS Swift Captained by John Gower and his aiding of HNoMS Svenner.
The defensive position ‘COD’ was then looked at and the Suffolk Regiment’s route from ‘Sword’ to the ‘Hillman Bunker.’ On route to the bunker we visited the Hermanville CWGC, this was the client’s first ever visit to a CWGC cemetery. He was completely taken aback by the immaculate and serene resting place for the fallen, taking time to sit and reflect.
The second day saw us heading out to the U.S. Sectors but before that we would stop at Ardenne Abbey and the German cemetery at La Cambe.
I had never visited the Abbey before but had previously read of the atrocities that had taken place there around the 7 – 8 th June 1944. Upon arriving, I have to say that the Abbey and its surroundings were a tranquility of peace. It was hard to believe that such war crimes were committed within a small courtyard at the rear of the château, which now pays homage to those Canadians that lost their lives there.
Heading out into the U.S. Airborne sector we stopped off at Angoville-au-Plain and in contrast to the Ardenne Abbey visit we now looked at the humanity in war of the two U.S. Medics that parachuted in and set up their dressing station at the church. Wright and Moore were awarded the Silver Star for their work in treating American and German soldiers along with French civilians and saving many lives.
The commemorations to remember D-Day 71 were well and truly under way. This was the scene in Ste Marie du Mont and Ste Mere Eglise with hundreds of people around the churches along with many war time period vehicles on display, including motorbikes, Jeeps, trucks and tanks. From the U.S. Airborne sector we headed around to the American landing beaches of Omaha where we would walk along the shoreline at several locations and take time to visit the vast American Cemetery.
Just prior to this though, we visited a location that most people would have said was an impossible mission to be undertaken. Sitting 100 ft above the small beach atop the sheer cliffs, the American Rangers led by Lt Colonel Rudder were tasked with assaulting the battery at Pointe Du Hoc. The battle scarred ground today appears more like a lunar landscape with its huge pocketed craters acting as a constant reminder of the air and naval bombardments that took place there 71 years ago. In some points, the mighty German concrete encasements still stand strong, whilst others have been destroyed. As you walk down to the Pointe and people get a clear view down to the shoreline and onto the beach, you are often asked “how did they do this!?” To talk through these events with clients, they are left in sheer awe of the courage and bravery of those men that came to this location. Not only were they off course, the route back to the Pointe gave the defenders more time to prepare and for the Rangers, the element of surprise was lost, they were clear targets as they sailed back around. Using rope ladders and grappling hooks to then scale the cliffs whilst under fire was an immense task. To then get to the top and neutralise the defences to find the guns were not in position must have been truly disheartening to the Rangers. It shows their dedication and professionalism that they continued with patrols beyond the battery to find five of the six guns in a field close by. They went on to destroy their firing mechanisms, thus putting them out of action and helping to protect the Omaha and Utah landing beaches.
That evening our thoughts switched and the atmosphere changed as we attended the Pegasus Bridge memorial service at midnight on the 6th June. Standing on the glider landing area, we listened to a recording of Major John Howard explaining the glider run in from his own perspective. The veterans and family members of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry made a toast, “Ham and Jam,” which was followed by a small wreath laying service accompanied by a bagpipe laments and band. To stand on that spot, 71 years to the second and think of what took place there, with the lament ‘Highland Cathedral’ being played, it was hard not to get a lump in the throat! I’m sure I was not the only one that felt that way.
The 6th June was spent in the British Airborne sector where we attended the Church service at Ranville and from here we then went into the CWGC cemetery to observe the service that was carried out there. I have to say, this was as busy as last year which is really encouraging to see the act of remembrance continuing. A local school with young children were out waving flags as the veterans proudly marched by. I also saw some French teenagers within the cemetery wearing shirts with printing on the back saying ‘child of freedom, Thank you’. It is so good that younger generations continue to learn about what took place and that they come to remember and pay their respects. The service lead by Rev Paul Abram was very moving as we stood amongst the 2,236 men that are laid to rest within the cemetery. Again, as the wreath laying was coming to an end, the bagpipes and band played ‘Highland Cathedral.’ It is hard to truly explain the thoughts and emotions that you feel stood in these surroundings on the anniversary.
From the service at Ranville we then visited the Merville Battery, which is my favourite location to visit and in my opinion a location where events have been overshadowed by Pegasus Bridge. Rommel visited this battery just before D-Day and said “whoever occupies this field will hold the key to the gateway of France and eventually into Germany itself”. To the allies this was a key objective that would help protect their flank from counter attacks and stop the shelling of Sword beach and the Naval armada that was within range of the guns at the battery. This task would fall to Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway and his 640 men from the 6th Airborne Division to neutralise and take on the garrison numbering around 150 – 180 Germans.
The battery is now a living museum with all four gun encasements still in tact along with further bunkers and encasements to explore. Otway and his mens’ story, again, is one that shows the pure courage, determination and professionalism to get the job done. Otway, just prior to launching the assault at the battery had to do so with around only 150 of the 640 who should have landed. The men, outnumbered and under-equipped went on to damage the guns within the casemates and no doubt saved many lives of those men who would shortly be landing on Sword beach.
On the anniversary, the museum had set-up two camps within the grounds of the battery, both British and German which gave people the chance to learn about as well as handle the equipment and weapons used by both sides during D-Day. So rather than just seeing these items behind glass screens, people could truly get an appreciation and understanding of the weight that some of these men had to carry into battle and also jump out of their aircrafts with. A visit to the Merville battery should be on everybody’s tour itinerary.
That evening at the hotel we had dinner and then sat with veterans from the Norwich branch of the Normandy Veterans Association that had made their annual pilgrimage. I was lucky enough to be introduced to Alan King by his daughter. Alan landed in his Sherman tank on Sword beach on the 6th June and went all the way to Berlin. I sat and listened in awe of every word he spoke. He had not spoken a word about his experiences for 50 years his daughter later informed me. His closing words were, “there isn’t many of us left now and we can’t go on forever”. This bought a tear to my eye, these men are part of a special generation to which I feel we owe so much, every second we get to spend with them, to listen and thank them is precious. I have to say, meeting Alan was the highlight of the trip for me and I now hope to keep in touch with him and his daughter.
The last day of the trip saw us share breakfast with the veterans at the hotel for one last time, hear a few more stories and see their pictures from the war. We said our goodbyes and then headed back out to finish the tour with visits to Mulberry Harbour, Gold beach, Juno and the Canadian Cemetery at Beny.
Overall this trip has been one of the most moving I have experienced. The client came away with memories that will last a life time. He was so glad that he chose these four days to come to Normandy to learn of the operation, meet veterans and be able to attend the services of remembrance.
Lastly I’d like to thank Ross and Lawrence of WW2 Nation in giving me the opportunity to write about this experience and share it with you all, keep up the good work Gents!
Thank you to Ben for telling us all about his recent visit to Normandy, it must have been a real honour to have met so many veterans who were there over the commemorative weekend.
You can find out more about Ben and his regular trips to Normandy by following him on Twitter : @BattlefieldBen or on Facebook : Battlefield Ben.
Did you visit Normandy over the remembrance weekend?
We would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
Photo Attributions : British troops landing on D-Day image courtesy of the MOD, Sword Beach by photographer Iamkaspar. All other images in this post have kindly been provided by and are property of Ben Mayne.