Allen was our host at his bed and breakfast in Basly, France. He not only housed us and fed us well with his homemade bread and croissants and his wife’s homemade jams, but he also drew out a map of locations he thought we would have time to see on Day 22.
He insisted we begin with the German Cemetery in La Cambe, France, reminding us of the loss of life on the German side as well. These people were fighting for their country. At worst, some of them may have been cruel. At best, and this was probably true for most of them, they were misled and used. For many, their involvement was not chosen but commanded. There are over 21,222 German dead buried here. 207 of them are unknown. The unknown, as well as 89 identified soldiers, are buried together in a mass grave marked by the memorial itself. Sadly, this cemetery is not supported by the country these people died fighting for, but by the French government and private donations. School children give up some of their summer vacation time to tend the graves.
Next we traveled on to the Airborne Museum in Saint Mere Eglise. I bet this is the only church in the world with a parachute hanging from its steeple. Before dawn on June 6, 1944 (D-Day), a fire broke out in one of the homes in this little town. The German soldiers permitted citizens to hold a bucket brigade, but it was hopeless. The casualties that night were more than a home, however, because the fire lit up the night sky, revealing an airborne invasion of American paratroopers. As the people cheered that they were being liberated, German soldiers took aim. Paratroopers who may have been able to land in quiet ambush were instead immediate targets. By June 30, 1,003 of the Allied forces were dead, 3,657 were wounded, 1,257 were missing, 42 aircrafts were destroyed, and 501 gliders were abandoned in the field.
The attack didn’t go as planned because of unforeseen circumstances, but its design was genius. Paratroopers each carried 130 poinds of weapons and equipment. 13 of these paratroopers were loaded onto each glider and towed by aircrafts. This allowed for a more quiet approach, as well as for more equipment to be able to be landed with them. These gliders were able to hold supplies and even vehicles needed for the field! In addition, hundreds of “dummy” paratroopers were also dropped, giving false targets for the enemy to shoot at. What they didn’t know is that the German forces had gotten intelligence of an airstrike and had dug cut tree trunks (named Rommel’s asparagus, after the German strategist who invented the tactic) into the ground every few feet so that any aircraft landing on them would be destroyed.
Despite devastating losses, there were some tales of victory in this campaign. One paratrooper, in attempting to land in the church yard, got his parachute caught on the church steeple. He hung there, pretending to be dead for two hours. Somehow, the German soldiers realized he was still alive, cut him from his parachute, and took him prisoner. He later was able to escape and rejoin his battalion to liberate the town. Another paratrooper also got tangled on the roof of the church. He was spotted by a German soldier on the ground, and as the soldier took aim, another paratrooper landed in the church courtyard. This distracted the German soldier. He and the newly landed paratrooper both shot and both died, which saved the life of the paratrooper on the roof. In the end, there were enough success that the area came under American control, one more door into liberating the rest of Europe. We haven’t watched it, but we’ve been told that this story was dramatized in a 1960’s film The Longest Day.
In a nearby farm almost a month later, a fifteen year old girl named Yvette watched her sister die, an innocent casualty of German shelling after living in a German occupied town for four and a half years and then believing she was safe again. She was caught in the bombing as well, and both of her legs were crushed. She was taken to the military hospital, where she was discovered by the 371st Fighter Group. Upon release from the hospital, she went to live in a tent they had put up for her and lined with silk parachutes. Since they didn’t speak French, they enlisted the help of two nuns so she would never be alone. She became their mascot, traveling with them wherever they went, until they were finally ready to go back home to the United States. It wasn’t until then that she decided she wanted to go back home to her family. They delivered her safely and in good health but continued to correspond with her. She even got a personal visit from General Eisenhower himself!
Our next stop was Pointe Du Hoc, a site where the German soldiers hunkered down in bunkers, guns trained on Gold Beach and Omaha Beach, and watched for coming attacks from land. Never in their wildest dreams did they think that there were American soldiers scaling the sheer hundred-foot cliffs on their opposite flanks! These men had trained with special guns designed to shoot hooked ropes onto cliffs and then scale them. Their mission was to take out the guns trained on the other two beaches so that the D-Day assault could get under way. They took out several guns that turned out to be decoys, but they finally found the ones they needed. They destroyed them, shelling ensued from above, and the mission began. We were filled with awe and respect for these men as we peered down these huge cliffs. It was also eery to walk around the area, once a flat plateau above the cliffs, but now miles of uneven ground created by bombing. The locals say that the holes have filled in quite a bit because of sand blowing in and vegetation growing in them, but we couldn’t believe how deep they still were after over 70 years. It was like hiking through literal hills and valleys.
Traveling on down the narrow French roads, we came upon Arromanches next. In this town was a marvel of engineering. Winston Churchill, who knew the war effort would need to be supplied with food, vehicles, ammunition, fuel, and more, suggested a harbor would be needed across the English Channel from Great Britain. When reminded that every single harbor was occupied by the German army and protected by the Atlantic Wall Hitler had built around them, he said, “If we can’t capture a harbor, we’ll have to take one with us.” He had, in fact, drawn sketches of a possible temporary harbor way back in 1917, during World War I, but they had been largely ignored. On May 30, 1942, Churchill submitted the idea again as prime minister he could no longer be ignored. After 14 months of planning and designing, as well as sending divers to survey the sea floor, tide and currents, construction began in secret.
First, huge concrete caissons were designed to create a wall that would shelter vessels approaching Gold Beach from being battered by waves and surf. They looked like train cars or semi-truck trailers, but they were much larger. In fact, the museum we visited (pictured above) was designed to be the same length and width as a typical casseon. These things were huge! They were also buoyant because they were divided into air chambers. They could be towed by ships and floated across the English Channel. Once floated across, they could be sunk strategically into place by opening valves that allowed water to rush in at just the right speed and in just the right locations.. In addition, each one was specifically designed and labeled for exactly where it would be placed in the bay. This had to be, since each one would be placed at a different depth and it was important that they could rest on the sea floor.
Next, roads were needed to stretch from the beach to supply ships in this makeshift harbor. Not only that, but they needed to be able to rise and fall with the tide, which varied daily. It was decided that floating pontoons would be connected to four legs that would rest on the sea floor but allow up and down movement as the water rose and fell. Between every set of two pontoons, spanned a steel “bridge” just wide enough for a truck, Jeep, and/or tank. This would create a “road” that would span from the beach to the waiting ships! Four of these roads were built for the project. Two were two-way roads for people and smaller carts. Two were one way roads connected at the ends by a dock. A truck could drive up one road, turn onto the dock, be loaded with supplies, and exit on the second road. In this way, a truck could be loaded every five seconds!
On D-Day (June 6, 1944), navy and cargo ships were used to tow the caissons into place. When the ships were spotted, they were torpedoed and sunk by the enemy, as expected. This was the first step of creating the needed surf barrier! 115 of the caissons were placed before a huge storm hit Normandy. This would delay further construction, but the troops couldn’t wait. Thankfully, the barrier that was built protected supply ships well enough that they could enter the harbor and then run aground on the beach, delivering their supplies anyway. It wasn’t until the storm ended that the roads were built so ships would no longer have to run aground. Within two weeks, the harbor was completely operational. In fact, while it was in use (from June to November of 1944) it was the busiest harbor in the entire world!
Our last stop of the day was at Bayeux Cathedral, a gothic style cathedral built in 1077, when William the Conqueror was in power. It is the oldest church in Normandy that was not damaged during World War II. I can’t find evidence of this, but we were told that it was not bombed because the members of the community put a huge Red Cross on its roof, making it look from the air like a hospital. After our long day, we had not gotten here in time to go in the church, either to see its historic tapestry that measures 230 feet long and 20 inches tall, depicting the Norman Conquest of 11th century, or to confirm the story of the Red Cross.
We were reunited with Allen, our host, and we spent some time marveling with him about what we had learned. He was also able to answer many of the questions that had come up on our trip. We asked how he had come to run this bed and breakfast and were surprised to find out his French accent was actually from Canada and that he had arrived via Florida, where he worked for Disney World. We were even more amazed when he told us the story of opening Disney Paris as their general manager. He is retired now, of course, but he showed us the Disney castle they had made him as a parting gift. It is made completely out of his business cards!
We really enjoyed our stay in Beasley; however, the lack of WiFi in our little villa made it difficult to blog. Once again, I’m behind, as I’m actually just finishing this after having visited two more countries! Those stories to come…