Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sacred Ground: Normandy, France

Sacred Ground:  Normandy, France

Including Ver-sur-Mer, Asnelles, Arromanches-les-Bains, Longues-sur-Mer, the American Cemetery & Memorial, Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, the German Cemetery at La Cambe, Bayeux, and Mont Saint Michel

*  *  *

January is not the best time to visit rural northern France, but we had a three-day weekend available due to the holiday commemorating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and we live in Europe, so we had no other option than to visit Normandy.  It was kind of like an obligation, really.

There are actually direct flights from Chisinau to Paris on Air Moldova, which was pretty unexpected.  And I have to say, also pretty cool.  Not Charles de Gaulle, mind you, but Paris nonetheless.  In three hours we landed at Beauvais-Tille international airport, a smallish airport about 30-40 kilometers north of the city.

Six-speed manual transmission duly rented, we were on our way to Normandy, about three hours away by "motor car," as Miss Sugar would say.  

Remember how I said January is not the best time to visit northern France?  Well, prior to our trip I tried booking a room.  Seven times I tried, actually.  Not one website indicated the place was closed for the month of January, but not one would allow me to book online.  Eventually I stumbled upon a pleasant little farmhouse inn - actually a chambre d'hotes, or B&B - in the small town of Ver-sur-Mer, called Le Mas Normande.

We arrived on a Friday evening, and spent three nights at the inn.  Mylene and Christoph were great hosts, although we were mostly gone all day touring.  However, the breakfast was spectacular, and included fresh breads, croissants and brioche with wonderful local butter, yogurt, nuts and dried fruits, fresh sliced fruit, fresh squeezed orange juice and locally produced apple juice, and an endless pot of coffee.  This was absolutely the best way to start the day as we ventured out into the French countryside for what certainly was a wonderful and emotional day of touring.

Le Mas Normande B&B breakfast room
Grenade the Golden greets me for breakfast at Le Mas Normande B&B

A beautiful setting and a wonderful continental breakfast, even on a 
rainy day at Le Mas Normande B&B

Grenade is a happy French dog!

Here's a plug:  while at breakfast the first morning, Mylene came out to chat, learn about our plans for the day, and offer advice.  She mentioned that, normally at this time of the year, she has already had several inquiries about room availability from Americans for the summer, but this year was different.  It was already mid-January and she hadn't had even one inquiry yet.  She attributed this to international events, specifically the rise of nationalistic thinking and the fear of terrorism.  If you read the last edition of Notes from a Small Country, you know that we do not intend to let these factors stop us from seeing the world, and that I recommend you not succumb to the fear, either.  Therefore, if you're looking for a great place to stay as you consider your travel plans for the next six months or so, come to Europe and check out Normandy, and stay at Le Mas Normande.  Team Panetti gives it four enthusiastic thumbs up - you won't regret it.

Book rooms and email Mylene and Christoph here: 

On the advice of Mylene, we ventured out to the coast road, hugging the shoreline westward on the D514.  Shortly after connecting to this serpentine two-lane highway, I pulled onto a spur and headed toward the Channel.  The photos below highlight the surrounding countryside and the January weather in this part of France.

Rainfall in the distance
Norman countryside

Rainfall in the distance
Norman countryside

Norman coastline near Ver-sur-Mer, site of the very first landings
during Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944
accomplished by the British 50th Infantry Division

Commander Richard Evelyn Bird crashed his plane, America
off the coast here while attempting a trans-Atlantic mail flight 

Ver-sur-Mer was the "Main point of the British landing"
on D-Day, known as "Jour J" in French

About ten kilometers from Ver-sur-Mer is another small town, the kind which dots the countryside in the part of France (and probably all over the rural areas of the country).  The town itself is a nice little coastal spot, and just before arriving at Arromanches-les-Bain - at a bend in the highway, just before descending into the town - sits a turnout with a museum and a lookout over the beach.  It was mid-January, and the Arromanches 360 Museum was closed, but we braved the strong winds off the Channel and climbed the viewing platform to get a sense of place, looking down on Arromanches itself and the bay where the landings took place some 73 years ago.

The coast and small town of Arromanches-les-Bains in the center of Gold
Beach landing site, and location of the temporary artificial port (Mulberry B,
or Port Winston) built by the British to support the invasion.  Portions of the ships
sunk to create the barriers, or maybe the concrete blocks the size of football fields
and used to support anti-aircraft guns, are still visible off to the upper right.

Near the Arromanches 360 exhibit sits this section of
floating roadway used during the invasion
Another view of Arromanches-les-Bains from atop the cliffs

Panorama from atop the viewing platform:
Arromanches-les-Bains to the west (left) and Juno and Sword
Beaches to the right (east, off screen)

Next along the highway we came to the town of Longues-sur-Mer.  The town isn't the real attraction, however, even though it is quaint and lovely, and most certainly has a lot to offer.  Just north of the town center sits the Longues-sur-Mer Battery, a series of relics of the German gun batteries built as key elements of the Atlantic Wall.  They are well preserved and free to visit and are the only remaining intact artillery guns from D-Day along the Normandy coast.

German gun emplacements at Longues-sur-Mer, a part of the Atlantic Wall

German gun emplacements at Longues-sur-Mer, a part of the Atlantic Wall

A 150 mm gun at Longues-sur-Mer, capable of firing shells 12-13 miles;
it was critical for the Allies to take them out

A 150 mm gun at Longues-sur-Mer, capable of firing shells up to 12-13 miles
making them capable of reaching the landing beaches

A 150 mm gun at Longues-sur-Mer, capable of firing shells up to 12-13 miles
making them capable of reaching the landing beaches

Two of the remaining 150 mm guns at Longues-sur-Mer,
a critical component of the Atlantic Wall
built by the Nazis to protect against invasion.

Several of the 150 mm guns at Longues-sur-Mer,
part of the Atlantic Wall which stretched from southern France
all the way to the northern reaches of Norway.

The pastoral view south over the fields toward the
village of Longues-sur-Mer in the distance 

Eglise Notre Dame in the small village of Commes, en route to 
Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery and Memorial

Competence, Courage and Sacrifice
 Soldiers' graves are the greatest preachers of peace. - Albert Schweitzer

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

The famed cemetery sits high above Omaha Beach, and is a tranquil, beautiful site.  Surrounded by neighboring farms, I could only imagine what the area was like in the years before the war.  Today its 172.5 acres are home to the final resting place of 9387 Americans, including 149 Stars of David, and a memorial wall in the Garden of the Missing engraved with the names of 1557 soldiers missing in action.  Among the dead are 45 pairs of brothers and 3 Medal of Honor recipients.

There is no doubt in my mind that everyone, American or not, should visit such places in order to gain or reinforce perspective about what was at stake, and the costs involved.

The Normandy Campaign

The massive Allied assault on the Normandy coastline on June 6, 1944 aimed to liberate France and drive into Nazi Germany.

Before dawn on June 6, three airborne divisions - the US 82nd and 101st and the British 6th - landed by parachute and glider behind targeted beaches.  Allied naval forces, including the US Coast Guard, conveyed assault forces across the English Channel.  Beginning at 0630 hours, six US, British and Canadian divisions landed on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches in history's greatest amphibious assault. 

The US 4th Infantry Division pushed inland from Utah Beach.  To the east, on Omaha Beach, the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions battled German resistance over a beach bristling with obstacles.  To reach the plateau where Normandy American Cemetery now stands, troops fought across an open area of up to 200 yards, and attacked up steep bluffs.  By day's end, the Americans held fragile control of Omaha Beach.

On Gold, Juno and Sword, British and Canadian divisions forged ahead.  In less than a week, the Allies linked the beachheads and pressed onward.  

Over the next three months, the Allies battled German troops throughout Normandy.  British and Canadians freed Caen.  Americans liberated Cherbourg and staged a dramatic breakout near St. Lo.  Allied troops, joined by French and Polish units, encircled and annihilated German troops at the Falaise Pocket while surviving units fled eastward.  The way was now open to advance toward Paris and then to Germany.

Information pamphlet published by the American Battle Monuments Commission 

*  *  *

The visitor center is not to be missed.  There is so much to absorb; I could have spent several hours here alone.  I enjoy documenting these experiences in word and photo, but there is no way my words or pictures could do justice to the story told here.  It wasn't until I was back in Moldova processing my photos that I realized I took a total of two photos in the visitor center and museum (below).  

It's emotionally overwhelming, and an absolute must.  Just remember that, if you can manage a trip, make sure to pack a handkerchief or two.

Typical K-rations used by American soldiers, on display in the museum
American Cemetery and Memorial

A lone gun and helmet symbolizing the fallen
American Cemetery and Memorial

"We do not forget, we will never forget,
the debt of infinite gratitude that we have
contracted towards those who have given everything
for our liberation."
Rene Coty, President of the French Republic (1954-59)
American Cemetery and Memorial
Shoreline from the cliffs above Omaha Beach
American Cemetery and Memorial

The landing beaches map.
The United Kingdom is about 100 miles distant over the horizon.
American Cemetery and Memorial

American Cemetery and Memorial

"The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves"
American Cemetery and Memorial

"The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves"
American Cemetery and Memorial

Detailed inlaid map of military operations in Western Europe
American Cemetery and Memorial

The central mall facing west
American Cemetery and Memorial

Inlaid map of the landings on the Normandy beaches
American Cemetery and Memorial

The fallen
American Cemetery and Memorial

The unknown
American Cemetery and Memorial

American Cemetery and Memorial
The chapel
American Cemetery and Memorial

American Cemetery and Memorial

The first day
American Cemetery and Memorial

American Cemetery and Memorial

The eastern shore of Omaha beach
American Cemetery and Memorial

American Cemetery and Memorial

1941 - 1945
"The United States of America
Proud of the exploits of their sons
humble before their sacrifices
have made this monument
in their memory"
American Cemetery and Memorial

American Cemetery and Memorial

German artillery gun, outside the Memorial Museum of Omaha Beach,
steps from the beach itself

Sherman tank with a Czech Hedgehog 
and the Long Tom 155 mm artillery gun (rear right),
outside the Memorial Museum of Omaha Beach

Sherman tank "Fury," outside the Overlord Museum

Tanks outside the Overlord Museum

The entire coastline of Normandy is fairly littered with museums and historic sites, and if we had had more than just two days we would have loved to visit more sights.  It just means we'll have to return some day, I guess.

One must nourish not only the soul, but the body as well.  In good weather we would be inclined to pack a picnic lunch with provisions from local markets, or even from the supermarche, but alas it was cold and windy outside, and we needed a small lunch.  Fortunately, one small cafe was open on this January day, and we ventured forth for a croque-monsieur and some slightly fermented apple cider, famous in these parts. 

Cidre bouche, the famous apple cider from Normandy,
a slightly alcoholic sparkling cider

D-Day Monument at the edge of Omaha Beach

Les Braves at the edge of Omaha Beach
Swirling sands on Omaha Beach

"OK, we'll go."
General Dwight Eisenhower on the morning of June 5th,
making the decision to launch the invasion
a day later after bad weather caused a delay.

It's not difficult to imagine the chaos and whirlwind taking place on the beach that day.

No, it's not difficult; it's impossible.  High atop the cliffs the Germans had machine gun and mortar nests firing upon the Allies as they came ashore, almost the textbook definition of sitting ducks.  The machine guns could fire an unfathomable 20 rounds per second, or 1200 rounds a minute.  The young Allied soldiers carried heavy packs and weapons, and they were soaked through and through the moment they disembarked through the narrow chutes of their landing craft.  They had just journeyed 100 miles over rough seas, and, having endured a false start the day before due to weather, had been on their boats for many hours, some even days as they waited, poised for the call to come.  

I cannot comprehend what must have been unimaginable fear as they ran, heavy with equipment and water, stomachs empty as a result of seasickness on rough seas, and with a mixture of fatigue and adrenaline, headlong into a wall of lead.  Yet run they did, dodging bullets and mines in the sand.  It's called "Bloody Omaha" for good reason:  Estimates are that the Allies suffered 10,500 casualties on the first day alone - 6000 of them Americans, and most (between 2500 and 4500) on Omaha Beach.  

At the end of the Longest Day, some 34,000 Americans had landed at Omaha Beach.  The long march to Berlin had begun.

Walking in the sands and thinking about the impossible task these young soldiers took on, thinking about their sacrifice and ultimately about their victory, certainly gives one pause to think about the other sacrifices made on our behalf by others.  It also puts a fine point on the concept of sacrifice when you have a child in the military who could one day be called upon to take up arms for the benefit of others he does not know, as these young soldiers did so long ago.

I'll say it again:  If you haven't had a chance to visit the area - the cemetery, the beach, the museums - and talk to the people who still to this day express appreciation for the sacrifices made on their behalf, make the effort.  It's worth it.

Omaha Beach

Riding in the low tide on Omaha Beach
Omaha Beach, looking west toward Pointe du Hoc
(not visible, but around the point in the photo)

Omaha Beach 

German sniper nest above private homes

Floating landing bridge

6th Engineer Special Brigade Monument

After our small lunch, we continued along the D514 toward Pointe du Hoc, the highest and most heavily fortified spot along the coastline.  As we drove along, my co-captain read aloud from Rick Steves nice little guide to Normandy about the region.  We had just arrived at the part about cidre bouche and calvados when we happened upon one of the locations he wrote about.  The sign outside said "ouvrir," and so we felt we had to stop and check it out.

Monsieur Bernard and Madame Soizic Lebrec are the current owners of a 10th century fortified farm, today called Ferme St. Claire, where they produce the famous apple-based drinks such as juice, cidre bouche, Pommeau (a mix of juice and calvados), and digestifs and aperitifs including the much sought after calvados itself.

We enjoyed a visit with them and their big dogs, had a tasting, and made a quick stop at the memorial their family built in honor of the Americans bivouacked on the premises after D-Day.  I entertained them with my bad French ("Je parle francais comme une vache espagnole" made him laugh), we made a small purchase of calvados and some post cards, and then bid them adieu and were off to Pointe du Hoc before it became too dark.

10th century Ferme Saint Claire, en route to Pointe du Hoc and maker of all things apple

10th century Ferme Saint Claire
10th century Ferme Saint Claire and their honey, apple juice, cider, aperitif and calvados

Ferme Saint Claire monument to the United States
147th Engineer Battalion, housed on the premises after the D-Day invasion

We arrived at Pointe du Hoc with only minutes to spare before the Visitor Center closed.  We had just enough time to get through security and see the short introductory film before the center closed for the day.  The grounds, however, are open 24 hours a day, so we had at least an hour before dark to explore the lunar-like landscape of the grounds high above the sea.

Grappling hook used by the U.S. Army Ranger Assault Group,
tasked with scaling the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc

By mid-1944, German forces manned formidable defenses along the French coast.  Of concern to the Allies were German 155 mm artillery positions on Pointe du Hoc.  They could wreak havoc on both Utah and Omaha Beaches.

Lt. Col. James E. Rudder, commanding the 2nd Ranger Battalion, received the mission to land at 0630 hours, scale the 100 foot cliffs, and disable the German positions.  Lt. Col. Max Schneider's 5th Ranger Battalion would follow and reinforce them.

June 6, 0550 hours:  Naval bombardment of Pointe du Hoc began, including guns of the battleship USS Texas.  Three companies (70 men per) of Rudder's 2nd Ranger Battalion were to land at Pointe du Hoc at 0630, but were delayed.  Per plan, Schneider's command (plus three companies of the 2nd) joined the Omaha Beach assault.

June 6, 0710:  Two landing craft were lost, but the Rangers debarked and started up the cliffs.  They pressed upward, supported by the destroyer USS Satterlee.  One of the Rangers DUKWs (we know these colloquially as Ducks) was disabled by enemy fire en route to Pointe du Hoc.  The engine failed.  Three Rangers were casualties, including one killed.  

June 6, 0740:  Most of the Rangers reached the top.

June 6, 0930:  The Germans had previously moved the guns southward from their initial prepared positions.  Despite fierce resistance, Rangers found and destroyed the guns pushing onward to cut the highway south of Pointe du Hoc.

June 6-8:  After fighting two days, only 90 Rangers stood when relieved by Schneider's Rangers and the 29th Infantry Division from Omaha Beach.

Information pamphlet published by the American Battle Monuments Commission

*  *  *

The Allies bombed Pointe du Hoc in preparation for D-Day from April until June.  Approximately 1500 tons of bombs fell here, creating craters like this one (below), easily 8-10 feet deep.  Taking the Pointe was essential, since the German 155s were capable of firing shells about 12 miles, making both Utah Beach (8 miles to the west) and Omaha Beach (9 miles to the east) vulnerable. 

Consider that only 200 US Army Rangers were tasked with taking the Pointe on June 6th, and they had to do so under enemy fire (less than the on the beaches as the Germans felt this site impregnable), and once they made landfall they had to scale 100 foot cliffs with rocket propelled grappling hooks and ladders borrowed from the London fire department.  Once the site was secured, reinforcements began the process of cutting off the peninsula and liberating the area.

Crater from the bombing prior to D-Day at Pointe du Hoc,
intended to "soften" the target for June 6th.

They are routinely 8-10 feet deep, like this one.
Pointe du Hoc machine gun nest (foreground), craters and artillery installations

Pointe du Hoc and the cliffs overlooking the landing site, 100 feet below

"Located Pointe du Hoc - Mission accomplished - Need ammunition and reinforcements - Many casualties"
- James Earl Rudder

Many craters of Pointe du Hoc 

Artillery installation site.  Note the metal rod in the center,
which allowed the guns to swivel and fire at both Utah and Omaha Beaches.
However, the Germans had removed any guns not under cover, replacing
them with long wooden telephone poles in order to fool the Allies.
Pointe du Hoc

Ranger "Dagger" Monument
Pointe du Hoc

Ranger Monument atop the observation bunker and
machine gun position
Pointe du Hoc

Artillery installation and viewing platform at Pointe du Hoc

Battle scars from the bombing at Pointe du Hoc

German Military Cemetery

After a moving visit to Pointe du Hoc, we had about an hours' worth of daylight remaining.  We decided to head south about 15 miles to see the German Military Cemetery at La Cambe with whatever daylight we had left.

The steel gray clouds and waning light lent this place an eerie feel, but that was probably appropriate under the circumstances.  The site itself was once a temporary cemetery for American GIs after the war, and now is the final resting place to some 21,000 German soldiers.  (Incidentally, families of American soldiers had the choice to repatriate the remains of their loved ones after the war; some 60% chose this option.)  

Rick Steves describes this as a place "more about humility than hero worship."  I like that quite a lot, and with the bare trees, strong north wind and gloomy wet weather, the cemetery is a place to recall there were scores of soldiers - many of them, like Erwin Kaminski, below - who were just teenagers, likely with a limited understanding of what they were actually fighting for.

We had the place completely to ourselves, and so we wandered around in the growing darkness for half-an-hour or so before the oncoming evening - and a short burst of showers - won the day.

The German Cemetery at La Cambe

A tombstone at the German Cemetery at La Cambe.
Simple math will tell you this soldier was only just a boy.

Roughly hewn dark basalt crosses placed among simple
markers flat against the ground.
The German Cemetery at La Cambe

The German Cemetery at La Cambe, final resting place for more than 21,000 dead
Atop the resting place of 207 unknown and 89 identified German soldiers
at the German Cemetery at La Cambe

Out of daylight, tired but satisfied with our trek for the day, we headed off to the regional city center of Bayeux for a drink and dinner, then back to Ver-sur-Mer for a rest in order to prepare for our trip the next day.

Mont Saint Michel

150 kilometers to the southeast of Ver-sur-Mer is the magical, picturesque tiny village and island abbey known to pilgrims and tourists from around the world.  For a thousand years the sight has been important to monks and has been an established monastery since the 8th century.  It has been a monastery, fort, prison and symbol of national identity for the French.  Since 1979 it is also a United Nations designated World Heritage Site.  Of course it's very popular today with tourists, reflected in the little shops selling trinkets and souvenirs on the main street in the village proper.

The village and abbey sit on a tidal island, surrounded by mudflats that, at low tide, can still be crossed on foot.  Now there is an elevated causeway, but despite this the incoming tides - which arrive with alarming speed and can overwhelm the unprepared, especially if they find themselves stuck in the mud or quicksand - have still occasionally covered the roadway.

Evidently the site is routinely overwhelmed by tourists during the warm summer months, and so this rainy January day was actually a pretty good time to visit, as numbers were way down and while we weren't all alone, it was completely manageable.  

Magical Mont Saint Michel from a distance

Le Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint Michel in the rain.
Thanks, Mr. Fellow Tourist, for leaving the raindrop on the lens.

The requisite selfie

The Abbey towers over the village below
The cobbled streets of the village below

The mudflats which surround the island

From Mont Saint Michel, showing the river Couesnon in the background,
held back by a small dam to help control the flow

The Abbey of Mont Saint Michel, with 
the golden Archangel Michel up in the fog

The Abbey of Mont Saint Michel,
still a working sanctuary

Fireplace in le Salle des Chevaliers (Knights Hall) in Mont Saint Michel

The village below the abbey has only 30 permanent residents

In the town of La Caserne across the mudflats

from Mont Saint Michel

A small inn or hotel at La Caserne

We had about a two hour drive back to Ver-sur-Mer after our visit to Mont Saint Michel, yet it was only early afternoon.  We decided to head back to Bayeux to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which is the historical record of William the Conqueror's victory over the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  Unfortunately, it was out for cleaning that day, so the museum was closed.  Not really.  It is January in northern France, where lots of things are closed.  We wandered around the town, stopped later in a small cafe for a carafe of wine, and headed back toward the B&B for some dinner in a nearby town.

Working waterwheel in Bayeux

Cathedrale Notre Dame de Bayeux

Cathedrale Notre Dame de Bayeux
Our trip was short, but eventful.  We very much enjoyed our time in this part of France, where Americans will find themselves welcome all year, and speaking French is hardly necessary.  To be sure there is much, much more to see in the region, and of course around all of France, one of our strongest and oldest allies (not just from World War II).

Go.  See things, learn things, talk to people, take it all in.  You will not be disappointed.

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