Through my eye

A sometimes caustic view of things.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Transiting France

Normandy, France

Arrived by Irish Ferries at Cherbourg on July 2nd, after the proverbial dark and stormy night. The seas before the English channel were very heavy. The boat did some rockin’ and rollin’ that left many passengers too sick to move or sleep.

Not the Iron Stomach—Connie ate a big meal with pork and gravy, whilst I kept very moderate with fruit, cheese and bread. As a consequence I didn’t suffer and was able to sleep in my bunk, despite the feeling that the ship was on the verge of capsizing at any moment. I didn’t say anything to Connie, but she thought of that on her own and stayed awake most of the night—the difference between a fatalist and a worrier.

As we arrived at the harbor, many families with small children looked as if they were at death’s door. Sometimes the kids were OK but the parents looked even worse than the others, because they had to keep the kids under control, even though they were sick. We saw at least one set of kids, the oldest a girl of about 12, who had heelies and would gather at the side of the ship in the lounge and wait until the ship was tilted as high as possible on that side and they would race on their wheels to the far side before the ship tilted back. Every once in a while I’d hear a weak “stop that” from a parent lying down in a lounge seat.

They we trained to Caen, pronounced as if you started to cough a derogatory term for a female part: Cuhn! We rented a car because I wanted to tour the seaside beaches that were the focal point of D-Day in WWII.

Caen, itself, is a great town. Extensively damaged in the days after D-Day, it is so repaired that you would think it had always looked as it does now. Apparently the French do not want to destroy the look of their town centers every few years, but rebuild to be as solid as they look and as if they had never been blasted to bits. If it was that way in 1910, they want it to look that way now.

There is a castle in the center of Caen that was used as a depot by the Germans. From the front it looks as it did when William the Conqueror left to invade England more than a thousand years ago (except the moat is gone). If you go inside where the museums showcase the history and art of the area, you can see restoration work still going on at the rear of the castle. In this case they want it to look like 1066.

What a comparison to how we tear down our old durable buildings to put up pre-fab garbage with a 20 year life-span.

We saw Pegasus Bridge where the first British glider troops landed. We stopped at Arromanches, where remains of one of the two artificial harbors still exists. We visited Omaha beach and the American cemetery. We also toured Point du Hoc and St Mere Eglise.

You can read the history books and see all the movies about it that you want, but the scale of the invasion doesn’t hit you quite like seeing the sites with your own eyes.

Gliders smashed down to pinpoint landings with feet of the Orne river bridge the troops had to capture. When the bridge was replaced (fairly recently) they moved the old bridge intact a short distance away and built a museum around it—so you can still walk the bridge and count the bullet scars. It is forever named after the unit emblem of the men who captured it and held it against all odds—the Pegasus bridge.

Arromanches was one of two artificial harbors made with concrete barriers code-named Mulberries that were floated across the channel and sunk in place. A storm destroyed the one in the American sector, but Arromanches remained and encompasses two separate small harbors that were miles apart and divided by a huge highland. Each had their own feeder roads and allowed for simultaneous unloadings and loadings.

The way we saw Omaha beach was to find our way down to the beach and see how high it was to the top and how steep the way, then we went to the cemetery with its excellent museum and memorials and saw the sight of all those headstones that appear to stretch down to the beach that most of the men lying there had to cross.

Point du Hoc is another headland. At the axis of Omaha and Utah beaches, it gave the Germans a superb defensive position where sited artillery could fire on either beach. The Germans had moved their big guns or not installed them, but the D-Day command didn’t know that and sent 225 Rangers to take the heights from the sea—a 300 meter climb straight up against a defended position. Surprise lasted as long as the first shot, then it was hand to hand and the Rangers won. Then they had to defend the position from counterattack and cut the nearby coast road so the Germans couldn’t bring reserves and supplies in either direction. When it was over, after three days of intense fighting, only 90 survived. Some of the bunkers still exist and the giant shell craters from bombing and naval bombardment and German attempts to destroy the Rangers are still there, as well. The whole area is more than a historical site, it is a grave site because both German and Americans were blasted to bits and their remains covered by the rubble where they remain to this day.

St. Mere Eglise has a museum dedicated to the American Airborne who liberated the town on the night of June 5th and morning of June 6th. They keep a parachute with mannequin trooper hanging from the steeple in memory of the trooper who survived by pretending to be dead while all his buddies were being shot by the Germans in the town square. They built their museum around a C-47 airplane and a Waco glider.

Normandy is a land of solid old homes, farms, pastures—the bocage country—and good food and drink, especially apple cider and calvados, an apple brandy.

The hotel we stayed in was the Ibis at Herouville Saint Clair, by the outer highway ring of Caen. It was the prettiest such hotel we’ve yet seen. Greenery all around in a quiet location. Rabbits in the flower beds. Birds chirping away every day. Not easy to get to without a car, but we were prepared for that. Altogether a lovely place well worth returning to someday.


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