France: To Normandy and Back Part 3

ROAD TRIP SWITZERLAND and RETURN via NORMANDY PART 3.

Across Normandy to the D-Day beaches and return to Switzerland via Tonnerre.

Our route across France.

Our route across France.

From Coutances we moved further up the Cotentin Peninsula, also known as the Cherbourg Peninsula, to Cape Carteret. From here we could see the Isle of Jersey on the horizon, an island we visited in 1973.

Map showing the Channel Isles and the Cotentin Peninsula

Map showing the Channel Isles and the Cotentin Peninsula

The Isle of Jersey on the horizon as seen from Cape Carteret Light.

The Isle of Jersey on the horizon as seen from Cape Carteret Light.

Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark make up the Channel Islands and are considered the remnants of the Duchy of Normandy and are not part of the United Kingdom or France. Each of the islands has been administered separately since the 13th century and each has its own independent laws and elections. The people of the Channel Islands are British subjects but not necessarily British citizens.

Aerial view of the Cape Carteret Light, a shipping movements observation post.

Aerial view of the Cape Carteret Light, a shipping movements observation post.

The Cape Carteret Light was built in 1830. During WW2 it was a German radar base and at the time of the D-Day landings American marines scaled the cliffs and evicted the German occupiers. As the Germans left they destroyed the light and base complex. The complex was rebuilt in the late 1940s.

A lighthouse that has seen many historical events.

A lighthouse that has seen many historical events.

Contemplating how it was during WW2 on top of the cliff face in front of the lighthouse.

Contemplating how it was during WW2 on top of the cliff face in front of the lighthouse.

In 1973 Bev and I were fortunate to visit the Isle of Jersey. At the time we were living in Berkshire England and the owner of the estate on which we were living had a sister there who invited us to the island. Helena and her husband, a retired General, lived there in a grand Georgian house.

The Georgian mansion where we stayed on Jersey.  Photo taken in 1972.

The Georgian mansion where we stayed on Jersey. Photo taken in 1972.

Georgian architectural style is based on Roman design traditions of order and symmetry. In the above photograph the symmetrical influence is obvious, left and right profiles are identical.

The circumstances relating to how Helena and her husband came to live on the island are of interest.

Helena’s husband was a serving general in the British Army stationed in India during the time of English occupation and Helena went out to India as many young English girls did in those days and met with him. Eventually the general and Helena married and when India gained independence in 1947 they left.   They decided to go to Jersey where the general owned the Georgian mansion pictured above.

When they returned to the house on Jersey they were surprised to discover that German military personnel had used the house as an officers’ headquarters. All symbols of Englishness including the Tudor rose motifs over door architraves had been removed and, not content to drink in an English-style atmosphere, one room was redecorated to resemble a Bavarian beer hall. Of course Helena and the general had no wish to be reminded of the German occupation so they called in the restorers and had the house returned to its original state. For the sake of history Helena’s sewing room remained as the Germans had left it. Unfortunately I have no photographic record of the sewing room and the main reason is that back in the 1970s film was expensive and, as well, I would never have thought I would have wanted such a record forty-two years on.

Here I am up a ladder cleaning out the guttering of the barn.  Look at the chimneys. I’m glad I wasn’t asked to sweep them.

Here I am up a ladder cleaning out the guttering of the barn. Look at the chimneys. I’m glad I wasn’t asked to sweep them.

During our stay on Jersey Helena took us around the island and one overpowering aspect of the island’s history related to WW2 German occupation. The Channel Isles were the only British territory to endure German occupation during WW2.

St Heliers Port Jersey. Image credit: www.jersey.com (Tourism Jersey web site)

St Heliers Port Jersey. Image credit: http://www.jersey.com (Tourism Jersey web site)

German WW2 fortifications.   Hitler demanded the Channel Islands, including Jersey, be turned into an impregnable fortress.   Image credit: www.jersey.com (Tourism Jersey web site)

German WW2 fortifications. Hitler demanded the Channel Islands, including Jersey, be turned into an impregnable fortress. Image credit: http://www.jersey.com (Tourism Jersey web site)

Around the island of Jersey there are many reminders of Germany’s five years of occupation and the two bunkers in the above photograph are examples of the fortifications.

Winston Churchill decided that the Channel Islands had no strategic value so they were demilitarized and left undefended. However Hitler thought differently, he saw them as an important staging post for future wartime operations and moreover, having possession of the islands was of great propaganda value.

In June 1940 around 30 000 Channel islanders were evacuated leaving some 60 000 to stay and tough out the occupation. On the 28th June the Luftwaffe bombed Jersey and Guernsey, unaware the islands were undefended. Forty-four people were killed following the raids. A few days later German soldiers took up residence and German flags were raised on prominent buildings. The people of Jersey surrendered on the 1st July and islanders were forced to show their compliance by flying white flags over their houses.

German troops arrive on the Channel Islands. The Germans arrived in July 1940. The occupation of the islands came to an end in June 1944 following the D-Day landings.   Image credit: National Trust Guernsey

German troops arrive on the Channel Islands. The Germans arrived in July 1940. The occupation of the islands came to an end in June 1944 following the D-Day landings. Image credit: National Trust Guernsey

As soon as the Germans arrived a curfew was imposed, I.D. cards were issued to all islanders, radios were banned and all British born islanders were deported, some to German concentration camps. Many of the deportees never returned. A register of Jewish people was created and many of them were sent to concentration camps as well. Four labour camps were set up on the island of Alderney and the enslaved were forced to build fortifications. Anyone attempting to escape from the islands were imprisoned or shot. Helena took us to one location where people were executed: bullet holes were evident in the wall.

Whilst there was no organized resistance movement on the islands, such as there was in neighboring France, the islanders devised subtle ways of voicing their objections to the occupiers: V for victory signs were painted on buildings around the islands, underground newsletters circulated, guns and munitions were stolen from German stores.

Up until recently it was believed that the occupation of the Channel Isles by German forces was a relatively calm affair, unlike that of the lowlands countries and France. However, the real history of the occupation is very different according to author John Nettles.   In his book, Jewels and Jackboots, he says the Germans sustained a wholesale attack on human values, caused great suffering to the island population and carried out grotesque and hideous murders.

12 Jewels and Jackboots

John Nettles has more than just a passing interest in Jersey. He starred in the 1978 film, Officers of the Law. Nettles played a police detective who was ordered to work for the Germans. He recently wrote and narrated a series, The Channel Islands at War, which marked the 70th anniversary of the occupation of the Channel Isles. In Australia Nettles is probably better known for his role in the TV series Midsomer Murders.

 D-DAY BEACHES.

From Cape Carteret we headed across the Cherbourg (Cotentin) Peninsula to Utah Beach, the most western of the Normandy D-Day beaches. Visiting the D-Day beaches and Normandy generally has been on our ‘must visit’ list for many years and being able now to stand where the momentous event took place was awe-inspiring experience. Today the D-Day beaches attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, not only those who want to understand past historical events but holidaymakers wanting a tranquil seaside playground.

13 Utah beach sign

Utah Beach, where death prevailed.

Utah Beach, where death prevailed 70 years before.

I’m sure many visitors who come to the beaches come for the sand, sea and sun and are probably oblivious to what happened during those dark years of WW2.

A quiet reflective spot in the dunes overlooking Utah Beach.  quiet reflective spot in the dunes overlooking Utah Beach.

A quiet reflective spot in the dunes overlooking Utah Beach.

A trotter and his dog passing along Utah Beach.

A trotter and his dog passing along Utah Beach.

Before I venture into describing the actual D-Day event one needs to know a little about the circumstances leading up to the invasion.

Following Hitler’s attack on Poland in September of 1939 Britain and France, who had declared war on Germany in the same month, had seen little real fighting. The war declaration became known as the ‘Phoney War’ however this reference was soon dropped when Germany in May 1940 invaded France and the Low Countries (coastal regions of north western Europe including Belgium and the Netherlands). The German forces quickly overwhelmed the Dutch army. Even though the Belgian and French forces put up strong resistance they were no match for the superior-equipped German Panzers.

A formidable German Panzer Tiger tank in the fields of France.  Image credit Bundersarchive.

A formidable German Panzer Tiger tank in the fields of France. Image credit Bundersarchive.

The Germans were able to move rapidly across France because the Panzer divisions were all equipped with radios enabling the German divisions to respond quickly to rapidly changing conditions. Germany had mobilized 4.2 million men in total, of which 3 million were available for the May offensive of France.

The Allies were in full retreat, leaving behind them total chaos. They ended up with their backs to the sea and the only option open to them was to evacuate to England. The evacuation was known as ‘Operation Dynamo’, and it involved the use of civilian vessels that could cross the channel and ferry troops from the beaches to larger ships offshore or all the way back to England. The most famous evacuation was from Dunkirk.

Between May 26th and June 4th 1940 Hitler gave the order to halt the advance and the reason why he did so is debated among military historians. One plausible explanation is he considered the Allied forces were doomed as they were surrounded and he wanted to preserve Panzer equipment for battles to the south. During the halt 200 000 British and 140 000 French troops were evacuated to England.

Troops waiting evacuation.  Image credit: from www.warhistoryonline.com

Troops waiting evacuation. Image credit: from http://www.warhistoryonline.com

British troops retreating from Dunkirk  Image credit: From a film by Frank Capra (Public domain) via Wikipedia.

British troops retreating from Dunkirk Image credit: From a film by Frank Capra (Public domain) via Wikipedia.

Abandoned vehicles along one of the beaches at Dunkirk.  Image credit: South West News Service.Com via daily telegraph.co.uk

Abandoned vehicles along one of the beaches at Dunkirk. Image credit: South West News Service.Com via daily telegraph.co.uk

It is interesting to note that many of the truck bonnets are open and rendered unserviceable before they were abandoned.

Just prior to posting this story I found in a secondhand book shop an enlightening book of fiction based on fact titled Return via Dunkirk.   The author described how vehicles were rendered unserviceable.

‘First the radiators are drained and the engine set running to seize them up. A couple of hefty blows with a pickaxe finishes off the radiator. After the tyres are deflated they are cut and slashed to ribbons.   When the engines have stopped the sledgehammers get to work, smashing plugs, magneto and carburettor’.

The book by Gun Buster, Return via Dunkirk, is an enthralling read and being based on fact it certainly fired my imagination as to what conditions were like for retreating troops. Gun Buster was the pseudonym for an author of a series of novels about the British exploits in WW2. His works have been attributed to John Charles Austin and his son, Captain Richard C Austin who was a captain in the Royal Artillery. The book is available through ABE Books and Amazon for as little as a $1-00.

Dunkirk was not the only evacuation port. There were a number of ports to the south as well. One evacuation port I know of was the Port of Le Verdon near Bordeaux. A friend of ours disembarked from there in June 1940. In 1973 Bev and I met Joan, sister of Helena of the Jersey anecdote in this post, and she related to us her war experiences after joining the British Mechanised Transport Corps (MTC) in 1940. Prior to joining the MTC she consulted a fortuneteller who told her she would work in a foreign country and meet a blond blue-eyed man whom she would marry. Bev and I stayed with Joan on a number of occasions and we spent many hours listening to her stories.

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Joan was sent to France (the ‘foreign country’) and her duties were to drive wounded and ill patients to and from hospitals in France, not in an ambulance as such but in a donated 1931 Rolls-Royce Phantom Sedance de Ville, similar to the one shown in the photograph below. Joan and a number of other British personnel fled across France in front of the German advance in June 1940 and were evacuated from the Port of Le Verdon.

Royce Sedance de Ville 1934. image by ChiemseeMan in public domain

Royce Sedance de Ville 1934. image by ChiemseeMan in public domain

Joan 1940

Joan 1940

Fortunately Joan kept a detailed diary of her experiences and following are some extracts from her diary relating to the run she made to the Port of Le Verdon (on the shores of the Bay of Biscay) from where she was evacuated to England.

May 31st 1940…..’The war is well and truly underway and my headquarters in Paris has received an SOS for an ambulance and two drivers, to leave immediately’. The request related to the imminent fall of Paris to the Germans and the evacuation of a Quaker hospital in the suburbs of Paris. ‘No ambulance is available, so Mrs Rosalie Bloomingdale’s magnanimous offer of her large Rolls-Royce limousine is accepted with alacrity’. Apparently there were complications with the collection of the Rolls Royce. ‘Still no Rolls; so with two colleagues, we heard of its den and what a fearsome and impressive object! The chauffeur takes twenty minutes to start the engine, which fills me with apprehension. Anyway I climb in beside the French chauffeur and off we go across Paris to fill up with vast amounts of petrol’.

Joan felt very regal gliding along in the mighty Rolls, however it was far from a pleasure outing. ‘Just outside Paris I notice people taking cover or jumping into ditches beside the road, and I can hear planes overhead and gunfire, I don my steel hat….Sirens go only if formations of 25 or more planes approach. Very large formations of enemy bombers fly over, a most terrifying impressive sight, I fear they are heading for Paris. The air seems to vibrate with the roar of their engines’.

June 4th 1940…..’The Rolls is going to be vitally important (we have no wish to be taken prisoner). I do what I can to ensure it is in reasonable condition for our escape. Apart from cleaning the plugs, which are in a disgraceful state, checking the tyres, spare tools etc., nothing much is getable, as seals with instructions to return to maker should the need arise restrict any further servicing.   I camouflage the radiator with grey paint. What sacrilege!’

June 5th 1940…’I take the Rolls to Chalon sur Saone and collect some expectant mothers from champagne cellars outside of town. There are many families living there, like troglodytes, in these grim tunnels and they have been here for a month. Personally I would far rather take my chances above ground. The children look wretched, have running sores and streaming noses; cooking utensils, washing, all lying around with water dripping down the walls and in puddles underfoot.

June 6th 1940…. At this stage it is realized that the Rolls is extremely thirsty and because petrol supplies are limited she takes the hospital matron’s car to pick up a patient…The matron and I take her car to collect a patient some miles away, the former survives, but the car ‘dies’ ten times en route, we manage to limp back to the hospital.   The Mechanised Transport Corps goes into action…I hit on the problem –a blocked petrol pipe.’

June 7th 1940….’I take a woman and a newborn baby ten miles to Rheims, it is hard to believe we are so near the front; peasants are working in the fields and I see a troop of black cavalry, no other sign of any other defense, what chance will they have if there is a breakthrough in this sector?    The Roll’s tool box, which fits (or doesn’t) on runners under the car is extremely heavy, falls off and I run over it. Terrific hullabaloo! But wonders of wonders no damage done’.

The girls of the MTC.  The lapel insignia was two crossed spanners indicating to me these girls were very good at getting troublesome cars going.  Image credit: www.histoireconstitution44.com

The girls of the MTC. The lapel insignia was two crossed spanners indicating to me these girls were very good at getting troublesome cars going. Image credit: http://www.histoireconstitution44.com

June 8th 1940…’I hang around waiting orders. I can hear guns and there is an ominous atmosphere; unmilked cows are mooing pitifully in the fields, deserted dogs and cats roaming the streets, all very depressing and I am constantly asked to show my identity papers’.

June 9th 1940….’I rise at 4-45am and take a woman to the railway station and have to cope with floods of tears when the train doesn’t run. Heavy gunfire getting uncomfortably near, there are of course no newspapers, post or radio’.

June 10th 1940…’Rumor has it that Italy has declared war on the Allies, deep depression among the staff. We prepare to leave at a moment’s notice’.

June 11th 1940….’The prefecture informed us that a hospital train will leave today and a cattle truck is reserved for our hospital’.

Joan in her Rolls helps military ambulances transport fifty patients to the cattle truck. ‘As we are loading them (the patients) into the Rolls and the ambulances there is a heavy bombardment, the street is machine-gunned from the air…one nurse has hysterics, the patients trapped inside the ambulance bunks are groaning and sobbing. We have been warned that all communication has broken down and there is a good chance we will be taken prisoner’.

June 12th 1940….‘9-30am we are informed that the bridges are to be blown up in 45 minutes. Many locals choose to head south and the Rolls is loaded. I even manage to fix a bicycle on the running board – “how are the mighty fallen!”. A final farewell to the hospital, lock the doors and head south. The journey south is fraught with danger. Refugees everywhere, in every conceivable transport and now that includes us, all aiming south, but where to, poor things? At least we have a refuge if we can get as far as that’.  The refuge is the Port of Le Verdon, not far from La Rochelle (where we passed through yesterday).

June 13th 1940….‘At every town we pass through we endeavor to get news of the hospital train…we are told it has been bombed and a nun and two old people are dead, but our patients are OK. This night we sleep in a haystack, with rats squeaking and scuttling around us’.  

Because of the likelihood of being taken prisoner Joan decides to drive to the town of Limoges where the MTC headquarters were located. Upon arrival she finds no MTC people there. On enquiry to the owner of the hotel where MTC headquarters were located Joan learnt that…..‘As far as she could gather, all the foregathered there have left for Bordeaux, having received instructions from the British Embassy to leave for England’.

June 14th 1940….The brother of the matron who is travelling with Joan provides accommodation in the town of Millan for the hospital staff . ‘The matron’s brother is fully prepared for the hospital staff and patients in his glove factory buildings. Still no word of the hospital train’.

June 15th 1940…’spent the rest of the day trying to trace the missing trainload, we meet with no success. Poor things, I only hope they have not been shunted off to some hospital en route, but one fears the worst’.

June 16th 1940… Tempers run high in the civilian population, they accuse the British of deserting them…..’I did not feel too happy in my British uniform, feelings are running high and I don’t imagine we are very popular’.

On the way to the the Port of Le Verdon Joan picks up an RAF Spitfire pilot. He happens to be a blue-eyed blond by the name of Peter. In her words…. ‘As a uniformed driver with a large Rolls-Royce I am in constant demand liaising between units, taking messages, transporting VIPs etc. I pick up an admiral and an unknown, so far, RAF officer, who climbs up beside me. All I notice is that he is extremely good looking and has an old Etonian scarf round his neck. But just now our three priorities are survival, food and sleep.’ Joan and Peter make it to the docks where, under fire from an enemy plane, they board a motor launch and are transported out to a waiting ship for a four day and night trip to Wales. The fortuneteller’s prophesy comes true when they later marry.

The handsome Spitfire pilot who Joan married.

The handsome Spitfire pilot who Joan married.

 

Prior to leaving the dock Joan said goodbye to the Rolls: ‘Time has now come to say goodbye to the intrepid Rolls. Rows of cars, all of which have to be abandoned, are lined up on the dock. Their owners are busy removing bits and pieces such as clocks and trophies. I remove the Spirit of Ecstasy mascot.   Peter tells me I should have sold it for a packet of cigarettes, what sacrilege’.

Bev and I stayed with Joan and it was thought provoking to see the Spirit of Ecstasy that she had plucked from the intrepid Rolls standing on her grand piano.

Troop evacuation on SS Guinean during operation Ariel from Port Le Verdon docks.   Image via Wikipedia.

Troop evacuation on SS Guinean during operation Ariel from Port Le Verdon docks. Image via Wikipedia.

When Operation Dynamo was formally wound up, more than 100,000 men were still in France, some fighting with the rear guard against the advancing German army, others looking for ways to escape.

After the evacuations Britain faced the possibility of a German invasion. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain at the time, told the people and the parliament….‘You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, with all our might and with all our strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all cost, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be’.

A famous extract from another of Churchill’s rousing speeches was’…we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills: we shall never surrender…’

 D-DAY INVASION.

Following the evacuation of France Hitler ordered that the coast be fortified, defenses were established from as far north as Norway to Spain in the south. The line of fortifications was called the Atlantic Wall and it comprised concrete gun emplacements, wooden stakes, metal tripods, mines and anti tank obstacles on the beach fronts.

Nazi soldiers involved with building defenses running for cover from low flying Allied aircraft.  Photo credit AP from http://vcepinc.org

Nazi soldiers involved with building defenses running for cover from low flying Allied aircraft. Photo credit AP from http://vcepinc.org

 

The original caption for this photograph indicated that the Allied fliers were not threatening but were involved with taking photographs of the Atlantic Wall defenses.

The fight against the heart of the tyrannical regime referred to by Churchill commenced on the 6th June 1944.  The liberation of France involved troops from America, Britain, Canada, Belgium, Holland, France, Norway, Czechoslovakia, Australia, New Zealand and Poland.

Whilst researching this posting I came across a treasure of a web page and it shows an amazing series of black and white photographs (the image above is one) depicting the buildup to and the D-Day landing action. The web page is http://vcepinc.org and it is the page of Veterans’ Community Education Partnership for West Volusia Inc. Wherever I have used photographs from their web page I have given credit by stating http://vcepinc.org

One of the many gun emplacements facing Utah Beach.

One of the many gun emplacements facing Utah Beach.

A gun emplacement with its back broken. Imagine the force required to snap this concrete mass in half.

A gun emplacement with its back broken. Imagine the force required to snap this concrete mass in half.

The D-Day invasion was one of the world’s most gut-wrenching and consequential battles of all times. The successful penetration of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall led to the liberation of France and marked the turning point in the western theatre of WW2.

The decision to liberate France and rid Europe of Nazism was made in May 1943 at the Trident Conference in Washington. Troops from America, Britain, Canada, Poland and France (totalling over one million men) were committed to the battle for Normandy. The map below shows the location of the Normandy beaches. The note under the main heading details how many Allied troops went ashore. The numbers are staggering.

Many people believe that the D stands for deliverance. This is not the case, the D stands for Designated.

Many people believe that the D stands for deliverance. This is not the case, the D stands for Designated.

 

The D-Day invasion planners knew well that the success of the invasion was dependent on the weather, conditions had to be just right. A full moon was required to provide illumination for aircraft pilots and the best time for the landings was just before dawn and midway between low and high tide with the tide running in. Had the invasion not gone ahead on the 6th June the next window of opportunity was two weeks later which, for many reasons, was not desirable.

Fortunately for the Allies they were able to study incoming Atlantic weather patterns, whereas the German meteorologists did not have that luxury. The German meteorologists in Paris were predicting two weeks of bad weather so many German commanders left their posts to attend war games in Rennes and many men were given leave. Field Marshal Rommel, who was commanding officer for the Normandy zone, returned to Germany for his wife’s birthday and to meet with Hitler. All this absenteeism was a positive for the allies.

American soldiers, equipped with full pack and an extra allotment of ammunition, march down an English street to their invasion craft for embarkation to Normandy.  Image credit:  AP from http://vcepinc.org

American soldiers, equipped with full pack and an extra allotment of ammunition, march down an English street to their invasion craft for embarkation to Normandy. Image credit: AP from http://vcepinc.org

U.S. servicemen attend a Protestant service off the French coast aboard a landing craft before the D-Day invasion.  Image credit: AP Photo/Pete Carroll from http://vcepinc.org

U.S. servicemen attend a Protestant service off the French coast aboard a landing craft before the D-Day invasion. Image credit: AP Photo/Pete Carroll from http://vcepinc.org

When I first viewed the above image I thought the men were looking at their Smartphones! They are in fact holding prayer books

U.S. assault troops approaching a landing beach.  Image credit: AFP via http://vcepinc.org web page.

U.S. assault troops approaching a landing beach. Image credit: AFP via http://vcepinc.org web page.

Barges similar to the one shown in the above photograph travelled forward and backwards across the English Channel taking wave after wave of troops to the Allied beachheads. Once the barge beached and the front door dropped these troops stepped into a living hell.

American soldiers sitting in their foxholes.  Not much protection, a few buckets of beach sand. Photo by: AP/Weston Hayes via http://vcepinc.org

American soldiers sitting in their foxholes. Not much protection, a few buckets of beach sand. Photo by: AP/Weston Hayes via http://vcepinc.org

Members of an American landing unit help exhausted comrades ashore.  Photo AP via via http://vcepinc.org web page

Members of an American landing unit help exhausted comrades ashore. Photo AP via via http://vcepinc.org web page.

During the D-Day landing and the ensuing three months it took to crack Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and secure the Normandy beaches some 21 500 Allied soldiers and roughly as many Germans were killed or wounded. Allied foot soldiers came from America, Britain, Canada, Poland and France and servicemen from Australia and New Zealand patrolled the sea and skies above.

After the initial battle to take the beaches there followed a massive logistical effort to make the coastline more user friendly. To reduce onshore swells ships were sunk to form sea walls, artificial platforms were constructed and roads were pushed inland. Once the Allies breached the defenses of the wall they moved into marshlands and hedgerow country. Fighting in the hedgerows was severe and intense, the inshore battles became known as the ‘Battle of the Hedgerows’. It was estimated that for every metre gained through the hedgerows it cost one soldier’s life.

An aerial photograph of the hedgerows.  Image from open-air exhibition Utah beach.  Photographer unknown.

An aerial photograph of the hedgerows. Image from open-air exhibition Utah beach. Photographer unknown.

Bad news!  An Allied tank in an embarrassing position on the edge of the marshlands.   Image from open-air exhibition Utah beach.  Photographer unknown

Bad news! An Allied tank in an embarrassing position on the edge of the marshlands.
Image from open-air exhibition Utah beach. Photographer unknown.

German prisoners of war working in an Allied cemetery Normandy after the D-Day invasion.  Photo credit: AP via via http://vcepinc.org web page

German prisoners of war working in an Allied cemetery Normandy after the D-Day invasion. Photo credit: AP via via http://vcepinc.org web page

Some of the men buried in the above cemetery once trod the beaches where tourists now swim and frolic.

Lest we Forget, a creative image by Joel Saget. June 2009.   American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer Omaha Beach.  Image credit: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images via via http://vcepinc.org web page

Lest we Forget, a creative image by Joel Saget. June 2009. American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer Omaha Beach. Image credit: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images via via http://vcepinc.org web page

What price freedom cries this local wren?  Image credit: From of a poster near Utah Beach.  Photo by Bev.

What price freedom cries this local wren? Image credit: From of a poster near Utah Beach. Photo by Bev.

Once the hedgerows were under Allied control they fanned out and set about liberating towns close by. One group of Americans headed for the Port of Cherbourg and after a fierce battle there the German garrison surrendered. British and Canadian forces moved towards Caen and liberated the town after two previous unsuccessful attempts. The town of Coutances (where we stayed last night) was liberated.   By the end of the Normandy battles the Allies lost 200 000 men and the Germans 400 000 either killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner.

From August the 19th onwards, events moved fast. Paris was liberated in August 1944 and eventually the Allied armies made it to Berlin.

Sign on a bunker at Utah Beach.  Berlin1105 kilometres.

Sign on a bunker at Utah Beach. Berlin 1105 kilometres.

The following three photographs show how Normandy looks today from the air.

Pointe du Hoc near Omaha Beach pocked by D-Day bombardment. Image credit:Alexandra BOULAT.

Pointe du Hoc near Omaha Beach pocked by D-Day bombardment. Image credit:Alexandra BOULAT..

The sands of Utah Beach.  Image credit: Alexandra BOULAT.

The sands of Utah Beach. Image credit: Alexandra BOULAT.

Aerial view of American War Cemetery. Image credit: Alexandra BOULAT.

Aerial view of American War Cemetery. Image credit: Alexandra BOULAT.

Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7th 1945 thus bringing World War Two in Europe to an end.

AFTER NORMANDY.

From Normandy we turned to the east and headed for Switzerland as our friend Thomas wanted to be back home a day before returning to work. On the way we took chambers in the town of Tonnerre in Burgundy. One striking feature of the town was its 13th century medieval hospital, the Hotel-Dieu. The hospital was built between 1293 and 1295, that’s seven hundred and twenty one years ago. When I first saw the outside of the building I didn’t know it had been a hospital. What struck me first was the tiled roof. The tiles were small squares, millions of them. My first reaction was to get inside and take a look at the roof structure because it was such a massive construction.

Hospital in Tonnerre. Nothing flash to look at but an amazing roof structure.  Note the bullet and shrapnel damage on the buttresses.

Hospital in Tonnerre. Nothing flash to look at but an amazing roof structure. Note the bullet and shrapnel damage on the buttresses.

The curved ceiling inside the hospital.

The curved ceiling inside the hospital.

Gaining access to the hospital was simple. Pay your money and you’re in. However getting in and looking up at the barrel-vaulted ceiling did not answer the question as to how the roof was supported. Fortunately there was an exhibited model of the roof construction above the ceiling.

Massive timbers and massive roof. The ceiling as shown in the previous photograph was secured up to the curved timbers in the centre of the structure.

Massive timbers and massive roof. The ceiling as shown in the previous photograph was secured up to the curved timbers in the centre of the structure.

The sign on the roof model stated: la Societe des Compagnons Charpentiers des Deroirs du tour de France d’Orleans. I’m grateful to the Society of the Companion of Carpenters for building the model. Had I not seen above the ceiling and how the roof was built it would have remained one of life’s mysteries and I do not like mysteries of this kind. I would like to get up in the roof and walk among the timbers some time though. Next time maybe.

Now is the time to get down from the roof and take you for a tour of the hospital. Before going into the hospital, imagine what it would have been like for the nurses and doctors and the patients who were confined to this hospital seven hundred years ago. The atmosphere would have been bedlam and very uncomfortable for the interned and the staff.

This great hall served as a hospital and a chapel.

This great hall served as a hospital and a chapel.

The sick lay in forty alcoves along the lateral walls and church pews ran down the centre. This configuration meant the sick were able to hear mass. The altar was at the far end. In the 13th century there was no tradition of scientific medicine and observations and cures went hand-in-hand with spiritual beliefs and influences so this may have been the reason for the hospital/church configuration. It is hard to imagine what suffering occurred in this hospital as anesthetic was not developed until the 18th century.

Amazingly, the hospital has survived storms, wars and revolutions. In the Hundred Year War of 1359 English army troops, after drinking three thousand barrels of wine, burnt the town of Tonnerre to the ground but they spared the hospital, not because they appreciated the fine carpentry in the roof but because King Edward had encamped there. During the French Revolution some of the tombs inside the hospital were destroyed, including the tomb of Queen Marguerite of Burgundy, who founded the hospital. In 1918, the hospital was used as a warehouse by the American Army and during WW2 part of the roof was destroyed by aerial bombing.

As is the case with many buildings we have visited during our travels it’s the fine detail often overlooked by tourists that interests me; for example, the initials carved into the chapel pews.

Who were you, IP?

Who were you, IP?

Does E love H and was V bored with the sermon?  Looking closely at the ‘V’ it is obvious that the carver knew letter configuration; look at the delicate serifs on the letters.

Does E love H and was V bored with the sermon? Looking closely at the ‘V’ it is obvious that the carver knew letter form; look at the delicate serifs on the letters.

Behind the chapel altar was an amazing sculpture, the Holy Sepulchre or the Entombment of Christ sculpture.

Followers of this blog know that I admire the work of French sculptor Rodin above all others but now I have to put brothers Jean-Michel and George de la Sonnette up there with Rodin. The Entombment of Christ by them is magnificent. Its stylistic purity is representative of 15th century art in Burgundy.

The Entombment of Christ.  The magnificence is in the detail.

The Entombment of Christ. The magnificence is in the detail.

The body of Christ lies on a winding sheet (shroud). St Nicodemus holds Christ’s head and Joseph of Arimathia is at his feet. Behind the corpse are the Virgin Mary, St John, Mary Magdalene and two holy women. A rich Tonnerre merchant gave the sculpture to the hospital. I wonder what the brothers were paid for their efforts.

Christ’s head, with exquisite beard detail.

Christ’s head, with exquisite beard detail.

Veiled figure.

Veiled figure.

Every time I look at the image above I try to fathom how the creation of such thin delicate stonework was achieved. I have a feeling that the veil portion may not be the original, especially in light of the French Revolutionists having plundered the chapel. However, regardless, it is fine work whether it is old or recent. For the moment I will accept it as original.

Another fine marble sculpture within the hospital, that of the tomb of Marguerite of Burgundy.

Another fine marble sculpture within the hospital, that of the tomb of Marguerite of Burgundy.

The original 14th century sculpture was destroyed during the French Revolution. The one shown in the above photograph was erected in 1826. One day I’m going to investigate why on many early sculptures the sculptors exposed one of the woman’s breasts.

After visiting the Tonnerre hospital we went poking around the back streets and found the Fosse Dionne, a natural spring which flowed into a circular lavoir. A lavoir is a public place for the washing of clothes. In the case of the Tonnerre lavoir, washerwomen were protected from the weather by a rotunda roof. Clothes were wetted down then rubbed with ash, rinsed then sometimes beaten with a wooden paddle to remove excess water. Many women made washing their profession and were known as laundresses.

Tonnerre’s Fosse Dionne.

Tonnerre’s Fosse Dionne.

Today the lavoir is not used for washing, it is simply an historical icon for the town. Fortunately for us Yves, a town gardener, was tending the hanging flowerpots and even though neither of us could speak each other’s language we managed to communicate using my concertina diary.

My normal day to day diaries for the past thirty five years are A4 size books but because of the weight factor when bike riding in northern Europe I used a much lighter concertina variation.

Yves showed more than a passing interest in my writings and because he was so interested I recorded our visit to the lavoir on the spot.

Yves showed more than a passing interest in my writings and because he was so interested I recorded our visit to the lavoir on the spot.

Watercolouring our visit and Yves getting a phone photo off to his family.

Watercolouring our visit and Yves getting a phone photo off to his family.

I bought the blank concertina diary above in St Gallen Switzerland in a secondhand shop three years ago for $2-00.

A couple of locals enjoying our travel stories.

A couple of locals enjoying our travel stories.

The concertina diary fully extended.

The concertina diary fully extended.

It is natural for travellers like us to come in contact with not only locals but fellow travellers as well and when we tell them we come from Australia many say ‘I’m not sure if I want to visit Australia as there are too many snakes, spiders, sharks and crocodiles’.   In Greece earlier in this odyssey we were constantly being asked about the Australian bird-eating spider and crocodiles. My reply to the bird-eating spider concern was that I have never seen one as they are solitary insects, never venturing far from their burrow and their range is restricted to a small area in the tropics so one is not likely to bump into any. They are big though with a 230mm footprint span and fangs 35mm long. Their venom can kill a dog, cat and a bird but not humans.

With regard to crocodiles… yes, there are many and they do sometimes take humans but the ones who fall victim usually are drunk and sleeping off a drinking binge by watercourses, fishermen who are not heeding the signs or European tourists who ignore the signs about swimming.

Because we were constantly being asked about crocodiles I prepared a card similar to a business card (shown in photograph below) indicating where crocodiles live. The shaded area above the dotted line in the following image is croc country. Also on the card is shown answers to other questions we were frequently asked…maximum recorded temperature 56 degrees C, coldest temperature minus 20 degrees C and the length and breadth distance of the Australian continent. Over the past seven months I have given out about three hundred of these cards.

Croc country is the shaded zone above the dotted line.

Croc country is the shaded zone above the dotted line.

From Tonnerre we made a ‘bee line’ for Switzerland. The France Road Trip had some shortcomings and they related mainly to the fact we were there during the French summer holidays, however we saw parts of France that definitely warrant a return trip. We would like to do the same trip again but have at least two months to do it, which might sound a long time but for us going slow and seeing all is our nature.

Our thanks to Thomas for taking us to parts of France we have not seen before. US General Douglas Macarthur said after leaving Bataan during WW2, ‘I came through and I shall return’. Those words could well apply to our trip to France. Hopefully one day we can return.

This is the final post for our France road trip. A question I ask when I get to the end of a post is ‘have I learned anything?’ In this case, I definitely have. Bev and I hope you have enjoyed the journey. Leave a comment if you wish and if it doesn’t have commercial connotations I will reply. The next post will relate to getting from Switzerland to Sweden when we will be back on our bikes, something we are looking forward to.

 

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About tbeartravels

It's been said that I know a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about little things. I hope I can share some of this knowledge with you as we travel.
This entry was posted in Odyssey Part 2: 2014. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to France: To Normandy and Back Part 3

  1. Wendy says:

    Taken me a while to catch up on your posts. I now have much deeper appreciation of wartime history in that area thanks to your research and presentation. Never knew much about any of the wars really. Thanks Fred (and Bev)

  2. Philipp says:

    Hello my dear Bev and Fred,
    For last months I was browsing throughout your adventures and have to say I learned a lot from it! Very informative and lovely to read. Especially the well searched background information and the wonderfull handwritten maps do the trick. I am very happy having encountered you in Dresden.
    For the both of you the best wishes and happy holidays.
    Philipp

  3. Kevin and Sue Dewar says:

    Hi Fred and Bev,
    It was so good to read the 2 latest blogs and to see your photos.I really enjoyed reading the inserts
    from Joan’s diary, amazing!!.
    Hope you have found it easy to settle back into country life in Moonbi.
    Have you painted any of your water tanks yet with your holiday memories Fred?
    Have a great Chrissy and see you in 2015
    Love Kev, Sue and Family xx

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