Wednesday, 22 September 2010


I have spent much of the last few days close to tears.  Nothing bad has happened to me - no family disasters or work related nightmares - and I am not depressed about anything.  It's just that we took a long weekend and spent it in Normandy, in the middle of the American section of the D-Day Landings just outside St Mere Eglise.  We were only a few miles from Utah Beach.

I suppose it is possible to avoid reminders of D-Day when one goes to Normandy, but we couldn't.  St Mere Eglise was probably the first town captured by the Americans after the landings began, when paratroopers were dropped on the village and surrounding countryside.  Their casualty rate was about 50%. 
One lucky man (it does depend on how you look at it), John Steele, got caught on the church steeple during his landing and had to play dead while watching his unit being shot to pieces in the square below.  Steele survived.  Today, a permanent reminder hangs from the church tower.

And the museum is dedicated to the 82nd Airborne.

We hadn't planned the trip to be a tour around the memorials but how could we ignore them? The idea was to spend a long weekend staying with a friend in the farmhouse his parents partially own.  Thursday morning, we caught the early ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg.

The only "site" on my list was Bayeux - I wanted to visit the Tapestry.  Apart from that, I planned to sleep, laze around, visit a market or two and possibly cook a meal with the results.   Oh, and find a yarn shop (I succeeded and failed at that - the only one I found was closed on Monday afternoon when we visited).

We made it to Bayeux on Friday, saw the Tapestry, and drove to Arromanches afterwards for a picnic lunch.  I was sitting on the sea wall, looking out over the remains of the Mulberry Harbour when it hit me that this is where it all happened.  Gold Beach.  We were at the heart of D-Day and couldn't avoid it.  For much of the battle in France, Arromanches was the Allies only real harbour, towed in pieces across the Channel hours after the landings began (40% of the components were lost at sea); its sister harbour at Omaha Beach destroyed by bad weather days after it was built.

(I wish I had DH's camera handy to raid.  Among the pictures he took at Arromanches is a plaque commemorating the engineering companies involved in designing/building the harbour.  I've worked for two of them.  We used a couple more on my Project, including one of the fabrication companies.)

Once I started looking, I couldn't stop.  We visited the museum at Arromanche and back in St Mere Eglise.  I learned about the markers at the side of the road.  There are two types:  the D-Day Route markers which are numbered, start in St Mere Eglise and follow the route the troups took to liberate France.

Far sadder are the memorial markers which name a stretch of road after a soldier who died nearby.  In some places, so many men died that they're lined up side by side.

I went round the museums with tears in my eyes but didn't truly break down until we went to Utah Beach.  The beach was empty and windswept.

Behind the dunes on the left are the remains of a gun emplacement captured from the Germans.  These days it is the hub of one of the memorials.  Upstairs are flagpoles and monuments.  Downstairs, is a corridor leading to a bunker.  In the corridor a simple plaque said "in memory of our fallen comrades" and listed the names of the men from the unit who died during its capture.  It had been placed there by the survivors; it was personal.  That's when I lost it completely. I went outside and sobbed my heart out.

I cried for all the men who died before their time; for their family members whose hearts were broken as a result; and for the men who survived but were injured and had to suffer in agonised silence so as to not give their position away.  Such a waste.

I'm crying now, as I type this.  I can barely see the screen.   

- Pam


amy said...

When I backpacked in Europe for a month Normandy was on my must-see list. My great-uncle is buried in the American Cemetery, and I needed to put flowers on his grave. I visited in 1995, and the buntings and signs commemorating the 50th anniversary were still up from the year before. Visiting involved taking a train from Paris (where I was staying in a hostel) and then a bus out to the cemetery. While I waited for the bus I visited the Tapestry, and then I went to a flower shop and bought flowers in my halting French, dredged up from high school. And when I said they were for the cemetery, oh the look and the smile I received. And I cried, too. All those crosses, so many of them, as far as you can see.

nobody said...

When I went to France in 2003 Normandy was on my must see list. I found it very moving. I wish I could be more eloquent.