This year’s trip was always going to have the opportunity to be special ever since earlier in the year when I’d received an email from Jesse Sheppard (Grandson of Morris Sheppard, one of the “names” in the Shed). The anticipation was increased once it also looked as ‘though Jim, Jesse’s father & Morris’ son would be joining the trip.
Initially, Jesse was hoping to arrive in time for the D Day celebration weekend, unfortunately, his current employer dithered & dathered & eventually it looked as ‘though it was going to be around the of June before they’d be able to make it. Time on both sides was somewhat at a premium as Jesse, his father & some of Jesse’s friends were doing a quick tour of Europe, so had limited time to spend in Normandy.
In addition, we’d had more opportunity to read through Ray Elledge’s manuscript (which had only arrived just before the trip last year) & hopefully, we’d be able to find out a few more places that had relevance to the “Men in the Shed”.
Tuesday 15th June
We set out early as the plan was to cross to France early evening & then drive down to Boulogne for our overnight stop, rather than driving the whole journey in a single go. So having had lunch in a wonderful Kent pub, we crossed via the Chunnel and set out down the coast to take in a couple of sights (as Glyn had never visited that part of France before) on the way. It was dark (and late!) when we arrived in Boulogne which made finding our hotel slightly more difficult… not helped by the fact that it wasn’t where the internet said that it was! Eventually, we were able to find a phone number & obtain directions to the hotel arriving after midnight; not the best of starts.
In order to save a little on costs we’d decided to share a room… but probably for the last time as we managed to keep each other awake! Glyn would wake me up with his snoring & I would lie awake until exhaustion sent me back to sleep when I would return the favour!
Wednesday 16th June
Off to Barrie’s, now, but first of all, however, we had a slight detour… Glyn (who was accompanying me, again) and I decided that it would not be right to drive past the Cider Route that is just to the East of Caen for another year without encouraging them to make even more! Unfortunately, the first Cider Farm that we found was closed for the day! Fortunately, a quick look at the map and a three point turn took us down a small lane to a wonderful location.
After having a look around the small museum we thought it only fair that we should go for a tasting (it’s a tough job, but as we were there, we decided that we were the ones that should do it!)… and then, of course, having tasted some of their product, it would have been unfair not to purchase a bottle or three!!
Ok, back to the Shed after that enjoyable interlude…
Thursday 17th June
Once again, we were helped by Benoît whom we’d met last year… once again his translation service was going to be very useful.
One puzzle that I’d had with Ray Elledge’s manuscript was a reference to a town of “Chaimps de Champs” near to the town of Vire as, if you look at maps of the area, no such place exists. However, having discussed this with a number of people, David Mabbutt, the Curator of the “Bluecoat” museum at St Martin de Besaces, wondered in an email whether the village of Le Mesnil Clinchamps fitted the bill? It’s certainly in the right sort of place… alongside a railway track that heads into Vire and about the right sort of distance away.
So, off we went in hope… Glyn, Benoît & me.
On arrival at the village, our first point of call was the Marie; the local “Town Hall” where we (or rather Benoît) asked whether there were any memories of American PoWs in the area. After numerous telephone calls made by one of the young ladies in the office, they spoke to an elderly gentleman who recalls taking food to three Americans hiding out in a cutting underneath a hedge… this sounded suspiciously like the “cave” that Ray refers to & he also mentions that there had been some other evaders there before they (Ray, Gillespie, Sheppard & Willen) arrived. Unfortunately, the space of 65 years meant that he was unable to remember where this place was.
Undaunted, we left the Marie & headed, towards the church, seeing whether a route that we could follow tied in with the description in Ray’s manuscript… unfortunately, it looked as though this was not to be the case as, rather than fields & hedges immediately backing onto the church, there were lots of houses. However, just then we met up with the village gardener who had lived in the village all of his life & who explained that the houses had been built after the war & that previously, the fields had come much closer… and there were tall hedges alongside the roads.
So, a further check on the map revealed a route that took us to a farm at the top of a small hill (unfortunately we had been told that they were new owners, so we were unable to check whether they had any information of previous owners).
Looking more closely at the map showed what appeared to be a small stream on the other side of the village going underneath the railway… could this be the culvert where they met their French helpers with their bicycles… or was it just a mark on a map dreamt of because “it fitted”? Back into the car for a quick drive & down an overgrown driveway up to an abandoned farmhouse (& grateful that on this occasion I was driving my Landrover rather than my wife’s car which we’d travelled in last year!).
So, now we were into explorer mode, crawling underneath wire fencing (very carefully, as it had an electrical current running through it to keep cattle out!) down to where the small stream was… then through bushes & stinging nettles (the things that I’ve done in the name of this research!!) following it to where it went underneath the railway… through a small tunnel… or culvert!
Back up the embankment after a few photographs and a look around the buildings… was one of the two barns one of those that Ray Elledge and Francis Gillespie slept in before they headed off towards Vire? Unfortunately, they were so full of farm equipment and “junk”, and wired off, that we were unable to have a good look inside to see whether any names had been scratched on a wall. However, I think that it would not be unreasonable to claim that one of these barns was used one night back in 1944 to provide a little more shelter for two weary evadees.
That seemed to be a good morning’s work & although we’d have liked to stay longer, hunger was beginning to bite, so off to Vire for food & a look round the town.
Also, we needed to head back as Morris Sheppard’s son & Grandson – Jim & Jesse – had hoped to be arriving in Paris this morning & Caen in the afternoon, so return to Barrie’s. Unfortunately, we didn’t hear from Jim & Jesse, so were forced to drink wine & eat bread & cheese!
Friday 18th June
Found a great place to eat & having done so, decided to act like tourists & head to see William the Conqueror’s Tomb in the Cathedral, followed by a stroll around Caen.
We had just driven to the local supermarket to stock up on more food when Jim rang to say that they’d just arrived at Caen train station following a hectic day trying to find each other across Paris! So we went and picked them up & made our way to a local restaurant for something to eat followed by a return to Barrie’s and more drinks!
Unfortunately, Jesse & his friend Aaron had been delayed by the US Military by a day (don’t worry, they’re serving soldiers, rather than being stopped in transit!) which was why they were later than planned arriving in France, but this meant that the next couple of days would be hectic as Glyn & I had to leave at 12noon at the latest on Sunday to meet our crossing back to the UK
Saturday 19th June
Then all of us in the car to visit OMAHA Beach – whilst none of the guys in question were near OMAHA, this is such a huge part of American WW2 history that they wanted to ensure it was included in their visit. On route, we were able to go along a couple of roads that gave an indication of what the “Bocage” would have been like to fight in; far different to the desert conditions that Jesse & Aaron face.
Having had a good look around OMAHA (including the museum) and some food in a beach front restaurant, we headed off to that other American icon… the Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. Over 9,000 young men who gave their lives for liberty (for those of you that have seen the film “Saving Private Ryan”, it’s where the opening & closing scenes are set). There’s now also a museum (or at least I didn’t notice it last time that I was there) which focuses on some of the individuals.
We then headed back towards Barrie’s & called in at La Chappele sur Vire which was where the PoW holding camp at “ The Monastery” (or “Starvation Hill”) was. We were able to see the embankment where they would have climbed down having already climbed out of a window to escape; unfortunately, we ran out of time (and light!) so were unable to take them over to Le Mesnil Clinchamps & show them what we’d discovered earlier in the week.
Sunday 20th June
Ok, so now we were somewhat up against time… Jim, Jesse & Aaron wanted to visit Ste Maire Eglise (which is where 82nd Airborne, Morris Sheppard’s unit) were supposed to be dropped into (‘though on 6th June things went somewhat wrong & paratroopers were dropped “all over the Cotentin Peninsula!) which was fine by me as it was somewhere that I’d never had the opportunity to visit, however, as this was in the opposite direction to where Glyn & I needed to be heading later that day (the Chunnel at Calais) it meant that we would need to be relying on clear roads & foot to the floor… hmmm in a Landrover Defender, that was going to be fun! Oh yes, and Jim & crew also needed to be able to get back to Paris…
However, before we set off, I had a present for Jim – a framed copy of Morris’ signature & details from the shed. He’s going to put this in the Legion HQ back home next to Morris’ original uniform.
So first port of call was Carentan train station to check train times back to Paris on Sundays… yes they ran and at a time that allowed a good look around the Airborne Museum… unfortunately, when we arrived at Ste Maire Eglise, we realised that French Taxis don’t like to work on Sundays…
It was looking as though it was not going to work & then Jim suggested that they stay overnight in Ste Maire Eglise (which would also be cheaper than Paris!) & travel back on Monday. Unfortunately, a B&B that Jim had been told about by Bill Sullivan was full, however, the owner recommended another just round the corner which did have spaces, so a quick booking and a fast walk brought us to the Airborne museum, but not before Jim had kindly presented me with a two volume history of the 82nd Airborne which both he & Jesse signed for me.
Unfortunately, shortage of time meant that Glyn & I only had time to visit a small part of the museum (in a hall designed to resemble an open parachute), the rest of the museum will have to wait until next year, but what we saw (and from the photos that Jesse put up on Facebook) it’s worth a trip back.
So, leaving Jim, Jesse & Aaron looking around the museum, Glyn & I set off back to the UK via Calais. A hectic trip, briefly snatched breaks for food & driving through the night took us to our evening accommodation in Great Yarmouth at 01:15 on Monday morning… tired, knackered & bug-eyed! Fortunately, the B&B that we were staying in – Fawlty Towers – didn’t live up to its TV namesake with a really friendly owner & superb breakfast.
Monday 21st June
A bracing walk along the pier was followed by a quick shop & then off to Bungay and the Green Dragon brewpub for a couple of beers… again, it’s a tough job that someone has to do, so it might as well be me & Glyn… actually, I look at is as work… helping small local craft businesses increase their turnover!
Then, after lunch we visited Tony Cooper, a sprightly 90+ year-old who as Flt Lt AGH Cooper flew with Flt Lt John Harder in 64 Squadron. The reason for visiting Tony was to show him the piece of John Harder’s Spitfire that we pulled out of a French hedgerow last year and to also update him on this year’s trip.
Then back into the car & a long journey home.
So, overall, a satisfying trip, especially given the limitations that we had to work to mainly surrounding pre-booked cross channel routes & overnight accommodations. But to find some further pieces in the history of the “Men in the Shed”, especially the village where they hid for a while, was really fantastic, as was being able to show Jim & Jesse some of the places where their Father/Grandfather had spent some of his time whilst he was in Normandy was brilliant; seeing their faces when they first saw the Shed made all of this research truly worthwhile.
So, that’s it for this instalment; hopefully you’ve found it of interest.