Normandy Visit – June 2011

So, after the sleepless start (see previous post for the horrific details of what happens if you’re late to the Chunnel on a Friday night!) & arrival at our hotel (the Formule 1 Hotel at Boulogne sur Mer) as dawn was breaking, we had a reasonable night’s sleep and so, having taken full advantage of the “all you can eat” breakfast, we set off South.

Saturday 4th June

C47 Dakota at Merville Battery

C47 Dakota at Merville Battery

First stop in Normandy this time round was the Merville Battery… on my first trip over, we couldn’t find it – a bit like some of the Paras of 9th Parachute Battalion of 6th Airborne Division – ‘though they had an excuse landing in the pitch black of D-Day night!

With it being the “D Day weekend”, there were lots of re-enactors around giving the place a sense of “time”. Interestingly, didn’t see any sign of any dressed as Germans… it sometimes seems that people easily forget that there were more than the British, Americans, Canadians, French, Poles, etc fighting in Normandy… anyway, off my soapbox!

Moving on from Merville saw us arrive at Pegasus Bridge and our first beer of the weekend

Pegasus Bridge   

(note to self… must stop wearing that shirt as it makes me look fat! Either that or learn how to use Photoshop!!)

Sunday 5th June

After the glorious sunshine of Saturday, Sunday was somewhat of a shock to the system! Following the huge thunderstorm of Saturday evening (where we were, we only saw the flashes), thick fog had desended & it took us a while to make it over to Tilly sur Selles where we had a look around the Book Fair.. some very nice stuff for sale… but at 94 Euro for a book, I didn’t buy anything!!.

 Whilst at the book fair, met up with & had a chat with Ian Daglish. I’ve come to know Ian through a military history group that I belong to – the South Manchester Tactical Society – having been introduced to him by David Mabbutt, until recently the enthusiastic Curator of the “Bluecoat” museum at St Martin de Besaces. Ian’s a thoroughly knowledgable chap about the Normandy fighting and what’s more, nice with it, too! He has his own website here & I can thoroughly recommend all of the books that he’s written so far on the various operations involving British forces in the days following D Day: Operation Epsom, Operation Goodwood and Operation Bluecoat with a similarly titled one in the Over the Battlefield series (this latter one covers fighting quite close to The Shed)

 We had planned to then travel over to Ste Maire Eglise to see if we could link up with Bill Sullivan who parachuted in & was captured with M/Sgt Sheppard, unfortunately, we weren’t sure whether he was in Normandy & we’d also heard that people were being stopped from entering Ste Maire Eglise due to the numbers, so instead, Glyn & I decided to investigate another passion… BEER!

Barrie had mentioned that he’d come across an English pub selling reale ale & gave us a description of where to find it, so, given the fact that the fog had given way to rain, we set off in search of said pub.

Surprisingly for us, it was exactly where we had been told that it was, and it was open AND it was selling real ale… AND (even better) it was a nice pint, too!! It’s called The Rugby Tavern at Taillebois.

   

Monday 6th June

Overcast, again, so as we’d planned to visit the BLUECOAT museum at St Martin to catch up with David & Jeanette Mabbutt (& also Ian who was doing a book signing), we decided to follow the Battlefield tour that’s included in Ian’s first book on Operation BLUECOAT.

We started by making our way to the smallest Commonwealth Wargraves Commission Military Cemetary which contains only a single grave, that of Lt JGM Cornwall of the Grenadier Guards. Paul Reed’s website has further details

CWG Memorial Lt Cornwall  Lt Cornwall's grave  Lt Cornwall's Headstone

 We then continued to follow the course of the unfolding Operation BLUECOAT (a brilliantly exectued operation where for possibly the first time during the Normandy campaign a British General (“Pip” Roberts) was allowed to run a battle how he had wanted to & due to both excellent recconnaisance work & the fairly immediate reaction of the “higher ups” a breach was made in the German lines between two German Divisions, each of whom had assumed that the other was guarding a key bridge. A number of years ago, the University of Wolverhampton did a quite good tour of the key elements & it’s still available on the internet, here; for a more thorough review, then both of Ian Daglish’s books on the Operation are recomended (as mentioned above)

So, we went through Les Loges, past Hill 226 where “S” Squadron, 3rd Battalion Scots Guards’ Churchill Tanks were decimated by three German JagdPanthers losing 11 tanks in 3-4 minutes, on past Hill 309 (“Coldstream Hill”) and on to our mid-point objective of La Musee De La Percée Du Bocage St Martin-Des-Besaces.

When we arrived at the museum, Ian daglish was there signing his books & soon after our arrival, Veteran Albert Figg arrived. Albert is a fantastic character & is largely responsible for the installation of a Churchill Tank as a memorial to the British 43rd Division on Hill 112 to the West of Caen.

Whilst there he was interviewed by an American gentleman & regaled one & all with tales from his wartime experiences. In common with many veterans that I’ve had the honour to meet, he was also quite frank & direct with his responses! After his interview, he presented the museum with the shell casing from his first shot fired “in anger” together with a fuse mechanism from a 25pdr shell (Albert was in a “Field Regiment” using 25pdr guns towed by “Quad” vehicles) and a scale model of a 25pdr & Quad complete with gun crew. This was very much appreciated by the museum staff and will become a feature of the museum.

Before moving on, I can’t praise this museum highly enough… it’s not as big & brash as some of theVeteran Albert Figg chatting to author Ian Daglish “Beaches” museums, but it remembers both the human aspect of war and, as importantly, the fact that D Day, 6th June 1944 was only the very beginning of the end of the 2nd World War; there was a lot of hard fighting ahead.

 After a spot of lunch at the museum, we continued our tour following the route taken by Lt “Dickie” Powle back in July 1944 past long gone guns & our only worry a local driving on the wrong side of the road rather than a German anti tank gun! Eventually, we came to the now named “Bull Bridge” over the River Souleuvre and were also still able to report that ”the bridge at 637436 is still clear of enemy and still intact“.

We then headed off, though Le Beny Bocage, to collect Barrie & Helene (our hosts) & off to the Remembrance ceremony at St Charles de Percy Military Cemetery. It was good to see a large number of people attending this event, remembering both the Fallen & those that survived. We then left the Cemetery to visit the monument in St Charles village to the memory of members of the Guards Armoured Division who fought in the area; a serving member of the Welsh Guards was present at both ceremonies.

Because we were a little early for the evening celebratory remembrance party, David & Jeanette kindly invited us back to their home in Montchamp; we weren’t the only ones there & I was honoured to be able to meet Eain Findlay and his father Veteran Peter Findlay who had served in S Squadron, 3rd Battalion Scots Guards (one of the units that I mentioned earlier). Peter kindly allowed me to be photographed with him & later signed a book that I have which describes the Scots Guards first action in Normandy.

The day ended with a fantastic party! A great end to the weekend.

Tuesday 7th June

Our last day in France. Set off in sunshine (annoying after the previous two days more cloudy weather) & back to Calais & the Chunnel. A fairly boring drive along motorways, enlivened by some very nice food at a pub back in England with beer from a new brewery opened up across the road!

Unfortunately, our hotel for the night – the Railway at Sawbridgeworth, whilst very nice, was further away from the Gate Brewpub than we had anticipated, so a quick pint in the bar & off to bed!

Wednesday 8th June

 This saw us heading off to the Imperial War Museum’s site at Duxford in Cambridgeshire; a former RAF base (featured a lot in the film “The Battle of Britain”. Here we met up with Joe Kennedy from The Old Flying Machine Company” to see whether he could firmly identify the piece of  John Harder’s Spitfire that we’d picked up the other year. Unfortunately, Joe had no more success than Stuart Hadway… the problem is that there’s a fairly unique rivet pattern that doesn’t fit any of the ‘planes that we’ve looked at… yet!! He was as intrigued as Stuart & has promised to do some further digging.

One real highlight of the day was seeing a Mk IX Spitfire (similar to that flown by John Harder) taking off…

 [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfkMIXpKRWA&feature=youtube_gdata[/youtube]

Apologies for the unsteadiness of the hand, but it can be difficult to follow a Spitfire at full throttle!

And that was it… back home in the rain… but looking forward to a return in July when we’re meeting up with Bobbie Harder & showing her around.

Thanks for reading

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