Normandy Trip July 2011
The first day
As we had in July last year, Glyn and I set off looking forward to this trip as for part of it we would be in the company of a relative of one of the “men in the shed”. On this occasion, it would be Bobbie Harder, one of the daughters of Flt Lt John Harder who’s crash site we’d found back in 2009 and who was the first of the men that I made any significant “inroads” to finding out anything about him.
As usual, Normandy wasn’t the only thing on our minds… we feel that it’s important to encourage and educate our readers to appreciate some of the wonderful beers that England has to offer!
So our first “proper” stop on the way to the Chunnel was Crockham Hill, Edenbridge and the Westerham Brewery tap. Unfortunately (and all too frequent for us), the pub had just closed for the afternoon! Fortunately, the landlady told us of another pub in the local village of Westerham (where General Wolfe of Quebec fame) lived that served the local brew. So a quick trip saw us able to enjoy a couple of pints… and view the sculpture of Winston Churchill looking out over the village green.
As we were so close, we then took a slight detour to Biggin Hill, a very famous WW2, and especially Battle of Britain, RAF Fighter Station. Most of this is now a commercial airport, but there are some original buildings that can be seen from the road. In addition, the RAF memorial chapel is open and still a “living” church. So we popped in for a quick visit just before closing. I’m glad that we did as we found a connection to John Harder… on the wall is a plaque dedicated to some of the Battle of Britain Squadrons with signatures of some of their pilots etched into it. One of these (at the time flying with 19 Squadron) was Harold Bird-Wilson who was, later in the war, destined to become John Harder’s Wing Commander. In addition, after the war, they remained firm friends and one of John’s other daughters, Amy, has “Bird-Wilson” as her middle name. Also, it was my being able to put Lewis Harder (one of the sons) in touch with Bird-Wilson’s son, Stuart, which began to open the floodgates of information about John Harder from the family. Also, taking a close look at the Spitfire outside, I wonder whether we’d found the location of the piece of John Harder’s Spitfire that we found in the hedge last year as these rivet patterns looked similar.
Retaining a close eye on the time (not wanting a repeat of June’s disaster of missing our booked crossing), we decided that we needed something to eat, so a quick look at the CamRA Good Beer Guide suggested The Swan microbrewery just outside of Maidstone, Kent.
As you can see from the photos, the brewery is behind the pub in this really wonderful sleepy, traditional English Village… for the more cultured, the church is wonderful, too… and open to take a look around.
Suitably refreshed, we headed off to the Chunnel and France…
… needless to say, things didn’t go straightforwardly and my satnav stopped working, meaning we took wrong exit from motorway and ended up arriving late at hotel… ah well, typical for us, I guess!
The second day
At Agincourt (or Azincourt as it’s currently known), there is a really interesting museum / visitor centre that explains the lead-up to and follow-on from the battle as well as the battle itself. After the visitors’ centre, we took a tour around the edges of the battlefield before heading off to Crecy and our first beer in France.
Then it was on to Rouen for an overnight stop… although I’d printed a map showing the approximate location of the hotel, it took us a lot of finding as the map in the hotel directory was a little confusing (we were to find this the following night, too). As the hotel didn’t do evening meals and we couldn’t find anything locally that appealed, we headed back towards Rouen and found an all you can eat Chinese Buffet… very nice… ‘though Glyn’s still not sure whether the one dish that he was frog’s legs, or not!
The third day
Initially, we’d planned to visit Honfleur, but it was very busy with limited parking available, so having spotted a hotel and marked for next year when we’ll stay overnight and have a good look around. On our way, we stopped for a brief look at La Pont de Normandie – a huge bridge that spans the River Seine estuary between Honfleur and Le Havre – very pretty from a distance, but I don’t think I’d enjoy being on it!
Having been fed and watered in a roadside restaurant, we headed off towards St Lo and beyond following up the opportunity afforded by some photographs sent to me by Jim Sheppard which he’d been sent by Bill Sullivan.
Bill (who was also in 82d Airborne) had also been held as a PoW for a while with Morris Sheppard until they escaped separately from a schoolhouse in the village of La Ronde-Hay and didn’t then meet up again until after the war.
We had a couple of things to go on… a photograph of what Sullivan had described as a flour mill in the village of Varequebec and some outbuildings in the village of Viviers (near Créances). There was also a photograph of him presenting a statuette of a paratrooper to the mayor of Créances. As we could only find two of these places on our map – Varanquebec and Créances – and the former was the nearest, we decided to head there first.
Arriving at the village, Glyn took a look around and I decided to see whether anyone at the local Mairie could help… unfortunately, we soon realised that the secretary and mayor’s English was more limited than my French, and the elderly gentleman (I believe the former mayor) that the mayor also asked to help identify the location of the flour mill likewise had no English. I’m sure that someone looking in from outside would have found the scene highly amusing as I swung my arms around in desperation to extract from long unused brain cells the words that I needed… at this point, I really wished that Benoit, our guide of pervious years was with me!
Then, just as it all seemed hopeless, I heard the previous mayor mention the village of Doville… this was a name that was familiar from Bill Sullivan’s letter to Jim Sheppard and I explained (with many gestures) that “les parachutists Americain travaille à pied sans Varenquebec de Doville”… well, I’m not sure how good a sentence that was, but they took me into another room with a large aerial photograph on the wall and I gathered that whilst there wasn’t a flour mill actually in Varenquebec, there was one (or at least what had been one) next to a large stream (or small river) on the boundary between Varenquebec and Doville… so armed with instructions, off we went!
Approximately one kilometre out of town along the D137 brought us to a small bridge over a stream which when we looked opened up into a small pond; could this be a mill pond? We parked up and stood on the bridge trying to match the photographs that we had to the scene in front of us. Whilst we were there, an elderly lady approached us and having realised that her English was as poor as my French, I showed her the photograph. A large smile, followed by nods and “Oui!” indicated that we had found the old flour mill. The lady’s name was Mme Lenot and she immediately invited us down onto her property for a closer look which enabled us to (almost) reproduce the photographs supplied by Bill Sullivan taken during his visit in 1995; ‘though the beam where Al Krietsch hit his head has long since been removed – did he do that damage I wonder? – & the mill stream has filled in a lot more than in 1995.
At this point, we were joined by M Lenot and their grandson who was staying with them and who did his best to translate for us as he was learning English at school. After a few more photographs, we were invited to share a drink of home-made cidre. M and Mme Lenot grow their own apples then crush them with their own press, barrel and bottling the output also. To say that this was the best cidre that we’d had in France sounds slightly exaggerated… but absolutely accurate; it certainly got our vote. We were then invited to partake of some home-made Calvados… this is an apple brandy made by distilling cidre once it’s past its best. I’ve had some before and it was a little too much like rocket fuel for my taste, but this was absolutely delightful.
So, fully replenished, we then headed off to another location mentioned in the photos from Sullivan: Créances. The Mairie was closed, so off to a hotel for the evening and back on the trail tomorrow.
We arrived at the Mairie bright and early and having gone through the, by now, usual routine of establishing that there was going to be a lack of spoken discussion, I showed the lady secretary the photograph of Bill Sullivan presenting the Mayor with the statuette of the parachutist. This brought an exclamation of “Ahhh! Monsieur Le Mairie” and with that she left her desk and went into a side office. Moments later she re-emerged with an older “version” of the man in the photograph M. Henri Lemoigne, the Mayor of Créances. He immediately introduced himself and arranged for coffees and the statuette to be brought to us. Then, he began instructing his staff to make some phone calls.
Once this was all sorted he explained that he had contacted two of the families of people that had helped Sullivan, Sheppard and two other evaders to see whether they could come round to meet us. I then explained the wider context in which their village was involved with The Men in the Shed and having drunk our coffee, we went into his office to take a couple of photographs.
We were then joined by M and Mme Leconte and slightly later by M Gautier whose grandparents had been the ones to help Sullivan, Sheppard and the others.
The Mayor spoke reasonably good English and was able to explain who we were and what we were trying to do and at the same time he told us that the small “village” of Viviers that we couldn’t find on a map was just a small suburb of their town, but he pointed it out on a map.
M and Mme Leconte and M Gautier then offered to take us to the two buildings where the 4 parachutists we hidden for 8 days.
The first of these was a small outbuilding at the edge of a field. They were taken to it after knocking on the door of M Gautier’s grandfather… fortunately, they chose the left hand building; the right hand one was being used as a field hospital by the Germans!
After one night, the villages realised that it was far too dangerous, both for the Americans and themselves, to remain in this hut, so they were taken deep into the forest to an isolated two storey building where they stayed for another 7 days. This two storey building allowed them to post a more effective lookout and when they realised that there was more enemy activity in the area, they decided to move on to reduce the possibility of incriminating the locals that had helped them.
M and Mme Leconte recalled that they had signed their names on the door; unfortunately, when we visited, these had faded and were no longer visible.
We then had a further discussion (in Pidgin English and French and Mme Leconte translating as best as she could), with the aid of the maps that we had not taken into the Mairie and showed the routes taken by Sullivan and Sheppard and later by Sheppard, Willen, Gillespie and Elledge.
M Gautier then left us and we were taken to meet M Leconte’s mother who, as a child, had been aware of these “goings on”. M Leconte’s sister was also there and as she spoke good English, we were able to provide a more detailed overview of events 67 years ago.
We then headed off to the village of La Ronde Haye where Sheppard & another man & Sullivan and Al Krietsch escaped separately from a school house where they were being held. Whilst we found a school house, there was no one available to let us know whether this had been the school back in 1944, so a quick photo & then onto the motorway headed to Caen to meet our American guests: Bobbie Harder, Anthony Chavez & Roxanne & Mike Carlson
Just like in England, the trains don’t always run on time, so Glyn & I had opportunity for a quick beer… very nice, especially as today had been the first prolonged hot & sunny spell so far.
Met up with the gang, found their hire car & off for some food.
Last year with Jim, Jesse & Aaron, we’d come across a small family owned restaurant in Caen – La Taverne Normande at 45, Avenue du 6 Juin, just over the river from the train station so we decided to revisit; Food was up to same really nice standard.
Then it was off to our accommodation for the next few days: Tony & Jill Stansfield’s B&B at Le Grand Pont, Estry, Normandy. Tony & Jill had been recommended to us by both Barrie (who “owns” the shed) & David Mabbutt who until recently was the curator of the Museum La Percee du Bocage at St Martin des Besaces. It couldn’t have been a better choice.
Their website says: “The large 19th Century farmhouse, Le Grand Pont, is located on the shallow slope of the Alliere valley in 5 acres of largely orchard and grassed land. It sits among a loose cluster of farms collectively called Le Pont Alliere, just south-west of the village of Estry on the Vire / Aunay sur Odon road in the Calvados district of Normandy. The area largely consists of small villages dotted among rolling hills, pasture and woodland.” http://www.normandy-farmhouse.net/index.php But to be honest with you, this doesn’t really do the place justice and in no way does it prepare you for the wonderful welcome from Tony & Jill who immediately make you feel completely & totally at home treating you like old friends.
A fantastic breakfast with Jill’s home-grown & home-made jams & fresh bread & coffee saw us well provisioned & ready for a long day of visits to some of the key “D Day” sites near the coast.
The list that the gang came up with would have kept us fully occupied for a week, but we set out aiming to do our best.
First up was the recently discovered German defensive battery at Grand Camp Maisy (http://www.maisybattery.com/Home.html) a German defensive position “lost” for over 60 years. Very interesting, the main downside (at least for me) was seeing the “wrong” guns in place without any explanation – fire one of these & it would shoot back off its base! Having said that, I find it difficult to criticise anyone who has managed to preserve two fantastic examples of German 155mm howitzers!
Next, we went to OMAHA beach which saw the highest casualties of D Day, largely due to a failure of some of the pre-assault bombardments and the sinking of many of the “DD tanks” that were designed to help in the initial phases of the landing.
A spot of lunch at the OMAHA Restaurant following a “dip” in the sea (well, a toe, at least!) and we were ready for the afternoon’s visit to the American Cemetery & Memorial at St. Laurent. Here, Bobbie managed to trace the resting places of 3 “possible contenders” of a relative of a friend of hers back in the USA… hopefully one of them was the “right” one.
Leaving the Memorial, we set off to Barrie’s & Bobbie’s first visit to “The Shed”, with just a brief stop to pick up some food & drink on the way.
Barrie had taken the time to write a brief poem that he had pinned to the shed door for Bobbie to read which was really sweet & set the evening off nicely. We then opened up the shed & Bobbie saw, for the first time, the place where her dad had been held POW; emotional scenes ensued!!
After an indoor picnic (Barrie had decided that it was too cold to eat outside – despite us being in shirt sleeves!) I did a (relatively swift – only 1½ hours!) run through of my presentation.
An early start, today, as we had a two hour drive down to John Harder’s crash site… on the 67th anniversary of his being shot down.
Half way there is the wonderful old Medieval town of Domfront & I’d planned that we’d have the opportunity for a look round & a stretch of our legs; we also took the opportunity to pick up some baguettes & cakes ready for lunch later on.
Photos taken, history seen & off southwards again… picnic by the side of the road (with more American flags in evidence!) & arrival at M Filoche’s farm – John Harder’s crash site.
This year, because we knew where we were going, we’d asked Benoit to phone ahead & check with M Filoche & he’d arranged with his family to be there… and his friend Alain (who used to run a hotel where Bobbie’s father stayed on his return to France in 1972)… and the Mayor… and the local press! To say that Bobbie was the centre of attention is an understatement!
From the conversations that we had, it would appear that John had crashed at around 5pm (when the Cows were being bought in to be milked”) & so we decided that that would be the time for a toast… but before then, it was a gentle stroll to John’s crash site.
Alain had brought along his metal detector & after a brief set of instructions, Bobbie was off, waving the “business end” all over the field… to everyone’s surprise, Bobbie fairly soon found a small piece of aluminium… with only one source; MK258, her father’s plane… a few minutes (and high pitched beeps) later, and another, larger piece was retrieved.
Suitable photographs were taken & then, as it started raining, we all decamped to M Filoche’s fishing lodge.
The Mayor then presented Bobbie with a history of the area to commemorate her visit & speeches were made; Bobbie pointing out that 67 years ago her father had littered the French countryside with his ‘plane, so she had now returned to help clean it up!
In the meantime, M Filoche had brought out some of the remains of the 20mm shell propellant that they used to collect & showed how effectively it still burned! Needless to say, I stayed a reasonable distance away!
Toasts over, the time came to return to Jill & Tony’s B&B for an evening meal… and what a meal!!
We’d decided to eat with Tony & Gill on Sunday evening as finding somewhere open would be likely to be problematic. I’ve mentioned earlier, Jill’s fantastic jams… well, they didn’t really prepare us for what to expect for a meal! All home grown food cooked to perfection. Two traditional meals – coq au vin & a vegetable option for Mike & Roxanne (that was equally devoured by the meat eaters… it was so tasty!) & huge amounts of fresh vegetables as well… I don’t think that any of us have had food with so much taste (and plenty of it, too!!); and that’s not mentioning the starters & pudding! Absolutely wonderful… and then Tony raided his wine cellar! With 8 of us around the table, two bottles would have been normal, three a treat, but Tony just seemed to keep on opening them! As I said earlier, you’re made to feel hugely at home… wonderful!
We were joined at the meal by Jill & Tony’s children, John & Eleanor, & what charming & polite children they are… and well-trained, too clearing up the plates after us.
Today saw us heading north, again, picking up on places that we’d not been able to visit on Saturday.
We’d been talking about “the Bocage” that featured so heavily during the June, July & August fighting in 1944 & I’d noticed on our way back from Barrie’s that there was quite a good example not far off our route, so a quick detour to appreciate the terrain that these guys fought through & then on to Bayeux for a visit to the Tapestry for our American friends & a couple of beers for Glyn & me (well, we’d seen it before!).
We also had a nice wander around the beautiful Bayeux Cathedral, spared from destruction in 1944 by the swift Allied advance that saw the city captured on the morning of 7th June.
From Bayeux, it was off on the motorway for a journey north-west to Ste Maire Eglise & the 82nd Airborne museum. Glyn & I had had a brief visit here last year in Jim, Jesse & Aaron’s company before we’d had to head off to catch the ferry home, so it was nice to have a more leisurely stroll.
Then onto another iconic American site: Pont du Hoc where the 2nd Ranger battalion climbed the cliffs on D Day. In the 1965 film, The Longest Day, the scenes of the fighting at Pont du Hoc were actually filmed at the exact location; talk about realism!
Mike especially wanted to visit the site as both he & Roxanne are very interested in the American Rangers.
Then a nice final meal in a harbour-side restaurant almost bought to a close our time together; a return to Tony & Jill’s & the sharing of some Poirau (French Perry – made with pears rather than apples) bought in Bayeux rounded off the evening nicely.
Just prior to heading off for our final evening’s sleep, Bobbie, Roxanne & “the gang” brought out some “thank you” cards & gifts, the most incredible one (at least for me) being John Harder’s leather wallet purchased upon his return to the UK from Harrods which Bobbie presented to me; I just thought that this was awesome!
Our final breakfast & again, Tony & Jill showing us what superb hosts they are by allowing us to arrange an early breakfast as our American friends needed to be back in Caen to drop off their hire car by 10am.
So final photos & goodbyes to Tony & Gill our superb hosts for the past few days & off on our way… we’d offered to lead Bobbie & the gang back on to the motorway but hadn’t planned on going all the way into Caen ourselves as there was a further battlefield site that I wanted to see & Glyn had decided that he’d like to see an ancient menhir: la Demoiselle de Bracqueville
Rauray, where the 1st Tyneside Scottish held back the might of 9th SS Panzer Division on 1st July 1944, is a small hamlet unfortunate enough to be on a small spur of high ground which needed defending as it formed the “shoulder” of the British Operation EPSOM. I’d just finished reading an excellent book on the subject by Kevin Baverstock called “Breaking the Panzers” so to visit the battlefield itself & war memorial & cemetery a short distance away was quite moving…
So, then on to find Glyn’s menhir… Well, a confused conversation with a French gentleman (having spent an hour driving round in circles, & a bumpy ride down a farm track (pleased that I have a 4×4) & there it was… It’s about 1.4 metres tall, 0.7 metres wide and 0.3 metres thick and leaning towards the north… hmmm… stunning!! Not! I guess Glyn & I were expecting something like the French version of Stonehenge & we ended up with the Spinal Tap version…
Then it was on to more basic needs… food, or rather lack of it, was beginning to gnaw away & we decided to try to find some food at the Trois Brasseurs a craft brewery… eventually, after the joy of being stuck in roadworks, a one way system & dodgy directions, we arrived…
Usually, in cases like this, our past experience is that it’s a disaster… either the place is shut, no longer in business or has moved (as our experience with another one proved), but this time it was everything that we both expected & wanted. Great food & decent beer, too… we went on our way happy!
Having visited the seaside resort of Le Treport (‘though a cold wind was blowing), we headed further homeward, calling off at an old abandoned German gun position just south of Cap Gris Nez ( & about 1km away from another that has been converted into a museum) which has received far more graffiti since Colin’s first visit to France in 2003 and then the 2 Caps craft brewery. Whilst I can understand people wanting to try to forget the period 1939 – 1945 and especially direct reminders such as emblems, I’m also aware that these are memorials & a reminder to us all not to forget & so it saddens me to see them defaced in the way that they have been. However, as an Englishman, we were never occupied & therefore cannot understand how those that were feel about this; I just think that it’s a pity.
Then it was back to the UK & a gentle two day return trip back home.
Readers of this blog will already be aware of the sad & shocking news that I heard when I did return, my friend Ian Daglish, to whom I was looking forward to sharing the details of this trip with, had passed away following a dreadful crash in the small airplane that he was piloting; which, in part, explains why this has taken so long to write – every time I sat down to do some work on it, I thought of Ian & couldn’t get started. However, I then realised that there was a time for mourning the loss of a friend & a time to move on; hopefully, this post will be a fitting tribute to Ian’s memory.