Normandy 2016 Day 11 – A Day of Remembrance

Day 11 – Monday 6th June

As in past years, this was going to be a very busy day – including saving the Honour of the Welsh Guards! But more of that, later!

Honouring the fallen at Hottot Les Bagues

We started with a visit to Hottot Les Bagues Commonwealth War Cemetery and the first of our Remembrance activities. This is not only where a lot of the fallen from the fighting near Tilly & other villages were buried, but it’s also the resting place for most of the Guardsmen from 6th Guards Tank Brigade (& especially from “S” Squadron, 3rd Bn Scots Guards) who lost their lives at the start of Operation BLUECOAT where, on Hill 226 just northeast of St Martin des Besaces, their Churchill tanks were ambushed by German JagdPanthers losing 11 tanks in 5 minutes & where 25 Guardsmen were killed (or died of wounds)

It’s always an honour to visit such cemeteries, but this year, it was a special honour as we were there on behalf of Muir Findlay – a veteran of the battle – & someone who we’re very proud to call a friend… unfortunately, he’d not been too well & so this year, he was unable to travel to Normandy, so his son, Eain, had asked if we would mind visiting on their behalf which we were more than happy to do.

Eain had also asked that we take some photos of the grave of Private Alfred Worsdale, a soldier from 4th Bn Somerset Light Infantry who’d also been killed on 30th July 1944, on behalf of a friend of his

Following a period of quiet contemplation, we realised how quickly time had gone by & so called into Villers Bocage to grab some food for lunch.

On the trail of the American contingent of the Men in the Shed

We then decided to try to get back onto the trail of Raymond Elledge, Gerald Willen, Morris Sheppard & Francis Gillespie

First a brief recap… after they’d left “Chaimps de Champs (which we’d identified as Le Mesnil Clinchamps, they worked their way through Vire & headed north towards the Allied lines. They had just gone through Villiers Bocage… Raymond takes up the story…

On Willen’s return, we ate and resumed our journey. We had walked a kilometer and a half when a buggy with two German officers passed heading in the opposite direction. We did not pay any attention to them and they — we thought — were not paying any attention to us. We walked two or three minutes when the officers turned their buggy around, stopped, and summoned Willen and me.

The German officer on our side asked where we were going. Willen, speaking French, told the German officer that we were going up to the next village. The German officer asked Willen why we were going there. Willen, on the spur of the moment, told the officers we looking for our cow. In the meantime, Gillespie and Sheppard, who had been walking 100 yards behind us, saw the officers stop us and, to play safe, went into the woods along the side of the road.

The officer asked Willen the name of the next village. Willen told him Villers-Bocage, the name of the village we had just walked through. Willen, unfortunately, did not know the name of next village that could be seen over the rise of the trees. The German officer pulled out a map and said, “You must be mistaken, you have already passed through Villers-Bocage — only a kilometre back down the road”. He suspicioned that we were not Frenchmen living in the area. Locals would have known the names of two villages.

He began accusing us of being “Terrorists” — French people behind the lines who were sabotaging German equipment. Becoming more heated, he pulled out his gun and started waving it in our faces, cursing, and threatening to shoot us. When we thought he was going to shoot us, we produced our identification tags to prove we were American soldiers and not spies. He seemed astonished and surprised and ordered us into his buggy and we, again prisoners of war, were off to a nearby farmhouse.

Gillespie and Sheppard came out of the woods, looked down the road, and — not seeing us nor the German officers — assumed Willen and I had kept on going. They continued on until some German soldiers — with instructions from the officers — picked them up and brought them to the same farmhouse.

The four of us were corralled in a barnyard, surrounded by the house and a large barn with stables and harness rooms on both sides. We were searched and the sacks with food were taken away. The German soldiers thought it funny that we were carrying food in sacks and dressed as French peasants.

So, Glyn & I wondered whether we could find this farm from Raymond’s description. There are three routes north (or northish) out of Villers Bocage, of which two are more major routes, so, given the time that we had available, we decided to try the two major routes out of town & follow them for a couple of kilometres to see what we could find knowing the sort of building complex that we were looking for.

Midland Red Bus syndrome

So, there we were, hoping to find a nice suitable candidate… and we did… but there were three of them; and that was without looking at anything along the third route! A bit like the old saying about Midland Red busses: You wait ages for one and then three arrive at the same time!

However, I wonder whether, with hindsight, we could discount the one… for two reasons…

  • First the road is more east or north east rather than north
  • Secondly, this road is the one along which, earlier in June, the advanced elements of the British 7th Armoured Division had been ambushed by Tiger tanks commanded by Michael Wittman & tanks, halftracks & carriers completely destroyed… none of which is mentioned in Raymond’s manuscript & as they’d have been walking alongside the evidence of the carnage (I can’t see that it would have been cleared away at this point), I would have thought that it would have earned at least a passing comment.

So, some further research required including finding out when the wreckage from 7th Armoured Division was moved, applying a compass to some maps to estimate travel distances & a review of wartime aerial photos to try to identify places.

A quick visit to L’Odon Brewery (well it would be rude not to!)

So, we now headed south towards our regular 6th June afternoon appointment at St Charles de Percy Commonwealth Cemetery… and then stopped as, just outside of Villers Bocage, on a small industrial estate was a sign advertising the l’Odon Brewery… well, you wouldn’t expect us to drive past, would you.

A quick call in – the brewer was delivering some training, so couldn’t spare us much time – and 5 minutes in the shop & we were back on our way!

At St Charles de Percy and saving the Welsh Guards

When we arrived at St Charles de Percy cemetery for our second Remembrance activity, I went over to the mayor & passed on Muir Findlay’s apologies. Whilst M DESORMEAU was disappointed to hear this (especially as Muir was the only WW2 veteran that they were expecting), he fully understood that his health had to come first.

This year, we were joined by 4 Guardsmen from the Welsh Guards and two from the Irish Guards (the latter, unexpectedly). One of the Welsh Guards played Last Post on his bugle and, as ever, hearing the mournful notes sounding out across a quiet cemetery sent a shiver down the spine.

Following the ceremony, which was as “French” as ever, we set off into the village proper for the Vin d’honneur at the Guards Memorial… however, there was no sign of the Guards… well, the two Irish Guardsmen appeared, saw the crowd, turned round & walked off – I suspect that they thought that it was a private ceremony – meanwhile the villagers (including the Mayor) were beginning to look concerned as they were waiting for the Welsh Guards to arrive before starting. So, I jogged back to the car (yes, I know, hard to believe!!) and drove off in search of them… fortunately, they were at the top of the lane chatting to the son of an Irish Guards veteran – Major Tony Brady – who had unfortunately passed away last year & who was visiting in his memory. I explained that the mayor & villagers were awaiting their arrival before starting the ceremony & whilst I offered them a lift, they said that they would march… by the time that I’d turned the car around, they were half way there!

Ceremony over, the Lieutenant in charge of their party thanked me for coming to find them as they’d not been aware that they had been expected to attend the ceremony; they thought that there was just one – at the cemetery.

During the Vin d’honneur, I was introduced to a couple of locals that used to live in St Vigor & who had no idea about the Shed… so they were suitably introduced to Stuart & Barrie who were also attending the ceremony.

Off to Ryes

Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay too long as we needed to head off to Ryes which was near the coast for our overnight accommodation.

We arrived at our accommodation in a converted barn that was part of a massive farm complex owned by Mme Emmanuelle Sébire – again, my budding French language skills were needed as Mme Sébire didn’t speak much English. The rooms had been converted in a simple way that was comfortable, but which preserved the fabric of the building.

We were then off, again, to grab a late meal in Asnelles at the Restaurant Dunes Zen

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