Today was Darren’s Day or D-Day as we should probably more accurately call it. From Sainte-Mere-Eglise to Arramanche, we toured the Normandy landing sights (and sites) in order to flood ourselves in that glorious victory.
We (Mirinda and I) toured the area back in 2004 but there have been changes, not necessarily for the better, as well as one place we didn’t get to visit: the tiny town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
On the night of June 6, 1944, a whole bunch of guys parachuted into Normandy as the invasion began. There were lots of mishaps including one chap, John Steele whose parachute became caught and dangled from the church steeple. He hangs there still.
Actually, he was only there for two hours, feigning death because of the fire. In the early hours of the morning, a fire had broken out at the manor house across the road from the church (where the Airborne Museum is today) and the entire town came out to try and extinguish the flames. This, naturally included the German occupiers.
As the flames lit up the early morning darkness, the parachutists were lit up in it and the Germans started shooting them, ordering the towns people back to their homes. It looked like curtains for John but he managed to survive, was taken prisoner then escaped to parachute a few more times throughout the war.
We were going to visit the church but there was a funeral on so, after wandering by the few shops, we headed into the museum.
And it was an excellent museum, all about how the town managed and dealt with the Germans then the Americans, war then peace. And now tourists.
It features full size gliders and other aircraft as well as tanks. I thought it was excellent, particularly the bit where we walked through the body of a plane during the actual drop, men and noise all around and shots being fired from the ground. It was very effective.
Actually, the museum is divided into three distinct buildings which feature various aspects of the D-Day drop. There is also a real Sherman tank which, tank expert Darren, was more than happy to explain to us. Actually I asked him. He does know a lot about tanks. It’s very much like me and containers.
Moving right along…
One of the problems with the museum (and something that has been highlighted by both Lorna and John) is the information written on the displays. It tends to be too small and too far down. While the height is not something to overly concern Lorna, wheelchair height is not good for John’s lofty 6′ 4″ given the amount of bending this requires.
Then there’s the colours the designers use for text on background. White text on a light grey background might look all trendy and cool but it’s bloody hard to read, particularly when the font is quite small. Basically you just stop reading.
After filling ourselves with as many parachute facts and figures as we could manage to read, we headed across to the now corpse empty church for a quick squizz. And look who I found, perched up high…
Returning to the cars we headed for our next destination, La Pointe du Hoc. The ‘La’ is very important because for reasons unknown, the satnav and the phone refused to find the place without it. The analogue map, on the other hand, omitted it completely. Even with this difficulty, we managed to find it and parked up.
La Pointe du Hoc has changed a bit since I last visited. There is now a visitors’ centre with beefy and serious armed guards who scan and search you when you enter. They are not bothered about scanning and searching people wandering the shell holes in the landscape so we managed to avoid the indignity of being assumed guilty.
I do spend a lot of time having a go at Americans and their so-called culture but this whole ridiculous idea that freedom equals control is beyond me. It’s hardly democratic to assume your citizens are evil just because some are. While Trump might call his reign an attempt to ‘Make America Great Again’ I think it’s actually to ‘Keep Americans Under Control.’
Speaking of Americans, there were a lot wandering around all the sites today. Which is fine. The places are known for the Americans after all and they have ploughed a lot of money into proclaiming their greatness. One only needs to compare the ostentation of the American war cemetery with the more low key Commonwealth and German versions to realise how great they have to show everyone they are. I guess that’s how you convince yourself.
Along a wide gravelly path to the craters of Pointe du Hoc there are now lots of plaques telling the stories of some of the Rangers who so bravely climbed the cliffs on D-Day. We would have loved to have read about all of them but, unfortunately the text was almost impossible to read so we moved on.
The big wide path is new since I visited with Mirinda and I immediately went on about how it just sanitised the place, that the simple path that existed before, taking you between the trees towards the bomb holes was far more esoteric. Lorna then pointed out, immediately deflating and correcting me, that it was probably so ex-soldiers in wheelchairs could access the site with as much ease as possible. I bowed my head in abject shame, bathing in her posativity.
We had a lovely (if that’s quite the right word) wander around with thousands of others including a big school group from Queensland talking about Toowoomba. Madam E was quite taken aback by the sight of a giant penis against the sky masquerading as a memorial to the fallen Rangers who didn’t make it and those that did.
We then headed for the American cemetery…except we didn’t get very far because, suddenly, appearing out of nowhere, we found a cidre farm which sold, obviously, cidre as well as Calvados and pommeau. The Weasels went mad and, like the other people there before us, bought as much liquid as could fit in the two cars. It was a sizeable stash of the (very) good stuff.
The chap who owns and runs the place told us that he has taken over from his father who took over from his father. We told him he needed a bigger sign but he shook his head, smiling broadly. His outbuildings interested people enough to stop then peek around at the small sign and enticed them in. He was happy with the level of customers he had. He didn’t need to advertise on the moon.
Exhausted by our wondrous good luck, we stopped at a nearby aire de repose and had cheese and Jesus for lunch among the hedges. Incidentally, I feel I should point out that the aforementioned hedges actually hid a very adequate toilet…or so Lorna swore.
Back on the road we reached the American Cemetery in time to see the lowering of the flag. While very solemn and attended by a whole load of attentive spectators, mostly American, the recorded four gun salute and bugle we felt was quite disrespectful. A lot of the people visiting didn’t seem to mind terribly much (most of them were recording it after all) but we felt it devalued the sacrifice we were all supposed to be honouring. Why not a real gun? Why not a real bugler? Surely that can’t be so difficult. A local scout group perhaps, could do it as a sort of small gift back from the French. I don’t know but we all agreed it left you feeling a bit flat and distasteful.
Just before we left, John wanted to know why a big bus load of Italians turned up late for the flag lowering ceremony. I pointed out that Italians are always late and that it was a matter of honour to miss most things throughout their lives. John said he was surprised they’d come to the American Cemetery at all. What was of interest to them? We then decided it was all about the image of the little white crosses arranged so symmetrically, spreading out from the pond in front of the massive, Romanesque memorial.
Our final D-Day destination was Arromanche so Darren could climb on and into a bit of the famous mulberry harbour. Parts of it litter the beach in a sort of post apocalyptic special effect. When you look at the size of each one, it’s even more surprising that their construction and design was kept a very close secret. It’s still amazes me.
Back in the cars having licked away all traces of ice cream purchased in a handy (meaning open though not the one with Calvados flavour) ice cream stall, we headed back to Caen. We went home by the most roundabout, long winded route possible. There is no-one to blame I’m just going to say that Madam E was navigating and Darren was driving. John and I were merely following and Lorna was but a passenger in the proceedings.
We were after the local Auchan supermarket in order to buy supplies for the long journey home (and subsequent few weeks at home) when Darren ahead of us went a bit mad. As we passed our destination on the left, he went right then did a rather original impression of a U-turn before heading again in the wrong direction. John claimed there were four possible ways of approaching the Auchan and he managed to take three of them.
Anyway, we left them to their shopping as the beer in the fridge back at the apartment was calling for us quite insistently.
Our trip back was not without incident. John took one turn too soon after the big bridge part of the Périphérique which meant going over it thrice. Of course this meant a number of chances to view the boats and the river which all looked beautiful.
At the house and after a few drinks we headed off for dinner at a rather pink establishment…but, given this post has gone on for far too long, I shall talk about that tomorrow.
I shall also explain this: