LRM Readers’ Tour
LRM Readers’ Tour visits the D-day beaches of Normandy
History comes alive as LRM readers embark on a tour of Normandy’s beaches and battlefields
I don’t remember much about the academical side of things while at university, but the one lecture that I will never forget was when Lt Col Ian van der Waag told us about the D-day landings on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. You could hear a mouse fart in the lecture hall, as the colonel had us all captivated.
Never before in the history of war had anyone attempted such an audacious amphibious assault. Over 5000 vessels were used and on that first day of the assault nearly 160,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel. The attack on Hitler’s European fortress was underway. What I heard during that lecture had a truly profound effect on me and I vowed to one day go and see the beaches for myself. Fast forward 21 years and that is exactly what I’m now doing as this year’s LRM Readers’ Tour is to those same D-day beaches in Normandy.
Saturday June 3
We’re driving the all-new Discovery and I’ve invited a few of my 4x4 mates along. Bear Grylls did say the new Disco could comfortably carry seven adults. We are only five (young Vincent Porter is only 13 years old so he can have the middle seat in the second row) but we are also carrying all our camping gear for several days. We have not packed lightly so there is no space for my large 60-litre fridge. Fortunately, the Discovery does have a front centre console cooler, an optional extra at £235.
Everyone meets at my house at 08.30 am and after taking about an hour to pack the Discovery we are good to go. We have used every inch of its rear backing space. Who would have thought that it could carry so much?
Unlike Adolf Hitler, my French geography sucks. I’ve booked the Channel Tunnel from Folkestone to Calais, while the tour starts in Arromanches, so a ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre might have been a better idea. Google Maps disagrees and says that both routes take around the same time. I’m not stressed as often half the fun is the journey getting there.
The all-new Discovery weighs 2230 kg; if you add the weight of the five of us plus our gear, it must be close to three tonnes. This does not seem to bother the 3.0-litre Td6 diesel engine and before we knew it we had reached the tolls of France. We still had just over 200 miles to our campsite at Arromanches but the French roads treat us well and we arrive at the municipal campsite well before sunset.
It’s like no other campsite I’ve ever visited. It’s filled with an array of well-preserved Second World War vehicles and tents as this is the D-day commemoration week. It feels as if I have driven onto the set of Saving Private Ryan. The only thing that tells me I have not is that all the soldiers wearing American or British uniforms are speaking perfect French.
“Unlike Adolf Hitler, my French geography sucks”
We unload all our gear out of the Discovery and put up our tents. I then fire up the gas BBQ and about 45 minutes later we are enjoying the finest quality British beef. After our meal we take the very short stroll into town. For those that don’t know, the Allied forces gave the landing beaches five code names: Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. The town of Arromanches was home to Gold Beach, which is where the British forces landed. Even though it is dark by the time we walk on the beach I can still make out the remains of some of the pontoons used by the Allied forces during the landing. That night as I fall asleep to the sound of people enjoying themselves in the campsite I cannot help but think that it’s a very far cry from what happened here on June 6, 1944.
Sunday June 4
The first day of our official tour, but as things only start at 11.00 am, we have time to drive to one of the big supermarkets in nearby Bayeux to stock up on lunch goodies. There are ten Land Rovers on this LRM Readers’ Tour and all report promptly for duty at Memorial Pegasus. Just like last year’s tour most of the Land Rovers are what I would call of the newer variety though there is one C-reg Ninety.
While most might think that the start of D-day began with the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, this could not be further from the truth. Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle and General Giraud had already met in Casablanca in January of 1943 and decided that the Allied forces needed to launch landings on the German-occupied French coast. This became known as Operation Overlord. The Memorial Pegasus, where we now found ourselves, is dedicated the brave men of the 6th British Airborne Division who played such a starring role at the start of Overlord. One of their actions involved six Horsa gliders carrying 181 men from the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, who had been tasked with securing the strategically-important bridges on the Caen Canal and on the River Orne at Benouville and Ranville. They were ably led by Major John Howard and incredibly one of the gliders landed only a few yards from the target. Pegasus Bridge at Benouville was easily taken and held despite several German counter-attacks.
While admiring one of the Horsa gliders we are fortunate enough to witness the unveiling of a special bench by Keith Mangan, for his dad James Mangan, a paratrooper medic who landed here on June 6, 1944. Keith looked proud – and rightly so.
The original Pegasus bridge is now on display in the memorial, and we drive over the new one as we make our way towards Ranville, the first French town to be liberated. Here we stop at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery. The sun is bright and hot. Buried here is Lieutenant Den Brotheridge, the first Allied soldier to be killed on D-day. He died when he and his platoon stormed
“The fighting was ferocious and casualties high”
across the now famous Pegasus Bridge. The Second World War cemeteries seem to have a more open and spacious feeling than those of the First World War. Our host and guide Carl Liversage concurs: “There are also fewer unknown soldier graves. We have tried to create a feeling of soldiers on parade mixed with an English country cottage garden.”
They have certainly succeeded as the flowers are currently in full bloom. Next up are our first lanes of the day, it feels good to get off the tourist routes. The wheat in the fields is about hip height, not enough to spoil our views.
Late lunch is taken at the Hillman Fortress, a formidable German bunker and command complex near CollevilleMontgomery. The Suffolk Regiment (who had to capture it) called it Hill 61 or Hillman and they eventually took it on the morning of June 7. Today it is occupied by Second World War re-enactors from all over the world. They have all the period correct gear and clothing. The only problem is that most of them are French and you and I both know that the French soldiers were nowhere to be seen on D-day.
After taking in a few more lanes we stop at Beny-sur-mer, a Canadian cemetery which is the final resting place to over 2000 soldiers. Canadian troops came ashore on the dangerous Juno beach. It’s believed that those in the first wave only stood a 50 per cent chance of survival. The poor Canadians also encountered some stubborn German resistance as they fought their way towards Caen.
A personal highlight was when we drove past the Stanley Hollis statue in the village of Crepon. Stanley, a Middlesborough ßman who served with the Territorial Armies Green Howards was the only man to be awarded a VC on D-day. During the assault on Gold Beach, Stanley and his company commander rushed two pillboxes, taking over 30 prisoners in the process. This was only the first of many such brave actions by him on that day.
Later we again take a stroll into town and at around 11.00 pm we are treated to a rather good fireworks display.
Monday June 5
From the campsite we head in a westerly direction along some gentle coastal lanes towards Omaha beach, which as you know is where the Americans landed. Yes it’s the famous beach from opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. We stop at Longues-sur-mer, where in 1943 the Germans installed a battery of four 150 mm cannons with a range of over 12 miles.
The raised height of the location and open views of the sea made it an obvious choice for the location of the battery. As the Germans could fire on both Gold and Omoha beaches plus the Allied ships from here, it was of extreme strategic importance. Despite the heavy bombardment prior to D-day, the battery was still fully operational when the first soldiers landed on the beaches, though by 7.00 pm they were all silenced. The pillbox walls were an incredible six foot thick. It was a sunny and silent morning when we walked around the place, a far cry from what it must have sounded like here on D-day.
Next our convoy makes its way through the pretty fishing village of Port-en-bessin, it too was of major strategic importance. It was liberated on June 8 by the 47 Royal Marine Commando, thereby providing the Allied forces with a much needed supply port.
We hit the Omoha beaches next and stop off at the American Cemetery. It’s a massive place and you need a full day to take it all in. There are over 9000 Americans buried here. I head for the visitors centre to try and make sense of it all. The poor weather on June 6, 1944, did not make matters easier for the American’s trying to land here. Add into the mix that the 352nd German Infantry Division were doing manoeuvres in the area at the time and you begin to understand why they sustained such heavy losses. The village of Bedford in Virginia lost 23 men on that day, the village only had 3000 inhabitants at the time. In fact, at one stage the American Commander Omar Bradley considered abandoning the landing operations due to the high losses and seemingly impossible mission.
There are loads of Americans touring the site on the day of our visit. Some lay wreaths while others find a quiet spot to reflect and pay their respects. I find it impossible not to be moved by the incredible bravery of the American soldiers.
We take lunch on the beach in the town of Saint Laurent-surMer. A lone Willys Jeep joins us on the beach. As I stroll along the promenade I notice several plaques and memorials dedicated to the men and units who liberated the town.
After lunch it is only a short transit to the famous Pointe de Hoc, a high cliff where the Germans had installed several wellfortified 155 mm cannons. A complex system of bunkers housed the 125 Infantry soldiers and 80 gunners occupying the point. The American Rangers were tasked with attacking the point but first they had to get up the cliffs using grappling irons and ropes which the Germans cut. The fighting was ferocious and casualties high but after 48 hours the battery fell to the Rangers.
“How lucky we are to live in a time of relative peace”
When I stand at the top of the cliff and stare down at the rocks I realise what a difficult task it must have been.
After heading west along some more gentle lanes (no low range required) we stop at La Cambe, a cemetery filled with 21,000 German graves. One of them belongs to Michael Wittmann, the highly-decorated tank commander. It’s easy to spot his grave as the grass around it is brown and several people have left photos and notes there for him.
Tuesday June 6
Today it’s exactly 73 years since the D-day landings and our day begins with a few lanes in the general direction of Bayeux. Some of the them are a little overgrown and muddy but nothing dramatic enough to halt a new Discovery. Once in Bayeux we make our way to the museum This is the town where Charles de Gaulle delivered a sort of liberation speech even though there was still much fighting to be done.
Carl has arranged for us to attend the special commemoration ceremony at the cemetery in town. As we walk there I notice several French soldiers sitting in a Defender. There are some on patrol around the cemetery, a sign of the times that we live in. Many D-day veterans and government officials are in attendance. It’s a moving service and afterwards we are lucky enough to chat to several of the veterans as they make their way towards the graves of their fallen friends.
Our next stop is the Jerusalem Graveyard, home of the grave of Private Jack Banks, of the Durham Light Infantry, who was only 16 when killed in action. His family wrote the following on his headstone: “God will tell us why some day, he broke our hearts and took you away”. Vincent, the youngest member of our group, laid a wreath at Jack’s grave. As the father of a young lad, I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for Jack’s parents when they received the news of his death.
Our final stop of the day is at the Tilly-sur-suelles cemetery. The nearby town only fell about two weeks after the D-day landing though the area saw heavy fighting and fluctuating fortunes, mainly involving the 49th and 50th divisions. Fighting continued here until the middle of July, which probably explains why almost 1000 Allied soldiers and over 200 German soldiers are buried here.
We head into the town for our final night of the tour. D-day Veteran Len Cox from Cornwall comes to Arromanches each year at this time and we are fortunate to run into him. He is in fine spirits and does not mind talking to us over a pint. Last year Len was awarded the legion d’honneur medal by the French. He is a humble and remarkable chap. That night as we walk back to the campsite I reflect on what has been a very moving couple of days.
Wednesday June 7
Before returning home we visit the D-day Landings Museum at Arromanches, which gives us a very good explanation of the building and operations of the artificial ports. Once again we are blown away by the enormity of it all.
As our Discovery leaves Arromanches for the final time noone says a word. The last few days have been informative; they have also made us realise how lucky we are to have lived in a time of relative peace and no world wars.
Above: Our convoy crosses the famous Pegasus Bridge, after a visit to the nearby Memorial Pegasus