LRM Read­ers’ Tour

LRM Read­ers’ Tour vis­its the D-day beaches of Normandy

Land Rover Monthly - - Contents - Story and pic­tures: Pa­trick Cruywagen

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.

52

Above: Our con­voy crosses the fa­mous Pe­ga­sus Bridge, af­ter a visit to the nearby Me­mo­rial Pe­ga­sus

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