Normandy Road Trip. Part 1. (17/08/12 - 21/08/12)


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Europe » France » Lower Normandy » Arromanches-les-Bains
August 23rd 2012
Published: August 24th 2012
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Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you." - General Eisenhower


Some Background

Operation Overlord (the codename given to D-Day) was the largest Air and Naval Operation in the history of Warfare. It was the culmination of years of planning, subversion, stock-piling of resources and training of men. The Operation was broken down into many minor Operations that all contributed to the overall success of Overlord. Should Overlord have failed there is a very real chance that Britain would have been invaded and I may not be here typing this blog today. The courage and strength of each individual man who took part in Overlord is something that should never be forgotten.

The Plan

Early this year my brother (Dan) came to me with an idea. Years ago we used to drive everywhere around England, always on a road trip. But in recent years we hadn't had one, Dan is soon to be married and so we used this opportunity to have a trip. He suggested we drive to Normandy, because we are both geeks for the Second World War (if you hadn't guessed by my first blog). In the end it was decided we would take £300 each as part of a kitty to live off for the five days.

Leaving

So after Dan finished work on the Friday he came over to pick me up, zeroed the counter on his dashboard, and we loaded up and set off down the M1 from Leicester to Ashford in Kent where we were stopping for the night. We had a high-spirited but uneventful drive all the way to the M25 and then we joined the traffic jam. The traffic was thick and slow moving right up tothe Dartford Crossing and neither of us had counted on there being a toll bridge, and we definitely didn't see the signs for it until it was too late. The problem was neither of us were carrying any Sterling and they didn't accept cards at the booth, which in this day and age is ridiculous. We got to the booth with the hope of blagging it and the guy was a right jobsworth, in the end it turns out you can pay in Euros but they shaft you royally over the exchange rate there, So:


Joe's Top Tip for the M25/road trips:




Always carry Sterling regardless of currency used in country you may be visiting. Unless you

want to get torn a fresh one over the exchange rate.

We made it to Ashford and after negotiating several questionable looking areas of the town we finally got the the Holiday Inn (which had been booked on the Welcome-Rewards from Hotels.com) and they charged us! So they received two payments for one room. We hit the bar. £9.20 for two pints. We went to bed shortly after as we were rapidly being bankrupted even before leaving the UK.

Le Tunnel Sous Le Manche

We made out for the Tunnel early doors and got there with about 40 minutes to spare so checked out the duty free, if that's what it could be called. The call to board came and we joined the queue, at this point no one had checked our passports and we assumed either they would check them before allowing us to drive down onto the carriage or at least coming out on the otherside in Calais. We crossed smoothly and out of the little carriage windows I was given my first glimpses of France. The train pulled up and we drove off, straight onto a carriageway out of Calais... still no passport check.
Not a cloud in the sky, spirits are high.Not a cloud in the sky, spirits are high.Not a cloud in the sky, spirits are high.

just been fisted for toll money at Le Havre bridge.


Calais to Colleville-Sur-Mer

The Satnav said it would be a 3.5 to 4 hour drive to Colleville-Sur-Mer so we settled in for the drive and took in the scenery. After some time we started to get hungry and debated coming off at a junction to find a patisserie but Dan reckoned the town looked "too industrial" and decided against taking the exit. Literally as we passed the exit Dan realised that the Satnav had wanted us to take that exit and was no rerouting us. It was 25 miles to the next junction, with no exit, no petrol station and only the rest stops that are all along the carriageways in France. We added about 50 miles in total to our journey as the route took us down to the Amiens ringroad and back out toward Le Havre. Due to our misadventure when we came to the next toll booth we had to pay double what we should have. This toll booth was followed by a precession of toll booths that basically lead all the way down to Caen. We hit traffic not far from Caen and we decided to pull into a rest stop that was heaving
Naval Artillery Piece.Naval Artillery Piece.Naval Artillery Piece.

3 Sherman Tanks are visible. Two of which were Duplex Drive (DD Tanks) which were crude Amphibious tanks. They sank in rough seas.
with people, we pulled up on a grass verge and i sat in the shade as i had been sat with the sun on me for the best part of the journey. Some time later we rejoined the road as the traffic had thinned out and was at least flowing. The traffic was still heavy all the way through Caen but became faster flowing on the otherside toward Bayeux.

The drive continued, relentlessly, but we were still in high spirits. On a road coming from Beyeux toward the Port En Bessin Huppain Dan spotted what he described as "a tank coming through a hedge". We drove down to the roundabout and doubled back toward it. This was our first museum in Normandy. It is called "The Museum of Normandy Wrecks" and is the culmination of 40 years work. The guy who runs it was a scrap metal merchant and was contracted by the French Government to clear the wrecks off the coast of Omaha beach which were hazardous to boats operating in the area. He realised the historical value of the items which he recovered and set about constructing the museum. He has tanks of varying make, numerous parts
Dan GryllsDan GryllsDan Grylls

Erecting a tent...
of ships that were either sunk, or damaged by U-boats, Giant anchors (the biggest weighing a mammoth 25 Tonnes). The internal section of the museum sadly doesn't permit photography as he has collected the personal effects of individuals who lost their lives during Operation Overlord.

After the museum we decided that we should get to the campsite as it was getting on in the day, and we hadn't actually booked a pitch. We set course for Colleville-Sur-Mer with a view to staying at a campsite called Camping Le Robinson. When we arrived we pulled up and went to the reception desk. A week before Dan had recieved an email from them stating that we didn't need to book a pitch and could just turn up. However, the receptionist seemed especially put out by our unannounced arrival and sent her 'runner' (a camp young gentleman with a golf cart) to seek out a plot for us to pitch a tent. Dan handled the conversation in French as his grasp is infinitely better than mine. The receptionist ignored us until her minion returned, who announced that there was only 1 pitch left and we could have it. 46 euros later and
Arromanches Les BainArromanches Les BainArromanches Les Bain

The Mulberry remnants can be seen at sea, a picturesque little village.
our Passports being checked for the first time, we were given a code to the barrier and instructed to follow Golf-Cart minion to our plot. He actually turned out to be very nice and helpful so i should probably not be too hard on him due to my initial impression. He pointed to a large open space between two tents, told us not to park on the grass and then pootled off in his Cart. We dug the tent out of the car. With no instruction on how to put the tent up we risked looking like massive camping-failures however the tent was easy to put up. So easy infact i sat back and let Dan do all the work after I had put the pegs in.

We headed up to the poolside bar, ordered a pizza and chips each, that are made fresh on site 3 days a week. Got onto the wifi and I let Gemma know we had made it safely from Ashford to our campsite after 7 or so hours on the road. We had a few pints and just relaxed all evening. Upon arrival at the Campsite the sun had been out without a cloud in the sky and across the road a farmer had been forming bales in his tractor. By the time we were on our second pint we were sat in thick mist that left a wet residue on everything it touched and we could barely see the other side of the pool. I thought it was a welcome break from the scorching sun i had sat in all day as passenger... Dan however was not so thrilled. We settled down for a night of broken sleep adjusting to sleeping on hard dry Earth.

Gorillas in the Mist

We awoke and decided we needed some traditional French food for breakfast. Croissants and Pan au Chocolat from a Patisserie in Longues Sur Mer as we would be going through Longues Sur Mer on the way to Arromanches Les Bains. We pulled up near the Patisserie and were making our way to the door when through the mist a woman ran up to us. She began talking quickly and nervously before we had an opportunity to tell her we weren't French. Me, being 'merde' at French said "English" but she carried on anyway. Dan all of a sudden cracked out this gem. "Je suis desole, je ne comprend pas". Ignoring both our protests the woman continued fruitlessly gesticulating and talking to us. All of a sudden she motioned pushing and pointing to her car. We automatically nodded and she ran back toward a parked up car with a portly gentleman and his dog in it, we were right behind the car and about to push when she skirted around the edge and jumped into another car. The portly gentleman looked very alarmed when he saw two burly gentleman about to shove his tiny Citroen into oncoming traffic. We realised though and diverted to the other car. We began pushing and she steered into the road, I was simultaneously pushing and waving to traffic to slow when Dan alerted me to the fact her steering wheel had locked and we were about to push her car into a ditch. She quickly whipped out some keys and unlocked the steering wheel narrowly avoiding having her car pushed into a 5 foot deep ditch by us two.

The Mulberry Harbour

In order for Operation Overlord to be successful the Allies had to land an astronomical amount men, hardware and supplies on the beaches. This was achieved by the invention of The Mulberry Harbour. An artificial, floating Harbour that at the time was really a feat of engineering. Two Mulberries were bought across shortly after the D-Day landings and a foothold in Normandy had been established. Dragged in sections and attached to the other components Mulberries were put in at Omaha Beach and Gold Beach. The one at Omaha was destroyed by a storm and abandoned. But Remnants of the Gold Beach harbour still stick out and are a major tourist attraction for visitors to Normandy. We went to the Museum at Arromanches and looked around then headed out to look around this quintessentially French seaside village. We made our way to the top of the hill overlooking the village with a Sherman Tank acting as guardian to the people of Arromanches. The view was fantastic and we could see out some distance over the surrounding Normandy fields and the coast.

Fortress Europe

As the German's knew that an invasion was imminent from anywhere along the coastline from Belgium down to Spain they built fortifications the entire length to throw any attempt made by the allies back into the sea. Rommel
From the bank up through the bluffs to the cemeteryFrom the bank up through the bluffs to the cemeteryFrom the bank up through the bluffs to the cemetery

The most deadly strip of land on the 6th June 1944. Now a protected area
oversaw what became known as the Atlantik Wall, in the Normandy region. Amongst the surviving fortifications that are along the coast line in Normandy is the Battery at Longues Sur Mer. I drove from Arromanches back to Longues Sur Mer and we took 'The scenic route' ending up at what looked like the French equivalent of a plantation house in the middle of nowhere. We were down a typical single track lane in Normandy flanked by ditches and trees on either side and were trying to find a way back to the road. Dan took over and we eventually made our way to the Battery. We purchased Crepe's and water and began to look around when 3 Tour buses full of American and Dutch tourists turned up. We attempted to get a photo or two but couldn't get a clear one due to being photo bombed. We waited until they had moved on to the last fortification before we had a look around as it was quieter then. Further along in one of the fortifications Dan hit upon the idea of hiding in the pitch black casemates waiting for the American and Dutch tourists and jumping out on them screaming
Omaha BeachOmaha BeachOmaha Beach

It's difficult to imagine a sea of red water and fallen men now as the area was so peaceful.
and pulling faces... the photo displayed in this blog was not staged and was a work of perfect timing. He looks like an idiot! So:


Joe's Top Tip for trying to scare tourists inside old nazi bunkers:




Try your hardest to look like my brother!






Into The Meat Grinder

As our boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to Hell" - Harry Parley, Omaha Survivor



After our Longues Sur Mer hijinks we headed off to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery. For those who don't know, of all the beach landings of the Normandy Invasion on D-Day the American troops who landed at Omaha Beach were basically sent forth into a hail of oncoming mortar fire and machine gun fire. In one instance, of 35 men who debarked from their landing craft in waist deep water, only 6 made it to the shingle wall part way up the beach. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan depicts what the action on Omaha was like. From the visitors centre at the Cemetery there is a path through the bluffs down onto the beach. We stood on the Beach with the tide partially in and tried to imagine what it must have been like for men of a
The rows of Headstones at Omaha Cemetery.The rows of Headstones at Omaha Cemetery.The rows of Headstones at Omaha Cemetery.

This is just a small portion of them.
similar age to us 68 years previously having to run the gauntlet where an individual's life expectancy could be reduced to seconds and death was decided by two things. Where the German's were aiming, and how good a shot they were. It was a stark reminder of the sacrifice made by men who weren't looking for glory, men who weren't in their own opinion extraordinary. They were willing to make a sacrifice so that future generations could live in a World without Tyranny and oppression.

2,500 men died on Omaha beach alone. They ran through a wall of bullets and mortars, out of the landing craft and into the Meat Grinder. The tide rocked the bodies of the fallen gently as the waves lapped at the shore. The sea turned red as blood flowed freely from the men. Many men killed in Action on D-Day at Omaha didn't leave enough recognisable traces behind to be formally identified. Standing on the beach it was difficult to imagine a sea of red and a shoreline of corpses. 68 years later we stood on a peaceful beach with turqouise water and only the sound of the sea breeze to accompany us. It was food for thought and a very sobering experience. Parallelled by emotions stirred up by Sachsenhausen.

We made our way back up the path through the Bluffs to the Cemetery and walked up the path. On our left was the memorial monument and two our right from behind a hedgerow appeared a sea of white crucifix and star of David headstones. As far as the eyes could see. There are actually that many, in perfectly neat rows that they follow the curvature of the Earth. We weren't ready for how massive the cemetery was going to be, Dan put it right "it's just Biblical in scale" and he's right.

We spent some time amongst the headstones reading the inscription on them, we would occasionally come across a headstone that was for an unidentified body. How do you articulate how that makes you feel? Knowing someone died without a name, who's physical representation on Earth after they have passed is a white marble headstone with no way to identify who they were, when they died, or who they left behind. The torture the family members must have gone through never knowing the fate of their son, father or brother. It's unimagineable.

We walked along the path that goes along the coastal wall which offers a brilliant view down onto the beach. You can see, standing looking from the Cemetery path, why so many men died trying to take Omaha beach as there is such little cover down on the beach. After the Cemetery we moved on to the visitors centre where there is a museum. We looked around and then moved on to Pointe Du Hoc.

All Along The Watchtower

We drove from Colleville-Sur-Mer up to the Pointe, when we arrived you can still see what a battering this place took. The entire area is littered with Craters from naval and air bombardment before the Rangers went in and took the Pointe. The plan was to move in an neutralise artillery guns capable of hitting Omaha Beach and seriously hindering the invasion effort. To get to the Pointe Rangers had to scale vertical cliffs up rope ladders fired by rocket from their landing craft. After scaling the cliff face they then had to neutralise the enemy threat then destroy the guns. The problem was, they achieved the first two objectives but the Guns had been moved, a mile inland. They went ahead, sought out the guns and neutralised them anyway. Anyone who has played the Call of Duty Franchise will have done this in the 2nd game as it's one of the playable missions (geek, i know).

Paths around the Pointe have been put in and you can climb on top of the remaining Casemate fortifications. We moved away from the crowd of people toward an entrance to an underground fortification. We went in, it was pitch black, we used a wind up torch and the flash from our cameras to see through the underground network that have been left in the same condition as when they were liberated from the German's (aside from all the stuff taken out).

We explored the underground fortifications and network of partially collapsed tunnels then came back up and went down to the fortification at the edge of the point, where the monument to the Rangers is. We had been out all day and it was getting to about half 4 in the afternoon and we hadn't eaten since Longues-Sur-Mer so we decided to head back toward the campsite and look for somewhere to eat.

We found this in the form of a road-side Panini dispensary. The hut was at the side of a road next to another personal collection of Normandy Relics. We explored the museum then headed back to the camp site for a few well deserved beers, some wifi and for me... Sausage and chips.

Before it went dark

Before nightfall we headed down to the beach again from the Campsite, this time at a different section of Omaha Beach, we wandered along enjoying the cool evening breeze and occasionally stumbled across the remains of fortifications built into the cliff face and Bluffs. The tied was coming in quick and we had come down a tiny dirt path to the beach and it was also getting dark so we headed back up to the campsite, by the time we got back to the campsite it was pitch black and we were making our way by moon light through Normandy coastal paths and fields... the same experience of the men 68 years before us?

End Of Part 1



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