Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
It’s life-affirming when positive experiences upend your opinions. This happened to me during seven days cycling in Normanby. Two matters stand out. First, the French are so polite and accommodating that long-held beliefs evaporated. Second, the sacrifice of the young men who fought over this terrain in June 1944 is humbling.
Arriving in Cherbourg, a portly lady Gendarme greets me with a cheery “Bonjour, Monsieur”. A scan of my passport, I’m waved off. After that, I soon lost count of the number of “Bonjour’s” that came my way. Fellow cyclists, pedestrians, shop staff and even teenagers. Within moments my Anglocentric view of the surly French vanishes in a wave of politeness.
As if to affirm that I’d got it wrong, the French motorists hung back behind our weighty peloton, even as we blocked narrow country lanes. No horns, no frustrated gestures or signs of irritation. Instead, when they finally managed to pass, an unworried wave. A few offered encouragement.
Could this en masse civility be a seasonal affair? With the 74th anniversary of the World War II landings is a British invasion welcomed? Was it the fact we're cyclists in a nation that embraces the sport with such favour. I’m not sure. Either way, it's welcomed.
In the confusion of being abroad, I greeted a chap with a hearty “Bonjour” for two mornings, until he revealed himself as a fellow Yorkshireman. Without a hint of shame, we switch to the vernacular. I suppose Alan Bennett would construct a play out of such happenings.
My main reason for being in Normandy was to visit the landing sites that rose to fame on 6th June 1944. We all know the general thrust of the narrative. The Allies, led by General Eisenhower, parachuted, glided and rushed ashore in a momentous invasion.
Up until that point, the Russians did most of the fighting in the meat-grinder that was the Eastern Front. Side-shows in Africa and Italy tied up some of Hitler's troops, but along with Stalingrad, this operation was a turning point. The figures are staggering: 150,000 soldiers from 12 countries, over 11,000 aircraft and 7,000 vessels. While impressive, it’s the individual acts of courage that stand out. A narrow foothold was secured as the Nazi’s fretted that the attack was a diversion.
One of the most audacious operations involved the taking of Pegasus Bridge. British glider-borne troops arrived just after midnight on 6th June. The bridge straddles the Caen Canal, and with its sister bridge over the Orne River, provides access eastwards. The Germans recognised the importance of the location, protecting it with troops and gun emplacements.
Five gliders managed to land within meters of the bridge, startling the defenders. The sergeant pilots achieved remarkable accuracy, flying at night to land in a tight space. This proximity allowed the troops to gain complete surprise. Lieutenant Brotheridge led a charge across the bridge to become the first to die as a result of enemy-fire that day. Within 15 minutes the site was secure. Later reinforcements arrived.
Further west, a visit to Pointe du Hoc can’t fail to leave a deep impression. A depleted force of US Rangers climbed the nine-story-high cliffs under a hail of gunfire and grenades. Their target a German gun battery threatened the landing beaches except that big guns were not in place. Unaware, the Rangers pressed home their attack. They took fearful losses before overpowering the defenders.
Rangers then held the site for two days against determined German counter-attacks. As a high point at the fulcrum between Utah and Omaha beaches, Point Du Hoc had vast importance. Of the 225 Rangers who landed, only 90 men remained active when the position was relieved on the 8th June.
It’s impossible not to feel moved by the sight of the American cemetery above Omaha Beach. Immaculate lines of crosses stretch into the distance. Each one has a story to tell of courage in the face of terrible odds. In that setting, the extent of the sacrifice of these young men is the sheer number of crosses.
The British cemetery at Bayeux summons similar emotions. Lads from East Yorkshire, Lancashire and every corner of Great Britain rest here. Standing there, my daily worries dissolve as trivial concerns. You find yourself embraced by a new perspective on the machinations of life. Even the young had the decency to put away their mobiles, in quiet in respectful contemplation. There is hope.
Throughout my trip, I saw re-enactors resplendent in uniforms. US Paratroopers, Sailors and British infantry. These guys came from all nations. Poles dressed as US troops; French as British paratroopers and Swiss in Free French uniforms. To add to the authenticity, Sherman Tanks, Willy Jeeps and anti-aircraft guns rolled into villages. At first, I was unsure. It all looked a bit too showy, with a hint of juvenile wargaming.
These people came across as sincere in their attempt to portray a crucial historical event. Respectful, they took time to talk to students explaining the significance of the event.
The true embodiment of the period I encountered at Arromanche and Pegasus Bridge. Elderly veterans posed for pictures. My “thank you” sounded lame. It's far from substantial given the enormity of the task these men undertook. Dewy-eyed they answered questions from wheelchairs. Advancing years have failed to remove the signs of grim-visaged war from their faces. Meanwhile, the surrounding charming pastoral Normandy landscape defies the carnage that took place.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.