Sunday, 16 March 2008

D-Day Beaches

When I visited Bayeux, as well as seeing the famous tapestry, I also spent a day touring around the Normandy landing beaches of the Second World War. Before I go any further I have to give a massive shout-out to the company that I went with, battlebus tours are fantastic, if anyone is thinking of visiting the beaches these guys were great. I was a little bit worried that the tour leader would be some gung-ho war lover. Instead we got a British guy who really seemed to love France and the French culture and was just knowlegdable about the Second World War. He answered every single question we asked, never once not knowing, and we would ask how many people died in individual battles and stuff like that. The tour group was really great too, it is very important to have a good bunch of people with you when you have to spend the entire day with them. In the end there was a New Zealand couple, an American couple and a British girl who was about the same age as me, so I didn't feel too much of a loser doing a tour by myself.

I'm sure it is possible to hire a car (not really an option for me, there is no way I am driving in France) and visit the beaches by yourself. But they are just beaches now, with a few memorials around the place, so I think unless you actually fought there or know the history inside out, you miss out on everything. We got the back story to every site and how the different battles played out and the reasons why things happened like they did, and for someone who has never learnt this it was fantastic. I really do recommend a visit out to these beaches, I mean hundreds of thousands of British, Americans, Germans etc all died miles from their homes fighting against (or for) a charismatic crazy man. The people 60 years ago are not that different from us and so it is a little scary that something like this could happen. You kind of hope that our world leaders had a better history education than I did and so know what to avoid, but looking at things now I don't know if that is the case.

The first place we visited was St-Mere-Eglise and yes that is a manniquin of a parachuter caught on the church steeple. On the 6th of June as well as the landings on the beaches there were also parachuters landing behind enemy lines to battle the Germans. Fog had come up though and so the pilots couldn't tell how far above the ground they were, or even where they were, so in quite a few cases people were dropped off in very bad situations. Either they broke legs because they were too close, some drowned as the generals didn't realise how deep the boggy marshes were, and some landed in the middle of German soldiers fighting a fire, as was the case here. Lots of the Allies got caught in trees and were executed by the Germans. The guys who landed on the steeple were luckier in that they played dead and the Germans ignored them. Eventually the allies won the town and I think it was the first one freed in France.

From the tour it really seems that the war was characterised by mistakes. Humans make mistakes, but during a war they cost lives, I got the feeling that the generals back then didn't seem to care about limiting losses, they just wanted to win. I guess they didn't see the soldiers as people anymore, but just as numbers. That is such a scary thought, that your life is completely in someone else's hands and you're just a statistic to them.

The next place we visited was this little church in the middle of a tiny village of just 48 people. More parachuters were dropped off here, though in this case the pilots got it right and this area saw the highest concentration of drop-offs, rather the scattered bunches elsewhere. In the group fighting in this village were two concientious objectors who had joined up to become medics, I don't think they even carried guns. When they landed they turned this church into an official aide station. Whilst the experienced medic, he had had one weeks training, stayed inside, the other one, with a days training, ran around outside with a big wheelbarrow he had found bringing injured people back to the church. In all they saved 81 people that night (including Germans) and only 2 people died on them. I'm sure though that along with these stories of people behaving bravely there are a whole stack of horrible stories, like things we hear from Iraq. I guess people don't want to remember that bad stuff though.

This church was also the first time I'd seen paupers graves, 4 people in the last year couldn't afford headstones, so were just buried with nothing in the churchyard. At least they buried them I suppose.

After the church it was off to Utah beach, one of the landing sites of the Americans. This was another mistake in that they were meant to land further to the north, but the currents had pushed the boats off-course. The reason this beach was discounted as a landing site was the fact that you couldn't see your flanks, I don't know if they should still use that as a reason though as from the outcome here it doesn't look like that really matters. This was one of the most successful landings because this point was one of the least heavily defended along the French coast. Hitler had organised what he called "the Atlantic Wall" but really it was just a collection of outposts which were heavily defended on the beach side, but then with nothing on the land side. So if you could bust through at a few points you could attack the rest from the weaker land-side. At this position the Germans had let their inner engineer run wild and had built a whole stack of remote controlled, exploding tanks. These could be remotely driven into a crowd of enemies and then detonated safely (for you at least). The pounding by the allies navy had shaken the radio-communication between the tank and the controller though, so these state-of-the-art tanks ended up being pretty useless against the allies.

The battle of the hedgerows was another mistake by the generals, the French resistance had told them about the hedgerows, but they were thinking little hedges, not these massive 6 foot high walls. These were built in the 11 century by the Vikings to protect their crops from the fiece Norman wind, so they have certainly stood the test of time. The American soldiers were then dropped off here and told to fight their way through, of course this terrain really counted in the Germans favour as they could slowly fall-back killing the allies as they went. Again you got the feeling that the generals had no great interest in what was going on with the actual soldiers, it was up to the soldiers themselves to try and think of solutions so they would stop getting slaughtered. If felt like the generals had some casualty limit that until they reached that, they weren't too concerned, they were still on target, meeting expectations, that sort of thing.

I feel for the Germans too, we didn't get to hear too much about their side of the story. But there must have come a point when they knew they were going to lose, but they were still fighting. Hitler wasn't letting anyone surrender, though he then goes and kills himself at the end, sounds like a surrender to me.

We also went to Pointe du Hoc, which was at the top of cliffs, but it was very important that the allies capture these massive guns to stop the Germans from firing down onto the landing beaches. This place had seen some serious shelling, you look at photos of it and it looks like the surface of the moon, there are that many craters. It is also covered in bunkers and gun shelters, apparently the Germans used something like 150 million tonnes of concrete throughout the Second World War, that's a lot of bunkers. This place has been left fairly intact, so there are still bunkers and that sort of thing around. In this photo you can see the cliffs that the soldiers had to scale to reach the Germans.

Finally we visited Omaha Beach, this is the one in the landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, and it looked like what you would imagine a landing beach to look like. This saw the most serious carnage of the Americans, it is 4 miles long and with a bluff at the back. The allies had to run 200-300 m before reaching the sea wall and they then had to scale the bluff. All the time machine guns are firing down on them and the navy has completely missed the target and are firing way inland, so they don't even have that as cover fire.

You can see in the below pictures how long this beach was, no trouble seeing your flanks here, too bad it meant heaps of people died.

After doing this little pilgrimage and learning that 90% of the people visiting are Americans, it makes me wonder if the Germans ever come here. Do the young Germans ever want to come and learn about what happened in the hope that perhaps it won't happen again. I mean it must have been massive for Germany, I'm surprised they had enough people for the second war. They had already lost something like 1.7 million in the first war and then they lost almost 6 million in the second one, their total population lost (civilian and military) in the second war was 11%. I can't imagine what that would be like losing such a massive section of society, so surely they must be interested in where this happened, or do they prefer to forget about it? Anyway I really enjoyed this tour, I've never been a war person, and would certainly never join the military, all that shouting and brain-washing doesn't really do it for me, but this was interesting and I'm really glad I came. Now it's off to the Somme, where the serious carnage occured.

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