Walking to work on the morning of the 70th anniversary of D-Day I saw poppies blooming on the demolished TV studio site. They must have opened in the previous day or so and it seemed quite fitting to see their bright heads swaying in the breeze. Poppies for remembrance. It was 6 June 2014. D Day, more properly called Operation Overlord or the Normandy landings, took place on 6 June 1944. The largest seaborne invasion in history is well documented but, for me, all the talk of Normandy beaches had me hankering to go back to one of my favourite places, L’Anse Du Brick just outside Cherbourg.
6 June 2014
We spent many very happy holidays at L’Anse Du Brick, a few kilometres from Cherbourg on the Val De Saire, and my plan was to show you a little of the beauty, along with some of the haunting history, using scans of old photos. Sadly, when I dusted off the box of prints I found I wasn’t nearly as fond of taking photos back then as I thought I was and lots of the views were in my mind rather than on paper. The ones that made it to print were nowhere near the quality I would normally post but hopefully they give a feel for the place.
Those mind pictures were of beautiful walks in the woods and moors between L’Anse Due a Brick and Fermanville where we stumbled over abandoned gun emplacements and rocket launching sites while enjoying the wild flowers and scenery around us. Little reminders of D Day and the days that followed were everywhere. The gun emplacements and bunkers had crumbled and become dens where the local youths obviously hung out drinking contraband wine and smoking Gauloise. The concrete of the VI rocket launch site, close to Camping L’Anse Du Brick where we stayed, had been overtaken with ivy and creepers and became a climbing frame for my boys. Even so, the memory of those soldiers lingered in the air and sometimes it felt as if ghosts roamed those woods.
There were visits to Omaha and Utah beaches, where we stood looking out at golden sand with poignant thoughts of all the brave men who had died right there where the tide lapped. In places the German sea defences can still be seen along with the gun emplacements on the foreshore. Seventy years ago today this place was a noisy, confused mass of men, bodies and bullets. Now those beautiful beaches have an eerie stillness to them despite the wind blowing in from the sea, as if the dead are still waiting there.
On the sixtieth anniversary of D Day we drove to Bayeux where we saw the ancient tapestry and I cried over the graves of so many young men in the military cemetery. I didn’t know the men who rested beneath the earth but seeing rows and rows of white headstones I couldn’t help but be moved by their sacrifice. They paid for our freedom with their lives. This is the largest Second World War cemetery of Commonwealth soldiers in France with 4,648 graves, mostly from the Norman invasion. The French gave the land to the United Kingdom in recognition of that sacrifice, made to liberate France.
At the eleventh century town of Saint Mere Eglise we stood and looked at the model of a paratrooper hanging from the steeple of the church and learned his story. In the early hours of the morning of 6 June 1944 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division dropped from the skies to take the sleeping village by surprise. At least that was the plan, but a house in the town square was on fire, possibly from one of the flares dropped by the Pathfinder squadron, and the whole town was out forming a human chain of buckets filled from the village pump to put it out.
The raging fire lit up the sky and made the paratroopers easy targets for the German soldiers. John Steele’s parachute caught on the spire of the church trapping him. He hung there for hours, pretending to be dead, while battle raged below him. Eventually the Germans caught on though and he was taken prisoner, only to escape and rejoin his division to continue fighting. He is a hero in the town of St Mere Eglise and the model of him still hangs from the church steeple to this day.
Our wandering a took us to bombed out bunkers in the French countryside where we stood imagining the fear of the German soldiers within as the bombs hit. We saw monuments on the coast to Nos libérateurs and, in the week of the 60th Anniversary, watched FBI agents complete with guns, searching the area where President Bush would give an address later in the day. That year the streets were filled with old American soldiers, many in uniform, returning for one ‘last’ pilgrimage to the place where they’d fought and lost so many friends.
L’Anse Du Brick, with its beautiful stony beach, became a second home to us for many years and we explored and enjoyed it enormously. Many of the little villages have hardly changed since 1944 and the memory of the brave heroes who gave their lives to liberate them is fresh in many French minds. It seems only fitting that we should remember them too and honour them for their terrible sacrifice.
Everywhere in Normandy we were welcomed warmly but nowhere more than in Camping L’Anse Du Brick where the Patrizi family, Franc, Silvie, Anne and Eric who own the campsite, along with their children David and Vincent became our friends. I think it may be time for another visit soon and this time there will be lots of photos.
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