On Tuesday, we headed out to see the British and Canadian version of D-Day. In school we learned how D-Day was an American operation with support from the British and others. In fact, it really was coalition operation, with both the Americans and British playing very important roles. Today was focused on learning the British and Canadian version of D-Day, and this is where Gary is was invaluable. Neither Amy or I had a clue in this area, and this is where Gary’s passion lies.
We started out at Pegasus Bridge. This is one of the first targets for the Allies, and was key to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their forces, while allowing the Allies a route into France. Pegasus Bridge was taken by an elite British squad in gliders. They managed to land the gliders within a hundred meters of the bridge in the dark. I don’t know how they pulled that miracle, but they managed to do just that. We visited the museum next to the bridge and had the chance to walk on the original bridge. Once the area outgrew the original bridge, they moved it here and finally built a museum around it. Pegasus Bridge was just one of two bridges taken on D-Day in that local area. It is more popular than the other bridge, most likely due to the movie, the Longest Day which was filmed on the Pegasus Bridge.
While we had seen some small cemeteries yesterday, today was the first time we visited the larger war cemeteries. We went to Ranville War Cemetery. It is a British and Canadian cemetery, although they also have some German soldiers there as well. One of the common themes in all of the war cemeteries is that the German grave markers are very simple. They only have the name and dates, while the allies have ornate grave stones. It is an interesting contrast and probably fitting given the winners and losers of this war. One thing that is unique is that the memorials in the cemetery doesn’t include the traditional artillery rounds as chain holders. It has the gas bottles from the gliders. It is an interesting touch. There is also a small town next to the cemetery that was used to bury the initial dead. They are buried on the boundary of church’s graveyard and are still there today.
After Ranville, we headed over to the Hillman bunker. It is a large German command and control bunker that was charged to coordinate the defense of the area. I was surprised by how large the bunker complex was, and difficult must have been to attack something so well defended. Eventually, Col Krug, the commander of the area surrenderred the bunker. When surrounded and isolated in the bunker he asked his superiors for guidance. They told him to use his conscience, expecting him to commit suicide. Instead he surrendered, and eventually to be a key part of the post-WWII German army.
Next was Sword Beach where the British landed. It was a vicious fight. This is probably the beach that scared me the most. There is a solid wall on the beach, and the only way to succeed is to get over the wall. Today there are ramps from the road above to the beach, but those weren’t there on D-Day. The best you could hope for was to reach the wall and then to hide in its shadow. You may live, but you are still within range of the German guns. I don’t envy those poor soldiers that had to find a way over the wall or die.
Next to Sword is Juno Beach where the Canadians landed. As all of the beaches, this was a hell of a fight. There is effectively only one path off the beach due to the terrain. They managed to secure it but only after a motar tank fell into the water and ended up being driven over. They finally dug it out, cleaned it up, and now that motar tank is on display.
One of the many facets of WWII that neither Amy or I knew was Mulberry Beach. Mulberry is next to Gold Beach and was the logistical harbor for post D-Day allied advances. In order to supply the troops, they needed a deep water harbor. Otherwise they would have to ferry supplies in small boats onto the beaches. It simply wouldn’t be possible to supply the troops that way. They needed a harbor and a landing strip. A couple years earlier the Allies attacked a deep water habor up the coast and failed. Several thousand soldiers died and the allies had to retreat back across the channel. I don’t know how you could ever successfully attack a deep water harbor and capture it intact. By the time you get out of the water an onto the harbor it would be impossible to prevent any pre-placed explosives from going off. So, it would be impossible to capture a harbor before it was destroyed. So, in typical Churchill fashion, they build their own mobile harbor. This is an engineering feat that I doubt could be duplicated today. They built all of these pieces of the puzzle in secret, towed them across the channel, and assembled them into a functioning harbor. They were unloading the first ship nine days after D-Day, and the harbor along with the airstrip above the harbor helped feed and supply the troops for the rest of the invasion. There are still some aspects of the harbor that is still there. It is one of the few things still standing from D-Day, and is a memorial to how well it was built. Both Amy and I were very impressed by Mulberry Beach, and in fact, was probably the most interesting part of our tour.
Mulberry Beach is located in Arromanches-les-Bains, and they have put a merry-go-round next to the Mulberry Beach museum. It was an interesting contrast. A museum dedicated to war, and a merry-go-round for kids to play. After having dinner we headed back to the castle for the night.