As the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings approaches, Paul Lamarra describes the people and places
It was 5 June 2004 and, unlike the day exactly 60 years before, the sky was blue and cloudless. A group of 26 old soldiers in blue blazers and berets stood to attention by the side of the D37 road south of the Norman village of Bréville-les-Monts. On 6 June 1944 they had all come ashore on Sword Beach at Ouistreham as part of the D-Day landings – the biggest seaborne invasion in military history. Now, they had reassembled for the unveiling of a statue of a piper to commemorate comrades in the 51st Highland Infantry Division who had died in the battle of Bréville.
The unfurled regimental flags were lowered to the ground in respect as a bugler sounded Last Post. Many veterans had already admitted that this would be their last journey to Normandy and, no matter how hard they tried to maintain their soldierly demeanour, the emotion of the occasion was beginning to tell.
For the old soldiers, the visit to Bréville was an uncanny experience. They could point to the wood where they had taken cover, the open field they had crossed under a hail of bullets and the low wall that had offered temporary safety on the far side by the farm. With painful clarity they could remember the precise spots where comrades had fallen.
More than 160 men of the 51st Highland and 6th Airborne Divisions died dislodging the Germans from the strategic high ground around Bréville and in doing so they safeguarded the passage of men along the canal into Caen. Heavily defended, it would be another five weeks before the capital of Basse-Normandie was liberated.
Travelling with them to Normandy as a reporter with The Sunday Times, I listened to accounts of D-Day. Joseph Collins was the co-driver of an amphibious DD Sherman tank. “The tanks were launched 5,000 yards out from the shore and rockets and shells fell all around us,” said Joseph. “But 200 yards out from shore, the tank grounded; I was no swimmer, but I managed to backstroke to the beach. Halfway to the beach I went into a dream thinking of my home and what my mother might be doing.”
John Brown, a lance corporal in the Royal Engineers, was only 19 when he ran down the battle door of his amphibious landing craft. “When the battle door came down a mortar hit and killed the troop sergeant,” recalled John. “The noise was horrendous – the Germans were mortaring the beach and the machines guns fired continually, but you had a job to do. Our troop officer only had orders to clear mines from the beach – no one was expected to survive,” he added.
When these men and the hundreds of other D-Day veterans marched through Caen on 6 June 2004, a cheering crowd once again welcomed them as liberators. In deep gratitude people threw flowers from first-floor windows while others handed out glasses of calvados apple brandy from small tables placed at their doorways. In Bréville a champagne breakfast and canapés were laid on.
The D-Day landings triggered the Battle of Normandy and by 12 August 1944 many of the German forces were almost completely surrounded in what became known as the Falaise-Chambois Pocket or Falaise Gap. It was here, in the green Norman countryside remote from the beaches, that the end-game was played out and over nine days US, Canadian and Polish forces, who controlled Mont-Ormel (Hill 262) to the north-east, fought to close the gap and trap the Germans. Some estimates put the casualties at more than 90,000 killed or captured.
When I visited the village of Chambois in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, there was a palpable feeling that this was still a recent event and many inhabitants had vivid memories of the battle. While snoozing on a warm afternoon in the village square in the shadow of the 12th-century Norman keep, I was wakened by a man who urged me to come with him to the attic of the nearby mairie. Displayed in the attic were hundreds of black and white photographs that he had taken as a 15-year-old boy in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Chambois. Deeply moving, they showed a German army that had been annihilated by two days of artillery and air bombardment.
It was clear from the photographs that the attack had been merciless. Fragments of metal covered the ground and piles of dead men and horses, often three of four deep, blocked a narrow hedge-lined alley that became known as the couloir de la mort. Chambois and many other villages within the pocket were extensively damaged.
At the time Field Marshal Montgomery, the senior British commander in the campaign, said that all young officers should visit Chambois to truly understand the reality of war. The Battle of Normandy had been won and within a week Paris was liberated.
In the years since the 50th anniversary the museums and memorials have become more formal. Many of the museums that salvaged exhibits directly from the battlefield have new premises and are properly curated. Despite early Hollywood interest with films such as The Longest Day in 1963, my feeling is that it was not until the Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the American TV series Band of Brothers (2001) were released that popular interest in the D-Day landings was ignited.
When I first cycled from Ouistreham to Cherbourg and passed Omaha Beach, which featured in Saving Private Ryan, it was almost deserted. The sands were the domain of jockeys exercising their trotting horses and locals digging up prized molluscs. However, when I repeated the journey in the spring of 2013, the beach where 2,500 American troops died was peppered with groups led by guides in period military uniform. Some parties even arrived in authentic jeeps and canvas-covered troop lorries.
With or without a guide, the beach at Omaha is striking, first of all, due to its unspoilt natural beauty. It is squeezed between two rocky headlands and backed by steeply rising ground made up of dunes, grass and scrub. Another reason is the expanse of sand that is revealed when the tide goes out. The Allied attack on 6 June was timed for low tide in a move that confounded the expectations of the German commander Field Marshal Rommel. It literally exposed some of his defences, which included concrete tetrahedrons, stakes tipped with anti-personnel mines, rails made out of tree trunks loaded with explosives, and spiky metal anti-tank devices known as Czech hedgehogs.
Instead, the obstacles provided some cover for the soldiers trying to advance several hundred yards up the beach into continuous fire, in particular a fearsome 88mm anti-tank gun that blocked the road to Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer on the cliff behind. While the guides do their best to satisfy their clients’ desire to relive the battle and perhaps give in to the temptation to relate the blood and guts, it is sobering to remember that Omaha Beach is overlooked by the American cemetery that lies on the clifftop at Colleville-sur-Mer.
With its immaculately manicured lawns and avenues of trees, the cemetery projects the tone of a smart country club. Nonetheless, it is a solemn place and paying a visit will temper any enthusiasm for the glory of battle. The repetitive pattern of white crosses and Stars of David extending into every corner is bewildering to the eye. The edges of the cemetery are blurred so that the scale of the loss is truly overwhelming. It is in effect a three-dimensional directory of the dead that lists 9,387 men.
To the west of Omaha Beach lies a headland known as Pointe du Hoc, where you can see the remains of a huge German gun battery protected on three sides by 30-metre cliffs. While two American Army Ranger divisions attempted to climb the cliffs with ladders, ropes and grappling hooks, the battleship USS Texas shelled the network of bunkers and gun emplacements. Looking from above, you realise this was a suicide mission. Of the 255 Rangers to attack the cliffs, 135 were killed or wounded.
It is perhaps only at Pointe du Hoc, with its deep shell holes, gun turrets, steel doors and bullet-pitted walls, that no attempt has been made to clear away the remnants of battle. Certainly there are Sherman tanks and field guns placed on plinths all along the coast, but at Pointe du Hoc nothing is staged.
The Americans also landed further west at Utah Beach, beyond the River Vire. Their casualties here were much lighter, thanks in part to members of the 101st Airborne Division, who landed near the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont in the early hours of 6 June, on the eve of the landings.
Newly installed plaques placed around the village recall the close-quarter fighting that raged through the night. An American paratrooper hiding behind the village pump killed ten of the enemy, and the 11th-century church changed hands several times. Before the landings had begun, the paratroopers had destroyed the German machine-gun posts and secured the narrow causeways across the coastal fields that had been deliberately flooded by Rommel. Sainte-Marie-du-Mont emerged relatively unscathed and many wartime features remain, including the petrol pump, which makes it popular with re-enactors.
Despite the high casualty figures, there persists a sense of optimism around the D-Day landings that the growing number of monuments and memorials do attempt to convey. Yet somehow none of them quite manages to put into words or art the willing acts of martyrdom or the modest and often unspoken pride of the veterans.
Paul travelled with Brittany Ferries, which operates services from Portsmouth to Caen and Poole/Portsmouth to Cherbourg (tel: (UK) 871 244 0744, www.brittanyferries.com). Trains from Paris Saint-Lazare to Caen take around two hours.
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