I've really been enjoying the coverage on TV and Twitter of the 70th Anniversary of D-Day. I regret not being there in person.
As a child my grandad would tell me stories about his time as an evacuee. I loved them but I struggled to empathise with his situation because my childhood was so different. I think he realised this and educated me with stories, museum trips and many Airfix kits.
In 2001, we decided to take a trip a trip to explore these battlefields.
We visited many locations across Normandy and France ranging from the strategically important Bénouville Bridge (aka Pegasus Bridge), to the scene of the Oradour-Sur-Glane massacre in which 642 civilians lost their lives.
While on the road, we took the time to stop at the numerous war cemeteries that scattered our route. When you see the grave of an 18 year old soldier, it really puts your life into perspective!
…And it still does today.
I had a multitude of poignant memories from that trip but a few items really stood out.
I'd read a lot about the beach landings, but it was nothing compared to the opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Essential to the invasion, Omaha would allow the American and British forces to link up in-land. The Allied generals always knew it would be tough.
We visited the beach at low tide and its expanse was massive. Even greater was the bluff, the raised cliff overlooking the beach. It was from here that the defenders had a perfect view of the landing craft and the troops coming off. I remember wondering how anybody made it of that beach alive, they had so far to move with no cover. Those that did make it off ,via the draws, had to contend with rear facing machine gun nests that covered the beach's exits. The German's would wait until the troops had left the beach before firing on their rear.
93-year old D-Day veteran Robert Blatnik returns to Omaha Beach, 70 years later. #DDay pic.twitter.com/iwzEMiyE3j— People (@PeopIe) June 6, 2014
For Allied troops to be effective in the liberation of Normandy, they needed to see, shoot and manoeuvre. The Normandy bocarge, or hedgerows, prevented this.
Established in Roman times as a way to separate cattle, the bocarge offered perfect camouflage to its defenders. Today the bocarge is largely extinct, however the roads it hid remain.
You can see how these lanes afforded the Germans great cover. In the fields, taking advantage of the hedges’ cover, they set up their larger guns, firing directly onto the beaches.
These lanes offered the only routes off the beaches for Allied armor. As the tanks rumbled along, the Germans would appear, use their Panzerfausts to disable the tanks, and be gone before anybody could respond. The disabled tank would then block the narrow lane.
The Allies were bogged down in bocarge country for weeks after the landings and it became known as the Bocarge War.
The battle at Falise: The Falise Gap, proved the end for the German army in Normandy and allowed the Allies to break out towards Paris.
With the capture of Caen in July, British, Polish and Canadian troops pushed south to Falise. At the same time, the Americans, already heading towards Brittany, despatched units to move east towards Falise. The goal of this move was to catch the Germans in a pincer move, and it really worked. On August 7th 1944, the attack on Falise began.
By August 13th, the Germans in Falise were surrounded; British, Polish and Canadians to the north and Americans to the west and south. Realising this, the Germans fought hard to keep the eastern side of Falise open. This became known as the Falise Gap.
On August 16th the Germans began to retreat through the gap as it began to shrink (at its narrowest, it was 6 miles wide). On the night of August 18, the Germans decided to use a fog bank to cover their withdrawal. When it cleared the next morning , it exposed columns of German units to Allied artillery and air power. The Germans were easy targets.
The Battle of Falise saw some of the most ferocious destruction of the entire war. Afterward the roads were strewn with munitions and the bodies of soldiers (50,000 captured, 10,000 dead), horses and farm cattle.
My greatest souvenir
After the battle, the Allies needed to move through Falsie and on towards Paris. So the Americans used bulldozers to clear the roads, pushing everything to the sides where it remained. Today, souvenirs can be found, I was lucky enough to find a rifle shell casing while walking the roads.
Of course, I've got to get some tank pictures in.
Those Airfix kits I mentioned previously, a lot were tanks. In particular, Shermans and Tigers. I had a few. In Normandy, I got to see them for real.
A lifetime to ponder...
I often wonder how I would've coped in any of the situations discussed above. It's a question I'll never be able to answer and I'm grateful to the men and women of that generation that it will remain unanswered.
@sommecourt @CWGC That's where the veteran, who I lucky enough to visit with, asked please never forget my mates pic.twitter.com/gUHjNjtYJD— Andy Farrell (@APFaz) June 4, 2014
On the 80th Anniversary, there will be no witnesses to the extraordinary events of 6th June 1944. It's our job to represent!