Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Walking Tour of WWII Paris - a great way to see the city

My final activity of my trip was a World War II walk of Paris. Run by Getaway Tours, this 2+ hour experience was sensational, and I highly encourage anyone who visits Paris to take advantage of it – especially if the tour is led by Gil, my guide. As opposed to the locations and museums of Normandy that I visited, Paris does not contain a lot of signage for WWII history, so the walk is a must. Not only did I see a lot of Paris in a short time, but I also learned a great deal about the Nazi occupation, life for Parisians during the war, the French Resistance, and the Battle for Paris and liberation in August 1944. In addition, I found out tidbits of French history, French culture, Paris lore, architecture, and more.

I won’t give you my notes of the whole tour – you can check out a lot of it on video. However, here were some of the highlights:

*The Resistance started immediately, and a lot the push for resistance were from communist groups who wanted to ascend to power. Other groups aligned with Charles de Gaulle
*The resistance had three major goals - gather intelligence for the Allies (cool spy stuff), sabotage, and help soldiers to get back once behind enemy lines
*There were a ton of hiding aces in Paris to hep the Resistance
*The resistance would rarely (if every) try to assassinate Nazi's due to retribution
*An uprising was not expected in Paris, and the Nazis that lived there had a pretty easy life - no fighting, good food, wine and lodging
*Life under occupation was incredibly difficult for the French - lack of supplies, ration cards, living conditions - but they kept their French "way of life" as much as they could
*Dietrich Von Choltitz disobeyed Hitler's "scorched earth" policy and order to destroy Paris - a great story (and part of "Is Paris Burning?")

Gil (the guide) did a fantastic job of storytelling, combining historical fact with the personal emotions of both the French and the Germans. As I walked away from the tour, I made a mental list of the topics that I want to research more (Von Chovlitz, the resistance, the black market, Nazi life in Paris, Deportation, DeGaulle, Louis XIV) and realized that just by raising my curiosity, it was a great experience. I was also incredible jealous of how cool Gil’s job is – walking around a beautiful city, talking history and telling stories, meeting people from all over the world. I always wanted to be a historical tour guide (not surprising, considering that I love the microphone), so maybe this will give me some ideas for a new career if the teaching gig doesn’t work out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Competence – Courage – Sacrifice

It’s really difficult to put into words my experience(s) at the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer - that's why this post is out or chronological order. As I planned the whole trip, it was the one place I wanted to see more than any other – possible the one place in the world I wanted to see more than any other. I visited the cemetery and visitor’s center twice – once on a crowded Sunday afternoon, again on a quiet Monday morning – and didn’t want to leave each time. The experience was overwhelming, with the combination of an incredible geographical setting, the best museum dedicated to D-Day that I visited, the dichotomy of crowded and empty, the beauty of the memorial and cemetery itself, and the overarching tribute paid to the Americans that rest there. It’s why I came to France, but more than that, it’s a major reason why I teach history.

The visitor center sets the stage for an incomparable experience. Three words dominate the lobby – Competence – Courage – Sacrifice – and the rest of the cemetery ties together those themes to tell the story of the war, the cemetery, and the men (and four women) who are laid to rest there. A tableau of the D-Day landings at the base of an endless pool overlooks the Channel. The videos and exhibits serve as both historical content and tribute, using the words of the people involved. After walking through the exhibits, the hallway where names of fallen soldiers are read hits hard, especially when you read the stories in the very sparsely decorated circular room, centered around the symbol of a battlefield death – a rifle in a ground of stones with a helmet atop of it. Exiting the center, you see a somber quote from General Mark Clark of the American Battle Monuments Commission – “If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was out only conquest: all we asked was for enough soil in which to bury our gallant dead”.

The path leading out of the center brings visitors to the cliffs of Colleville, with an unbeatable view of Omaha Beach and the English Channel. Another tableau is situated in a viewing platform directly on the cliff, in between two entries to a stairway and path that takes those who chose to go down (and then back up) to the sands of Omaha. I didn’t have enough time to go down on my first visit, but in the morning, I made descended the steps alone for some reflection – on the places I had seen, what I have read and viewed, how I teach, and much more. Stepping foot on the beach in this location is much different than the other locations of Omaha I had already been, as I was alone with my camera and water bottle to collect sand from the hallowed ground. Looking up from the beach, it’s striking to think of the physical challenge the men had in taking the cliffs – not even to consider the German obstacles, mines, and munitions. Competence, courage and sacrifice rang in my head. It’s also both heartbreaking and heartwarming to think that thousands of American soldiers are buried just above, all of which paid the ultimate price in a place thousands of miles from their home. If I had to single out one spot on my entire trip that I will always remember, it is surely there.

The cemetery itself is overpowering. While exactly the same in purpose as the awesome Arlington, this cemetery is different in presentation, with over nine thousand Latin crosses and Stars of David presented with military precision and uniformity. As you wade through the sea of green and white, you see the names and ranks of men from all over the country. Sets of brothers are there, as is a father and son, buried next to each other. No single grave stands out – there are no special stones, no separate plots for dignitaries – and the only major difference is the gold lettering of Medal of Honor winners.

The memorial at the one end of the cemetery is imposing - and informative. One two sides are immense maps and historical narrative, one of the D-day landings and battle for Normandy, the other of the entire European campaign. Those two maps give the geographical narrative of the war. In the center of the memorial is a beautiful statue, “Spirit of the American Youth”, surrounded by the first line of the Battle Hymn. Behind the statue and walls is a semicircle of over 1,500 names of the missing in action from the war, some since identified.

It’s both easy and difficult to express in words the impact of the visit, both while I was there and as I look at the pictures and video. It’s striking that these Americans are buried so far away from their homes, from their loved ones, from their country. But as a mother in a documentary stated, they chose to bury their son at Normandy, thousands of miles away, because that’s where he lost his life in order for others to regain and keep their freedom.

The Jewel of Europe – especially for a WWII history guy

I was excited to explore Paris to see the most visited city on the continent, as I had never been there before. I planned on making it a part WWII visit and part “see the stuff you gotta see in one day visit”, and little did I realize how the two would combine. The major locations I visited all have interesting stories about or connections to World War II – no surprise, since the city was occupied by Germans since the fall of France in 1940 until liberation in August of 1944.

The Eiffel Tower, one of the most recognized landmarks in the entire world, looked a little different during much of the war, as a huge Nazi flag hung from it for four years. I found out that just before the Nazis came in to Paris (and Hitler took the famous picture in front of the tower), parts mysteriously disappeared from the hydraulic pumps that operate the lifts. So, Hitler and the Germans had to take the stairs – a small victory for the French underground. Once the city was liberated, those parts suddenly reappeared and the lifts were once again operational. Hitler though about demolishing the tower and using the steel for military purposes I will have to find out what stopped him from doing so.

The Arc de Trioumphe was a central location in the grand parade of Charles DeGaulle when he re-entered Paris on August 26th. He began at the site by relighting to flame on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and then led the walk (not march) down Champs-Ellysses, through the Triumphal Way.

In the Louvre, many of the great works of art were grabbed and hidden before the Nazis could get a hold of them. It was also the location where Hitler kept one of his great souveneirs of the war – the Bayeux Tapestry, which (in his mind) demonstrated that he was similar to William the Conquerer.

Notre Dame (one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen) is also symbolic of the French resistance. Most of the incredible stained glass windows were taken out before occupation so they would not be damaged and replaced with plate glass. Also, a huge mass was celebrated there on Liberation Day, one of the largest ever attended at the cathedral.

I could describe the sites in more detail, but I know they are fairly well known. I think it’s important for me to put them into historical detail, partially to remember that Paris, France, and the world are very fortunate that these amazing sites survived the war, unlike many other parts of Northern France, Germany, England, and other European locations.

I didn’t get to visit two specific sites on my list – Musee du l’Armee at Invalides (I had the closing time wrong and couldn’t go the next morning) and the Deportation Memorial itself (line was too long on our tour). While I was disappointed (in myself) for not seeing them, it just gives me another reason to come back to Paris – but with Cathy.

Bayeux Museum, Cemetery, and Cathedral

The Musee de la Bataille de Normandie (Battle of Normandy Museum) in Bayeux was a perfect place to end my time after seeing the beaches and D-Day spots for three days, simply because it focused primarily on what happened after the D-Day invasions as the Allies slowly but successfully headed inland and liberated northern France and eventually Paris on their way to Berlin. It’s a part of the war that I have not read much about, even in preparation for the trip, but the museum will lead to me to further investigation (and maybe another grant?). There is no photography in the museum, but I stole a few shots just to show what it looked like and to add some historical tidbits to my collection. I learned a great deal about Charles de Gaulle (more on him in Paris) and the detailed role in the Free French Movement. He is quite a popular figure in Bayeux, as people in the underground listened to him secretly on the BBC during the war and he gave his first major speech there after the D-Day invasion. The museum also clearly explained the challenges the Allies faced as they moved to secure the port of Cherbourg and then spread to St. Lo and Caen in June and July of 1944. One of the major obstacles was the hedgerow system on dividing fields in Normandy and Brittany, which I saw first hand – what seems like a simple concept of a ditch and shrubs caused major difficulty for troops, as Germans turned them into trenches and sniper locations and many of the fields were nearly impassable. The museum has a great collection of military machinery, including a Crocodile tank – flame thrower!

A short walk from the Museum took me to British War Cemetery and Bayeux War Memorial – my third cemetery of the day. As you can see from the pictures, it appears more like the American military cemeteries we are used to than the German one I saw in La Cambe.

Over 20,000 British soldiers are interred in the cemetery, along with a number of other Allies that fought and died in France. The markers for the British soldiers are all the same shape, but they carry different symbols and also a small phrase or memo on the bottom of each – a nice touch for families, in my mind. The other Allies (Polish, Czech, Russian) buried there have different shaped headstones. The cemetery is beautiful – pristine, as military cemeteries should be. I read the poem ""At the British War Cemetery" by Charles Causely, who was moved to write his thoughts on his first visit. As I sat on a bench, and the words resonated, especially after all of my experiences of the previous three days.

I walked where in their talking graves
And shirts of earth five thousand lay,
When history with ten feasts of fire
Had eaten the red earth away.

‘I am Christ’s boy’, I cried, ‘I bear
In iron hands the bread, the fishes.
I hang with honey and with rose
This tidy wreck of all your wishes.

‘On your geometry of sleep
The chestnut and the fir-tree fly,
And lavender and marguerite
Forge with their flowers an English sky.

‘Turn now toward the belling town
Your jigsaws of impossible bone,
And rising, read your rank of snow
Accurate as death upon the stone.’

About your easy heads my prayers
I said with syllables of clay,
‘What gift,’ I asked, ‘shall I bring now
Before I weep and walk away?’

Take, they replied, the oak and laurel,
Take our fortune of tears and live
Like a spendthrift lover. All we ask
Is the one gift you cannot give.

Across from the cemetery, the Bayeux War Memorial pays tribute to the British soldiers that do not have a final resting place after losing their lives in WWII. Each name is etched in the marble façade of the memorial, making sure they are remembered and that loved ones do have a place to come to and visit.

I was also able to make a quick trip to the Bayeux Cathedral, a stunning feat of architecture and art. The cathedral was started in the 11th century in the Norman style and then was rebuilt in the 1200s in the gothic style (after some civil wars with the sons of William the Conquerer). It was quite busy when I visited, but I wasn’t surprised, since it was the Day of the Assumption, and the cathedral is dedicated to Notre Dame.

Unfortunately, I did not get the chance to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry (which I found out is technically not a tapestry, since it is woven and not embroidered).

Bayeux itself is a gorgeous small town that serves as a great home location to visit the major sites of Normandy and also to stroll the streets of a old French village. It survived World War II unscathed, not falling to bombing or battle, and is a place that I would love to visit again.

Monday, August 15, 2011

“The Key to the Liberation of Europe”

The small town of Arromanches is known in the D-Day world for one major (and I mean major) part of the invasion and liberation of Normandy – Port Winston. When the Allies planned to attack the beaches and gained a beachhead, they knew it was essential to create artificial ports to allow for continuous transport of men, machine, and material to France. Since the major ports of Cherbourg and Antwerp were still in German hands, the lack of a port would make the invasion all for naught. Perhapts that’s why the plaque at the Musee du Debarquement (Landing Museum) prominently states that Port Winston (named for Churchill) was “The Key to the Liberation of Europe”.

How did the Allied engineers do it? Ingenuity, old ships, and a whole lot of steel and concrete. Multiple retired naval craft and huge hollow concrete barriers were towed across the channel and sunk parallel to the coast to create a breakwater (think about the breakwater around the port in downtown Milwaukee). Huge steel bridges were transported in and floated on pontoons, allowing vehicles large and small to drive onto the beach and head inland to both battle the Germans and create landing strips and causeways for more movement.

The concrete barriers were nicknamed “mulberries”, turning the two ports (one further west on Omaha) into Mulberry Harbors. The Omaha Beach harbor was destroyed in huge storm two weeks after D-Day, but the one at Arromanches continued to be essential to Allied success until the war moved to the East and Antwerp was liberated. Those harbors were an amazing feat of engineering, and the historic images are awesome. At the site today, you can still see some of the phoenix caissons off the coast – a pretty cool sight.

Longues Battery

I wasn’t originally planning on stopping here, but I took a chance when I saw the sign and spent twenty minutes walking amongst some major bunkers in the middle of farmland just off the coast at Longues su Mer. The size of the bunkers and surviving guns is massive – considering how many the Wehrmarcht had along the coast, the amount of concrete is unfathomable. These four batteries were a good quarter mile from the actual coast, not hanging on the edge of the cliffs like others I have seen in the past two days. Whatever the case, the Germans did have an amazing amount of firepower along the coast – but not enough against the Allies.

The Lone Traveler

When I told people about my adventure and that I was going solo, most eyebrows were raised that I would take such a trip alone without any partner or organized tour company. I would have loved to share the experience with Cathy, but she may have been battled out after the second day. My kids are too young for such a strenuous trip. I would love to go back with my colleagues, especially Francine and Pam, who would help with the language (of course) but also point out awesome aspects of French culture that I missed. They would also appreciate the places so much – future grant?

However, going solo was by far the best way for me to undertake this trip and immerse myself in my goal of gaining a greater understanding of the D-Day invasion and a greater appreciation for those that serve, especially the men who never left the Normandy coast. Organized tours are great, and there were I few I considered (and listened to the tour guides online), but I tend to spend more time at certain locations and less time at others. Making my own itinerary was fun, and I alos could move things around to fit my needs. I did some exploring and found places that I may not have seen on an tour, and I kept my own timetable on getting going and skipping lunch to see more. I don't think that many would be surprised that I like things my own way ...

Would I have learned more on an organized tour? Maybe a few more tidbits, but I had done a lot of reading in preparation. I don’t think I would have experienced as much and to the extent I desired. Maybe I will take one n the future with a group, now that I have seen so much.

Another reason that going solo was beneficial was driving in Normandy. I forgot to get a picture of my cool little black Mercedes number, but it was hot – about as big as the old Horizon I used to drive. Why was driving so great?
* I love to drive, especially on beautiful days, especially with windows down, listening to the latest French hits.
* Driving in Normandy gives a great perspective of the hedgerows which divide the fields and caused such problems as the Allies pushed inland against the Germans
* Winding through the towns makes it obvious that Allied troops were marching on the same roads as today, and also that the war was brought hoe to the civilians.
* The major locations are marked very well – but it was much easier with my sweet-sounding navigator.

So, in a nutshell, I don’t think I would have done anything different in driving around Normandy. The car was more expensive than a typical tour, but I think I actually got three days of touring out of it instead of a half day or eight hours. Thanks again to USM for the opportunity to construct my won tour!

“The soldier’s graves are the greatest preachers of peace” Albert Schweitzer

Strange but true – I like visiting cemeteries, especially military cemeteries. Ask my students – I always tell them that Arlington is my favorite stop on our DC trip. My post on the American cemetery in Normandy will be lengthy, and I also visited a British Cemetery this afternoon. This morning took me to someplace quite different – the German Military Cemetery in La Cambe.It was a bit eerie – perhaps due to the set up an aesthetics of the cemetery, or perhaps because I was the only person there – no other visitors, no cemetery personnel, just me.

The cemetery is set up with military precision, but it has such a different look, as you can probably judge form the pictures. Over 21,000 German soldiers remain at La Cambe, most of which falling in the span of D-day to August 20, 1944. The darker stones and sets of five crosses spaced evenly throughout the grounds set a dark tone, as did the towering cross in the middle with the mother and father figure. I wonder how many German nationals come to visit the cemetery. The cemetery was created in the late fifties, and to me it is a true statement of reconciliation between the people of France and those of Germany (well, at least West Germany when it was created). The site originally contained the bodies of American soldiers, but those have since been moved to the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. On the information plaque, it mentions that the grave sites commission, the Volksund, has top rely on donations for upkeep, and students from international European youth camps help take care of the site.

The site also makes a major statement toward peace with the Friedenspark, a peace garden that I visited briefly. Small trees were spaced out perfectly, while stele gave numbers of victims from war since the turn of the century and a few quotes about peace. I didn’t realize the size of the garden until I drove out of the area and realized it was still on my left.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

“Will you tell me how we did this?” Col. James Rudder, Ranger Force

When Col. Rudder revisited Pointe du Hoc with his son years after the invasion, his question reflects the incredible challenge that his troops undertook on the cliffs of Normandy. The task that the Rangers faced on June 6 was a daunting one. The Germans has a major coastal battery installed on Pointe du Hoc, one that could threaten the landing beaches. The Allies knew that there were five 155mm cannon entrenched on the point, capable of threatening the Allied landings on both Omaha and Utah Beaches. Even though the location was set to be bombarded by air and sea forces, the Allies felt the fortifications were of such strength that they would need to be taken by ground forces as well.
Three companies were given the task of scaling the heights and destroying the German guns. The grapnels and ropes shot by the landing crafts weren’t very successful. The ropes were too heavy due to the seawater, so most of the grapnels fell short of the cliff. Rangers had to cross a strip of beach to get to the base of the cliff. The Germans had a machine gunner on the left flank that fired across the beach (eventually inflicting 15 casualties) and the bombardment created huge craters, flooded by the recent tides. Many of the Rangers free-climbed to get up the cliff (think about that from gym class), and a few struggled due to the wet and muddy ropes . Germans at the top were tossing grenades and a few cut some of the ropes, but the determination of the Rangers and the support from the shore made the difference. Within fifteen minutes of landing, most of the Rangers had scaled the cliffs.
What did they find when the reached the top? It’s a better story to tell what they didn’t find – German guns. Instead, the Germans had removed the guns and replaced them with telephone poles. The Rangers continued inland, undeterred, facing enemy gunfire from trenches, barbed wire, more craters, and the unseen enemy. One group of the Rangers located the guns in a nearby apple orchard and used thermite grenades to destroy them, while the others set up a command station at the point.

As I read about the Rangers’ accomplishments at Pointe du Hoc, I was in a bit of awe over what they did and the challenges they overcame, as well as how some writers actually discount the impact of their endeavors (usually due to the fact that the guns were actually not at the Pointe). As noted in Ambrose’s D-Day, those writers were off base. Lt. James Eikner commented that “had we not been there we felt quite sure that those guns would have been put into operation and they would have brought much death and destruction down on our men on the beaches and our ships in the sea.”

Pointe du Hoc is one of those sites that has to be seen to be believed, and being there makes the stories of the Rangers’ scaling the cliff even more impressive. I have seen pictures of the location, but after being there, no photo can do the place justice … so you can just ignore mine. When you walk out to the area, it seems like you are on another planet, because the ground changes so drastically. What was one flat coastline has turned into a crate filled maze, dotted with huge cement bunkers and remnants of German emplacements. Walking through the craters can be tough on the ankles … just imagine carrying equipment while a sniper is trying to take off your head.

The actual point is a well preserved German bunker, atop of which stands the Ranger Memorial, dedicated during Reagan’s presidency. The memorial is simple yet striking – something I think epitomizes the Rangers. Looking down from the memorial gives you an amazing view of the cliffs – 30 meters straight down. I was dying to get to the bottom, but barbed wire and my knowledge of my climbing skills combined with gravity. As I stood at the top, it was obvious to me how important that location was to the entire Overlord operation, and that Col. Rudder was right in his question about how the Rangers made the amazing climb.

The First Liberated - Ste. Mere Eglise

Ste. Mere Eglise is the town that I was most excited to visit. The description of the town and it’s liberation were enticing in Ryan’s The Longest Day, and the movie only adds to the draw. Driving into the town, I had to smile when I saw that it’s sister town in the US is Gettysburg. My experience there certainly did not disappoint – in fact, it set my schedule back for the whole day.

The town is centered around a beautiful (and old) church, as are many of the towns in the area (and I assume the country, right Francine?). Outside of the cathedral is one of the lasting images of the media depiction of D-Day – Private John Steele hanging for the top, near the clock. The scene made famous in The Longest Day movie is there for all visitors to see and remind them that the US paratroopers (the 82nd and 101st Airborne) were the first to land in Normandy on June 6th.

Walking into the cathedral, there are two beautiful stained glass windows that commemorate the paratroopers as well – I don’t think my pictures give the full detail of their beauty, but I tried.

Adjacent to the cathedral, the impressive Airborne Museum tells the story of the paratroopers and their success in liberating Ste. Mere Eglise first of all towns in the Contenin peninsula. The museum is divided into two small halls, each covered with a top shaped like a parachute. The larger hall is dominated by a C-47, one of the planes that carried the airborne to the peninsula, while the smaller one has a Cody glider as its main exhibit. The exhibits are very complimentary of the American troops, singling out individuals who showed feats of valor and have returned to the area in the years after the war. It’s obvious that the museum (and the residents of the town) still feel great appreciation for what the American soldiers did in 1944. In addition, there is an encampment of GI re-enactors (all speaking French) that rivals many of those that I have seen in the states. I enjoyed talking with them (in a limited fashion) and taking a joy ride in a period Jeep – once the video gets up, it’s worth the laugh.

Ste. Mere Eglise reminded me a great deal of Gettysburg – a town (and its residents) tied to the history of what happened there, but also using its history as a source of revenue. There are more D-Day souvenier shops there that one can imagine, and everything is named after something about D-Day – cafes, restaurants, hotels, and most stores. Nothing wrong with that – I enjoyed doing a little window shopping and mentally spending hundreds of euros on cool stuff. Bottom line – if (and when) I return to Normandy, I would like to spend the night in Ste. Mere Eglise – my new favorite town.

Omaha Beach

Visiting Omaha Beach is s a little different than taking a trip to Lexington Green, Ellis Island, or many other historical locations. It’s a beach – a long one at that (20+ km), and there are only a few structures on the beach itself that still exist today. The best place to view the beach is from the American Military Cemetery (a later post), but there are many places where you can simply park and walk on or along the beach – that’s what I did in the evening.

I started at the June 6 Omaha Beach Museum, one of two private museums dedicated to Bloody Omaha (I didn’t hit the other one). The museum was pretty straightforward, with a ton of artifacts and mannequins set up in military dioramas. There are no bells or whistles here, just some cool militaria (especially some examples of obstacles found on the beach and personal items of soldiers that have been unearthed over the past 70 years – much of it crusted with barnacles.

Heading down to the actual beach, it immediately hits you how Omaha and Utah were different. Omaha has a deep beach leading up to large cliffs, while Utah was more of sand dunes. I took some shots of a few monuments along the beach, including the huge Liberation Monument and “The Braves”, a symbolic sculpture coming out of the sand. I headed up the coast a bit and came across a huge National Guard Memorial. I made sure to take some pictures for my father, who was in the Guard when I was a baby historian.

As you drive along Omaha Beach, you see the water and sand on one side, the cliffs on the other, and small and large beach homes in between. At first, it seems almost ignorant to have people frolic on the sand with their dogs and dig sand castles in this vacation spot, but after further thought, it actually drives home the fact that the D-Day landings and the resulting Battle for Normandy happened smack dab in the middle of the lives of their French living under German occupation. When the Allies chose the beaches, they knew that the people of Normandy would be affected – in many ways.

After reading about what happened at Omaha, and having that first scene from Saving Private Ryan or the landings from "The Longest Day" etched in my brain, I guess I was expecting more .. but I shouldn't have. There is no way to re-enact such a day for the public, a day when, according to Ambrose, "the sacrifice of good men that morning was just appalling". How do you present that on the actual location, when kids are running barefoot along the beautiful channel? To really understand Omaha, you have to read the words of the men who were there, hear the tales of inspiring leaders like Norman Cota, a Brigadier General who jumped a seawall and shouted out words of encouragement and directions to his men, all under heavy fire. The movies can give you an idea of what happened on this stretch of land, and the museums can help put images and artifacts together to tell a story, but to really understand Omaha or Utah, even if you are there, you have to listen to those that came ashore on June 6, 1944.

More info on the way, but ...

I have about a gabillion pictures and too much video, but I am having trouble logging in to either flickr of facebook to post - anyone aver been to those sites in France?

I will post much more this evening.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Le Grande Bummer ... I mean Bunker

Le Grande Bunker (The Atlantic Wall Museum) gave me a much different perspective of D-Day – that of the German soldiers that defended “their” Atlantic coast in the 1940s. The museum is set inside an actual German concrete tower from the war, so in effect, the greatest artifact of the museum is the museum itself. The five floors had a few highlights, like the observation tower at the top, the description of the obstacles placed by the Germans (and pushed for by Rommel), and the depiction of the various components of the tower, from first aid to communications to ammunition. While many of the artifacts were awesome, the presentation left something to be desired. The mannequins didn’t quite cut it for me, and the multiple photos and text were deteriorated, some to the point where you just couldn’t understand them. I learned more about life in a German bunker, for sure, but I wouldn’t say it was the greatest museum I have ever seen.


I didn’t figure out that I have navigation in my little mini Mercedes until the afternoon, but that turned out to be a good mistake, as a wrong turn led me to the Pegasus Bridge Memorial Museum in Benouville (check out their website for greater detail). I had the museum on my list of “possibles” as it is not American in its focus, but it was well worth the hour that I spent there and I would recommend it to any WWII buff. (It often seems that the museums with a very narrow focus can be hit or miss – but this one is a hit).

The original Pegasus Bridge was a drawbridge across the Caen Canal that British Airborne under John Howard took early on June 6, closing off the Germans on the east flank of the invasion and setting the stage for Allied movement to the east after the beachhead was secured. The British commandos came in on gliders, no small feat, and took the bridge in a flash – ten minutes. – and held it until France was liberated. They named the bridge for the winged horse on their shoulder patches.

The museum is full of artifacts and details the story of the British Airborne in the east. There is a great deal on paratroopers and gliders, two topics that I find fascinating,. The key components of the collection are a full scale model of a Horsa glider and, or course, the actual Pegasus Bridge (the one that now spans the canal is new).

Except for seeing it in “The Longest Day”, I never examined the whole story of the bridge until today. It really is a great story – awesome personalities, like Howard and “Piper” Bill Millin, daring acts of bravery, and some fun trivia like drinking buried champagne after taking the bridge. It’s also quite a rush to walk on the actual bridge and poke your head into a glider.

The Caen Memorial

After picking up my cool Mercedes in Caen (the only time I will probably drive a Mercedes), I made my way to one of the major stops on my journey – the Mémorial de Caen Musée or Caen Memorial. This museum is one that I was very interested in seeing, and the early ferry allowed me more time than I would have otherwise had. The main exhibit of the museum is a timeline of the causes and events of World War II, presented in a downward spiral (I read it was symbolic of humankind’s descent due to the rise of totalitarian rulers). There were special highlights on Vichy France, life under German occupation, and the growth of the resistance in France and other parts of occupied Europe. There was a large section on the Holocaust, some mention of American contributions in the war, and the audio guide gave an excellent support to the artifacts and images. By the end of the exhibit, it was obvious that the exhibit was not just telling about World War II – it was teaching (even preaching) about the need for peace. The sculpture outside of the museum makes that point very clearly as well.

The museum also has a special section on D-Day, which gave me a few more pearls about the invasion. A comprehensive Cold War exhibit presented a great timeline of the conflict between the US and USRR, and the exhibit on Berlin after the war told a clear and comprehensive story of the division of the German capital and the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Not surprisingly, I am learning about World War II, the D-Day invasion, and other military conflicts from a much more global perspective. I am able to put the American role in war into greater context, both on the battlefield and on the home front. This should add to my instruction on the conflict come next April.

Not really storming the beaches ...

The one thing that I really wanted to do was storm the beaches … off of a boat … wearing a whole bunch of equipment. Unfortunately, I could not find a single opportunity to do such anactivity. Still, I felt that I had to cross the English Channel above the surface instead of under, so I took an overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, which would connect me with Caen in France. Their were a few similarities between my crossing the channel and the actual crossing in 1944 – the weather looked foreboding, but there was a break; the boat hit shore almost at the same time (6:30 AM), and I was tired. Other than that, the crossing was the polar opposite of what soldiers experienced. Sure, sleeping across four reclining chairs was uncomfortable, but nowhere near as uncomfortable as sitting in a landing craft as the swells of the channel pitched so high that nearly everyone was seasick once the hit the beach. I didn’t throw up in my helmet – they did. They didn’t have a disco on the top of the cruise ship – I did (but didn’t show off any moves). I had my luggage, which was somewhat heavy to carry off the boat to the bus to take me to my rental car. They had up to eighty pounds of gear, which took many of them to the bottom of the channel when the jumped of the boat in deep water or waded into a bomb crater. They faced obstacles, mines, barbed wire, and machine guns. The only obstacle I faced was my limited knowledge of the French language. If I can ever find a way to do it as more of a re-enactment, I would love to try. It might have to be in Ohio, though – but that’s for another summer.

The landing craft of the troops ...

The landing craft of Taft

Portsmouth, England

Portsmouth was one of the major staging areas for the British component of the Overlord invasion, and therefore it is a deserving home for a D-Day Museum. It alos serves as my departure port for crossing the Channel (there was no way I was taking the tube – the soldiers didn’t!). I arrived in Portsmouth around 3:30 in the afternoon, and then decided to walk around a bit and get completely lost before dropping off my luggage at the ferry and then heading to the museum along the coast of the Channel. Unfortunately, the museum was closing an hour earlier than I had noted online, but I still had some time to digest the exhibit and the crown jewel of the museum – the Overlord Embroidery.

Many moons ago, a tapestry was created to depict William’s Norman conquest, and that tapestry is presented in Bayeux (I will report on it in a couple of days). In the 1990s, some artists in the Portsmouth area created a larger tapestry detailing the preparation, execution, and impact of the Overlord invasion. I had seen images of the tapestry online and thought it would be a pretty cool thing to see. I underestimated a bit … the tapestry is awesome, as a work of craftsmanship and as a historical story. Images truly do not do it justice (even though I will post some anyway), and the detail in the embroidery is something to behold. I loved how they took some of the most iconic images of the Overlord campaign and put them on cloth. The accompanying text was perfect – concise enough to have viewers read everything, but detailed enough to provide a great overview of Overlord. It reminded me of the bas reliefs on the WWII Memorial in DC, only on a much greater scale. I could see a Civil War tapestry as something that could be done in the US … but not by me, because I had trouble making a stuffed elephant in 8th grade home ec.

The rest of the museum is devoted to the D-Day invasion and Portsmouth’s role in Overlord. The city was shelled pretty hard by the Germans during the blitz in 1940, but still provided industrial provisions and a home base for British troops crossing the Channel. The exhibit was a bit older, so it didn’t contain a lot of the bells and whistles you will see in newer museum exhibits. Still, the text, accompanying audio, and awesome artifacts gave a great overview of Overlord. My favorite part was a mock up of the command map that was used by SHAEF to plan and monitor the invasion.

I also spent some time walking around Portsmouth, checking out a couple of war memorials and searching for some decent fish and chips. I was successful in both searches … but finding the stone was easier than finding the cod. I would love to come back to Portsmouth again and spend more time in the museum (especially with the embroidery), visit Southwick house where the SHAEF kept it’s command room, get to the top of the Spinnaker Tower, and wind around the streets with a little more knowledge of where I was. Maybe I will use a map on my next journey!

I feel I have gained a greater appreciation for the British role in Overlord through my travels today, and also a much deeper understanding of the challenges British citizens faced on the home front, during the blitz as well as throughout the entire war. Now it’s on to France!