Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Normandy Beaches

{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 3.}

It was rainy, windy, cold day, or in other words, a typical day in Normandy. My parents had hired a guide to drive us to the D-Day beaches and show us around. Just from a stress point of view, it's worth it to have the driver so you don't have to worry about navigating or where to park or anything like that. You just sit back and enjoy the view. But the guide really goes beyond that; you learn so much more and it makes what you're seeing so much more interesting. On top of it, you can say "Hey what's that?" or "Why did they do that?". A guide book can't help you there.

Our guy, David, really knew his stuff and gave us a really good rundown of what happened and all the different operations. I'll be honest, I'm not as up on my WWII history as I should be, but he had maps and pictures that helped a lot. It was interesting to hear about how the operation was planned to go, and the obstacles that made it nearly impossible. It's really amazing that it worked when you think about it. 


Dummy of John Steele on the Steeple
The Allies had several units of parachutists drop in to take hold of some strategic towns, bridges, etc, to keep the Germans from getting reinforcements to their bunkers. They thought it was going to be a clear night, which would give the planes the best chance of dropping the parachutists in the right spot. Instead, it was cloudy as all get out, and the winds were very strong, pushing planes and parachutists off course. Thus, instead of landing just outside of town, several parachutists actually landed in the town square of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. This would have been bad enough, except that instead of everyone being asleep as they should have been at such an early hour of the morning, the entire town was up to put out a fire in a building near the church. The Germans were likewise up to make sure the French didn't get any wise ideas. So when American troops starting falling from the sky, they opened fire. One soldier, John Steele, actually got caught on the church steeple. Being far too high off the ground to try to cut himself loose, he played dead. He kept it up for 2 hours, despite being shot in the foot and having the church bells constantly ringing right next to his head. Eventually the Germans noticed him and took him prisoner, but he escaped. The tale was so beloved they hang a dummy parachutist on the church. The Americans were able to secure the town by about 4:30 am and the church holds two lasting tributes to their heroics.

Parachutists with the Virgin Mary
 I know it's fuzzy but the Virgin Mary is surrounded by parachutists dropping down on the town in the night.

St. Michael with various insignia
 A much better picture of the other window which depicts Saint Michael surrounded by the insignia of Allied forces that fought in or near the town. In France, it is Saint Michael the archangel, not George, who is celebrated as the dragon-slayer. I'll talk about him more in the next post, but he is often depicted as a sort of warrior saint. The first window was donated to the church not long after the war ended and then years later for one of the anniversaries the second window was donated to the church.

We stopped at both Utah and Omaha beaches, the two American beaches, and at Pointe de Hoc, a strategic German strong hold on high ground. It was really interesting to actually be there and to see it all first hand. You learn about this stuff in history class, but it's not really the same as being there in person and actually seeing a german bunker, actually seeing Omaha beach and the huge expanse of beach. We also went to the US cemetery. At first, both the Allied and German dead were just buried where they died. Later, the US offered American families the choice between having them buried at home or in the US cemetery closest to where they were temporarily buried. There are 14 American WWII cemeteries on foreign soil. The Normandy cemetery at Omaha beach has over 9000 graves and a memorial to about 1500 missing or unidentified. There about 300 buried here who are unknown. Most of the graves are marked with a cross, but you'll notice a Star of David here and there as well. We didn't have anyone in particular to find so we just walked around a bit and our guide pointed out some of the interesting aspects. For any one who is interested in that sort of thing, the American Battle Monuments Commission keeps an online database of all WWI, WWII, and Korean War casualties and you can search for a particular name and find not only at which cemetery they are buried but the plot location as well.

Back in Caen, we found a creperie for dinner and then watched the light show on town hall. We also played several hands of cards. One thing you should know about my family, we are vicious card players. All's fair in love, war, and cards. 

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