Monday, 13 October 2014

What I did on my holidays - Part 1 of an occasional series

Well, I returned safely from Normandy, and it was a proper curate's egg (good in parts)! It was a Leger holiday (my first, and possibly my last) and these are my personal opinions of the trip - if your experience with Leger was better than mine then good luck to you!

On the plus side? I saw some great things, visited some historically significant sites, and met some lovely people. The weather was almost perfect, and our tour guide Peter Smith was both amiable and knowledgeable. My travelling companion, Mog, was excellent company - assisting me in both reducing France's national beer stock, as well as putting up with my execrable French. I also took lots of good pictures (good for me and my limited photography skills, that is).

On the negative side? It was a coach-based trip and that meant a long day to get there and a long day to get back, both times with a numb backside, despite only being based in Caen. There was a lot of waiting around, for ferries, pick-ups and rest stops, and generally speaking I could have got to Las Vegas quicker (and having been there, I speak from experience)! The feeder coach driver on the way there was rude and abrupt, and I overheard the same driver and his mate referring to some customers in less than gentile terms.

All in all, it was an experience rather than a holiday, but one I was glad I undertook. Next time, however, I will probably go by car, and try and get to Omaha Beach when it's not high tide!

Dear Leger - When planning a tour of the D-Day beaches, please consult the Tide Table.....

Don't Panic! I don't plan to chronicle the whole holiday item by item, especially when many people have already been to these sites (some on school trips - I wish I'd been to Normandy on a school trip instead of three successive visits to Beaulieu Motor Museum.....), but I will make an occasional post on some things I found interesting, mostly if I have a photo of them to illustrate the point.

The tour was effectively three very full days with travelling to and from Home on the Monday and Friday - this from Leger's own itinerary:

Tuesday: Britain’s D-Day: Pegasus Bridge and British Beaches
We start at Pegasus Bridge, the scene of the first actions of D-Day where Airborne troops stormed the position from gliders and held on until the link-up with ground forces from Sword Beach was made. We see where the gliders landed, the Gondrée Café – arguably the first house liberated on D-Day – and visit the Memorial Pegasus Museum where the original bridge is located. In Ranville we see the Airborne graves in the cemetery and churchyard and after lunch proceed into the British landing beaches, starting at Sword Beach. Here we see the new memorial to D-Day hero Piper Bill Millin, who piped Lord Lovat’s commandos ashore, and look at the area where men from the 3rd Division landed. At Juno Beach we visit the superb Juno Beach Centre which explains the story of the Canadian role in the Battle of Normandy and at Gold Beach see where some of the heaviest casualties were suffered by British troops storming the tough defences at Asnelles. We end the day at Arromanches where the Mulberry Harbour was constructed, much of which is still visible out to sea.

Wednesday: America’s D-Day: Bloody Omaha and American Airborne
The story of ‘Bloody Omaha’ and the terrible American sacrifice here on D-Day has been immortalised in Saving Private Ryan. Uncover the real story with a visit to the American Normandy Cemetery and Omaha Beach where the landings took place, seeing the memorial to the 29th Division. We also take time to visit the newest Normandy war museum the superb Overlord Museum-Omaha Beach before taking lunch in St Mere Eglise, and then looking at the story of the US Airborne forces at the new Richard Winters Leadership Memorial; Dick Winters commanded Easy Company of 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, otherwise known as ‘The Band of Brothers’. At Utah Beach we follow the story of the successful landings and visit the expanded Utah Beach Museum and see the memorials to those who came ashore here. We end the day at the German Cemetery at La Cambe, where German Tank Ace Michael Wittmann is buried among thousands of others who fell in Normandy. (They also squeezed in an unscheduled visit to St Marie du Mont, and Brecourt Manor's Airborne Memorial).

Thursday: Battle of the Bocage : Falaise Gap
We start our look at the fighting beyond D-Day in the bocage countryside south of Bayeux. We examine the bloody battles for Tilly-sur-Seulles and the tough fighting at Fontenay le Pesnel. Driving through the so-called ‘Scottish Corridor’ over the river Odon, we visit Hill 112 with its Churchill tank memorial; Hill 112 is often called the ‘Verdun of Normandy’ because of the tough nature of the fighting and the huge amount of artillery used. Lunch in Falaise, followed by a visit to the Falaise Pocket and a short walk along the ‘Corridor of Death’, used by the Germans to make their retreat in August 1944. On Mont Ormel we visit the Polish Memorial and Museum to their ferocious battle and end the day by seeing a very rare original Tiger I tank at Vimoutiers.

Oddly, the one part of the trip I couldn't quite get my head around? The visits to cemeteries: I appreciate it was an opportunity to honour some extremely brave (and young) men, and see the way different nations honour their dead, and perhaps to note the diversity of regiments involved, and the staggering number of casualties, but it still felt a little odd, if not macabre. It would have made more sense if I were honouring a family member buried therein, but that wasn't the case. Perhaps it's just me - I'd be interested to know if others felt the same.

Vimoutiers: Mog uses his 'catalogue pose' in an attempt to sell a second-hand Tiger Tank......

Hopefully back to the painting this week, and I will sort out some of my better photographs for future posts.

Until next time.....................

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