Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Bloody Beaches

Biking in Normandy - Days 3 & 4

Most of us know someone who had a loved one that served in World War II. In my case my father and my uncle John (his brother) both served. They entered war service as light hearted, basketball playing farm boys from Colorado. My father went Navy and was posted in California. Dad emerged WWII with his spirit and humor intact.

My uncle John went Army and served almost the entire war in Europe. From what we can glean John saw almost continuous battle serving under Patton. We also believe he served in the December 16, 1944 - January 25, 1945 Battle of the Ardennes Forest (known as the Battle of the Bulge).

Despite a Bletchley Park enigma code cracker's advisory of an imminent attack, Allied leader''s ignored the communique convinced the area was low risk.

They left it defended by young unproven soldiers along with the battle-hardened, yet battle weary, 28th infantry sent there to "recuperate".  

Conversely, Hitler attacked with skilled SS soldiers he reallocated from duty on the Russian front.

The Battle of the Bulge turned out to be the US's biggest battle and delivered our highest number of casualties. Yet our young and green coupled with the battle tired American soldiers went on to prevail.

When uncle John returned home he was forever changed. He never married and lived a withdrawn life. As a kid my single inquiry to him about "what you did in the war" was met with stone.

Today our last WWII veterans are rapidly passing away. That leaves us with little true knowledge of their sacrifices. So experiencing a battle site such as Omaha Beach offers insight into the stories uncle John could not bring himself to tell.

Day 3: Arromanches
Monday's first major ride was to Arromanches, the British landing site code named "Gold" Beach.

The ride began on some narrow farm access roads that meandered through lovely Normandy farmland. Corn stalks (which is grown only for animals here) was still high and the smell of freshly cut hay accompanied us for much of our journey.

Our first stop was at a horticulture school. Its grounds were filled with the apple trees that define the Calvados region of Normandy.

 Our First Stop 
A Horticulture School

 Apples at the Horticulture School

Our next stop was the Parapluies umbrella factory where two generations have made every type of custom umbrella. They even had models with a patented wind release feature offering a lifetime guarantee against inversion. visit: www.h2oparapluis.fr

The Umbrella Factory

Perhaps stopping at an umbrellas factory was a bad omen as we soon experienced an epic rain storm. It rained so hard it felt almost like hail. This was the worst stretch of riding possible. We found a garage where someone (thankfully) had left the door up and we took shelter.

We arrived at "Gold"  beach. Took in the 360° movie and the British D-Day Museum. 

Lunch was a steaming kettle of the wonderful local mussels.

Looking Across "Gold" Beach

Day 4 - Omaha Beach
Tuesday morning we pedaled through more countryside. Along the way we passed Le Chateau de la Ferriere. This spectacular chateau was originally constructed in 1735. The chateau and its grounds have been renovated and transformed continuously ever since. During WWI it was commandeered as a residence to Rommel. Rommel was convinced any invasion would take place at Calais. He was so confident that on June 6, 1944 he was in Germany at a birthday party for his wife.

 Le Chateau de la Ferriere
(Rommel's Residence in Bayeau)

Nearby Countryside

From here we pedaled through more countryside to Vierville (Code named "Omaha") beach where we met our guide Guilliame Marie. Guilliame met us at the zone called Dog Green (See Map).


The Sectors of Omaha Beach

A Panorama of Omaha Beach
(From Dog Green)

Our Remarkable Guide

Guilliame recounted the D-Day invasion. We learned how the American beach was a disaster. The relentless "softening" bombs from American Destroyers off shore either fell harmlessly in the sea or landed well beyond their intended targets. The failed bombing had terrible consequences. It left the enemy untouched and fully armed, yet, since the element of surprise had to be maintained, local civilians were not warned. So the bombs that passed over the German armaments exacted a  devastating toll on local civilians and their livestock.

We learned how a huge storm sank the American Mulberry harbor and how most of the tanks being transported to Omaha took on water and sank with their crewman inside. 

Then how the tide came in leaving our troops with nothing to do but face Hitler's huge guns mounted in highly fortified emplacements.

From here we rode on to one of two American Cemetery's in France. The cemetery is now American soil in perpetuity. Time spent here will produce a pit in the stomach.
There are 9,387 burials here. The average age of the soldiers buried here is 21.

The American Cemetery
(The Cropped Top Trees Symbolize Lives Cut Short)

There are 307 Unknowns

Donald De Lue's Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves

The inscription at the cemetery entry implores:
Look how many of them there were
Look how young they were
They died for your freedom
Hold back your tears and keep silent

As a gesture of reconciliation, and a permanent appeal for peace, France went on to offer land to create German cemeteries as well. There are 8 WWII German cemeteries in France. We decided to visit the one at La Cambe.

Here, in stark contrast to the meticulously maintained, perfectly composed, American cemetery, graves here are marked with simple flat dark headstones. Burials are stacked two or more deep.  There are 21,222 burials in this cemetery alone. Some of the dead were only 15 years old.

It made me think long and hard.

In a recent poll 43% of the respondents of one political party felt the US would be better off if it were "Taken Over" by the military.

After today, I know that history provides ample testimony why the character of those we allow to ascend to positions of leadership require perpetual vigilance.

The price exacted when societies are willing to simply "turn over" leadership or neglect such vigilance is buried in these cemeteries.

La Cambe

An emotional day that will not be forgotten.

God bless you uncle John.

On to The Cherbourg Peninsula
We now traveled to the commune of St. Germain Sur Ay in Northwest Normandy above the salt marshes of the west coast of the Cherbourg peninsula.

This region is also very agricultural, but enjoys direct ties to the sea. Our Inn was La Ferme des Mares. Which is a beautifully renovated equestrian property dating back to the 1600's. It features a restaurant listed by Michelin.

Yeah, it was (as our fantastic guide Adelle would say) "looovely".

La Ferme des Mares
Tomorrow we ride to a traditional farmer's market with a picnic at a cider mill. 

Roadboy's Travels © 2015

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