CLOSING OUT NORMANDY: CANADA’S JUNO BEACH

Our last stop on the Normandy trip was Juno beach – the Canadian beach. Unlike the other beaches, no monument to the Canadian effort existed until June, 2003, when the Juno Beach Center was inaugurated:

The Centre was conceived in the 1990s by a group of Canadian veterans who felt that the contributions and sacrifices of Canadian soldiers during the liberation of Europe were not properly commemorated and represented in the Normandy region. The project, spearheaded by veteran Garth Webb and his companion Lise Cooper, began initially as a grassroots fundraising campaign that eventually gained the financial support of many institutions and businesses and the Canadian and French governments at many levels. The Centre was inaugurated on 6 June, 2003. Over one thousand Canadian veterans attended the inauguration in 2003, as well as the 2004 ceremony for the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

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The center is very well done. Outside are plaques from towns across Canada, we found the City of Barrie:

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The center covers the entire war, with one interactive display kicking it off. You stand/sit in a room that is built like a landing craft and watch the famous video Juno beach video. Very moving.

As we wandered through the center, you remember how a small nation contributed broadly to the war effort with many battles almost forgotten. For instance, I never knew that Canada served with the British in Hong Kong:

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The beach itself looks flat and open, but history tells us that it was not a nice place to be landing:

Juno was the second most heavily defended of the five landing sites chosen.[3] General Wilhelm Richter was in charge of the 716th Division guarding the beach, with 11 heavy batteries of 155 mm guns and 9 medium batteries of 75 mm guns at his disposal. Additionally, pillboxes and other fortifications were present all along the beach, most heavily concentrated in the Courseulles-sur-Mer region. The seawall was twice the height of Omaha Beach’s, and the sea was heavily mined.[4]

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But the remnants are still there.

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After travelling up and down the beach, we headed into the town and stopped at a little river side café to enjoy mussels and seafood. Nothing beats a seaside café on a sunny day. As I looked over at the fishing boats, I was fooled by this optical illusion and commented to the boys:

‘Hey look, they must have taken that boat apart to fix it. That is quite a load to keep in place while fixing. I wonder why they are doing it in the water?’ (LOL … it is 2 boats).

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And with that, we made our final stop at the grave of Ross Ellsmere and then headed home. A historic place well worth visiting and remembering.

NORMANDY DAY 3: ARROMANCHES 360

 

Day 3 in Normandy had a simple plan, Arromanches, Canada’s beach – Juno and then a cemetery on the way home.

Arromanches 360 was recommended by friends as a ‘must do’:

The SAEM Arromanches 360, created upon the initiative of Lower Normandy Regional Council for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Landing, presents an exceptional film projected on 9 screens in a circular cinema: “The Price of Freedom”.

An exclusive procedure is employed to obtain the 360° projection : the Circorama, conceived by Patrick Besenval and the Futuroscope productions.

You enter the building, overlooking Sword beach and stand in the middle of a dome. The film plays out on 9 screens all around you, blending footage of modern day Normandy beaches with footage of the invasion. A truly moving experience, in fact we found it one of the most profound pieces of the trip. It really made it sink in.

Overlooking the site is a statue, which made me pause and think; Mother Mary or simply a statue of one of the many mothers who left their son on that beach?

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Upon exiting the building, you can go back to your car or walk down the path to Sword beach – the British beach. We walked down the path ..

NORMANDY DAY 2: CLOSING OMAHA – THE MUSEUM

As we left the beach, we decided on one final stop, the Omaha Beach Memorial Museum (Le musée Mémorial d’Omaha Beach). It is what you would expect, although everything is a bit better protected as it did not have the scattered, family run business feel like the D-Day museum (which I enjoyed more). A few photos below.

The Sherman tank at the entrance.

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A German camouflage helmet.

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Another view of the landing craft. Imagine 36 men crowded into the craft:

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The craft was one of many D-Day innovations. Called the Higgins Boat or Landing Craft Vehicle or Personnel (LCVP), it has quite an interesting story:

Andrew Higgins started out in the lumber business, but gradually moved into boatbuilding, which became his sole operation after the lumber transport company he was running went bankrupt in 1930.

Fortuitously, the United States Marine Corps, always interested in finding better ways to get men across a beach in an amphibious landing and frustrated that the Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair could not meet its requirements, began to express interest in Higgins’ boat. When tested in 1938 by the Navy and Marine Corps, Higgins’ Eureka boat surpassed the performance of the Navy-designed boat and was tested by the services during fleet landing exercises in February 1939. Satisfactory in most respects, the boat’s major drawback appeared to be that equipment had to be unloaded, and men disembarked, over the sides—thus exposing them to enemy fire in a combat situation. But it was put into production and service as the Landing Craft, Personnel (Large), (LCP(L)). The LCP(L) had two machine gun positions at the bow. The LCP(L) or commonly called the "U-boat" or the "Higgins" boat, was supplied to the British where it was initially known as the "R-boat" and used for Commando raids.

The Japanese had been using ramp-bowed landing boats in the Second Sino-Japanese War since the summer of 1937—boats that had come under intense scrutiny by the Navy and Marine Corps observers at Shanghai in particular, including from future General Victor H. Krulak.[1] When shown a picture of one of those craft in 1941, Higgins soon thereafter got in touch with his chief engineer, and, after describing the Japanese design over the telephone, told the engineer to have a mock-up built for his inspection upon his return to New Orleans.

Within one month, tests of the ramp-bow Eureka boat in Lake Pontchartrain showed conclusively that successful operation of such a boat was feasible. This became the Landing Craft, Personnel (Ramped) (LCP(R)). The machine gun positions were still at the front of the boat but closer to the side to give access between them to the ramp. The design was still not ideal as the ramp was a bottleneck for the troops as was the case with the British Landing Craft Assault of the year before.

No less an authority than the Supreme Allied Commander declared the Higgins boat to be crucial to the Allied victory on the European Western Front and the previous fighting in North Africa and Italy:

"Andrew Higgins … is the man who won the war for us. … If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different."—General Dwight Eisenhower

It is interesting to see that one of the most important inventions of WWII was based on a Japanese design (or reverse engineered). A tactic the Japanese are famous for.

And so ends a very full day.

NORMANDY DAY 2:BLOODY OMAHA BEACH

Omaha beach was by far the bloodiest of beaches during D-Day. The Americans paid a horrendous price to take that length of sand: (via):

Wars leave names indelibly impressed into the psyche of our lexicon. Half a century later successive generations hear of these places without thought to their significance.

To the British they are Dunkirk, El Alamein and Arnhem. To Canadians Dieppe and Vimy Ridge (WW I) recognize catastrophe and success. To Americans, Iwo Jima, Tarawa and Omaha Beach symbolize costly, bloody triumphs against diehard enemies. “Bloody Omaha” is the image of killers, untouchable in concrete bunkers, slaughtering America’s youth helpless on an open beach. OMAHA Beach is sacred, hallowed ground bloodied by men who came three thousand miles to free Europe and subdue Hitler’s nazis.

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To get a feel for what they faced, we hiked down the pebble beach. You stand at the bottom looking up, imagining German machine gun, mortar and artillery fire raining down on you, land mines and obstacles everywhere, absolutely no cover available. One has to wonder how anyone made it off the beach.

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What they faced (via):

OMAHA Beach is a seven-kilometer (4 miles) long concave arc. The 35-meter (100-foot) bluffs gave the Germans, in long established positions, the high ground from which they dominated every square foot of the beach. Two thirds of the eastern end of beach was shingle making vehicle traffic impossible. At the western end a 2-3 meter sea wall ran the length of the promenade. A significant obstacle for mobile equipment. Five valleys (called draws) led from the beach up to the higher ground. The westerly
one at Vierville was paved but the other four were undeveloped tracks. The draws were wooded and defended by paired “resistance nests” (Wiederstandsnest). Six more resistance nests on the bluffs between the draws and three inland at the towns created a formidable defense. Along the beach were eight large caliber guns in concrete casements, thirty-five antitank guns in pillboxes and eighty machine gun nests. Communication trenches interconnected the defenses.

On the sandy beach were three lines of log obstacles, 7 meters apart, tipped with contact mines and shells. Closer to shore were metal hedgehogs tipped with explosives (similar to 4 meter tidily winks) to tear open the hulls of landing craft. At high tide the obstacles were beneath the water and difficult to see. From the beach to the foot of the bluff were antitank ditches, minefields and barbed wire, thickest around the draw entrances. Scattered liberally over the slopes were thousands of antipersonnel mines designed to explode under foot or pop up and explode at waist level.

We then hiked around the hill and headed to the top to get the German view. From the top, the whole beach rolls out in front of you. On the end of a sniper rifle or machine gun, it must have been a) scary to see the magnitude of the invading force and b) been like shooting turkeys in a barrel. Just keep firing.

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What you do notice is how your view is limited, there is a certain field of fire and if someone makes it outside that field of fire, you are blind. To get that feeling, we climbed inside a bunker (this time I had my camera loaded). The entrance was overgrown and I went in first – carefully (you never know what someone left behind, beer bottles or worse).

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Inside is very eerie. Absolutely dark (I kept using my flash to light it up … should have brought a flashlight). Silent and not very spacious. Imagine being crammed inside this thing with bombs and bullets whistling around. Better than on the beach, but still quite scary.

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You can still see out the machine gunner’s opening. Limited field of view, but you can see a long way.

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Hidden among the grasses and brush are remnants of the war, huge slabs of torn up concrete, careful where you step.

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The vantage point from the top. The US troops stormed up this gap, it was a death trap – mines and barbed wire. Casualties on the beach averaged one per every 2 meters (6 feet).

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I read that it took 20 years for the French to clean up the beaches, so littered with mines and anti-invasion devices. If you look out on the horizon, you can still see some remnants in the water.

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A new perspective on why we wear the poppy and should be very thankful for what they did ..

NORMANDY DAY 2: CIDER

As we drove from Pointe du Hoc back toward Omaha, we passed another interesting site that I had spotted as we passed, an apple orchard. We had to stop …

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The Lebrec family business is set up around an ancient U shaped building. You drive through the archway (above), pulling into a huge courtyard. The proprietor, Bernard Lebrec, greeted us as we got out of the car, followed by an enormous Labrador who’s only goal was to drop at your feet and get his belly rubbed. Looking around, you come to see just how big the place is. I asked him how many people live here? He responded that his mother lives in the main house, he rents out an apartment on one end and .. on Mondays he lives there (pointing), on Tuesdays there (pointing), on Wednesdays here, at which point he burst out laughing.

A picture of the wall, with the manor house in the background.

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An outside view of one of the walls. Imagine being a kid here, exploring all the rooms …

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Of course I had to ask if the place was occupied during the war. Sure enough, his family moved to Paris while the German army occupied the home. Hard to imagine, giving up your home and all the possessions that you own to the occupier. As Stephen Ambrose says in Band of Brothers (page 143):

As had been true of the villages of France on both sides of the line on the Western Front 1914-1918, the civilian residents of the Island were evacuated (and Holland is the most densely populated country on earth). This gave the men almost unlimited opportunities for looting., opportunities that were quickly seized. Webster wrote, “civilians dwell under the misapprehension that only Germans and Russians go through their drawers, closets and chicken coops, whereas every G.I. of my acquaintance made a habit of doing so.” Watches, clocks, jewellery, small (and large) pieces of furniture, and of course liquor quickly disappeared – that is, what was left, as the British had already stripped the area.

We picked up a bottle of strong cider, Calvados, which I detest. Not unlike Scotch:

Calvados, from Normandy, is a spirit is made of cider through a process called double distillation. In the first pass, the result is a liquid containing 28%–30% alcohol. In a second pass, the amount of alcohol is augmented to about 40%.

We also picked up a bottle of sparkling cider, or what the French call bouche (Bouché simply means that the cider is in a pressure bottle with a champagne style pressure cork). Only 5% alcohol and a very distinct taste. Hard to describe, other than earthy and fantastic. I would have loved to have grabbed a case at €5 a bottle, had I known I would like it so much. A quick look on the LCBO website shows a Quebec variant (At 3X the cost). They describe it as:

Clear straw colour and sparkling; aromas and flavours of fresh apple; off dry on the palate, with refreshing acidity on the finish.

What a great place. Back in the car, we headed to Omaha (again).

NORMANDY DAY 2: POINTE DU HOC

The problem with driving down a road and going to a place where you have never been before is that you are constantly filled with doubt .. did I miss it? How much farther? Did I miss the sign?

In the end, we never did make it to Batterie de Maisy, because I thought we were there when we came to Point du Hoc, a coastal gun emplacement. I am glad we made the mistake. The sun had cleared the morning’s ominous clouds, so we headed down the path from the parking lot. As you walk, you start to see craters. Huge 15-20 foot deep holes where the shells from the Allied ships and bombers had attacked the emplacement. As you end the path, you round a corner and look out on this huge field that had once been flat … the Allies shelled the place into oblivion. Amazing  ….

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A number of the bunkers remain, but huge slabs of cement, with jagged iron stick out at odd angles everywhere. A two foot thick slab of concrete sticking oddly out of the ground gives you a distinct impression of the size of the artillery shells.

The six 155mm gun battery with a 17 kilometer range housed inside concrete bunkers threatened the invasion fleet, OMAHA Beach, 6 kilometers east, and UTAH Beach, 14 kilometers to the northwest. This was the most lethal battery in the invasion area. The battery had to be neutralized as quickly as possible in the early hours of the invasion.

The battery was bombed April 15, May 22 and June 4 resulting in the six 155mm howitzers being moved temporarily to an orchard one kilometer south. Substitute telephone poles, under camouflage netting disguised the precautionary move. Andre Farine, the café owner in
Letanville (3 kilometers southwest), in seeking wood for baking would visit M. Fouche’s farm overlooking the Pointe du Hoc battery site and secure intelligence he transmitted to England. He discovered the German ruse but the ships had sailed under radio silence. His own observations and what he gleaned from the labor building the Atlantic Wall eating in his café saved many lives. He was awarded the
Croix de Guerre.

The 8th Air Force bombers cautiously held their bomb loads a few seconds longer to avoid hitting the assault wave. The bombs landed harmlessly inland. At 6 a.m. the battleships Arkansas and Texas commenced their bombardment. Before lifting their shelling a half-hour later they had fired 600 12 to 14 inch shells. The 10,000 tons of explosives equaled the destructive power of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. One battleship shell exploded inside an empty bunker collapsing the rear wall.

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The whole area was once a myriad of tunnels, connecting the different bunkers and gun emplacements. Many remain open and survived so that you can explore and come up through the turrets. We spent hours exploring …

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Loved climbing into the ruins.

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As you walk to the edge of the site, you look down and try to imagine …US Rangers in boats, with climbing ropes and ladders scrambling get to the top of the cliffs while under enemy fire. The German’s must have thought they were nuts …. via:

The plan called for the 2nd Ranger Battalion (Companies D, E and F) to land east and west of the Pointe at 6:30 a.m. The rangers, using British LCPs (Landing Craft Personnel) manned by British coxswain had one of their 10 boats swamped shortly after leaving the mother ship. The company commander and platoon were rescued but returned to England. A 20mm cannon shell fired from the cliff top sank one of the four DUKWS (amphibious truck).

In error the coxswains headed for Pointe de la Percee, 5 kilometers east. Colonel James Earl Rudder seeing the error ordered a course change that brought the 9 landing craft, 3 DUKWs and one supply boat (a second had swamped) back to Pointe-du-Hoc along a route paralleling the coastline. A German machine gun nest on the cliff edge 300 meters east of the Pointe raked the passing attack force. All the craft landed east of the point forty minutes late and long after the USS Texas bombardment had lifted. (The delay caused the reinforcement 5th Ranger Battalion to believe the rangers on the Pointe had not been successful and diverted to OMAHA Beach.) The Germans rushed to the cliff edge firing and throwing hand grenades down on the invaders. Two navy destroyers, the HMS Talybout and the USS Satterlee moved in close firing their machine guns and antiaircraft pompom guns into the German ranks. From the landing craft grappling hooks with rope ladders attached were fired to the top of the 35-meter high cliffs. Many of the ladders heavy with seawater fell short.

On each hook a burning fuse terrorized the Germans attempting to cut the attached rope. From one of the DUKWs a ladder borrowed from the London Fire Department rose to overview the cliff top. Sergeant Bill Stivinson with his machine gun climbed the ladder. The DUKWs unsteadiness on the rocky beach combined with Stivinson’s weight caused the ladder to sway back and forth 45 degrees. Each time the sway brought Stivinson past the cliff top he fired on the Germans along the edge.

Within five minutes a number of rangers had climbed to the top. In another ten minutes the remaining 120 of Rudder’s 225 men were slithering over the edge and into the welcome protective shell craters. The platoons moved off to seize their pre-assigned bunkers ignoring the machine gun and 20mm fire from the large strongpoint on the cliff edge. Determining they had captured empty bunkers containing only telephone poles the rangers moved south to D514. Although the bunkers had been taken the battery area was still not cleared. The enemy would unpredictably appear from their elaborate tunnel structures, fire a burst from an automatic weapon or throw a grenade then disappear. The machine gun east of the Pointe that had harassed the landing craft now poured fire over the heads of the rangers in the shell holes. The navy and army fire control team had been knocked out with a short shell and the radios damaged. A visual Morse code blink light signalled the USS Satterlee to knock out the machine gun nest. A few rounds tumbled the nest and occupants down the cliff face onto the beach. No one survived.

These are the cliffs they climbed …

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I cannot image the climb. The fighting. It is truly a site to behold. The size of the craters makes one wonder, what was it like living through the artillery barrage? The view from inside a bunker …

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A great perspective on the slabs of concrete. Those were mighty big shells.

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The irony is that the guns were found hidden in an orchard later, unprotected.

The intact battery bunker nearest the point became the medic’s aid station. The Germans had pulled back south of D514. The rangers set up defences. Sergeant Leonard Lomell and Jack Kuhn followed a dirt road, suspicious it might be the track created by the Germans hauling out the six-gun battery. Two hundred and fifty meters south of D514 in an orchard they found the guns and ammunition unmanned.

The German gun crews had cautiously pulled away from their ammo dump. The Americans blew up the ammo, destroyed several guns and incapacitated the remaining gunsites.

The empty site …

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One of the guns … they are big.

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A couple amazing hours later, we jumped in the car to hit our final stop, Omaha beach (or so we thought).

NORMANDY DAY 2: ON THE WAY TO BATTERIE DE MAISY, CHATEAU DE ST. PIERRE DU MONT

On the wall of a building at the D-Day museum was an advertisement for Batterie de Maisy and on a whim we decided to head away from Omaha beach in search of the battery that was promised to be no more than ‘5 minutes drive’.

A windy road takes you along the coast, where we passed a host of breathtaking buildings. One being Le Chateau de St. Pierre du Mont, a castle converted into a bed and breakfast on the Normandy coast. It simply rises out of the road as you head along the coast. I would have loved to have spent a night there, had we known it existed …. via:

St. Pierre-du-Mont Castle, locally known as Château de St. Pierre-du-Mont or more simply as Château St. Pierre, stands near the village of Saint Pierre-du-Mont, north west of the city of Bayeux in the Calvados department in the Normandy region in France.

St. Pierre-du-Mont Castle dates back to the 16th century. Its entrance gate, flanked on the right by a machicolated defensive tower, is typical of the fortified gates which guarded Norman manors at the end of the 16th century. The upper part of that tower once housed a dovecote, which was a symbol of nobility until the Revolution.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the estate belonged to Francois du Mesnil. His family, like many noble families of that time, followed the reformed religion. Shortly after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) they returned to Catholicism.

At the end of the 18th century St. Pierre-du-Mont Castle passed through marriage to the De Frotté family. One member of this family, who was a Marquis, was a prefect during the first half of the 19th century.

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I always wonder what life was like when places like this were built. Peasants working for a rich family, building away, living off of the whims of the Lord and their family. We live in much better times, no matter how beautiful the building is.

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The nice thing about having your car, you can stop where you want. We continued down the road.