Sunday, January 25, 2009

D-Day: Operation Overlord

On Sunday – and completing a lifetime ambition – Neil and I took part in the D-Day landings and Battle of Normandy.

We were operating with drastically reduced troops as most of the airborne division had fucked off to Amsterdam to liberate their minds. We were also operating with drastically-reduced energy levels having spent the night before getting trashed in the casino bar, rather than going to bed ready for a crack-of-dawn start.

So, unlike the Canadian, British and US forces of 65 years ago, we did not land with precision timing between 6.30am and 7.30am, but instead sauntered out at around half past ten. Although under-equipped in terms of braincells, we were both armed with concierge copies of the D-Day tourist guide. This interesting and informative little leaflet not only sorts the route out for you, but also corresponds to actual road signs making Operation Overlord pretty easy to follow even if you’re hung-over. See map below.

Neil and my route as we try to find a petrol station open on Sundays

There were other factors against us though … weather conditions were unfavourable for any kind of seaside activity (sub-zero wind chill and driving rain) – and almost every single musem on the route is closed until February 1.

Nevertheless, we got in the hire car and headed east along the coast, quickly realizing that the Operation Overlord D-Day route seamlessly segues with another major interest of ours: mini-golf.

The tourism office leaflet inexplicably and massively downplays the mini-golf aspect of the Normandy Landings but it’s totally obvious that mini-golf must have played an important role. Almost every Overlord landmark has a mini-golf right next to it – some with very tricky holes. Hole #7 at the St Aubin-sur-Mer course has a shockingly difficult fortification that must have taken the troops hours to conquer.

We motored on until we got to Pegasus Bridge. “This is Pegasus Bridge” I said as we drove across what looked like an M1 footbridge. “I’m underwhelmed”, said Neil.

Moments later we spot and cross, with no real resistance, the real Pegasus Bridge. This is where, on the night of 5/6 June 1944, a force of 181 men, led by Major John Howard, landed in gliders and took the bridge in ten minutes.

On the western side of the bridge is a house owned by the Gondree family – it was the first building to be liberated during D-Day. It’s now a café and mini-museum, closed until February 1. The Longest Day, starring Richard Todd, tells the Pegasus story or you have a go at liberating the bridge yourself in the board wargame Advanced Squad Leader. (

Next we headed for Juno Beach. This was where the Canadians landed. It was the most successful of all the D-Day landings with all objectives met. We didn’t have time to visit the Centre Juno Beach museum. This was a shame as the leaflet promised the Centre would not only explain Canada’s role in the Second World War but also give an insight into Canadian culture. As far as I know, Canadian culture primarily involves slagging off European poker players but that would hardly explain why thousands of Canadians were prepared to attack a heavily-defended beach to save us. Canadians suffered 50 per cent casualty rates at Juno but nevertheless, by noon, all survivors were ashore and leading elements had pushed several kilometres inland.

By 6:00pm they had captured the town of Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer and set up a mini-golf course.

Although we didn’t have time to visit the Juno Beach museum (open all year) we did havetime to visit Bar de la Mer, the first fast food place to be liberated by the Allies. The waiter gave us two Croque Monsieur cheese toasties and some paper placemats showing pictures of troops wading through the water. He neglected to give us any crayons.

Next on Op. Overlord itinerary was Gold Beach - a very beautiful stretch of coastline lined with farmland at the western end of which is Arromanches. This is where the Mulberry Harbour was set up – a temporary harbour towed over from the UK and constructed out of 600,000 tons of concrete. In the 10 months after D-Day, it was used to land over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tonnes of supplies providing much needed reinforcements in France.

I’ve read quite a lot about the Mulberry Harbour and always been staggered by the sheer scale, ingenuity and audacity of the idea – bringing an entire harbour across the Channel in bits and then putting it together. Seeing it for real was amazing; many remnant are still there - enormous hunks of steel lying out to sea and marking out a perimeter many miles long.

Neil and I got back in the car and, with time running out, decided to miss out the British military cemetery at Bayeux and head for Omaha Beach.

Omaha Beach is at Colleville-sur-Mer and is sobering in every way. No more mini-golf jokes for us. The beach itself is beautiful, but this just makes it even more shocking.

We stood in the rain and looked down from the high bluffs to the beach way below. It was easy to see what a horrendous task the Americans had faced, struggling to land on a beach, with no cover, and facing an onslaught of fire from the heavily-defended slopes above. It was chaos. Carnage. Thousands died. Mown down. Drowned.

Set back from the cliff edge is the American Cemetery. Rows and rows of white crosses, an occasional headstone in the shape of a Star of David. You can glimpse the sea far below between the yew trees. It’s sombre and the acres of headstones mark an unimaginable loss of life but it is also beautiful. There are two high flagpoles - Stars and Stripes flags flying… I thought about Barack Obama.

We left Omaha and headed back to Deauville. France seemed empty and abandoned. Virtually nothing was open. We now know there are also no petrol stations in the whole of Normandy. Neil had to head back to Paris. I am another night in Deauville. I wouldn’t have missed today for anything – we are all indebted, incalculably and forever, to those that took part in the Normandy Landings.

PS Owen – I have brought you back some pebbles from Juno Beach.