Thursday, November 21, 2013

Part One - Normandy

And so, in September, we began our Grand (War) Tour. We hired un camping-car (motorhome) from an English-speaking company based two hours south of Paris, and set out on our seventeen-day holiday around Europe. Our first destinations were Normandy and the D-Day beaches. 

Our camping-car was a European van (i.e. left-hand drive) that had been converted to fit in a double bed, kitchenette, and minuscule shower/toilet cubicle. After a few hours of driving on narrow country roads in the dim evening light, we were exhausted and so we pulled into the town of Chandai, and found the town aire. Aire is the French word for a motorhome stop (or rest area), and many municipal authorities provide these for free, hoping that tourists will stop the night and support the local businesses by buying meals, petrol, etc, during their stay. The best sites are flat, have facilities for emptying grey water and porta-potty, and have a tap for topping up the drinking water tank in your camping-car. As I said, frequently these great sites are FREE, or if there is a cost it is €1 for water. Vive la France! Thank you, French Authorities for providing these facilities!

The site at Chandai was good, and we slept well. A few hours later, our alarm chimed loudly (as did the village clock tower just metres away) and we eagerly leapt out of bed and got on the road. Before long, the need arose (as, we all know, it often does) for French pastries. So we stopped at the next town, the picturesque Gacé. Our croissant, pain au chocolat, and baguette were the best we tasted in our entire 17 day holiday!! Almost a shame that we had to start on such a high note!

Municipal buildings in Gacé 
Adam with the pain au chocolat and (demi-)baguette
The town's pretty lake. A signboard beside it advised that in the surrounding woods you could see red squirrels and foxes! I tried to convince Adam to abandon our holiday and spend the rest of the time here...
Soon we stopped to eat our treasures and to make a coffee in our aeropress (a contraption that expresses coffee using air pressure). The sun was beating down and we were in another picturesque village - it was bliss, and felt like such a fortuitous start to the holiday.

Our camping-car and a jolie (pretty) French village
The obligatory église (church) and cenotaph

We then stumbled upon the stunning village of Vieux-Port - a whole town of pretty, historic houses, many built in the traditional Normandy style (similar to an English thatched cottage). One of the houses was even called 'La Renardière' - the fox lair! Aah, France!

La Renardière
After driving another couple of hours, we arrived at Omaha Beach, in Normandy, on the north coast of France. As we pulled into the parking lot, it began to rain. It then continued raining every day for the next week... Perhaps somewhat appropriate seeing as our next stop was the Somme? For now, we were here to see the site of World War II's D-Day landings.

On the evening of June 4, 1944, it was time. Time to embark on arguably the greatest Allied moment of World War Two (other than the end of the war, of course). This was a plan that had been conceived over a year before; a plan to launch a surprise attack on the coast of France and regain a valuable foothold in Europe. Months of planning had seen the development of specially designed amphibious craft that would sail close to shore, open a door in the bow and put down a long ramp over which tanks or other military vehicles could disembark and roll down onto the beach. There were also versions that had an opening bow door through which troops could exit and wade to shore. These were a breakthrough development that greatly assisted wartime amphibious assaults. See the exciting pictures, below:

Troops disembarking at Omaha Beach
Photo from the Naval History and Heritage website (
Landing Craft, Tank, 1942
From the Wikipedia article by the same name
The plan was for an airborne assault, followed by a naval bombardment of German coastal fortifications, and finally the landing of over 132,000 troops. In conjunction with this, members of the French resistance would carry out campaigns to sabotage rail, electric and telephone systems, as well as attempts to delay German reinforcements from reaching the Normandy region. Late that evening, thousands of troops set off in their boats, heading for the shores of Normandy in northern France. Unfortunately, strong winds and high seas meant that the operation was postponed and troops were sent back to shelter in bays around the coast of Britain.

The next evening, the window of opportunity again opened. The weather was still less-than-perfect, but it was now or never. Just after midnight on June 6, 1944, Operation Neptune, or 'D-Day', was launched. Under a full moon, over 23,000 Allied troops launched an airborne assault on Normandy, the Royal Navy began a bombardment of German defences around the Normandy coastline, and at dawn that morning 132,000 troops followed in an amphibious assault. The Germans were somewhat taken by surprise and the Allies managed to gain a foothold on French shores, something they had not possessed in over four years. The battle was hard-fought and casualties were high. Two difficult months later, Normandy was won, Paris liberated, and the Germans had been pushed back across the Seine river. It was a resounding success for the Allies. And we were here to see the ground on which the landings had taken place.

Omaha Beach is an 8km long stretch of coastline on the northern coast of France. It was one of five beaches landed on by Allied forces on D-Day, the others being Utah, Juno, Sword, and Gold. Predominantly American, British, and Canadian troops took part in the assaults, and today the American landing beaches, Omaha and Utah, are a site of pilgrimage for American war tourists.

Map of the Normandy Landings and Battles, June 1944.
The Memorial at Bayeux
Looking across the sculpture (which represents chaos) towards Britain
Because of the rain and our tight schedule, we did not stop long. Our next stop was the Bayeux War Museum, which has a fantastic reputation. Unfortunately, we were already behind by half a day and so we paid our respects at the war cemetery then headed for the département de Seine-Maritime.

In front of the Bayeux Museum

Our final stop was the village of Saint-Maclou-la-Brière. It was here, on August 19, 1944, that New Zealand pilot, James Stellin was killed in action. Stellin was part of RAF squadron 609, flying over Normandy and supporting the D-Day action by targeting German tanks, radar stations, and means of transport. On August 18, Stellin's squadron destroyed a number of German tanks and vehicles, and on the morning of the 19th they did the same. While returning to base, Stellin asked for permission to attack a vehicle, but later radioed to ask for directions and report that he was short of fuel. At 10am, a teacher in the small village of Saint-Maclou-la-Brière saw Stellin's plane in difficulty, rapidly falling towards the village. According to the report, Stellin fought to direct his plane away from the village and it crash-landed in a nearby field. Sadly, the 22 year old pilot was unable to open his parachute and was killed. The villagers held a funeral for Stellin, and more than 1200 people are said to have attended. Stellin's name is now inscribed on the town cenotaph, alongside the village war-dead; his CWGC grave lies within the local cemetery; the square has been re-named 'Place Stellin'; and a marble memorial has been erected in the square. Pilot Officer James Stellin was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme for his bravery. It is an heroic story, and we felt privileged to visit the grave of this brave Kiwi man. 

Me in Place Stellin, beside the memorial. Just over my shoulder is James Stellin's grave. 
The town of Saint-Maclou-la-Briere, looking towards the Place and church
Stellin's Commonwealth War Graves Commission grave

We wanted to stay the night in Saint-Maclou, but alas there was not a site for camping-car, so we travelled to a nearby town, found a parking lot ('free camping' is legal in France if you are self-contained) and ravished some dinner. Then we went to sleep in France, beneath a viaduct. Bliss for the francophile, and for the engineer!!

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