Normandy Cruise – 2009

France’s World War II Battlefields in Normandy

 

November 7 – 15, 2009

 

Part I:  Memphis to Paris, Viking Ship Seine

Part 5: Conflans and Tour of Market

Part 2: D-Day Beaches on Normandy

Part 6: Paris and Visit to Napoleon’s Tomb

Part 3: Scenic Coastal Town of Honfleur

Part 7: Flights to Cincinnati and Memphis

Part 4: Rouen and Les Andelys

Link to travelogue about 2001 France cruise

 

 

-  Updated Jan. 2, 2010

 

About 35 trip photos mainly taken by Betty Nolan are posted at www.ritzpix.com in an album entitled “2009 – France” under member name of Lewis “Buzz” Nolan’s email address. Email lewis_nolan@yahoo.com for instructions on how to access. Note: captions were being added to photos in late 2009.

 

By LEWIS NOLAN

 

Nov. 9, 2009, Monday  In Normandy, France

 

We arose with the help of our travel alarm clock about 6:45 a.m. so we could take advantage of an early start on the all-day tour provided by our Viking ship of the Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches.

 

Betty and Lewis Nolan on Arromanches beach, Normandy near relic of Allied “Mulberry” Harbor 

 

 

 

Betty and I had visited much of the area with our teenage son, Casey, about 20 years ago and still felt the wonderfully preserved artifacts and history of the Allied landings against hostile gunfire tell a powerful story about our United States of America and its nobility when facing huge obstacles. We were resolved to make a very long day out of revisiting the beaches as reminders of what a great country we have as Americans.

 

We boarded one of four tour buses provided by Viking and were told we wouldn’t return to the ship until 6:30 p.m., feeling fairly confident that the visit to the Normandy beaches and American Cemetery and Memorial overlooking one of the hotly contested landing areas would probably be the highpoint of this trip. It was. While we greatly enjoyed seeing everything on the excursion, I would have preferred if an hour or two could have somehow been trimmed from the intense schedule.

 

Breakfast on the boat was early and light. Betty – never much of a breakfast fan - limited her meal to cereal with fruit. I went for my customary banana, a small serving of scrambled eggs plus two small pieces of delicious bacon, a slice of turkey and a small glass of tomato juice. Betty snagged a few slices of cheese to snack on later with Melba toast brought from home.

 

The tour bus drove us in reasonable comfort for about two hours from the Le Havre Port dock. Our tour guide was possibly the best group leader we’ve ever had on organized trips we’ve taken. His name was Jacques and we learned that he had been a young boy, age 4, living in nearby Caen when World War II broke out. He appeared to be about 70 years old and told us he had been in the tour business for 40 years, previously working as a lecturer in a law school.

 

His excellent English gave us overviews and details of the Allied efforts when Normandy was invaded. His presentations seemed to be perfectly fitted and timed to what we saw from the bus windows and short walks at assorted stops. His delivery was executed his intelligence and personal knowledge of things he witnessed. His experiences, fondness for Americans, scholarship and showmanship kept the 50 or so passengers on the bus entertained and better educated about one of the great contests of World War II.

 

We got his business card and plan to give it to our travel agent back in Memphis, Erin Bobbit de  Padilla of Gulliver’s Travel, who previously had put us in touch with another local guide of comparable excellence in Paris earlier in 2009.

 

Thankfully for this excursion to beachside battlefields of Normandy, the weather was generally favorable. Though November, the predicted high temperature was 57 degrees, with cloudy skies and only a 15 per cent chance of rain.

 

Our first stop was Arromanches, a touristy village overlooking what the Allies called “Gold Beach.” It was one of five beaches where the Allies landed on June 6, 1944 as a first step in taking back Europe from German control under the Nazi terror regime. Gold and Sword beaches were primary used for landings by British forces; Omaha and Utah beaches were used by Americans; and Juno by Canadians.

 

In all, 150,000 Allied troops supported by an enormous number of armored vehicles, trucks, Jeeps, weapons and supplies needed by fighting units were landed on the five beaches concentrated along 80 kilometers of the Normandy coastline. Remnants of an artificial harbor called a “Mulberry” ordered by England’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, survive just offshore. The surviving remnants of Mulberry Harbor – one of two towed across the English Channel during a storm that resulted in one sinking – is one of the great stories of the war.

 

Comprised of old merchant ships chained to huge concrete boxes, the Mulberry formed a breakwater plus three landing wharves – or floating causeways - that extended nearly a half-mile out from shore. The Phoenix caissons were towed across the English Channel then flooded to sink to the bottom. An ingenious innovation of the day allowed the “wharves” to float up and down on concrete pier heads 100-feet long that were anchored to the bottom. The joined structures and ships formed a causeway used to unload supplies, troops and vehicles like tanks, trucks and bulldozers. Overhead, 100 or more barrage balloons were floated at different altitudes to prevent Nazi airplanes from attacking. Adding to the Allied genius, artificial fog was created at night to hide the lights of the harbor that operated around-the-clock.

 

We were told that the gigantic concrete boxes – some bigger than the largest swimming pools and nearly 100 feet long - were secretly manufactured in England then temporarily sunk in the Thames River to keep them out of sight from prying Nazi eyes. The artificial, prefabricated harbor was the Allies’ answer to the ferocity of German defenses guarding working seaports in Europe. The ingenuity of the Allies in Normandy in duping the Germans regarding the invasion are wonderful tributes even today of American and English brilliance with spy craft and military strength under pressure.

 

The Mulberry that survived off Arromanches was nicknamed “Port Winston” and played a major role in the advance of Allied troops in Normandy. Experts of the day predicted it would not last a year due to the heavy storms in the English Channel that in fact delayed the Allied invasion by 24 hours. The unclear outcome helped force Allied Commanding General Eisenhower to privately write two versions of a “just-in-case” public letter – one announcing success and one announcing defeat.

 

Much of the steel in the surviving Mulberry was recovered and recycled in metal-hungry Europe following its decommissioning in 1944. But enough remains to give visitors a great view of the engineering and logistical miracle that is still way out from the wave-tossed shore at Arromanches Beach. 

 

Our tour group of as many as 146 Seine ship passengers plus crew and staff had an excellent, provided lunch at the town’s June 6 Restaurant, located a block or two from the beach. Its name like much else in the area celebrates the bloody defeat of the German occupying forces in France during the early 1940s. Guides called our attention to the American flag flying alongside the flag of France at the City Hall of nearby town of Collerville-sur-mer. We also noticed quite a few American flags flying over farmhouses in the area, which was a pleasure given the widespread coverage in the press of current, political differences between the governments of the U.S. and France.

 

Our guide, Jacques, told an endearing story about the enduring love and respect for Americans in Normandy, where many thousands of young American men lost their lives and limbs. He said he has never heard of an American motorist driving through the area being given a ticket for speeding or other offense. Rather, he said, all the stories he has been told locally and by visiting Americans are that any offending motorists are merely given a polite warning when stopped for speeding by local police, who remain grateful for the American sacrifices a generation or two ago.

 

In fact, Jacques related that one time he used his American language skills to pose as a tourist when stopped for speeding. The policeman bought his story and politely told him to drive more carefully in the future. In short, it was heartening to hear that in this isolated spot there are no “Ugly Americans.” Vive La France!

 

Our tour-provided lunch at the June 6 Restaurant was a set menu that included a salad fairly typical for France and unlike those served at home. We were each served a plate of two-or-three tablespoons of marinated cucumbers, a dab of cut lettuce, scoop of shredded turnips, sliced tomatoes with salad dressing and chopped, pickled beets that were grown locally. I thought the German-style cucumbers were pretty good, but passed on the rest of the “salad.” Betty and I both passed on big bowls of fresh, sliced French bread due to our low-carb diets. But we did enjoy the main dish of  thick slices of seasoned pork roast. Unlike others in our tour group, we also passed on very large servings of French fries and ate only a few of the served fresh, green beans. Betty enjoyed the included dessert of chocolate mousse served with hazelnuts. We both enjoyed minimal pours from carafes of complimentary red and white wines and glasses of ice water.

 

After lunch, we re-boarded the bus and were driven to the magnificent American Cemetery and Memorial at nearby Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

 

While we had been at the cemetery nearly two decades ago . I had found it to be an emotionally moving experience to take in the extent of the suffering by Americans and the grandness of the tribute to the fallen. On this visit, I was once again mightily impressed by the beauty and tastefulness of the final resting place of nearly 10,000 American soldiers who gave up their lives in the epochal fight to liberate France and drive into Nazi Germany.

 

Our tour didn’t give us enough time to again walk down the twisted path on a steep bluff from the cemetery overlook to the 200-yard-wide beach below (width subject to huge tides of as much as 25 feet between low and high peaks). During the long-ago invasion, witnesses said there was so much blood that it stained the ocean water red. In all, we were told, 10,000 American soldiers were killed during the assault on the beachheads and following actions in Normandy, plus another 20,000 British troops and 60,000 German troops.

 

There were nearly 2,000 American bodies that were never recovered. They evidently were either blown to pieces or washed out to sea by the waves and tides.

 

Land for the beautiful, coastal cemetery was donated in perpetuity at no charge by France. It is administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission of Arlington, VA., which operates and maintains 24 military cemeteries and 25 memorials, monuments and markers in 15 countries. The promise of the commission that “time will not dim the glory of their deeds” was made by its first chairman, General of the Armies John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.

 

Nearby cemeteries include one at Saint-James holding 4,410 American graves; one at Beny-sur Reviers holding 2,049 Canadian graves and a Cintheauz holding 2,958 Canadian graves; at Urville-LaGanaggerie holding 616 Polish graves; at Les Gateys French Necropolis holding 19 graves (the 70 other Free French bodies were claimed by families; at La Cambe holding 21,222 German graves, Huisnes-sur-Mer holding 11,956 German graves, at Orglandes, 11,169 graves, and St.-Desir-de-Liseaux, 3,735 graves; and 16 British cemeteries in the area holding a total of 19,187 graves, with the largest at Bayeaux, whose 4,648 graves are augmented with the names of 1,801 soldiers missing in action inscribed on a Memorial, with more than 4,000 of the graves holding soldiers from Commonwealth and other countries.

 

Battlefield brochures note that there were 49 sets of brothers buried in the American Cemetery. That brought to my mind seeing the sad World War II movie about several close brothers being killed on a U.S. Navy ship that resulted in a chance in military “surviving son” policy to disallow brothers and parent-children from serving in the same unit. I think a Navy destroyer ship was subsequently named “The O’Sullivans” to remember the national grief over the tragedy that wiped out a farm family’s young generation of males.

 

We did not visit the cemeteries for the fallen of the other nations with forces at the invasion of Normandy. But pictures indicate while they may not be on the scale of the American cemetery, those cemeteries too are beautiful and well maintained. My presumption is that they are also visited by relatives and citizens. But at least on this visit we did not witness the offensive behavior of a busload of German tourists that laughed and yukked it up when we paid our respects at the American Cemetery two decades ago.

 

Our guide, Jacques, told us that each of the 9.238 marble crosses and 149 Star of David tombstones were made of the finest, white Lasa marble and cost about $1,000 each (compared to an expected cost of $4,000 today). There were many more Jewish soldiers killed, but most of their bodies were shipped home at family request to be buried in cemeteries devoted to that faith.

 

The uniform, inscribed lettering is simple, giving name, rank, state of origin and military unit. A small letter “O” at the foot of the stone alongside a serial number indicates officer rank. The great preponderance of gravestones noting origin from Eastern states of the U.S., was due to custom of the time. Our guide said that most U.S. military personnel from the East fought in Europe; those from Western states were mainly used in the Pacific Theatre of World War II.

 

In less than one week, the Allied invading forces linked the different beachheads and pressed inland. Over the next three months, the Allies battled German troops throughout Normandy and liberated Caen, Cherbourg. St. Lo and other Nazi strongholds. The way was then open for the Allies to advance to Paris and then to Germany. (I couldn’t help being disgusted that it only took Americans and other free nation troops less than a year to force the surrender of Germany - comred to much longer fights in Vietnam and more recently Iraq.

 

In reading about Ike and his general officers’ leadership in World War II, I was struck at how they unfailingly demanded that troops and attack, with no leeway for R&R and not much downtime for wounds. It may be no accident that Napoleon’s brilliance a century and a half earlier grew out of his wartime philosophy of “Audace, Audace, Tujours Audace,”

                                      

Carefully trimmed trees, shrubs and roses in well-tended gardens highlight the beauty of the Normandy Cemetery. Beds of polyanthus roses (ironically the same antique variety planted in the Betty Nolan Rose Garden I endowed at the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis) trim the cemetery’s Garden of the Missing, where engraved tablets honor the 1,557 soldiers whose bodies were lost. An incredibly beautiful and solemn Memorial to the dead features stone columns surrounding a metal statue 22 feet high of “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.”

 

We re-boarded the bus and drove to the nearby Pointe du Hoc Monument, a granite obelisk that tops a German bunker 100 feet up on a cliff about eight miles to the west of the Cemetery. It honors soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion who bravely scaled the cliff on ropes to disable huge  German cannons that threatened Utah and Omaha Beaches.

 

Several concrete bunkers where German troops lived and fought remain, mainly broken into big slabs of reinforced concrete once hit by bombs and naval gunfire. Craters big enough to bury trucks surround the fighting areas. It’s not hard to imagine the sound and fury of gunfire and shouted orders from desperate men who died in this great struggle more than 60 years ago.

 

We and others dozed during the long bus ride back to the Viking tour boat. We were greeted with a cocktail reception, where I indulged in two bottles of low-alcohol, German beer. Each contained only 0.3 grams of alcohol carbohydrates, compared to my U.S. favorite of O’Douls by Budweister’s parent with 0.5 carbs. Interestingly, unlimited “alcohol-free” beer was provided by the ship at no charge in the soft drink packages we purchased. The packages also provided us with two logoed golf shirts plus a small collection of souvenir post cards.

 

At dinner we again joined two residents of Monroe Township, New Jersey whom we had met earlier. They are Paul Granett, (a retired IBEW union electrician who worked for decades on big jobs in New York City including wiring a portion of the Statue of Liberty) and his traveling companion, Gloria Solomon, who owns a small business serving industrial customers. We learned they both have grown children, embrace the Jewish religion and love travel. They proved to be delightful company. They were knowledgeable and forceful in conversation and we ate most subsequent meals with them.

 

Also at our table were a tourist from Egypt and his American wife, a career counselor at a public school, of Williamsburg, VA.

 

Betty and I enjoyed the served seafood bisque, broiled and seasoned prawns and thin slices of roast beef served in yet another delicious sauce nicoise. We also were served tiny bundles of undercooked green beans and French crepes with berry jam.

(Continue with Part 3 of Normandy Cruise  /  Return to Nolan Travels)