We woke to a leaden sky and light rain. I guess our luck had to change sooner or later, but why did it have to be when we were staying at a beach?
Our Hotel, the Gold Beach at Asnelles just to the east of Arromanches, is in the middle of a holiday spot with many of the houses shuttered up until their owners turn up. There is a beautiful mini chateau around the corner that appears to be the hub of a holiday camp setup. It also clearly escaped the mayhem of June 1944.
After a half-past-dark breakfast at 0700 (early, in order to allow a coachload of German school kids to clear the premises) which, because of French daylight saving is pitch black.
Briefing was easy – I just used the graphic mural on the wall in the vestibule.
With our packed lunches on board thanks to the very energetic night manager who is a veritable human dynamo, we headed for the eastern sector of the Normandy 'Operation Neptune / Overlord' Beaches.
More road works and restrictions necessitated another circuitous approach to our first stop. The legendary Pegasus Bridge, site of a critical preliminary operation called 'Deadstick'. It was intended to secure the bridges over the Caen Canal at Benouville and the River Orne at Ranville (which are adjacent to one another).
Orders were simple: "Capture the bridge intact and hold until relieved"
Concept of Operations? 180 men in six cylinders made of plywood, resembling tubular furniture vans (made by furniture companies as it happened) with wings, no engines and rudimentary landing gear. Release them over the target, at night with the enemy below.
Motto; "What could possibly go wrong" or perhaps "Any questions?" As it happened not much went wrong. Two men killed about 14 wounded and it was all over in minutes. The silent airborne Trojan Horses worked a treat.
How the Brits managed to put three gliders within 150m (the closes 50m short) of the objective just beggars belief. The LZ has a swamp on one side and the Caen Canal on another, the distance barely wider than the 88' wingspan of the three Horsa gliders that landed there. No wonder that Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Tedder described it as "the greatest feat of flying of the war".
Together with a number of other outdoor exhibits including the original battle scarred bridge (now replaced by a bigger newer one) a full scale Horsa glider replica, armoured vehicles and artillery, the museum is excellent, the displays well curated and the audio-visual explanation of the operation and illuminated terrain model were peerless.
We then moved just a few kms on the other side of the Orne River to the Merville Battery, via an admin stop at Ranville because as pharmacy was sighted and drugs were required.
Merville was the site of a gun battery protected by the classic Atlantic Wall concrete casemates. In the event they were only captured Skoda 100mm field guns and quite why the Germans were not able to mount heavier guns in such formidable protection was not apparent. Merville was another objective of the 6th Airborne Division, this one didn't go quite as well. Strong winds meant the paratroops were scattered all over the place and only a third of the force, no heavy weapons and insufficient explosives to destroy the guns, made it to the target. But they did neutralise it for long enough so that it did not affect the landings at Sword beach.
It is now the most complete Atlantic Wall complex I have seen and is very well curated by a local Trust. With its most prominent exhibit (the bunkers are lower to the ground!) a C47 Dakota that has provenance to rival 'G for George' the AWM Lancaster, Merville Battery is a relatively recent addition to the array of D-Day exhibits in Normandy.
Both of these sites consumed more time than our schedule provided for but everyone agreed it was time well spent.
We modified the program due to the advancing time. An administrative stop to facilitate some shopping was undertaken as the hotel is 'self-catering' format so tea and coffee in rooms was in short supply. Stocks of other beverages were also required.
By now steady light rain had set in. A further modification to the plan was applied. We had planned to visit Arromanches later in the afternoon to coincide with low tide but decided to bring it forward. The rain was a severe disincentive particularly as road restrictions prevented us getting the bus into the square. Some hardy souls ventured down for a look around - we will be back for a closer look on Monday. Ice creams, a wedding party and the remnants of the 'Mulberry' floating harbour that ring Arromanches will persist in the memories of the explorers on that expedition.
Shaking out raincoats and brollies we returned to the Gold Beach Hotel to have some 'me time' before dinner. Tomorrow it's the western flank.