This morning we were greeted with leaden skies and driving rain; a great day in the offing for our second-to-last day on the Normandy battleground – not. Ca plan c'est normal: After breakfast and the usual morning routine we collected our packed lunches and headed off in driving rain and strong winds. What could possibly go wrong?
"A Plan is just a framework for change" is our battle-cry and thus it was today. Scrap Utah Beach, sadly. Instead we headed for St Mere Eglise, one of the 101st Airborne Divisions key objectives and these days, site of the excellent US Airborne Forces Museum, on the Cherbourg Peninsula.
It was the epicentre of the US Airborne landings on 6 June 1944. It is one handsome little town with a lovely open 'Place' or square. It is on the main town square and covers the US parachute and glider-borne insertions as a key preliminary phase of the 'Operation Neptune / Overlord' landings. This museum is right up there with the Pegasus Bridge display we had seen the previous day. A nice touch is the faux "Trooper Steele" hanging from the church steeple as occurred on the morning of 6 June, and in the movie "The Longest Day", portrayed by actor Red Buttons.
It boasts a C47 Dakota, a WACO glider a string of impressive exhibits and even a simulation of exiting a Dakota at night - well sort of. You don't have a parachute but you don't fall anywhere either. The noise is good and the eerie darkness of the back of a plane full of paratroops is pretty good. The sheer amount of equipment and the range of items in the extraordinary loads that they carried must have had the factories in the USA going flat out with everyone employed in the war effort. There were no cars manufactured in the USA in 1942 - they were too busy making materiel for the US War Machine. The arsenal of democracy indeed.
It also points to another characteristic of tactical thinking – the 'golfbag' mentality. Have something for every occasion. A whole lot of stuff is carried 'just in case'. Most if it is never used and just lugging it around robs the solder of mobility and agility.
What characterised the US airborne landings was chaos. Paratroops, particularly the 101st Airborne, were dropped all over the place other than on their designated drop zones due to strong winds, navigation challenges and the like. They had major difficulties in consolidating formed units and in achieving workable communications and were seriously hampered by areas of inundation flooded by the Germans. The fact that they were able to liberate St Mere Eglise on Day One was something of a minor miracle, underpinned by raw courage.
Meanwhile the wind blew and the rain kept coming. On our way back, despite the inclement weather, we had a task to complete. One of our objectives had been to commemorate FSGT Stanley Black RAAF. To do this we needed to get to the village of Graignes (pronounced Grenay) about 12km SE of Carentan.
On 8 June 1944 a Lancaster of 106 Sqn RAF was shot down behind the beachhead. Only two men parachuted to safety. Stanley Black, from Victoria, was one of them. They landed miles apart but both were taken in by French civilians. The penalty for such behaviour under Nazi occupation was extreme. While he could have been spirited away by the French underground, as his colleague was, rather than put his rescuers in mortal danger, Stanley Black asked to be taken to the nearest Allied Unit. That unit, or rather elements of it, was the US 507th Parachute Infantry Battalion, dropped miles off their objective. They were digging in around the elevated village of Graignes. Heading their way was the 17th Waffen SS Panzergrenadier Division.
The paratroopers, outnumbered and outgunned, held them off for two days but the result was inevitable. The consequences were unthinkable. When they over-ran Graignes, the Waffen SS executed all of the American PoW and dozens of French civilians, including the curate of the Church, in retaliation for assisting their would-be liberators. Stanley Black is believed to have died in the fighting prior to the capture of the village by the Germans. The French villagers remembered this one Australian who fell from the sky and did not have to do what he did. And we should remember him too. So we conducted a simple ceremony of Remembrance for Stanley Black, and all of the other aircrew who flew over this battlefield.
When the US Army erected a memorial to the 507th Para Bn soldiers, local villagers requested that FSGT Stanley Black's name not be forgotten and that it be included; and so it was once the story broke. Even his family in Australia through that he had died in the wreck of his plane. His remains now lie in the British cemetery at Bayeux.
The village memorial is set inside the ruin of the original church of Graignes. It is a place of spectacular solemnity in the ruins of a building which saw so much sacrifice in the summer of 1944, in the name of liberty. The baseness of the atrocity perpetrated against them is now calmed in the shadow of the former church. We were all pleased to have been able to have made this gesture of remembrance in this place, to this man, with the ruins of the church providing some shelter from the rain that blew across a little French village that knows the meaning of freedom, and the cost it entails.
We then headed further east to Bayeux, where the opportunity was afforded to take in one of the most amazing sights of the region, a memento of another war a millennium ago. The Bayeux tapestry.
The rain was unrelenting. In due course we headed home with further amendments of our plan pending, as the inclement weather began to blow itself out. Adventurous souls were rewarded with the sight of the easternmost end of the remnants of the Mulberry floating dock exposed at low tide on the beach beyond the end of the street from out hotel. Silent brooding blockhouses add to the permanent reminders in this area of the great struggle that took place here 74 years ago.
Dinner in hotel concluded with the human dynamo and maitre d' of the restaurant, Marko, and Chef Salla joining us for a group photo.