This morning we were greeted with a ground mist but blue skies and sunshine beyond; a great day in the offing for our last day on the Normandy battleground.
After breakfast and the usual morning routine we collected our packed lunches, an unexpected bonus. Today is our last day with Lee our drive because he is doing a baton change with Philippe later today ahead of our journey to Paris tomorrow.
We headed west towards the small town of St Mere Eglise, on the Cherbourg Peninsula and not far from Utah Beach. 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, and home to the Airborne Museum which is another very well presented and themed museum. It is on the main town square and covers the US preliminary 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" 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 must have had the factories in the USA going flat out with everyone employed in the war effort. Chris Verco made the observation that there were no cars manufactured in the USA in 1924 - they were too busy making materiel for the US War Machine. The arsenal of democracy indeed.
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. 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.
Then it was on to the bomb-scarred gun emplacement and bunker complex of Pointe du Hoc. A fabulous view and the threat it posed to Utah Beach in particular was self-evident. So was the difficulty faced by the 2nd Ranger Battalion in trying to neutralise it. The devastation wrought by Allied bombing is still very apparent 73 years on. Although the defenders put up stiff resistance and exacted a heavy toll on the attackers, the position like so many others fell by the end of the 8th June. Its guns never posed a threat because they had been removed in order to avert the Allied air threat, the effect of which was very evident in craters and smashed block-houses.
We then drove along the Esplanade along Omaha Beach. It was the first opportunity we had to walk on to a landing beach - the tide had been too full at Arromanches the previous day and the seafront was not as accessible at Sword and Juno beaches. Omaha is a beautiful stretch of sand, but a dune frontage looms above it which would have provided defenders numerous and very effective sites for machine guns to enfilade the beach. The obstacles posed by the sea wall were also obvious but these days it is paved with a slope that would allow a tracked vehicle to scale it, unlike on the 6th June 1944.
From there we visited Coleville and the impressive US War Cemetery. We allowed 60 minutes for this visit but we could have doubled it easily to do it justice. We also passed up the Omaha Beach museum on the basis of time but it boasted an impressive collection of Allied armoured vehicles.
As our group had developed an unhealthy obsession with bunkers we had decided that we needed to see perhaps the most emblematic location of them all; the Longues sur Mer battery of heavy 155 naval guns of which four are still in their casemates, the only site where this is the case. The Germans certainly poured a lot of concrete in other countries during WW2 – these bunkers were clearly meant to last and exhibited surprisingly little damage considering what had been directed at them
Although one of the gun positions had been destroyed by a direct hit by what would appear to have been an aerial bomb, there was little evidence of the cratering that so defined Pointe du Hoc. On the Day of the landing, these guns were fully occupied in a shoot-out with battleships and cruisers, the fire from which eventually neutralised this battery.
This was our last visit for the day and our odyssey from the Western Front through to Normandy. Tour members contrasted the how nature of war had changed due to a raft of influences that had taken place in just 26 years since the end of WW1. Most thought another day would be warranted in this fascinating region, particularly given the town of Bayeux had so many attractions as a base.
So much so that most of us opted to return to the scene (almost) of our crimes of the previous evening as once again we headed for the bright lights and an excellent ‘Last Supper’, for tomorrow we will travel to Paris and go our separate ways.