This morning we were greeted with leaden skies and threatening rain. Plan A was effected - we headed for Utah beach the Westernmost of the landing beaches 75 years agao. The rain ceased to threaten and actually started falling, ever more heavily as we headed west.
Utah Beach was much less populated than the other beaches, but a lot of coaches were making their way there. We were first in the queue and entered the excellent, recently re-developed museum right on opening time. Once again an enormous range of equipment right down to the smallest items were well curated telling the story of the US and Free French landings at this westernmost landing point. Confronted by flooded lowlands, the mobility challenges were immense just as their paratroop precursors of the 82nd and 101st Airborne had found earlier that night.
There was a particular focus on the air dupport aspects of the operation and a centrepiece is a well presented B-26 Marauder (aka 'widowmaker') medium bomber. A beautiful looking aircraft well streamlined, its high landing and stall speed made it a handful for many pilots.
Augmented with first class then and now photographs the display also explained the role of Easy Company 506th Parachute Infantry Battalion in its attack and destruction of a battery of 155mm guns in the hinterland, made famous in the television series 'Band of Brothers'.
Then it was up the road to St Mer Eglise. 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", where Steele was portrayed by actor Red Buttons.
Another C47 Dakota, a WACO glider (rag and tube affair that you would have to be 'Wacko' to ride in), 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.
One of our objectives had been to commemorate Australian participation on D Day, mainly through air operations, and the fortunes of one man 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, Stanley Black, from Victoria, the bomb aimer and the pilot made it out of the aircraft. 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 Allied soldiers, 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 Battalion 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 make this gesture of remembrance in this place, to this man, with the ruins of the former church of a little French village that knows the meaning of freedom, and its cost.
From there it was off to Pointe du Hoc and a gun battery that could have played a telling role in the repulse of the assault; had it got into action. Made famous in "The Longest Day", Colonel Rudder's 2nd Ranger Battalion stormed the cliffs using rocket propelled grapnels ropes and ladders. When hey eventually captured the site, there were no guns. That had been secured off site to avoid the bombing. However the Ranges destroyed them in their hiding place using thermite grenades. A side note is that the RAAF's 463 Squadron was one of those tasked to bomb this site and the squadron's records indicate that the bomb pattern for the squadron was about the size of a city block right on target. The site looks like it too with massive blockhouses upended or shattered and bomb craters pockmarking the site to this day 75 years after the event.
In due course we headed home but as the sun broke through and with a patchy weather forecast we decided to get some photographs on Omaha Beach while the opportunity presented itself.
Dinner in our hotel concluded proceedings as we contemplate our last day 'sur les plages' (on the beaches) tomorrow.