Wix website editor's bot just prompted me to write a 'catchy' title for this blog. But I haven't. This is purely because I think that the destination for my latest (and dare I say it, amazing) trip away, needs no frilliness or flippancy. There were funny moments along the way naturally, but there's no need for a pun in this title!
Jack and I managed a three day trip around the battle sites of Normandy in 2019, and we stayed under canvas. This time, a whole four years later we ventured across the water again, from Poole to Cherbourg. We timed it for the 79th anniversary of the D-Day landings and Jack's birthday, and I'm SO glad that we did. What an atmosphere, what sites we saw and places we visited... And, this time, we weren't squashed into a two man tent battling the thunder storms, no, for we had plumped for the most fabulous and quintessentially French and very old, Manoir l'Hermerel, in Gefosse Fontenay.
We were closer this time to Pointe du Hoc, nearer the marshy inlet of Insigny-sur-Mer (yes, THE dairy producers!), and only half an hour drive from Omaha beach and Coleville-sur-Mer, the cemetery and the masses of Operation Overlord museums and suchlike.
On the drive down the N13 from Cherbourg after our relaxing 5 hour crossing from Poole, (disturbing the chap who stole our booked seats and looked mightily displeased as we displaced him back where he belonged, opposite his grumpy wife who kept staring at my legs) we stopped off at the famous little town of St.Mere-Eglise. This is something I've always wanted to do.
My Grandad passed through here after the first wave of D-Day had gotten underway. He wasn't on the fighting frontline himself, although carried a weapon and saw the carnage first hand. He was in the Royal Corps of Signals, and it was in this town that he was befriended by a family and gifted an antique violin - and it was antique then Grandad was a talented musician and played for them, so they gave the instrument to him as a thank you. I was in turn, given this violin in my early teens when I was having lessons and was actually not too bad. The quality of the violin is stunning, and even though I no longer play, I will treasure it always. It's a Magini replica.
St Mere-Eglise is famous as the 'drop point' for the unfortunate and yet ultimately very lucky paratrooper, John Steele of the 82nd division. Steele dropped like all the hundreds of other paras, but landed on the steeple of the church in St Mere-Eglise. He played dead in order not to be shot by the Germans occupying the area, was then captured, but finally managed to escape and re-join his regiment. A replica parachutist dangles from the spire each year, and this year was no different. Just imagine.
It was incredibly emotional and exciting being in that little town - it was jam packed with serving Americans who had come over for the anniversary, and hundreds of re-enactment folks dressed as accurately as their budgets allowed, milling around the marquee(s) and shops selling memorabilia and genuine artefacts found and kept from the invasion. If you want a German helmet, it would set you back around 90 Euros. As we journeyed around, it became obvious that the prices varied drastically, obviously cranked up for the visiting American devotees who would jump on anything, particularly if it was anything to do with the famous 101st division, the Screaming Eagles, featured in the Band of Brothers series.
We returned to St Mere-Eglise many times over the 8 days of our stay, taking part in the massive festival of victory, sampling copious saucisse in baguette, cooked on BBQs pluming delicious smelling smoke, and washed down with an ice cold French beer. There was old-style blues music playing, and to be honest, we could have been in the 40s or in New Orleans. It was fabulous. Everywhere (and I mean EVERYWHERE) period vehicles buzzed about taking up pretty much all of the lanes and motorways, but how wonderful to see. And to hear! And indeed, smell.
And so to our very own 'Manoir', itself an incredible place seeped in history that goes all the way back to the 5th century when it was a castle, but was then destroyed. The ruins were then turned into a manor house in 1676. During the war, the Germans took it over and stashed firearms in the dovecote - now a gorgeous shop that sells Simon's apple juice, cidre, and Calvados. All come highly recommended! I recorded on the very old staircase leading to our attic apartment, and in the tiny stone chapel attached to the side of the house.
So, where did we go, and where else did I record? I managed to record for just over 40 minutes in total, which wasn't easy as obviously being the time of year, Normandy was very very busy - but when I found myself alone and in silence, out was whipped the recorder. I recorded at the following places:
The Maisy Battery: 13 EVPs
The Azeville Battery: 2 EVPs
The Merville Battery: (no EVPs)
Pointe du Hoc: 1 EVP
The Manoir: 4 EVPs
Gue de Moissy: (No EVPs)
Utah Beach: (No EVPs)
Falaise Castle 1 EVP
We visited the remains of the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches, then Caen, and several times the very famous Carentan. The perfect spot for a bit of historic town beer supping in the sun. We favoured the Bar de la Gare, can't beat a bit of light day drinking whilst surrounded by a population dressed in period gear and rocking up in their side cars! And so to the town square, the walls of the buildings here still bear the pock marks of shell blasts. Here we stood for hours in expectation of a parade of veterans, which was very emotional and fabulous. We stood in the freezing shade, and most cunning people copped a space by the railings in the sun. Consequently I ended the three or so hours feeling numb and like an ice-lolly with hair. There was live singing by a local band (the singer was out of tune but great fun, then an opera singer came and sang the French and American national anthems, and we all got goosebumps). We also had another saucisse baguette, which was nothing short of divine.
Seeing the veterans was very special, and knowing that more than likely, next year's event will have few of them in attendance made the whole thing a choking yet unique experience.
We drove to the Falaise pocket, site of such devastating carnage, that to be walking the glorious footpaths surrounded by countryside so perfect and vast, that to know what happened there, was almost unbelievable. After we'd walked a circular stomp of around five miles around the epicentre of where the action happened, we drove up to the Mont Ormel monument, high on a ridge overlooking the killing fields and lanes. This area is known as le Courdoir de la Mort, the corridor of death. Here were stationed our own troops, working alongside the American, Canadian, and Polish army. Together we funnelled the retreating Germans into a bottleneck, and, hemmed in by hedges and waterways, their tanks, horses, carts and vehicles became jammed, quite literally, and could not move. They were sitting ducks. Anything that moved was blasted to pieces in a savage, yet ultimately victorious assault.
For me, the most chilling place that we found, was the Falaise pocket on that sunny afternoon. Google video and photos of the archive footage if you're not already familiar with the battle, and you'll see why. We had the entire route to ourselves on a roasting Wednesday afternoon, which was perfectly fitting, and gave time and quietness for reflection.
Closer to our digs and besieged by battering and slightly chilly winds, was the newly uncovered Maisy battery in Grandcamp Maisy. English owner Gary Sterne, quite literally stumbled upon the covered-up intact bunkers and gun placements, and as the land was for sale, snapped it up. What followed was a labour of love, section by section digging out the lost buildings, weapons of destruction, and other more grisly things. Eventually the Maisy battery was opened to the public. It's still in a wonderfully raw state and there is far more still to unearth, and that's part of its draw. Like Shepton Mallet Prison, there's no frills here. It's just in your face and roughly ready, allowing visitors to feel the place - that's so important.
We attended a little ceremony on the anniversary of the liberation of the battery on the 9th of June, which was very special.
I recorded in Maisy on the two occasions that we visited, and it was there that my bounty increased significantly. If you find yourself in the area, you must must must visit! The girls on the desk in the reception hut are fabulous, friendly and helpful. And they are from the UK too which made communications something of a relief (trust me, when you've been learning Greek but used to know GCSE French, many times I'd mix up my Sil vous plaits with my Parakalos. Awkward. The lady with the bobbed light brown hair was Lorna, and her cohort we nicknamed Olivia, after her lookalike, actress Olivia Coleman.
Another battery that we visited that yielded captures, was the substantial and ominous (mainly secretively subterranean) Azeville battery. The bunkers there are absolutely enormous and of an entirely different calibre to those at Maisy. These casemates are monsters. The tunnel system is massive and impressively daunting, only spoiled by the slow blundering of other visitors plugged into their audio tour. However, ditch the crowd and head to empty bunkers and explore. One particular bunker had been blasted by a huge shell from the USS Nevada, and the shockwave had killed the 15 men inside. The shell case is still in situ today. It was in this very casemate that my two Azeville captures came through, one in German, the other seems to be in English - but I'll let you listen and decide for yourself! 2023's Normandy captures are at the foot of this page.
I tried to record at Pointe de Hoc, for it was there in the furthest bunker that I achieved my clearest Normandy recording of the last trip in 2019, a gent' saying, "Allumer...", turn on the light. However, I'm guessing due to the ill-behaviour of the general public, the vast majority of bunkers are now closed off, nay, fenced off. The beauty of this location, aside of course from its hugely important role in the Normandy story of WWII, was the fact that guests could roam wherever they so desired, and I had done. But certainly not this time. Although entry to the open clifftop site of battle and subterfuge is free, once you've walked with everyone else all squished together over the stony track, that's more or less it. There's very little access to any of the bunkers, and the few that are open are so filled with other people that you just can't get a feel of the atmosphere, let alone move. So, sadly our visit this time (and for the last time ever I think) was stretched out to around half an hour, whereas before we were there for hours and hours exploring.
Pegasus Bridge and Merville Battery were heaving, and so recording would have been futile, so these were 'normal' visits only. We did Gold, Omaha, Sword and Utah beaches, Juno we did on our last trip over. Omaha obviously gets the majority of the coverage (poor old Sword is relegated to faint bywords) and it was there, being just a short drive from Gefosse Fontenay, that we headed no less than three times. The first just to 'touch base' and to see it in its vast emptiness before the throngs would probably descend on the 6th. We had an extortionate coffee in a side road Creperie, then continued, wind battered onward. The second time we had a sun-soaked stomp the length of the beach, up into the hills behind Omaha, and off onto the bunker-clad peninsula at the far end, that culminates in farm land. Here we picnicked, explored many bunkers, and marvelled at the glory of the 4 mile beach laid out and away before and below us. This came after an unfortunate event involving 4 low flying C47s and a group of pony trekkers. I managed to get my hands-on horse fix alright. On the anniversary iteself, we made sure that we were on the beach for 6.30am, when landings were given the go-ahead. It was virtually empty aside from a few people trotting their horses (it's a big sport in France) and some quiet ceremonies, and Jack and I walked half way to the spiky monument, and back through the nature reserve that lies behind the beach. What a surreal experience.
So, as well as a host of excellent museums, 1940s celebratory events, the cemeteries, country walks, fabulous (and one not so fabulous) meals and beach strolls, I think it's fair to say that Jack and I truly 'did' Normandy right. We're already planning to return for the 80th anniversary. Obviously 'ghosting' had to take a back seat, but I knew where and when to take my chances, and it paid off. I don't speak German, but I believe that several of the captures are German, a few English, and perhaps French. As I've already said, I'll let you listen and decide for yourself.
With headphones of course.