Chez WW in England

Chez WW in England

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Bayeux & D-Day Beaches, France

29 August 2011

After our day of exploring the beautiful Versailles we drove north west. The battlefield tour portion of our France trip had begun. In my research I discovered that the town of Bayeux was very close to the D-Day landing beaches. We stayed at a hotel just off of the motorway, on the way to Bayeaux. All I knew about Bayeux was that it was home to the Bayeux tapestery and had a beautiful cathedral. We checked into our hotel and as the sun set we headed out to explore Bayeux. I love exploring places at night. There is something magical about a town at night. The sparkling lights. The atmosphere. The quiet. Bayeux was full of surprises – a picturesque river with quaint water wheels and cobble stone streets lit with beautiful purple lanterns.

As lovely as Bayeux was, our stomachs were growling with hunger (it was 9 at night, after all). Our late supper was had at the restaurant next to our hotel. We arrived back at the hotel and were met with closed gates. It took a moment before I realised that our room card would open the gate. Again, I discovered that once again, if you are willing to look you can find wonderful places to stay on the cheap. We stayed at the Etap hotel just outside of Bayeux. We were able to stay there for around 25 Euros each. The rooms were small compared to North Americian standards but it was new and clean.

The next morning, we went into Bayeux for breakfast. Croissants and omelettes. The French have perfected these. We walked around Bayeux and were entranced by the beauty. Bayeux is home to the Bayeux tapestry, a beautiful 70 yard long cartoon. It shows William the Conqueror’s rise and victory in England. The tapestry is almost a thousand years old and the wool is still quite vivid. No photos are allowed. The tapestry originally hung in the nave of the Bayeux Cathedral. The Bayeux Cathedral is stunning and awe-inspring. Notre Dame Cathedral is as large as its name sake in Paris – in this small French town. The cathedrals in France are full of windows and the inside fills with light – the most incredible light. A recently discovered crypt can be explored. Bayeux was the first French  town to be liberated by the Allies after the D-Day invasion. The coast of France was bombarded before the invasion. Bayeux was spared this bombing. A chaplain at the Bayeux convent ensured that London knew that Bayeux was not a German headquarters and was of no importance. The scheduled bombing raid was cancelled and Bayeux was spared. I could not help but think of that man and thank him. Bayeux still thanks all of those brave men and women who fought for their freedom. Flags from all over the world are everywhere. Flags that are in perfect condition, not a rip to be seen. It was incredible and taught me so much about respect, honour and remembering.

It was now time to head to Juno Beach. Juno Beach is where the Canadians landed on D-Day. The tour guides are Canadian university students. Courseulles-sur-Mer is the small beach resort town just behind Juno Beach. It is a very touristy area – very touristy. The areas around the American landing beach is less touristy and you can get a better picture of what that day was actually like. We did not have time to visit Omaha And Utah Beach, but it is on my to visit list

The Allies were planning an invasion for the liberation of Europe. A high-half tide for the ships to land at dawn combined with a full moon for the airborne troops were needed to make the assault a success. The 5th of june was picked with the 6 and 7 of June as back-up dates. On the morning of 6 June 1944, Operation Overlord took place. American. Canadian and British troops landed on the coast of Normandy, France and had the mission of pushing back and defeating the German troops. The fight for the liberation of Europe began even before the men hit the beaches. The Canadian 3rd infantry division landed at Juno beach and faced a bloody battle. The beaches were defended by machine guns and cannons. Mines filled the area. Tetrahedrons littered the water. These massive concrete triangles made it impossible for any boats to get close to the shore during low tide. If the tide was high these dangers were hidden and could rip the bottom of a boat. During low tide, they provide little cover to any soldiers coming ashore.

After the failed attempt at Dieppe in 1942, the Germans knew that the Allies would try again. They had over a year to prepare. The pillboxes that protected the weapons have since sunk into the sand along with the bunkers. Standing on the beaches, seeing how open the landing area was, it is a miracle that anyone survived the landing. The courage, determination and fear that would have been felt by those brave men can almost be felt on the beaches. Courage is being afraid and doing it anyway. As their comrades fell those men did their job despite their fear.

After exploring Juno Beach, we visited the Canadian cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer. The cemetery is beautiful,  peaceful and understated. This was the first war cemetery on our tour. So many young men who gave their lives…for us. “Thank You” does not really seem adequate. The graves all have beautiful flowers and plants growing on them.

Our next stop was the German cemetery at La Cambe. The Germans were the enemy but they were also young men. Young men who had families. Young men who were doing their job. The cemetery was haunting. It is the resting place for 21,000 German soldiers. I will never forget all of those black crosses. The death toll of war is just a number, a number that is hard to picture. Have we ever saw 21,00 of anything ( and known what we were seeing)? Numbers become real in the cemeteries. The cemeteries show us the numbers in a way that we can understand. Actually no. It is still so hard to understand. It is hard to leave these battlefield cemeteries, no matter the country, and not be broken-hearted.

We were running out of time. There was still a 4 hour drive to Arras. The British and American areas would have to wait until we visited the area again. We were disappointed. My pop was a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. He landed on the shores of France the day after D-Day. It was always a disappoint that he was not there for D-Day. We thought that he would have landed on either Sword or Gold Beaches, the beaches used by the British. Since posting this a dear friend read this and did some research. With goosebumps, she told me that pop would have landed at Courseulles. I read this with tears in my eyes. We had walked on the same beach that my pop had landed on. I really have to get my pop’s and great-grandfather’s war records so I can do a proper battle field tour re-tracing their steps.

We arrived at Arras after dark. The town was boarded up and looked deserted at first. Metal shutters covered windows and doors. We eventually found our hotel (another wonderful cheap find). After the bags had been taken in it was time for supper. The theme for this trip seemed to be having supper late…really late…just before bed late. We drove into the parking lot after we had found food and I saw something on the pavement. I got out of the car to check after Andrew informed me that it was my shoe. It was my shoe and my sock. They had fallen out of the car while I was bringing in the bags. We all laughed until our sides hurt. After a day of sorrow and the horrors of war, it was nice to laugh, nice to embrace life and create memories. Just as the poppies grow on a bloody battlefield, laughter grows out of the sombre moments and can heal a broken heart. After take-out from the chip shop it was time for bed. Another full day awaited us tomorrow. As I drifted off to sleep, I whispered “Thank you.” We must never forget, we must always remember.

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