Thursday, 29 October 2015

I was moved

Apologies for not having blogged for a good 9 months or so. I've been writing a book (hopefully to be published in 2016) and having a bit of a mid-life shake up (new role at Orion, taking up new non-exec roles elsewhere, kids leaving home and becoming empty-nesters; attempting to sell the house and downsize etc) which meant that blog thoughts kept being put to on side.

However, I had one of those weekends last week that I thought was worth sharing.

A bunch of old friends invited Jean and me to join them on a trip to the Normandy beaches. We are all of the age where, although we were too young to be involved in World War 2, our parents were, so seeing a bit of our history felt like a good thing to do.

A quick bit of background if you are unfamiliar with what was known as "Operation Overlord" - the Normandy beaches were where the Allies (UK, US etc) landed on French soil on June 6th 1944 to begin the land invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, in order to end World War 2. The landings were the largest military operation ever devised, and whilst successful, resulted in many, many thousands of allied casualties. The average age of those troops who died (many of whom are buried in the area) was around 21/22. The invasion and its immediate aftermath has been the subject of numerous films and TV series, given how dramatic it became, and how important its success was.

We travelled by Ferry from Portsmouth to Caen. A 6 hour crossing but very comfortable. There isn't really another easy way of getting to the Normandy beaches, but the crossing really wasn't a problem as long as you have something to entertain you on the trip (and I'd recommend booking some decent seats for the journey).

We stayed in Bayeux, about 40 minutes away from the ferry terminal in Caen, and it is a really pretty small French town with lovely restaurants. There are lots of other places you can stay of course, including some pretty reasonable stays in very nice big French Country Houses (you wouldn't really call them Chateaux in that part of the country I think).

On the Thursday afternoon when we arrived the first thing we did was visit the tapestry. Actually it's really good - a well thought out 20 minute guided viewing with audio accompaniment, followed by a 12 minute film. And of course it's the last time the French really got one over on us militarily on home soil so they are rightly proud of it, even if it was almost 1,000 years ago!

On Friday we hired a truly excellent tour guide, Sean Claxton, whose website you can find here, to take us round the major sites. I'd say a tour guide is a must - and not very expensive if you are going as a group. Sean really was knowledgable and certainly added to our enjoyment of the trip. 

We started with a look at some of the Major German fortifications on the Atlantic Sea Wall, and then moved on to Omaha Beach, which is now memorialised in the film "Saving Private Ryan". There aren't many places you can go on earth where you can be lost for words, but this is one of them.

We saw the hill-top spot where the Germans defended the beach, before descending to the beach itself to walk onto the sand. The description of the sea being crimson with the blood of the Allied troops who died there is something that will live on in my mind. From there we headed off to Pointe Du Hoc, where the US Rangers scaled the cliffs to destroy German defences. They are so steep I'm not sure how anyone could have scaled the cliffs, even without someone shooting at them! 

There are vivid memorials everywhere you go in Normandy. This one struck a chord with me.

On Friday and again on Saturday we visited many of the cemeteries - American, Canadian, British and even the German cemetery. All were sombre, but extremely well done, and were fitting resting places for our fallen troops, who laid down their lives so we could be free. The US cemetery has the most striking sculpture, entitled "The spirit of American youth, rising from the waves".

On Saturday we visited three of the other beaches (Gold, Juno and Sword) as well as visiting one of the tour highlights - taking the Pegasus Bridge, which was one of the key engagements on D-Day, and was so vividly re-created in the film "The Longest Day".

There are a number of excellent museums dotted about the countryside too. I'd recommend the one in Bayeux, The Pegasus museum, and the 360 degree cinema high on the ridge overlooking Arromanche. I did like the heading over the door of the Bayeux museum

We arrived back late on Sunday exhausted, but truly glad we made the trip. The French in Normandy are rightly proud of their country, and grateful they were chosen as the site for the allied invasion, and to this day reflect that with a warmth of welcome which was great to experience. 

Truly something to put on your bucket list. 

I'll leave you with an image from the British/Commonwealth museum in Bayeux.