Originally published 24 March 2012
I am sitting in a French farmhouse, built probably in the 1400's-1600's, in our palace of a room in a B and B in Manvieux, France. Today, after 40 years of study, documentaries, reading maps, and reading well over 100 books on the subject (possibly more than 200 but I don't count anymore).......I sat foot on the D Day beaches in Arromanches. I couldn't believe I was really there. How did someone from back in the hills of Virginia come so far?
We started our day in Paris, vacating our hotel room of 3 days. We walked to the metro and bought tickets to Charles De Gaulle airport, where we are picking up our rental car. I am a race car driver, a racing driving instructor, drive a 55 foot combined motor home and race car trailer through large cities during rush hour..........and there is no way in hell I'm driving in Paris. Those people are nuts.
We took the train to the airport, and with a few transfers wound up where we were supposed to be. When we picked our car up, I was pleased to get a BMW this time, even if we're not in autobahn territory. We headed out towards Normandy.
We arrived at our bed and breakfast, which is in a small French village.....meaning a group of maybe 20 houses and a church. It is in an old stone house, and everything one would expect a small French village to be. The room truly is a palace. We have a sitting room, bedroom, and a full bath. I'd guess maybe 7-800 sf. It has the old beam ceilings and the walls are 1 1/2 feet thick and made of rocks! Our hostess and her family live downstairs. They have something like 5 or 6 rooms....and the place is just wonderful. It's like some novel with it's courtyard and stone walls surrounding the house and yard.
Sitting room and bath in our palatial BNB
We dropped our packs, settled in, and headed towards Arromanches...........for no other reason than it was close and we were hungry. When we arrived, I wanted to walk down on the beach before we did anything else. It struck me as to where I was, and I wanted to get there and actually experience it.
I walked down to the beach, hesitating before actually stepping onto the sand............intensely aware of where I was. One must remember that the last of the Hall family to visit this area of France (my grandfather and my great uncle) did so while being shot at.
Neither my grandfather or my Uncle Olin spoke much about the war. We've only been able to put together bits and pieces of where they were. My grandfather was a battlefield medic, and landed somewhere in France...although I remember a picture of him sitting on a railroad track with another guy, and my grandfather was cradling a bazooka, and the photo was labeled "France, 1944".........not standard duty for a medic.
Surf line to town......a damn long way, especially under fire.
My grandfather may have been a medic at some point and a foot soldier at another.....we're not really clear on that. My uncle was a foot soldier, landed somewhere around here, and wound up getting cut off from his unit in fighting. He wandered the French countryside for 3 weeks before hooking back up with US forces. For a country boy raised on a farm in Bland County, Virginia, wandering the countryside, living off the land, and sleeping in barns was basically like being home. They both made it home to raise families and have lives after the war.
We walked the beach. It was low tide, and I tried to grasp the magnitude of where I was. I looked across a beach that was incredibly flat, and wide open. When the landings occurred, the beach was covered with hedgehogs, Belgian gates, those fence posts with Teller mines on the top of them.....all kinds of obstacles. Those are gone now....but seeing how far from the low tide mark to the shingle (the first place of real cover for the troops that landed), I am amazed that anyone survived.
The "shingle" at Arromanches
It's around 1000 feet (1/5 of a mile) from where you got out of your Higgins boat or landing craft to the shingle. You had to run across this vast open expanse.....while being shot at by MG 42's and German soldiers with shoulder arms. You were also being shelled. And mortared. And having grenades thrown at you. Anyone who made it through that, and those who didn't make it for that matter, have balls the size of watermelons.
Arromanches borders Gold Beach. Gold was one of the British beaches. Fighting there was less intense that the American beaches. Gold had losses of around 400-450 killed (I'm doing this from memory so if I get some of the numbers wrong, please forgive me) on D Day. Omaha, an American beach saw, if I recall correctly, around 4000 dead on D Day.
The opening in the cliffs at Arromanches made the perfect place to bring ashore supplies, vehicles, and troops. From June of 1944 to November of 1944, most everything used came ashore there. They built the Mulberry harbors in England, floated them to France, assembled them..............a huge Engineering feat, and a structure, when assembled, the size of the town I went to High School in.
Apparently I have to rent in France to get a German car...
We took a break from the foggy chill to have dinner. Season hasn't really started here yet. We were the only ones in the restaurant until a group of 8 history buffs from the UK isle of Gurnsey came in for dinner. One of them taught a continuing education class on D Day, and the rest were his students....they were there for a field trip! They ranged in age from their 20's to 70's. It proved to my wife that I am not a freak and other people actually read and study about this just like I do!
Dinner was wonderful as usual. I don't think there is a single bad restaurant in this entire country! It was getting dark, so we wandered into Bayeux to find a cash machine, then headed back to our B and B to call it a night. Tomorrow, we will either go to St. Mere Eglise (101st Airborne territory) or to Omaha, Utah, and Point du Hoc.
I'm Bill. My wife Laurie and I love to travel and share our stories. We especially love it when we have been able to motivate our readers to start traveling on their own, and making their own stories.