Back from Europe – Part the Fourth!

remembrance_day_20121109And we’re back with more of the 2014 Williams’ Family Eurotrip. Today’s subject: the three days and two nights we spent in the historic town of Bayeux in the Normandy region. The highlights while staying there involved learning of my grandmother’s cousin, Wilmot Pettit, touring the historic city, visiting several World War II cemeteries, seeing the Bayeux Tapestry, and visiting the D-Day landing sites of Gold and Juno Beach. And of course, our accommodations were once again kick-ass!

Tuesday, April 15h – Thursday, April 17th – Bayeux:
Tuesday morning began as all our mornings did, with breakfast in the hotel followed by us packing up the car and hitting the road for the day! Our next destination was the Normandy town of Bayeux, which is located just 7 km (4.3 miles) from the coast and sits on River Aure. In addition to being very scenic and well-situated for our purposes, Bayeux also had two things going for it in terms of its history. One, it was the first town liberated by the Allies during the Battle of Normandy. And two, it is the home of the Bayeux Tapestry, an historic artifact that is listed as a “Memory of the World” by UNESCO.

But before we could arrive there, there was the matter of retracing some family history. Prior to leaving, my folks had been informed by my grandmother that one her cousins – who lived next door to her growing up in Bramford, Ontario – had been shot down in Normandy and was buried there. After some quick research, they had a name and some clue as to his whereabouts. Wilmot Pettit, who enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940 and was shipped to Britain.

Operation_OverlordFour years later, he was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader and participated in the greatest undertaking in history – Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. As part of the Eastern Task Force, his air unit was responsible for escorting members of the British 6th Airborne to their landing sights south of Sword Beach to the north-east of Caen. This consisted of his Shorts Stirling Mk IV bomber towing a glider packed with British Airborne troops to their destination. Unfortunately, his plane was shot down by German anti-aircraft artillery, and went down near the town of Grangues.

Armed with that knowledge, as well as what could be gleamed from the town’s website, we programmed the town of Grangues into Betty (our semi-affectionate name for the GPS), we set off for the Normandy countryside. Eventually, we found the hamlet, which consisted of a church and a school located a little farther on, which just happened to have the mayor’s office attached. This we entered, hoping they might have some information on this event that took place outside of his town some 70 years ago.

The Church at Grangues
The Church at Grangues

To our surprise, the Mayor had more than a little; in fact, he had volumes! In addition to his office containing a case filled with the remains of a glider, pictures of some of those who survived, and a painting of the Stirling flying above the trees with its wings on fire, he had pictures, documents, and pointed us in all the right directions. He even escorted us to the field where Wilmott’s plane, in addition to several other gliders, crashed – which was at one time the estate known as the Chateau Grangues.

It was a wonderful opportunity for my mother and I to practice our French, and the Mayor extremely helpful and patient with us. We quickly learned that Wilmot’s plane was one of several Allied craft that went down in the region. According to the 591 Antrim Parachute Squadron‘s ongoing inquiry into the matter, Two Stirlings and four Horsa Gliders have been shot down by German anti-aircraft guns, and landed in the fields outside of this small village.

My folks and I listening to the Mayor (far right)
My folks and I listening to the Mayor (far right)

When Wilmot’s plane went down, he and most of the airborne troops died in the crash. The handful that survived were taken prisoner by the German 711 Division that were occupying the region. Several of these men were later shot, in what the German soldiers claimed was “an attempted breakout” (though this has never been confirmed). To the mayor’s knowledge, Wilmot and all the others who perished on that “day of days” were interred in the Commonwealth Cemetery at the nearby town of Ranville.

He also said he had some photos which he would send us home with, but he never was able to find them. He did however promise to mail them as they turned up. We thanked him for his immense help and did a little searching of the fields, hoping to find some remains that we ourselves could take home and show to my grandmother. It was quite an exciting thing, finding a personal connection to the war and being able to walk on the very land where it happened.

The commemorative plague outside of the Grangues church
The commemorative plaque outside of the Grangues church

Unfortunately, the crash site consisted of grown-over fields and a lot that had been set aside from construction, and all we could find after a few hours of looking was a rusted piece of metal that we took for an old bullet fragment. Still, we felt our mission was a grand success, thanks in no small part to the lovely people of Grangues and their infinitely helpful mayor. We also were sure to visit the commemorative plague that sat outside the church, which had the names of all those who perished in the crash and at the hands of the German soldiers, along with the French and British flags flanking it.

I should also note that the church had a lovely spring out in front of it. Water poured down a stone chute from the hill’s underground aquifer and entered into a basin with a statue of the Virgin Mary over top of it. People came from all around while we were there to fill up their jugs and take it home. And this was in spite of the fact that the water basin had a warning sign that said that the town was not responsible for any illness incurred from drinking it. Ah, legalities!

Wilmot Pettit's headstone, Ranville War Cemetery
Wilmot Pettit’s headstone, Ranville War Cemetery

And then, it was off to Ranville, which proved to a small town – though compared to Grangues, it was a minor megapolis. Once there, we grabbed some lunch from a local bakery, which consisted of water and/or Orangina and some sticks of bread with cheese and ham baked in. We downed these at the local park, and entered the Ranville War Cemetery, and found Wilmot Petitt’s grave (pictured above). As it states on his stone, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions.

We placed a Canadian flag pin on his headstone and my mother planted a copy of his story that we printed off next to it. We also planted a Canadian quarter in the soil, and my father sprinkled some dirt from Bramford he had been keeping in a small bottle. He then filled said same bottle with some dirt from next the cemetery, with the intention of bringing it back to BC and showing to my grandma. After that, we went around to pay our respects to other Canadians who had died on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy.

My father placing soil from Bramford by Wilmot's headstone
My father placing soil from Bramford by Wilmot’s headstone

Then it was into Bayeux, where we found our way to the Lion D’Or (Golden Lion) where we would be spending the next few nights. After finding our room, my folks and wife wanted to go for a walk and visit the local Cathedral. Unfortunately for me, I was far too tired and feeling the effects of a long day out in the sun to join them. So I napped and showered while they explored the cobblestone streets and saw the magnificent Cathedral. Luckily, my wife took plenty of snapshots and told me about their time.

As they inspected these piece of Norman-Romanesque architecture – which is the seat of the Bishop of Bayeux and the original home of the Bayeux Tapesty (more on that later) – the organ music came on. This cathedral has two, incidentally, one which is huge and the other which is massive! As they learned, it was practice time for the organ player, and they were playing everything from hymns to the theme from the Phantom of the Opera.

The Bayeux Cathedral crypt
The Bayeux Cathedral crypt

Then they visited the station’s of the Cross chapels – the Cathedral has one for every station – took some pictures of the beautiful stained glass windows, and then visited the crypt. Down there, frescoes, columns and some trace light coming in from the windows are the only company to those who have been entombed over the years. My wife also claimed that the place could admittedly use some conservation work, but heritage conservation is her field, so this is generally her opinion!

We then met up for dinner at a place near the hotel – La Maison de Terroir (House of the Land) – where we delicious eats that were washed down with a few glasses of Affligem Blonde (the local beer of choice). We then retired to our room for some restful sleep and got up the next day to do the next leg of our tour of World War II sites. Up next was Juno Beach, the Normandy beach where the Canadian forces made their amphibious landing on D-Day.

Juno Beach Museum
Juno Beach Centre

It was at this point that we were doing things that I was responsible for researching. World War I had been my father’s project, as he was more than familiar with all the cemeteries, sites and battles that had taken place in the Ypres Salient. But D-Day and the Battle of Normandy were my baby, so allow me to share with all the information I dug up in preparation for this part of our trip. So as always, here is some background. Don’t worry, it’s short this time!

On June 6th, 1944, the Allies unleashed the greatest invasion in history. After several years of chipping away at Nazi Germany’s war machine with successful campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and in the Atlantic, it was decided that the time for a “Second Front” in Western Europe had finally come. In the east, the Russians had been steadily dealing defeat after defeat against the Germans forces for two years, beginning with Moscow in 41′, Stalingrad in 42′, and then Kursk in 43′. With a full-scale invasion that would at long last liberate France, Hitler’s ultimate defeat would become an inevitability.

operation-overlordHaving learned the lessons of Dieppe, the Allies understood the importance of both naval and air support. Because of this, the landing on the Normandy coast would be preceded by a massive bombing campaign by the US, British and Canadian air forces. All along the coast and interior, German fortifications, supply depots, supply lines, and even towns were bombed heavily. The US and British navies also positioned themselves off the coast and began bombarding the beaches a few hours in advance of the landings.

While this was taking place, members of the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions would be landing in the Western Sector of Normandy near the towns of St-Mère-Église and Carenten. In the Eastern Sector, the British 6th Airborne dropped in near Ranville and Bénouville using gliders. Landing behind enemy lines, their mission was to secure causeway exits to ensure that the Allied landings would be able to reach inland without opposition, as well as to destroy inland batteries and securing and destroying bridges to prevent a German counter-attack.

NormandySupply_editAs part of these preparations, the Allies also conducted a massive campaign of deception leading up to the invasion of Normandy. Having learned of the value of secrecy and surprise, they had been circulating false information for months that claimed they were preparing for an invasion of the Pas de Calais in July. The Normandy landings, according to the false information that was being fed to the Germans, was merely a diversion to force the occupiers to pull forces away from this region.

In addition to false radio broadcasts and reports fed to German double-agents, a fictitious First U.S. Army Group was created, supposedly located in Kent and Sussex under the command of Lieutenant General George S. Patton. Using dummy tanks, trucks, and landing craft that were  positioned near the coast, the illusion was very much believable, and Hitler became convinced that the Normandy landings genuinely were a feint to lure German forces away from the real invasion.

Canadian_Soldiers_Juno_Beach_TownBut in reality, the Allied assault on the five beaches of Normandy – Omaha and Utah in the American sector; Gold, Juno and Sword in the British sector. And at Juno, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armored Brigade was responsible for clearing the beachhead. As part of the British 2nd Army’s assault on Gold, Juno and Sword in the Eastern Sector, they were tasked with entering the beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernières, Saint-Aubin, and reaching inland as far as the town of Caen.

To make all this information more personal and relevant, my father recommended I research a soldier (one who was possibly related to our family) and find out what role they played. After doing some preliminary digging, I learned that two Williams’, both of whom were interred at the Commonwealth Cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer. Since my father had already researched Fred Williams of Cornwall, Ontario (whom we may very well be related to), I chose William Gordon Williams of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

Winnipeg_Rifles_advance_inlandAs a sergeant with the 1st Battalion, Royal Regina Rifles (7th Regiment), in the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, he landed at Nan Green sector of Juno Beach, just outside of Courseulles-sur-Mer. The assault began at 0630 hours (that’s 6:30 am in civilian speak); and during the first hour, Canadian forces sustained 50% casualties (similar to what occurred at Omaha Beach). Sergeant William G. Williams was one of the fallen, along with 358 other young men. Despite these losses, the Canadians managed to outperform their peers when taking their objectives.

By 1120 hours, the 3rd Division had cleared the beach and entered the town, seizing the bridge over the river Seulles. By 1415 hours, the entire beach was secured and the division moved inland, and were the first forces to secure their objectives. However, they were unable to reach Caen due to the fact that the British at Gold and Sword were unable to link up with them, and due to increased resistance from the 12th SS Panzer Division, a fanatical unit with the Hitlerjugen (“Hitler Youth”). Other objectives, such as the town of Bayeux, also remained in German hands for the time being.

Queen's_Own_Rifles_Dug_In_Near_CarpiquetHowever, over the course of the next week, the Canadians reached farther inland than anyone else, and secured the towns of Autrie and Carpiquet west of Caen. They also managed to hold their ground against the fanatical 12th SS, who lost a third of their armor against the entrenched Canucks. It was also during this time (July 7th) that the SS executed 20 Canadian POWS at the Ardennes Abbey, located northwest of Caen. Lieutenant Fred Williams was one such person. When the Canadians liberated the Abbey on the following day, they found the bodies of their comrades.

Thenceforth, the Canadian forces operated under the “No quarter asked, none given” rule, which in practice amounted to shooting all SS soldiers on sight. For the remainder of June, all operations were aimed at capturing and holding the high ground southwest of Caen and waiting for reinforcements and the 1st and 30th British Corps to arrive north of Caen and south of Bayeux. By July, efforts to secure Caen and its strategic bridges over the Orne River would be altered. Whereas the D-Day plan called it for it be seized in the same day by direct assault, future attempts would involve outflanking it. More on that later…

Juno Beach Centre, front entrance
Juno Beach Centre, front entrance

Anyhoo, we arrived at Juno Beach at the edge of Courseulles-sur-Mer and proceeded to the Juno Beach Centre that sits at the edge of the beach. Inside, we saw an impressive range of displays that spoke of Canada’s involvement in the Second World War, culminating in a video that addressed the Juno Beach landing, the Battle of Normandy, and the importance of remembering their sacrifice. We then popped outside, and walked the beach, taking some pictures and grabbing some more keepsakes.

Naturally, there weren’t pieces of shrapnel or bullet casings lying around, as the tides cleared those away a long time ago. However, we did manage to pick up some scallop shells and a few interesting-looking stones. We also visited the observation bunker that still overlooks the beach, one of several preserved fortifications that is tight by any definition of the word. Farther down, we spotted another that is slowly sinking into the beach, since these heavy concrete structures are just sitting on sand.

Entering the observation bunker
Entering the observation bunker

And then, since it was midday, it was time for lunch, which consisted of burgers, hotdogs or sandwiches (and fries) from a vendor down on the boardwalk. Then it was back into the car, as we had to visit the Beny-sur-Mer War Cemetery, where both William G. Williams and Fred Williams are interred, along with 2047 other members of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and airmen who perished in the Battle of Normandy. In addition to these two headstones, we also visited the graves of the other soldiers who died at Beny-Sur-Mer, as well as some that shared my mother and wife’s (well close enough) last name – Wilson and Jack.

After all that, evening consisted of eating at La Maison de Terroir again, followed by an evening walk by my wife and I. While were out, we did a little shopping, and chose to buy a bottle of Calvados. For those unfamiliar, this is a special form of apple brandy named after the region of Lower Normandy where it originated. This was something that was recommended to us by a friend, and my father had said he wanted to try it. We also picked up a bottle of Bayeux Cider, another local specialty, and head back to the hotel.

Beny-sur-Mer War Cemetery
Beny-sur-Mer War Cemetery

Another sound sleep, and Thursday was upon us! As our last day in town, we hoped to cover all the remaining items on our list. This included visiting Arromanches, the town that overlooks Gold Beach and where the Allies constructed the massive artificial harbor that ensured they were able to get supplies to their forces during the Battle of Normandy. We also hoped to see the Bayeux Tapestry (well some of us anyway), and visit the Bayeux War Cemetery – the largest World War II Commonwealth cemetery in France.

First up, it was the Bayeux Tapestry, which was housed in a museum not far from our hotel. Having seen it already, and feeling unimpressed with it, my father decided to revisit the Cathedral and meet up with us later. And so, after breakfast, we walked on over to the museum to get a look at this UNESCO piece of world heritage. Inside, we were given audio devices that told the story of the Tapestry and explained what each section of it meant.

The gate of the Bayeux Tapestry musuem
The gate of the Bayeux Tapestry musuem

I have to admit, this portion of the museum was not as fun as I would have thought. The Tapestry is long and quite interesting, but listening to a half-hour audio description and moving along slowly in line with dozens of other people is not such a great way to see it. Luckily, the museum has multiple floors and plenty of exhibits that help put the lengthy historical account into context. There is also the new theater they added that shows a short film that illustrates it quite well.

To break it down, the Tapestry tells the story of William the Conqueror, the King of Normandy who conquered England in 1066 CE. As part of a war of a succession, the story begins with Edward the Confessor sending William’s rival (Harold) to Normandy to name him Edward’s successor. However, while en route, Harold accidentally detours to a neighboring realm where he is taken hostage by Guy, the Count of Ponthieu. After William pays the ransom for Harold, William invites him on a campaign to conquer Brittany.

A section shoing the Battle of Hastings. To view the full tapestry, click here:
A section showing the Battle of Hastings

Successful in their campaign, William knights Harold and makes him swear on the Bible and a holy relic to swear his allegiance to William as his future king. Harold accepts, though he is humiliated to do so, and is given leave to return to England to let Edward know that he has accepted. However, Edward dies shortly thereafter and Harold proclaims himself King of England. This coincides with the arrival of Halet’s Comet, which is seen as a bad omen.

News of the coronation reaches William, and he declares war and orders a full mobilization of his troops and ships. They sail to England to meet Harold in battle, but Harold must first do battle in the north. This is known as the Battle of Stamford Bridge, where Harold and his army of Saxons prevail against an invading force of Vikings. His army then rides south to meet William at Hastings. And after a pitched battle, Harold is killed and his army routed. William is proclaimed king in 1066.

The Bayeux War Cemetery, with the Memorial in the distance
The Bayeux War Cemetery, with the Memorial in the distance

Of particular interest to us was the end of the film where it says that in the Bayeux War Cemetery, a sort of riposte is made to the Bayeux Tapestry. At this Commonwealth Cemetery – which honors British and other soldiers who fell during the Normandy campaign – there is a memorial that states in Latin “We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.” In short, they present the Battle of Normandy as the latest in an ongoing saga between France and England, one which began with conquest and war and ended with friendship and liberation. Kind of heartwarming when you think about it!

Later that same day, we visited this cemetery and paid our respects. Completed in 1952, this cemetery contains 4,144 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War, 338 of them unidentified. And unlike other cemeteries we visited, this one also has over 500 war graves belonging to other nationalities, the majority of which are German. This was an especially sobering sight to see after we visited the many British, Canadian and Commonwealth graves we paid our respects to.

To see the full-length tapestry, click here, then click to zoom in and begin examining it from left to right. Also, be sure to follow the story on the museum’s website.

Mulberry Harbor in 1944
Mulberry Harbor in 1944

Then, we reconvened with my father and headed off to the coast again. Our next stop was Arromanches and the Gold Beach Museum, where we were treated to the site of the artificial harbor that is still visible there today. Here, we grabbed some lunch, took some nice pics in front of the Allied and German vehicles and guns that are displayed there, and entered the museum to learn about the history of the beach and learn more about the massive feat of engineering that took place there 70 years ago.

Known as Mulberry Harbor, this artificial port was constructed by the British from 1942 to 1944 in order to assist the Allies in Operation Overlord. Basically, they understood that no army would be able to survive in Normandy for long without a great deal of supplies, which in turn would require the deep waters and heavy cranes of a port facility to park the freight ships and unload them. They also knew from the Dieppe Raid how difficult it would be to seize a heavily-defender harbor.

Arromanches and Mulberry Harbor as it appears today
Arromanches and Mulberry Harbor as it appears today

Because of this, they set to work building a series of cement barriers which were then taken in sections across the English Channel and assembled off the coast of Arromanches. A series of tankers were also sunk in strategic positions around these “Mulberries”, forming an artificial breakwater with a series of pontoon causeways built within it. Once completed, Allied supply ships would sail into the protective harbor and unload along the causeways, sending tons of goods into the Normandy coast.

Had it not been for this harbor, the Allied invasion would surely have been doomed. Not only did the invasion require an endless stream of ammunition, food and fuel, it would be some twenty-four days before Allied forces would capture a port facility. This port was Cherbourg, which fell to American forces on the 30th of June, but which had been so thoroughly wrecked by the Germans occupants that it did not enter into even limited use until the middle of August.

Gold Beach Museum
Gold Beach Museum

All of this was explained in detail in the Gold Beach Museum, which contained detailed models of the harbor, amphibious landing craft, and countless bits of wartime artifacts. The multimedia presentation, which consists of viewers standing in a simulated amphibious craft and looking at the coastline on the dawn of June 6th, 1944. On the second floor, a short film also explains the harbor’s construction and the challenges in building and maintaining it.

Afterwards, we retired to the street again and tried desperately to find a public bathroom. My father and mother lamented the fact that during their last visit, one proved difficult to find then too. These and water fountains were both pretty rare in Arromanches, one has to wonder if there’s a connection! But having taken care of all that, we loaded back into the car and discussed our next destination. My father suggested that we check out a coastal battery that was still intact and not that far away, and we agreed.

German Flak 18 88mm cannon
German Flak 18 88mm cannon at Arromanches

Unfortunately for us, Betty was not the best at finding landmarks. And so, we had to drive for some along the coast and through our share of small towns before we found our destination. Luckily, some signs eventually pointed the way, and we made it the German coastal battery at Longues-sur-Mer. When we arrived, we noticed how the one battery, which had been hit during Battle of Normandy by an Allied ship, had a camera crew inside it. A tarp was lain over the collapsed roof, and the crew had a sign up saying “excavation in process”.

We couldn’t be sure exactly what they were doing, but we anticipated it was something for the History Channel or some such documentary stuff. Moving on to the batteries that were still intact, we began to explore inside. Though rusted, the guns were still there and aimed out to sea. They were also filled with gooey green water and algae, the result of seventy-plus years of rainwater collecting in them without interruption.

Coastal Battery at Longues-sur-Mer
Coastal Battery at Longues-sur-Mer

There were two such batteries, both of which were relatively intact. Carla took some amazing pics of these, and then we proceeded to the very bluffs, where an intact observation bunker still sits. This bunker proved to be larger and less claustrophobic than the one at Juno Beach, and so I decided to do some deep exploration. This consisted of me going inside, despite my wife’s grievances, where I let my imagination loose and began pretending I was a commando raiding a German fortified position.

Unfortunately, when I moved to one side to dodge the imaginary bullets, I stepped in a hole filled with that same green, gooey water. Talk about an ugly soaker. As you can see, my wife was there to get it on camera. Yes, she wouldn’t follow me into the bunker and take some pictures of the preserved history, but she was more than willing to photograph my embarrassment. I love her dearly… After that, I stepped to the front end to look out the slat at the English Channel. I also waved hi to my folks who were standing at the bluff and looking out to sea. It was a mighty inspiring sight…

DSCF2376Then, it was back to the car, and off to the Bayeux War Cemetery for our last cemetery visit. After laying the last of our Canadian flag pins and paying our respects, we retired to the hotel to change (especially my socks!), and out for a dinner. This time around, we went to a restaurant near the Cathedral, where we enjoyed some interesting eats that consisted of gourmet burgers, pizza, and a buckwheat pancake with meat and veggies on it.

Back at the hotel, we also down a large bottle of Leffe Blonde together, and mercifully saved the Calvados for another night. I tell ya, that stuff could clean the grease off engine parts and isn’t too kind to stomach lining either! And when all that was said and done, we slept our final night at the Lion D’Or. The next day, we would be pushing off for Caen to do a little more touring of World War II sites, and then settling in to Chartres for the night.

Bayeux War Cemetery
Bayeux War Cemetery

I should also note that we took the opportunity to say goodbye to the cat that was living at the hotel. During our voyages, my folks kept mental list of the places that had animals, as they are avid cat lovers and have nine of them back home! Heck, my wife and I are crazy cat (and dog) people too, and we missed our cat Jasper terribly. So we were all pretty happy whenever and wherever there were household animals to keep us company. Alas, this would be the last time we ever saw another house creature…

Ah well. In any case, that was our time in Bayeux and environs. What came next was also pretty cool and informative, and involved the lion’s share of research that I did for our trip. More on that soon enough! Stay tuned…

So long, little black kitty! We hardly got to see ya...
So long, little black kitty! We hardly got to see ya…

 

3 thoughts on “Back from Europe – Part the Fourth!

  1. Wow, so much to see and do in such a short time. I’m impressed! And how amazing to have that personal connection to the war, to hear the stories, and honor the fallen. It looks like your days were full – and the photos and war history are great. It helps to really make sense of what you saw and the significance of each place. Keep ’em coming!! 🙂

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