Hi folks. My apologies for not talking about this sooner, but it’s been pretty hectic these past few weeks. The good news is, the wife and I returned from Europe about two weeks ago. And we had a wonderful trip. Much like our Eurotrip 2014 edition, this trip was all about visiting the battlefield tours and monuments in Northern France and Belgium, but with some slight modifications.
For one, we got in a few different battlefields and monuments this time around. Second, we cast our net a bit further, getting as far as Utretch in Holland. And third, and most importantly, the main reason for this year’s trip was to take part in the remembrance ceremony put on every year in the small town of Grangues in Normandy.It was here (we learned two years ago) that my mother’s first cousin, once removed, Wilmot Pettit died on D-Day after being shot down over the French countryside.
But it’s a long story, so bear with me…
Back in 2014, while we were planning our trip to Europe, my mother learned from her mother that a cousin of hers had died on D-Day and that we might be able to find where he was buried. Doing her research, my mother learned that he had been shot down over the small hamlet of Grangues.
For people familiar with D-Day, this story should sound familiar. Pettit was a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force and on D-Day, he was flying in the Eastern Sector of the Normandy landing zone. Flying a Sterling aircraft, he was responsible for towing a glider filled with members of the British 7th Airborne to their landing zone in the countryside.
Unfortunately, the German air defenses in this sector proved more tenacious than expected. Much like in the Western sector, where the 101st Airborne was scattered all over the countryside due to German anti-aircraft fire, the British 7th Airborne suffered a lot of losses due to all the flak they experience. After flying near Grangues, my cousin and his crew were hit by German flak and the plane went down. During the crash, he and several of the Airborne soldiers were killed on impact. The rest were taken prisoner by the local SS garrison, and then shot on the next day.
And while we were in France, she looked up the small hamlet and visited the mayor’s office, which is right next door to the town’s church. When we arrived, we were buffaloed. In the mayor’s office, a painting hung of the plane my cousin piloted being shot down. He had a glass case filled with artifacts of the plane crash. The mayor then took the time to share old photos with us of the crash, showed us the site, and even told us where Wilmot was now buried (in the nearby town of Ranville).
We also learned that every year on June 7th (the day the captured soldiers were executed) that the townspeople, veterans from the UK, and people from all over the region, turn up to pay their respects and honor the memory of those who died liberating their country. They also pay their respects to those French soldiers from the region that died during World War I in defense of their country.
While we could not stay for the ceremony back in 2014, we decided to go this year after the mayor emailed us an invite. The rest of our trip, which we’d been planning ever since the last one, was to be scheduled around this ceremony.
When we arrived, a few days after landing in Paris, we got to the town and settled in at the local B and B. On the following day, we went to the small town’s church, where we were greeted by a large crowd of veterans, some men carrying flags, babgpipers, and a whole lot of people turned out in their Sunday best. The mayor came over to greet us, at which point, we began to practice our French.
At first, he heard us speaking English and asked for his translator. But my mother and I jumped in by telling him, in French, that we were the family of Wilmot Pettit. At one point, one of us must have said pilot, because that jogged his memory.
“Le pilote?” The mayor asked. We all said yes. And instantly, he remembered us. From that point onward, we were treated like honored guests. We attended the ceremony in the town’s cemetery, we stood in the front row amongst veterans who were 90 years old, and my mother was invited up to say a few words. She thanked the townspeople, the mayor, and honored her cousin in impeccable French (though she denied it!)
The national anthems of France, Britain and Canada all played. They flew the flags of all three countries. And of course, the mayor gave a speech which was translated into English. Afterwards, we talked to the people and shared drinks in the town hall! It was really quite amazing.
One of the most profound things about it was the sense of inclusion. Here we were, foreigners and strangers to so many people – many of whom witnessed D-Day and participated in it – and they treated us like honored guests. We all remarked afterwards how surreal and moving it was. And even now, months later, I find its still hard to wrap my head around.
More to follow, as that was just the first few days. Stay tuned!