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!
And I’m back with the sixth and final installment in the 2014 Williams’ Family Eurotrip! And luckily, this one should prove to be the shortest, since our adventures during these last few days really don’t require any historical background. In reality, our last five days in Paris were spent seeing sight after sight, walking the city, drinking up the local culture and relaxing. So there’s plenty to describe and share, but most of it speaks for itself!
Monday, April 21st – Friday, April 25th – Paris and Nanaimo:
As so often happens on a trip, Monday was a day set aside for doing laundry and making sure our wardrobe lasted to the end. So, after breakfast at the hotel, we ventured down to the laundromat and figured out how to work the archaic machines. My mother seemed to remember, as this was the exact same laundromat she had used when she came to France with my sister in 1990 (did I mention they stayed at the same hotel too?) Anyhoo, Carla and I decided we would go for a run while our clothes washed and dried. This took us from our hotel down to the Seine, where we then headed south along the water to get the bridge that would take us to the Bastille Square. This was something we did not get to see the day before on our bus tour, so we decided now would be a good opportunity.
Very quickly, we noticed that the air quality was different than what we were used to. Living in small town BC, our outdoor runs are always characterized by meadow air intermixed with ocean breezes. But Paris, with its many million vehicles and mass transit system, can be forgiven for not being so pure. But of course, the sights were much more plentiful. Along the Seine, between the Pont de la Tournelle and the Pont de Sully, we saw the Statues en Plein Air art exhibit that runs along the south side. I have to admit, I didn’t examine the artwork much, but what I did see seemed very “moderne”.
After crossing the Pont de Sully, we ran up Boulevard Henry IV and reached the Place de la Bastille. The July Monument stood in the center of a roundabout, which we ran around to get a good look of! At the base, the inscription of July 1830 appears in gold, commemorating the July Revolution – otherwise known as the Second French Revolution. The square is jam packed with stores, cafes, cobblestone walk ways, and straddles three separate arrondissements (districts), with half a dozen other landmarks located nearby.
After rounding the Square and running back the way we came, and saw something a little odd. On the Seine, right next to the Pont de Sully, a group of police divers were out in a zodiac, their truck parked on the walkway next to the water. The divers pulled what looked like a body out of the water, and once they got it aboard, one of them began doing chest compressions. I chose to interpret this as an training exercise where the rescue divers were pulling a mannequin out of the water and practicing CPR. But Carla remains convinced that they were pulling a jumper out of the water and trying to resuscitate him. We’re still divided on this…
Anyway, we arrived back at the laundromat a little while later and helped my folks escort our clothing home. It was nice to be able to get a second round out of our gear, we changed and showered, and walked to the Ile de la Cite. It was our hope to see Notre Dame’s interior; unfortunately, the lineup was prohibitively long! But it was Easter Monday, so that didn’t come as a huge surprise. So we decided we’d try again on the morrow and decided to carry on to our next destination.
Luckily enough, we were able to snap plenty of picks of the Cathedral, the Square of Jean XXIII, and the awesome statute of Charlemagne that sits out in front. For those who don’t know, he was the Carolingian (aka. Frankish) king who reigned during the late 8th and early 9th century, became Emperor of a western Europe and even led campaigns against the Moors in Spain. Naturally, I had to get a picture of him for our album. But I asked Carla to also take one of me standing in front of the statute because I really liked the look of his beard, and hoped people might see some similarities.
And so we decided to carry on to the Louvre. But first, we needed some lunch. This we found at a restaurant sitting next to the Palais de Justice nearby, which was temporarily closed to the public for renovations. After some sandwiches and coffee, we proceeded to check out the Marche aux Fleurs (Flower Market) next to us, which was jam packed with animals – including some livestock – and carried on. After crossing another bridge, we landed on the east side of town and walked up the Quai de la Megisserie.
As it turned out, was also packed with animals! And by that I mean, pet stores. I’m not sure how many hours we spent visiting each and every one of these, but it was a few. But I guess that’s what happens when you take cat owners and animals lovers away from their pets! After shaking off the guilt of not being able to take every puppy and kitten home with us, we continued on our way to the Louvre, which was just a few more blocks away.
Entering the museum was a bit of a task. First, we had to walk through the former Palace grounds, which is jam packed with vendors – people selling miniature Eiffel Towers and even one guy roasting chestnuts! – and then into the main grounds where the glass pyramid (as shown above) sits. Here, the lineups and crowds were to be found, and lots of signs out telling us to keep an eye on our handbags (thieves and purse cutters like to work there!)
But surprisingly, the wait time was only a half hour or so, and the lineup not as unbelievably long as we suspected. And before we knew it, we were inside and going down the escalator to the entrance foyer. To be fair, everyone in the family had been to the Louvre before, save me. So I was naturally quite impressed when we got inside and looked around. Many escalators ran from the ground to this area, and there were literally hundreds of people crowded in there. And from this spot, multiple staircases lead up to the adjoining floors where all the exhibits that cover the entirety of human civilization are kept.
We grabbed out tickets, some maps, and looked for our way out. After perusing the layout and debating what we’d like to see first, we decided to head over to the ancient world exhibits. We started with the Ancient Near East, which was filled with examples of ancient Mesopotamian sculptures, stone work, mosaics, and statues. As we walked through the many connected rooms, we were treated to pieces of the region’s later history, dating back as far as 7000 BCE and spanning the civilizations of Ancient Sumeria, Babylon, Iran and the Levant.
Now I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that everything we saw was pretty damn kickass and impressive! But of particular interest, at least to me, were the Stele’s and tablets that contained ancient Sumerian and Babylonian script. And when I finally found the Stele showing the Code of Hammurabi and the tablets with the sections of the code written on it, I was sure to snap some pictures of them! This, and other examples of ancient writings, are amongst the most important historical objects in existence, and it was kind of mind-blowing being in their presence for the first time.
As you can see from the photo above, the front end of the Stele (which is sometimes referred to as a “fingernail” because of its shape) shows Hammurabi sitting on his throne where he is dispensing the law to what appears to be a Babylonian subject. Beneath that, the code is listed in its entity, setting out various rules of jurisprudence, religion, trade, slavery, the duties of workers, the distribution of food, and the punishment for infractions. Click on the pictures to get a better look.
We then doubled-back and went through the Greek antiquities, where my wife asked that we snap a photo of Aphrodite (aka. Venus de Milo) since this was the one major exhibit she missed on her previous trip. Like most of the main exhibits in the museum, get a close look at this one proved tricky. But I somehow managed to get a few shots using her iPod Touch camera, and some of them weren’t too blurry. Check it out below:
After working our way through the 18th-19th century French Sculptures wing, we doubled back to the Pharaonic Egyptian wing to see the statue of Ramses II. This area also proved to be pretty crowded! And it was here, amidst several sphinx statues, Egyptian columns, and some tall walls designed to look like massive sandstone brickwork, that we got a look at the famous Pharaoh who is chronicled by Egyptian, Biblical, and Greek sources, and who was caricatured by English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poem “Ozymandias”.
And yet, I have to say, this statue was not that impressive. Seating in the corner next to many others and flanked by columns and big walls, he seemed like merely a part of the larger exhibit and not the focal point, as the map would seemed to suggest. But this came as no huge surprise, considering that his significance – while great in terms of Egyptian history – is a bit uncertain as far as Biblical and western sources are concerned. To this day, there is no actual proof that this is the man Noah said “let my people go” to, or that the Egyptian captivity actually happened. But what can you do?
After this, we began making the long trek to the 1st floor so we could see the piece de resistance, the Mona Lisa! Given the size of the palace and the layout, this was no easy task, and we had to weave our way about while someone stood in the front with the map open, calling out directions and making sure we all stayed together in the midst of the crowds. But we succeeded, and found ourselves just one room over from the Mona Lisa.
However, I insisted we pause for second to witness some of the 19th century French Paintings, which this room was dedicated to. Mainly because it was here that the painting of The consecration of Emperor Napoleon I was to be found (seen above). As a historian, this painting was of great interest to me and the events it captured were nothing if not extremely relevant. So after getting a good shot of the rather massive painting, we proceeded into the densely-packed Mona Lisa exhibit.
As expected, it was very difficult to get a clear shot of this historic portrait, and the one seen below was about the best we could manage. So thick was the crowd that the only way to get a photo was to hold your camera up high and snap one from a few meters away. The painting was also significantly smaller than I expected, and was kept behind protective wall of glass. But after a few quick pics, we decided we’d done all we could and decided to call it a day! Our feet and knees were hurting, and we were all pretty tired.
After returning to the hotel, we decided to have a low key dinner consisting of food that was bought at a patisserie shop on the way back. Between some baked quiches, sandwiches, delectable deserts, and a few bottles of Leffe Brune, we were all sated and didn’t even need to go out for dinner that night. However, I was determined to check out some of the bars down the street, and the wife and I concluded the evening with a few pints at some of the local pubs.
This included the Mayflower, which was about a block away from us and had some wonderful Belgian beers that I know and love on tap. But being an English-themed pub, they served them in pint glasses! This is pretty impressive when you consider that Belgian ales – most of which are centuries-old operations run by Abbeys and Monasteries – range from 6-10% alcohol and accordingly come in 330 ml bottles or are served in chalice glasses. As such, a full pint (568 ml or 20 oz) of this kind of beer is likely to pack a serious wallop!
After a few of these, we proceeded to the next stop down the street, a place known as Teddy’s, where I drank a bit more. I was determined to try all of the taps I did not recognize and could not easily find back home. After we did this, we headed back to the hotel for some hard sleep. Unfortunately, we had a freak accident in our room which made the next few days a little bit difficult. Basically, I was reading from my iPad in bed, and when my wife – who was laying next to me – turned to look up at it, the corner of it got her in the eye. To make matters worse, I freaked out and dropped it, making a bad situation even worse!
We lay up in bed for awhile while she tried to nurse her throbbing eye. After finally getting to sleep, she woke up the next day with a terrible headache and throbbing eye pain. And that is how Carla got a black eye in Paris! As a result of it, we cancelled out plans with my folks for the day and took it easy. After a late morning and breakfast, we walked around the Latin Quarter, bought lunch from a local market, and walked down to the Pantheon, which was also just a few blocks away from the hotel. Situated next to the Law School of the Universite de Paris and the Lycee Henry IV, the place was packed with students eating lunch, and the smell of weed was in the air!
Originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, the Pantheon has changed quite a bit over the centuries and now functions as a secular mausoleum containing the remains of several distinguished French citizens – among them such greats as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Louis Braille, and Marie Curie. We never did get inside, but we enjoyed the lovely walk, and even managed to squeeze in a quick visit to a British-themed local pub called the Bombardier. Then, it was back to the hotel, dinner with my folks at the Petit Gaston (for the second time), and to promptly to bed. Because on Wednesday, we had another big day!
It consisted of us visiting the place we saw on the bus tour on foot, or at least as we possible could in a single day. We had hoped to do much of this on Tuesday, but Carla’s eye injury – which I will forever carry a terrible shame for! – put a hold on that. But feeling so much better, we decided to give it a go and proceeded first to the Notre Dame Cathedral. Since it was no longer Easter Weekend, we figured we stood a better chance of getting in. And lo and behold, we did! Despite the long line ups, the crowd proceeded inside at a rapid pace and we found ourselves stepping into this ancient cathedral before long.
Once inside, we were treated to the musty smell, the sounds of chanting, light streaming in from countless stain glass windows, and plenty of amazing art and architecture. As usual, my father explained all features and told us exactly how it differed from the Cathedrals at Chartres and Bayeux. Not surprisingly, this one was the largest we visited to date, and I was sure to get one of the commemorative gold coins from the machine near the entrance. This upped my collection of these tourist keepsakes to four, with coins from the Juno Beach Museum, the Caen Memorial Museum, the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, and the Notre Dame Cathedral.
And then, it was off to the Tour Eiffel, which we hoped to be able to ascend and catch sight of the city from on high. However, when we arrived, the lineups proved to be absolutely terrible, and one of the stairwells that connects to the first landing was closed. However, we did catch some lovely break dancers putting on a show at the foot of the tower. We also got to see several soldiers wandering with their FAMAS assault rifles hanging over their shoulders. Similar to what we saw at Charles de Gaulle, this is apparently what passes for normal in Paris. For this humble Canuck, this was a little frightening and but also freaking cool!
So we meandered around the tower for awhile, checked out the Field of Mars located nearby, and walked the entire length of it and rubbed shoulders with some interesting people along the way. We also snapped about half a dozen pics of the Tower itself, including the WIlliams’ family portrait shown below. Once we reached the far end of the field, we rounded the Academie Militaire and proceeded on foot to our next destination – the UNESCO Headquarters. As a heritage register officer, Carla was keen on seeing this place.
This took some time, and we once again stopped at a roadside restaurant to get some lunch. And I got to say, the building itself was pretty un-ostentatious compared to some of what we’d already seen. But our visit just happened to coincide with a series of displays for International Book and Copyright Day. Trust me, this is actually a lot more fun than it sounds! As we walked down the hallway, we passed dozens of exhibits celebrating different books, styles of writing, animation, and the like. Carla and I sat down at one of the Calligraphy boots, which taught Georgian style writing, and began to learn.
This included the proper way to apply ink to a traditional calligraphy pen and write letters and symbols in the Georgian style. This part was definitely fun, and Carla and I did pretty well for ourselves! She’s a quick study, and calligraphy is kind of my thing. The instructor noted this, and told Carla “Il est fort” (he’s strong) with a degree of wonder and pride in his voice. I didn’t tell him that I’ve actually been doing it for year, even though my preferred style is Black Letter Gothic and I have no formal training.
And then, for our last stop, we went back along the Seine and stopped in at the Musée d’Orsay. Another line, another long wait, and we were inside, surrounded by Paris’ premier museum of sculpture and art. Carla and my mother sure enjoyed this part. Unfortunately, I had had too much sun that day and my feet were too tired for me to really getting into the spirit of things. Still, it was impressive to see so many impressionist paintings, sculptures, and in one place. Van Gogh was unfortunately not available, since his work was part of a special exhibit. Still, we spent some serious time in the converted train station, and took some rather magnificent pics before finally calling it a day.
We walked back to the hotel along Boulevard St. Germaine, the Seine-adjacent strip that is packed with stores, restaurants, and greenery. We stopped by the 2 Magots (pronounced maj-oats), a restaurant frequented by Hemmingway in his day. Across the street, we also caught a glimpse of the apartment where existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre and philosopher and renowned feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir lived. It really is amazing sometimes how little you have to do in Paris to experience some serious history.
After another sleep, we prepared for our penultimate day Paris. This would consist of us taking in some final sights and sounds and then checking in at one of the airport hotels for the night. For my choice, I asked that we go to the Musee du Moyenne-Ages, the museum of Medieval History on Rive Droite (northern side) of the Seine, which was on the way towards the destination my mother and wife so wanted to see – Les Galleries Lafayette (the freakishly big department store near the Opera Nationale de Paris).
I have to say though that the former was a bit of a letdown. Having expected a large museum similar to the ones we had been seeing all throughout Europe, one containing tons of artifacts and displays recreating the period in question, what we got was basically a collection of medieval statues, architecture and sculpture. Only one room, at the tail end of the museum, contained any arms, armor, or artifacts that weren’t structural in nature (seen below). While this was still very interesting, I could not help but feel disappointed.
Where were all the swords, armor, livery, and seige engines? Where were the maps that showed the Battle of Hastings, Agincourt, the Crusades and the seige of Constantinople? Where were the recreated manuscripts of Aristotle and other classic texts that were being preserved by monasteries? Where were the displays of what everyday life was like for men, women and children of all walks of life? This is a museum dedicated to one of the most brutal, interesting, and pivotal periods in European history, last roughly 1000 years (5th to 15th century) and encompassing the fall of the Roman Empire to the “discovery” of the New World and the beginning of the Renaissance. Why it was jam-packed with the same stuff found at the Musee D’Orsay or the Louvre?
Ah well, you get the point. After leaving here, we pressed on to the 9th arrondisement and the Galeries Lafayette. This massive department store that encompasses several floors of a domed building, and is jam-packed with clothing outlets, cafes, shoe stores, and just about every other kind of apparel store imaginable. My mother and wife were quite happy wandering around and checking things out, while my father and I were just generally bored, tired, and grumbling. But we did our best, since this last visit in Paris was all about the women getting to explore a major landmark.
Still, I can’t emphasize enough how much I hate shopping, at least when I’m not buying anything. But therein lies the problem, I guess. I believe shopping is about buying things and leaving. My wife believes its about trying things on, looking for deals, and endlessly perusing what’s available. When this is happening, I quickly run out of patience and enthusiasm, my feet get sore, my head begins to ache, and I desperately want to go “do something”. Yeah, I’m not good company on these sorts of things.
Still, as you can see from the pics (above and below), the place was very opulent and I would not deny that it was something we needed to see before we left. And then, it was a trip on Le Metro to the airport, where we were serenaded by a gentlemen and his accordion. I tell ya, these are the kind of things you really need to see while in Paris. The entire time he played, and he was pretty damn good too, it was like I could hear the soundtrack to an old Parisian movie, or any movie set in Paris that is trying to go for that romantic feel.
Once we reached Charles de Gaulle, again, we hopped the shuttle bus that took us to our hotel a few klicks away. Naturally, the international airport has several major chains set up a short ride away and shuttles countless people too and from the place on a daily basis. We checked in, ate at the hotel restaurant, and went to bed early. This was essential given that we had an early morning, and 20 hours of flight time and layovers to look forward to!
This time around, it was easier since we the eventual jet lag kind of worked in our favor. No overnights and by the time we landed, it would be late at night so we could get swiftly to sleep. And while the layovers SUUUUUCKED – three hours in Toronto and Vancouver respectively – the flights were easy enough to get through. Fourteen hours of flying time doesn’t seem so bad when you got plenty of movies and cable Tv shows to watch. And I managed to catch a few I’ve been meaning to see, like Anchorman 2, Pacific Rim, Catching Fire.
And when it ended, we found ourselves in Nanaimo and ready to hit the hay! A long and sound sleep, and we had breakfast with my parents, discussed our trip, and lamented how we would miss getting up every morning, having breakfast together, and then going out to see historic sites. But we all agreed, we were ready to get home and we missed out cats! So after packing up and saying goodbye for the last time, we hit the island highway and drove off in separate directions.
And I have to say, readjusting to life here at home has been quite difficult. After you see so much of history commemorated, honored, preserved and remembered, with battles that shook the world, wars that changed the course of history, and monuments, artifacts, buildings and entire cities that have stood for thousands of years, domestic life can seem pretty damn humdrum. Lucky for us, we have our photo collections, our keepsakes, our memories and our stories. And sharing them like this with the outside world has been a fun way for me to remember it all.
So thanks for reading and I hope that someday in the not-too-distant future, I get to share something equally engrossing and awesome with you all! Carla and I of course have our plans, and we’ve already been talking to my folks about our next trip together, where it will take us, and how we’re going to do it all up right this time! So expect to hear more at some point, and as always, I would like to remind people how important it is to remember all that has happened in the past century to make this world a safer and better place.
I guess there’s no way to end this other than to close with the very sentiments that started it all…
Welcome back to the latest edition on the Williams’ Family Eurotrip 2014! Today, in what I hope will be the second-last post in this segment, I will be covering some of my favorite aspects of the trip. These included our visit to the Caen Memorial Museum, our overnight in Chartres, and our arrival in Paris which was accompanied by some very interesting times in the Latin Quarter. Here’s how it all well down…
Friday, April 18th – Sunday, April 20th – Caen and Chartres and Paris: The day started with us packing up and saying goodbye to the Lion D’Or, which for the past few days had been our home away from home, complete with feline company! Then, we hit the road on our way to Chartres; and unlike previous days, we only made one stop along the way. However, it was an important stop, since it was the last stop on our tour of World War II sites and memorials. Initially, we had talked about visiting the Ardennes Abbey, where 20 Canadian POWs had been murdered by SS troops on July 8th, 1944.
The Abbey has since been converted into a museum that pays homage to these individuals and commemorates the sacrifices made by countless people during the Battle of Normandy. However, my father had visited it twice now and cautioned that it was quite depressing. So instead, we decided to detour through the northern part of Caen to visit the Mémorial deCaen, a museum and memorial which was by far the largest and most detailed museum we had seen on the trip.
Outside the museum, we found a lovely map where I concluded explaining the events surrounding the Battle of Caen – one of the most intensive battles to take place during Operation Overlord and the liberation of France. This proved to be a good time to share what I knew, since the museum was immensely more detailed on the subject and would have made my little talk pointless! And picking up where we had left off during our visit to Juno Beach and the Normandy countryside, I began sharing with my wife and olks exactly how hard it had been in 1944 to take the city.
Initially a D-Day objective, it would take the British, Canadian and Allied forces a total of 45 days to secure the city of Caen. Its strategic position in the Eastern Sector of Normandy, as well being a major crossing point over the Orne river, made capturing it an absolute necessity. To the Allies, taking the city was a matter of securing a solid beachhead and preventing a German counter-attack. To the Germans, holding it was a matter of ensuring that the Allied forces would be denied the ability to venture father south.
In June, the Canadian 3rd Division managed to secure the high ground to the west and south-west of the city, including the towns of Carpiquet, Authrie and Rots. To the north, the British I Corps had also seized all land outside of the city, but still faced tough resistance from the German 12th SS Panzers, the 21st Panzer Division, and the 716th Infantry Division. Since their attempt to take the city by a direct assault on D-Day had failed, General Montgomery now looked to take the city with a pincer movement.
Thus began Operation Perch, which commenced on the 7th of June (D-Day+1) and aimed at achieving a breakout west around Bayeux. As the I Corps attacked the town of Cagny some 5 km south-east of Caen, the British XXX Corps (located 20 km to the west) would push south of Bayeux and cross the Odon river, in an attempt to outflank the Germans south of the city. Almost immediately, the attack ran into problems, which would force further delays in liberating Caen.
In the west, the XXX Corps was delayed after reaching the town of Tilly-sur-Seulles, where they became bogged down by hedgerows and stiff resistance from the 12th SS Panzers and the Panzer-Lehr Division – an elite unit with many of Germany’s most advanced tanks (such as the Panzer V “Panther” tank, pictured above). In the east, the I Corps’ advance was stalled thanks to tough resistance from the battle-hardened 21st Panzer Division. By the 13th of June, the offensive was called off.
However, on the following day, the German line broke to the west of the XXX Corps, thanks to the efforts of the American 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One). After withdrawing south, the Germans opened a 12 km gap in their lines, which the British 7th Armored Division sought to exploit by pushing south. In an attempt to outflank the Panzer-Lehr Division, the 7th Armored aimed to capture the town of Villers-Bocage some 15 kms south of Bayeux.
However, the British once again experienced severe resistance and after two days of intense fighting, they fell back on June 14th. It was hoped that with some reinforcements, they would resume the attack on the 19th and push through. However, a terrible storm fell on the English Channel, which caused severe disruption to beach supply operations and damaged the artificial harbor at Arromanches (see “Part the Fourth”, specifically the stuff dealing with Mulberry Harbor).
Because of this, offensive operations were postponed until July, at which point, General Montgomery would once again plan to seize Caen by a direct assault. The first phase of this assault was known as Operation Windsor, and called for the Canadian and British forces west of Caen to retake the town of Carpiquet from the 12th SS and then secure the Carpiquet Airfield to the south. The second phase, known as Operation Charnwood, would see the I Corps clearing the north end of Caen and seizing the bridgeheads into the southern part of the city.
On July 4th, the attack commenced, with Canadian and British forces braving mines, anti-tank guns, and machine gun nests to take Carpiquet. By the following day, the town had been secured and several German counterattacks had been repulsed. By July 8th, acting on intelligence provided by the French Resistance, the Canadian and British forces marched on the airfield and found it abandoned. Operation Windsor was a success.
Operation Charnwood, by contrast, met with limited success, and caused significant damage to the city of Caen. On July 7th, the began with a massive aerial bombardment where the first wave of bombers dropped over 1,800 tons of munitions on the city. The Allies hoped to minimize civilian deaths by dropping leaflets prior to the bombing. However, the drop took place just a day prior, and due to complications caused by the weather, only a few thousands leaflets reached their destination and only a few hundred townspeople left.
On the following morning, the I Corps mobilized and reached the outskirts of town by nightfall. The Germans immediately began evacuating across the Orne river, leaving elements of their forces behind to fight a rearguard action in the rubble-filled streets. Despite fierce resistance, the English and Canadian forces secured the northern half of Caen by the 9th of July and decimated the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. However, the bridges across the Odon were not secured, and were either blocked by rubble or heavily defended from the south bank.
Because of this, the Operation was called off by the 9th of July since no further gains were possible. Though it had been delcared a success, Caen was not yet fully liberated and the city had suffered extensive damage. It’s civilian population which had been roughly 60,000 before the battle – had now dropped to 17,000, which caused widespread resentment towards the liberators. Nevertheless, the townspeople in the northern half of the city still came out in force to celebrate the defeat of the Germans.
Later than month, Monty once again planned to take the rest of the city with a pincer movement. Known as Operation Atlantic, this assault involved the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division advancing to the east of Caen to secure the suburb of Colombelles while the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division drove south to seize the high ground of Verrieres Ridge. Once again, these assaults would coincide with a British offensive farther east. On the 18th and 19th of July, the Canadian 3rd Division managed to secure the town of Colombelles from the 21st Panzers and drove them over the Orne river, effectively liberating all of Caen.
Unfortunately, the 2nd Division was stalled while trying to take Verrieres Ridge, thanks in part to heavy rains that turned the ground to mud – which bogged down their armor support and grounded the RAF – and because the Germans were well fortified and had artillery support. After several days of fighting, the 2nd Division fell back and were reinforced by elements of the 3rd Divisions; and together, they were able to halt the counter-attacks launched by the 12th SS Panzers.
Meanwhile, the I and VIII British Corps initiated Operation Goodwood on July 18th, which sought to capture the town of Bourguébus and the high ground south of the city. Once again, the operation was preceded by extensive bombing, which harried the German forces that had fallen back from Caen. However, the advance stalled due to numerous factors and the British lost the element of surprise. For starters, the British only had six bridges over the Orne river, which slowed the crossing of the 1000+ vehicles taking part in the offensive considerably.
Once they reached the other side, they were forced to contend with minefields that had been lain by the 51st Highland Division to defend their positions just a few days prior. But since the element of surprise was already lost, British command decided to order the mines cleared. Two days later, the attack resumed. However, the Germans had recovered from the bombing by then, and the British were forced to clear several well-defended towns that were connected by underground tunnels.
In addition, the German artillery on Bourguébus ridge had not been destroyed by the Allied bombing. And thanks to their numerous observation posts stationed throughout the villages in the region, they were able to observe the British advance and call in artillery support on their armor. Between the 18th and the 20th, they also mounted numerous counter-attacks, and by the end of the day, Montgomery brought the operation to a close, citing bad weather.
All told, Goodwood did not go as planned and was a failure in terms of achieving a breakout. Some 4000-5000 Allied troops and 250-350 tanks were also lost in the assault. The German losses are unknown, but some 2500 men were captured (mostly by the British since the Canadians were no longer taking SS prisoners) and between 75 and 100 tanks were destroyed. However, these two operations did manage to secure important strategic ground, liberated the rest of Caen, and effectively bled the Germans dry in the region.
But most importantly of all, the sustained British, Canadian and Allied efforts in and around Caen managed to tie down four German Corps, which included important armored divisions, while the Americans were planning their own breakout to the west. On July 25th, just one day after the Canadians and British were told to dig in, the 1st US Army launched Operation Cobra, which effectively achieved a breakout around the town of Saint-Lô.
This breakout would allow the American forces to drive south and east, effectively outflanking what was left of the German forces, while the British 2nd Army – with the Canadian 4th and 1st Polish Armored Divisions leading the way – closed in on them from the north. This encirclement maneuver, which would come to be known as the Battle Falaise Pocket, effectively decimated what was left of the German army and signaled the liberation of France. Thereafter, the Allies would advance onto Paris and by the 30th of August, they were marching down the Champs d’Elysee. A massive crowd of jubilant Parisians turned out to welcome their arrival, and the liberation of France was declared.
All of this and more was covered in beautiful detail inside the museum, which began with a movie called “”. We then proceeded through a series of rooms with pictures, artifacts, infographics and write-ups that explained every aspect of the war – ranging from the prelude and the build-up to every event that took place between 1939 and 1945. And of course, considerable space and resources were committed to the aftermath, which included the Cold War, Peacekeeping, and war in peace in the modern world.
The entire experience then closed with a movie entitled “Hope”, which gave an audio-visual rundown of the conflicts and major historical events that have taken place since 1945. And though the tone of the movie didn’t seem particularly hopeful, it seem to contain some hints that lessons had been learned and the state of the world had improved somewhat since. At least, that was the impression I chose to take away, others in our party disagreed.
And then, it was on to Chartres, lock, stock and barrel! Compared to the town where we spent the previous week and a half, this city was significantly bigger. As such, it took some time to navigate through the morass of major streets and burbs before we finally came to the old town, which is instantly identifiable by the ancient stone wall and mote that surround it, not to mention the fact that it sits on the high-ground. And in the distance, we could see the spires of the looming at the crest of the hill.
Once inside the walls, the streets instantly narrowed, and getting to our hotel – which was awesomely located next to the Cathedral – involved going along some winding back-streets that proceeded ever uphill. Betty (our GPS) had some issues, mainly because the tight streets and high walls made it hard for her to get a signal. And yet, we somehow found our way to the top and street with our hotel on it. And once we had unpacked and entered, the nice lady who ran the place took on another climbing adventure.
Basically, this hotel (which overlooks the Cathedral) is a narrow, stacked house. On the ground floor, there’s the restaurant and bar, with the rooms stacked vertically above and below it. My folks were in the room one floor up, while Carla and I got the appropriately-named “Ange” room (Angel) that was at the very top, and had the best view of the Cathedral. It also had something we hadn’t seen in days and were looking forward to using – a tub with jets!
The room was also very traditional looking – with wallpaper that looked like plaster coating and old wooden beams in the ceiling that woke us up with their creaking! My folks room was a little different. In addition to a strange 80’s deco scheme, it had a circular bed, a stand-up shower and no tub, and a wall-mounted fire place that took some time to figure out. In fact, it wasn’t even immediately apparent that it WAS a fireplace.
After unpacking and uncorking the cider and Calvados in our room (an experience that left us a little shaken), the four of us proceeded to take a walk around the Cathedral before having dinner. In many ways, the Chartres Cathedral was similar to what we had seen in Ypres and Bayeux – in that their designs were a combination of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. This is owing to their immense longevity and the fact that they’ve been renovated and had additions put on over the centuries.
However, Chartres was bigger by comparison, and had what my father noted were true examples of flying buttresses. Did I mention he’s an architect? That kind of seems like something worth mentioning. In any case, these are basically load-bearing arches that are attached to the outside of the building, a common feature in Gothic cathedrals. And this baby had plenty of them! And of course, the stain-glass windows – which according to information provided inside contain the first blue glass ever made – were breathtakingly impressive.
After noting the labyrinth pattern on the stone floor – and some strange symbols in the center of it that we joked were evidence of the da Vinci Code – we walked around to the Nave (my father pointed out all the architectural features and names) and noticed the stone wall that was covered with intricate carvings. We also noted the renovations that were taking place, where the columns and stonework were all getting a “facelift”. This amounted to stripping the top layers off to remove the 1000+ years worth of soot that had built up them.
To save time, I should also note that we came back the next day and scale the steps of the bell tower. This is something you have to pay for, but we seriously wanted to mount those 350 steps to take in the view. And so we could say we did it! Now let me tell you, scaling a Gothic Cathedral’s 350-step winding staircase is no picnic! The going was cramped, the air moldy, and the steps a little slippery. Still, we couldn’t help but feel we were breathing in centuries of history, even if it did cause some coughing afterward.
At the top, we got a bird’s eye view of the old section of town, not to mention the new town and the countryside beyond. Once again, there were plenty of golden canola fields to be seen between grassy fields. And of course, we got a pretty good close-up of the flying buttresses, gargoyles and other Gothic external features. And then, we descended, which proved to be almost but not quite as difficult as going up. We also watched the Cathedral fill with people as the locals prepared for the Easter Sunday service.
Getting back to the night before, we then had dinner at the restaurant, which had an interesting feature of the menu. My mother spotted “Filet de Loup”, which roughly translates to “filet of wolf”, or so we thought. Naturally, we were a little concerned and suspected we might have wandered into a cultural difference. But our server resolved this when she explained that this is actually the name for a whitefish filet, and found our misunderstanding to be quite perplexing. Seriously, she looked at us like we were on drugs!
My wife and mother had the lasagna, which they didn’t really like, while my father enjoyed the filet de loup, and I enjoyed a filet of monkfish with chorizo. This was all washed down with glasses of Affligem, which were necessary after the Caldavos incident. And then, we popped back outside because we noticed an interesting light show happening on the front of the cathedral. At first, we thought someone was throwing rolls of TP down the front. But upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a dazzling visual display that was being projected onto the facade.
We snapped some photos of the show, but as you can see, they didn’t turn out to well owing to the need for low light to capture all the vivid colors. Then it was back to our rooms, a nice hot bath, and a sound sleep. Well, mostly sound, since the popping noise in the ceiling did wake us up and one point and make us wonder if the old building was about to fall down around our ears. Lucky for us, it didn’t, and the popping noises abated long enough for us to get back to sleep.
In the morning, we packed up (mournfully), did our second tour of the Cathedral (complete with the stair climb), and then said good-bye to the hotel. While we waited for my father to secure the car from a lot down the road, I spotted a building that bore the name “l’Academie de la Biere”, which I suspected was a bar with some serious taps and bottles. I ventured down to snap some photos of it. Too bad we hadn’t noticed it the night before!
And then, with the car packed and the bill paid, we set off for Paris! Our first stop was the Charles de Gaulle Airport where we needed to return the car. Our time in Paris would be spent car-free, as we knew that public transit there is quite extensive, and to drive there is to take one’s life in one’s hands! Predictably, getting into the airport was about as hard as getting out, and it took a few roundabouts on the highway to get to the rental lot on the bottom level.
From the airport, we hopped the train into the city, where he began subway surfing from train to train. It was here that we came to understand exactly what is meant by “mass transit”, which in Paris equates to the crush of humanity trying to make its way through congested platforms, trains and tunnels. And we had all our bags with us, to boot, which were quite heavy. Wanting to be the good son, I carried a few heavy bags, and was offered help repeatedly.
Eventually, to end the flurry of concern and proferred aid, I said: “The next person who offers me help will be mentioned, by name, in the suicide note.” That’s not an original quote, fyi, and it didn’t quite get the laughs I was hoping for. And after much hauling and walking, we eventually found our exit and ascended into the Paris city streets. From there, we walked the few blocks that would take us to our hotel in the Latin Quarter – la Hôtel des Grandes Ecoles.
I’ll be honest, our rooms were a bit tight, but the hotel did have a lovely courtyard paved with cobblestones. And not far away, there was a lovely roundabout with plenty of restaurants, all of which had extensive patios that faced the fountain in the middle. We took a look at all this and selected one based on my wife’s craving for nachos. It was called la Petit , a place that specialized in gourmet burgers and did make a good nacho plate. Instead of sour cream and cheddar, they used crème fraîche and melted Emmental.
Much like in Bayeux, we would dine here twice. Some places just make a lasting impression I guess! Oh, and the beer of choice around the Latin Quarter was yet another Abbey Blonde ale known as Grimbergen, though Kronenbourg certainly got top billing at the local bars as well. With our bellies full and our feet and backs tired of walking and carrying bags, we once again retired for the night and planned for a full day of adventure on the morrow.
This consisted of us taking a walk down to the Seine to take in all the sights and sounds of Paris. We arrived on Quai St. Bernard, with the Cathedral of Notre Dame to the west by a few leagues. We headed their immediately, and found some serious crowds assembled out front. Since it was Easter Weekend, there was quite a lineup to get in, and we decided we’d have to wait until another day to see the place from the inside. So instead, we decided to catch a bus to see all of the major sights in one afternoon.
As a sidenote, people looking to book a Paris bus tour have the option of doing a single 2 hour roundabout trip, or a day-long trip that where people can jump on and off the bus at any of the major sights. We opted for the former, and rode around on a double-decker and listened to a audio guide through uncomfortable earbuds tell us about what we were seeing. These included the Musee d’Orsay, the Place de Concorde, the Tour Eiffel, the Champs d’Elysee, the Arc de Troimphe, the Hotel des Invalides, the Louvre, the Pont d’Alexandre III, the Galerie Lafayette, the Opera Nationale, the Écoles Militaires, the Field of Mars, and the Hotel des Invalides, amongst others…
I shall NOT be giving historical background on all of these. Suffice it to say, this blog aint long enough and you people know how to use Google. But I will say, the roundabout tour was fun, scenic, and really drives home the fact that Paris is packed to the gills with heritage and living examples of its long and turbulent history. Seriously, one cannot drive or walk down the street without spotting a plaque, monument or statue that tells the story of something immensely significant that happened there.
Afterwards, we returned to our hotel and met a lovely man named Jaeger. This attorney, who hailed from Australia, was in Paris on business, and after being chatted up by my father, invited us to dinner. The place he took us was a few blocks over from the hotel, and was rather famous! Known as the Maison de Verlaine, a restaurant that is famous for having been frequented by countless literary, political and showbiz personalities – like Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy’s, to name a few.
And after a rather sumptious meal and a bottle of red that was both subtle and robust, we dropped Jaeger off at a bar in the roundabout near our hotel and retired to our beds for some sleep. Having toured all the major sights that day, we decided we would visit those we were particularly intrigued by on the following day. Only this time, we’d be going by foot and we planned to beat the lines. We had only a few days to go, and planned to see as much as we possibly could before our departure.
But more on that next time. I sincerely hope it’s the last! 😉