Back from Europe 2016 – Part II

Back from Europe 2016 – Part II

Hey again, folks! I find myself with some free time again, and wanted to continue telling people about my family and my trip to Europe this past June. Last time, I recounted our trip to Northern France and our lovely time we spent in the small town of Grangues, where we got to pay our respects to those who died during D-Day and the liberation of Normandy – which included my great uncle Wilmot Pettit.

Today, I would like to mention everything else we did while in Normandy during the D-Day celebrations. There was plenty to do, plenty to see, and plenty to experience at the time. Literally, an entire region was on its feet celebrating the 72nd anniversary of their liberation, complete with recreations, guided tours, and countless commemorative ceremonies.

Bayeux:

While in France, we stayed just outside the town of Bayeux, the historic location of the Bayeux Tapestry (which tells the story of William the Conquerors conquest of England) and one of the first towns to be liberated during the Battle of Normandy. Before moving on to Grangues, we stayed in a lovely bed and breakfast called the Ferme de la Gronde, which is a converted country estate.

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Ferme de la Gronde, France

One of the things that we immediately noticed when checking in was the lovely, musty smell of the place. Everything smelled like old stone walls and plaster, like we were staying in a medieval church or castle. But of course, that’s understandable, since the estate itself surely dates back to the Middle Ages and the same construction techniques that went into the Bayeux Cathedral were surely used.

The first day was tough. When we arrived, we were running on very little sleep and had been in transit for almost twelve hours. And then there was the nine hour time different to factor in. And the first night, our sleep was a bit restless. There’s nothing like exhaustion and jet lag to disturb your sleep! But we happened to see some wonderful things on our way into town and our first day reconnoitering.

For instance, the town of Bayeux was already packed with veterans from across the Channel. And the poppies and signs that said “Welcome to our Liberators” were out in full force. So the streets were pretty busy throughout the day, and pretty packed at night. The Bayeux Cathedral was also holding ceremonial services to mark the anniversary of the liberation. Basically, despite our fatigue, an energizing mood was in the air!

And after our first (restless) sleep, we began plotting our tour of the Normandy Beaches! And here’s what we got up to…

Arromanches:

Our first stop was to the town of Arromanches, located on the coast. During D-Day, this town was the site of Gold Beach landings, and also became the locations where the Allies placed one of their Mulberry Harbors (the other being installed at Omaha Beach). These artificial ports

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The town of Arromanches, with a view of the English Channel

In 2014, my folks, my wife, and I visited this lovely town and took a tour of the D-Day museum there. But this time around, the attraction was the bagpipers, crowds, and celebrations marking the 72nd anniversary of the liberation. As soon as we arrived, we got swept up in the festivities. And after walking the beach, ascending the hill in town (at the top is a Sherman tank), and grabbing some lunch, we moved onto our next stop!

Point-du-Hoc:

Any American readers ought to instantly recognize this name. During D-Day, the US Army Ranger Assault Group scaled the cliffs (while under fire) at this point along the Normandy coast to take out a series of German heavy guns. Once they reached the top, they realized that the guns have been relocated, and fought their way inland to find the guns and destroy them.

Today, this site is well preserved. Not only are the craters from where Allied naval artillery hit still evident, but the crews that tend the grounds have done a good job ensuring that most of the fortifications have remained intact.

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Empty gun emplacement at Point-du-Hoc, June, 2016
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And that’s me atop one of the gun emplacements at Point-du-Hoc

I was reminded of Longues-sur-Mer, a coastal battery that we visited in 2014, in many ways. At both sites, the old cement bunkers still sit in the earth, worn and weathered. Even the ones that were hit during D-Day and destroyed are still a testament to what happened there, over 70 years ago.

And like everywhere else in Normandy at the time, the place was flooded with tourists and re-enactors were everywhere, dressed up in US Army Ranger uniforms and conducting tours. And much like the other sites along the Normandy coast where the Allies came ashore, there is a museum there, maintained by the American Battle Monument Commission.

One thing we were a little baffled by was the monument that overlooks the cliffs. One the one hand, it kind of resembles a sword with a cross guard sticking out of the ground. On the other hand, it looks like a menhir, which may be culturally significant as far as the region’s ancient inhabitants are concerned. Any other comparisons are ones I will not make (and I respectfully ask that nobody else do so either!). Needless to say, we all thought it looked a bit weird.

The Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc in France. Credit: abmc.gov
The Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc in France. Credit: abmc.gov

Juno Beach:

Next, we traveled to the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer, a relatively quiet town that sits on the Normandy Coast. This town is made famous due to the fact that it sits next to the 8 km (5 mi) stretch of beach where the Canadian liberation force – which consisted of 14,000 troops belonging to the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armored Brigade – came ashore on D-Day.

This was the second time my family and I visited this site together, and about the fourth or fifth time my mother and father had. And in addition to walking the beach again to see if we couldn’t put ourselves into the mindset of the soldiers that came ashore under fire, we also visited the Juno Beach Center. As a point of interest, my aunt – who is a high-school principal back in Brantford, Ontario and the the one who introduced my father to the battlefield tours – sits on the museum’s board of directors.

Juno Beach, Normandy Coast, June 2016
My wife, father, and I, approaching my mother on Juno Beach, Normandy Coast, June 2016

As such, my father will drop her name any time we are there to see if they know her. So typical of him, always proud of his sister! However, this year, we didn’t take the tour of the museum (as we had in 2014). This was just our second day of our trip, and we were all still very jetlagged and tired. And after visiting three major D-Day sites, we were more than a little bit tired. As such, after grabbing some lunch from the vendors that line the waterfront, we decided to make one last stop at the Commonwealth cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer before heading back to Bayeux.

It is here that Canadians soldiers who died on D-Day are interred. And after paying our respects and laying Canadian flag pins on the graves of any Williams’ and Wilson’s (my father and mother’s family names) as is our custom, we headed back to Bayeux to enjoy some delicious food at the same place we dined the night before – Le Garde Manger, which sits in the shadow of the Bayeux Cathedral. Some Affligem beers and some tasty entrees, and we were ready to call it a night!

The Juno Beach Center, Courseulles-sur-Mer, France. Credit: junobeach.org
The Juno Beach Center, Courseulles-sur-Mer, France. Credit: junobeach.org

And that was just the first two days! What followed is what I covered in the first installment. This included packing up and leaving Bayeux, traveling to the small town of Grangues, and participating in their commemorative ceremony to remember all those who died to liberate their country (of which my great uncle, Wilmot Pettit, was one), and those who died in both WWI and WWII. You can read about that experience here.

Given that I’ve really been taking my time to write these, I apologize for the fact that they are only covering a few things at a time. I promise to be speedier in giving the next one… and the next one. Hopefully, I can cover the entirety of the trip and the significance it had in just a few more posts. Wish me luck, and a happy belated Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day/Armistice Day to all!

Remembering The Great War

Tower-of-LondonThis past August 5th marks the centennial of the beginning of one of history’s greatest follies, otherwise known as World War I and the Great War. And all over the world, this anniversary is being marked in a number of ways. But in London, a particularly interesting display has been created by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper that gives new meaning to the term “swords into plowshares”.

Using Tower of London, an institution that once represented oppression and imprisonment, the artists creatively arranged a series of red ceramic poppies – 888, 246 to precise. Each one represents a British soul who died during the war. Resembling blood pouring forth, the poppies extend from a window and then sweep into the Tower’s the moat, giving a visceral casualty-visualization to the extreme death toll.

Tower-of-London-1The last poppy will be “planted” November 11, the date WWI ended and the poppies will be available for purchase. As dreamed up by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper, the display – which is known as “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” – was inspired by the words Cummings found in the will of a fallen solider. As he explained in an interview with The Guardian:

I don’t know his name or where he was buried or anything about him. But this line he wrote, when everyone he knew was dead and everywhere around him was covered in blood, jumped out at me: ‘The blood-swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread.’

This latest display which attempts to visualize the costs of war in the same way “The Fallen” commemorated all those who fell at Arromanches Beach on D-Day. Created by British artists Jamie Wardley and Andy Moss, whose medium is most often sand, the artists and an army of 500 volunteers used rakes and stencils to create the silhouettes of the 9000 soldiers who fell on the beaches of Normandy on June 6th, 1944.

Arromanches_The FallenAs you can see from the aerial photograph above, the visualization drives home the terrible loss of human life in a way that cold statistics never can. This artistic display was made in honor of Peace Day last year, which has been held on Sept.21st of ever years since 1982. Having been to Arromanches this past April, I am sorry to say that I missed it. But such displays are short-lived, which only serves to add to their poignancy.

This past June 6th was a time of sober reflection and commemoration as well. This year also marked the 70th anniversary since the Normandy invasion, and the occasion was not only a time to honor those who fell in what was arguably the most ambitious undertaking in history, it was also a time for world leaders to come together and show their commitment to peace.

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscarIt has been a historic year, of that there is little doubt. And these two anniversaries are well-paired, drawing attention to two World Wars that were the most destructive in human history, but also inextricably linked. In total, some 90 million people died in both conflicts combined (thought estimates vary) and insisting that people remember how it all began is an opportunity to ensure that it never happens again.

As said before, the last poppy will be planted on Nov.11th, 2014 to mark the end of the war. To purchase one of these, simply click here.

Sources: fastcocreate.com, (2), poppies.hrp.org.uk

In Remembrance of D-Day

operation-overlord Today marks a truly historic anniversary, one which I’ve been hoping to talk about ever since I got back from Europe. You see, in addition to being the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities in World War I, 2014 also marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Europe in World War II. And it is today, on June 6th, that this began with the Allied landings in Normandy on D-Day. Codenamed Operation Overlord, this campaign was the beginning of the end for Hitler and his Third Reich.

I consider myself a very lucky person since this past April, I was able to see where much of this Operation took place. In addition to some of the beaches where the initial landings occurred, we also got the see the French countryside where the greatest amphibious invasion in history would extend into one of the greatest military campaigns of all time. And while doing this, we got to establish a personal connection by learning about how some of our family member died during and shortly after that “Day of days”.

Operation_OverlordPreparations:
Planning for this invasion –  which involved a 1,200-plane airborne assault , preceded an amphibious assault involving over 5,000 vessels and Nearly 160,000 troops – began in earnest in 1940 after the fall of France. But with the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the Allies found themselves under increasing pressure to open a “Second Front” in Europe. But logistics, and concerns over heavy casualties, delayed any such operation for a full three years.

Having learned the lesson of Dieppe, the Allies knew that any assault on the German-held coast of France would depend heavily on three major items. For starters, it would require sufficient manpower and support to succeed in making an initial landing. Second, it would require a functional port facility to ensure that supplies could make it into the foothold, once established. And third, it would require extreme secrecy to ensure that the Allied landings would achieve the element of surprise.

dieppe-dsThis is not to say that plans for an earlier invasion were not considered. In fact, in 1942, then Brigadier-General Dwight Eisenhower drew up  a formal plan to land an invasion force on the broad beachheads between Boulogne and Le Havre in north-eastern France. Reflecting American enthusiasm for an early entry into Europe, as well as a desire to reduce pressure on Soviet Forces in the East, the plan was shot down by Churchill and British military planners who saw it as unrealistic.

A second plan was also suggested for an early entry into Europe that year, which was known as Operation Sledgehammer. As a contingency to Roundup, this plan called for Allied forces to seize the French ports of either Brest or Cherbourg during the early autumn of 1942 along with areas of the Cotentin Peninsula. They were then to amass troops for a breakout the spring of 1943, coinciding with the Roundup landings farther to the east, and then move south into France.

ItalySalernoInvasion1943Wanting to avoid a costly confrontation similar to the Somme in World War I, Churchill advised that they focus instead on the Meditteranea. Much like the plan to strike at the enemy’s “soft underbelly” by landing in Galipoli and Southern Europe in World War I, this alternative seemed like a good way to strike at the Axis where they were weakest. Following the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa, this plan of attack began with the invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943 and the Italian mainland by September.

These operations provided the Allied troops with valuable experience in amphibious warfare. What’s more, the ill-fated operation at Anzio (Operation Shingle) in January of 1944 provided some additional lessons of what not to do during an invasion. Here, the Allied commander had failed to take advantage of the element of surprise and waited to consolidate his forces before attempting a breakout. As a result, a German counter-attack succeeding in eroding the beachhead until operations further south forced the Germans to withdraw.

Overlord:
D-DayWith all these lessons learned and preparations now complete, the Allies began to plan for the invasion of France in detail. The operation – dubbed “Overlord” – called for an amphibious invasion of five beachheads along the Normandy Coast. While the American 1st Army (under Gen. Omar Bradley) would land in the Western Sector at Omaha and Utah, the British 2nd Army (under Gen. Dempsey) would land These would be preceded by massive aerial and naval bombardment, plus the airborne landing of thousands of paratroopers in the interior.

The landings were to be preceded by airborne drops in the Normandy countryside, which were to be carried out by the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. The landing would take place near Caen on the eastern flank to secure the Orne River bridges, and north of Carentan on the western flank. The initial goal was to capture Carentan, Isigny, Bayeux, and Caen and take control of key crossroads and bridges to prevent the Germans from mobilizing a counterattack against the Allied beachhead landings.

airborne_troopsOnce ashore, the Americans would advance inland from Omaha and Utah to cut off the Cotentin Peninsula and capture the port facilities at Cherbourg. From Sword, Gold and Juno Beaches, the British and Canadians would capture Caen and form a front line to protect the American flank, while establishing airfields near Caen. Possession of Caen and its surroundings would give the Anglo-Canadians a suitable staging area for a push south to capture the town of Falaise.

With Normandy and the Contentin secured, the Allies would drive east to the Seine River and the liberation of Paris, which Montgomery envisioned would take 90 days. And to address the issue of supplies, the Allies also committed to building two artificial harbors (known as Mulberry Harbors) that would be transported across the English Channel and placed at the Omaha and Gold Beaches. From these, the Allies would be able to keep the supplies flowing until Cherbourg and other port facilities were secured along the coast.

MulberryB_-_PiersAnd in the months leading up to the invasion, the Allies conducted a substantial campaign of military deception, codenamed Operation Fortitude. Using both electronic and visual misinformation, and passing on intelligence through double-agents, the Allies were able to mislead the Germans as to the date and location of the main landings. The Normandy invasion, according to this misinformation, was merely a feint designed to lure German divisions away from the real landing site – the Pas de Calais region.

To really sell the Germans on this fake plan, a phoney army was commissioned at Dover, England. Here, real military units were stationed alongside artificial tanks and trucks to create the illusion of second, larger landing force that was preparing to land off the coast at Pas de Calais. General Patton, whom the German High Command still believed to be the Allies top general, was put in command of this phoney army. As a result, much of the German army would remain at Pas de Calais to defend against Patton’s supposed attack, even as the Normandy landings were taking place.

D-Day bomber dropping load 416thbg-a20-d-day 2013 6-5On June 5th, minesweepers began clearing lanes across the English Channel for the invasion, and troops began to load onto their ships from twenty departure points along the southern tip of England. The ships met at a rendezvous point nicknamed “Piccadilly Circus” south-east of the Isle of Wight to assemble into convoys to cross the Channel, and a thousand bombers and aircraft left before dawn to attack the coastal defences and drop airborne troops behind enemy lines. The invasion had begun!

D-Day:

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

—Eisenhower, Letter to Allied Forces

On the dawn of June 6th, preliminary naval bombardment from five battleships, twenty cruisers, sixty-five destroyers, and two monitors commenced. Their guns began firing at 05:45 am and continuing until 06:25 am. Five minutes later, infantry began arriving on the beaches in all five sectors. At Utah and Sword, resistance was light and the landings successful, and Allied units were able to make it shore with minor losses. At Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Point-de-Hoc, things did not go as planned.

ww2_dday_landingIn all of these cases, resistance proved stiff and the landings were complicated by high wind and choppy seas. At Point-de-Hoc, where the Rangers were tasked with seizing several coastal batteries, they managed to reach the top of the cliffs while under enemy fire, only to find that the German guns had been moved ahead of time. At Juno and Gold, British and Canadian forces experienced a tough fight as they were initially forced to land and take out the German positions without armor support.

But the worst fighting took place at Omaha, where German machine gunners, firing from bunkers that had not been destroyed by the preliminary bombardment, and located atop sea bluffs, fired on the exposed landing craft and troops. To make matters worse, the 1st American Infantry Division faced an entire German Infantry Division, rather than the single regiment that was expected. Combat engineers were also unable to clear the beaches for their tanks, forcing the Americans to advance without armored support.

Canadian_Soldiers_Juno_Beach_TownIn the end, disaster was averted thanks to troops and engineers making their way up five gullies along the sea wall, which allowed them to outflank the bunkers and take out the German machinegunners. By early afternoon, all the beachheads were secured. By 16:00, the German 21st Panzer Division began mounting a counterattack between Sword and Juno, but met stiff resistance and were forced to pull back to defend the area between Bayeux and Caen. 

Farther inland, the Airborne drops also did not go as planned. For the 82nd Airborne Division in the east, several of their gliders crashed or were shot down and some 5,245 troopers were killed, wounded, or missing. In the west, the 101st Airborne’s landing were scattered due to unexpectedly high German anti-aircraft fire, and the division suffered some 1,240 men killed, wounded, or declared missing on that single day. However, in the days that followed, both divisions were able to consolidate, take their objectives, and fight off numerous counter-attacks by German troops.

omaha_beachAll told, Allied casualties on the first day of the invasion were at least 12,000 with 4,414 confirmed dead, compared to 1000 lost by the Germans. In addition, only the Canadian forces that had landed at Juno were able to achieve any of their D-Day objectives, which included the seizure of the towns of Autrie and Carpiquet and the high ground west of Caen. In addition, the Allied invasion plans called for the capture of Carentan, St. Lô, Caen, and Bayeux on the first day, as well as the connection of all the bridgeheads. None of these objectives were achieved.

The five bridgeheads were not connected until 12 June; and Caen, a major objective, was still in German hands at the end of D-Day and would not be completely captured until the 21st of July. However, as the old saying goes “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. And no one who witnessed the great undertaking – including the Germans – could say that the operation had not been a success. Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on 6 June, and more than three million allied troops were in France by the end of August.

Kissing_the_War_GoodbyeLegacy of D-Day:
For all those involved and concerned, the invasion of Normandy was the beginning of the end of the war. Whereas the Germans had suffered multiple defeats in Russia, North Africa, Sicily and Italy – and already knew that they were not going to win the war – their defeat was not yet inevitable. When news had reached Hitler’s ears of the invasion, he was promptly advised that his only recourse was to “End the war”. Naturally, he did not, and it would be almost another year before the war officially ended.

But it was the sacrifices made by those many brave souls on this day some seventy-years ago that made the end of this terrible war inevitable. And so its only fitting that people all over the world are coming together to commemorate it. As I write this, countless veterans, civilians, and world leaders have converged on Normandy to pay their respects to the many soldiers and civilians who died on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy. This included some 1000 veterans who participated in Operation Overlord, the youngest of which are in their 80s.

dday-anniversaryNineteen world leaders were present at the event, including US President Obama, French President François Hollande, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Russian President Vladmir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president-elect. For some of these leaders, it is the first time they have met face to face since Russia annexed the Crimea, drawing condemnation and sanctions from the West.

It is good to see that seventy years later, people are able to overcome their differences and come together to reflect upon the lessons of history. Perhaps we can draw some inspiration from this and effect some change in the present as well. For those who lived through the Second World War, many of whom were old enough to remember the First World War, it was obvious that the world would not survive a third. Remembering the past is not only important since it made the present possible, its also intrinsic to avoiding the repeating of it.

Lest We Forget!

Back from Europe – Part the Fifth!

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscarWelcome 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 de Caen, a museum and memorial which was by far the largest and most detailed museum we had seen on the trip.

Mémorial de Caen, map out front of all the events around Caen during the Battle of Normandy 1944
Mémorial de Caen, map out front of all the events around Caen during the Battle of Normandy 1944

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.

Battle-for-CaenIn 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.

panzer_lehrIn 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.

operation_perchHowever, 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.

operation_windsorOn 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.

operation_charnwoodOn 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.

Royal_Engineers_in_CaenLater 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.

operation_goodwoodMeanwhile, 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.

operation_goodwood1In 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.

Saint_Lo_BreakthroughBut 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.

Mémorial de Caen, out front afterwards
Mémorial de Caen, out front afterwards

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.

The Cathedral of Chartres in the distance
The Cathedral of Chartres in the distance

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.

The moat that surrounds the old city
The moat that surrounds the old city

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.

The Cathedral entrance
The Cathedral entrance

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.

The stained-glass windows located at the nave
The stained-glass windows located at the Nave

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.

Carla at the top of the bell tower
Carla at the top of the bell tower

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!

The light show on the Cathedral facade that took place that night
The light show on the Cathedral facade that took place that night

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.

l'Academie de la Biere
l’Academie de la Biere

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.

Us on the train from CDG Airport to Paris
Us on the train from CDG Airport to Paris

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.

Hotel Grandes Ecoles Courtyard
Hotel Grandes Ecoles Courtyard

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.

La Seine, with the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in the distance
La Seine, with the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in the distance

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…

Streets of the Latin Quarter
Streets of the Latin Quarter

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.

La Maison de Verlaine, where we ate Sunday night
La Maison de Verlaine, where we ate Sunday night

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! 😉

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…

 

Back from Europe – Part the Third…

remembrance-dayAnd we’re back with the third installment in the Williams’ Family Eurotrip 2014! As I’m sure I’ve said a few times now, this trip could hardly be summed up in a single post. Even with two posts – a sum total of 6000 words – I’ve managed to cover only the first five days. I might be able to cover the rest with an additional two, but I can’t promise a thing! Nevertheless, the next segment of our trip, which took us from Ypres to Dieppe, was a very interesting time.

Not only did we learn about some very interesting battles, which included a major victory for a Canada and a national tragedy, this part of our trip also served as a transitional point between the time was dedicated to World War I sites and those dedicated to World War II. In between all that, we also got to enjoy ourselves in the scenic Normandy countryside. Here’s how it all happened…

Monday, April 14th – The Vimy Memorial and Dieppe:

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial in the distance
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial in the distance

Monday morning, we packed up, ate our last breakfast at the Albion Hotel, told them how much we enjoyed staying with them (my parents wrote a three page stellar review!), and prepared to head out again. This consisted of stopping by the market to get some sandwiches and bottles of water for the day, a necessity when you’re doing walking tours, and then see the Ypres Market, Cloth Museum and Cathedral one last time.

We then packed up the car and began driving for the French border, got on another toll highway, and drove through the sunny, canola flower-filled countryside. Eventually, we made it to The Vimy Monument, the last World War I site on our trip and the only stop along our way to Dieppe along the northern Normandy Coast. Long before we arrived, we could see the monument cresting the Ridge where it is located, not to mention the many slag heaps that mark the landscape.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge by Richard Jack
The Battle of Vimy Ridge by Richard Jack

Again, a little background on this historic battle is in order. As part of the Battle of Arras (April 9th to May 16th, 1917), the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge was part of an allied offensive against German positions around the town of Arras. The objective of the Canadian Corps was the high ground at the northernmost end of the front, an area which had remained in German hands despite previous offensives by both French and British forces.

By taking this position, the Canadians would ensure that the Germans would not be to observe the French and British advance further south, or direct artillery fire along the long axis of their advance. Supported by a creeping barrage, the Canadian attack would begin on April 9th and aimed to the fortified German positions along the ridge, as well as the  strategic town of Thélus and Givenchy-en-Gohelle. Thanks to a combination of factors, the attack went off without a hitch.

Battle_of_Arras_-_Vimy_Ridge_mapUltimately, the success of the assault was due to a combination of technical and tactical innovation, meticulous planning, powerful artillery support and extensive training. For weeks prior to the offensive, Canadian soldiers underwent training using models to represent the battlefield, and General’s Sir Julian Byng and Sir Arthur Currie made sure that every single soldier had a map of the ridge and knew exactly what would be needed of them.

The artillery support would rely on a relatively new tactic known as the creeping barrage, rather than the standard preparatory bombardment. In this latter case, artillery would shell the enemy line for days or weeks in advance of the attack, and then stop as the soldiers went “over the top” to charge the enemy positions. By contrast, a creeping barrage would begin shelling No Man’s Land to take out enemy barbed wire, and then crept forward to keep pace with the advance of the infantry.

battle_of_vimy_ridge_field_gun_firingIn so doing, the Canadian’s artillery support was able to catch the German defenders as they were coming out of their dugouts to set up their machine guns and defenses. New methods and equipment were also used to triangulate the positions of the German artillery guns and take them out in advance of the attack. This way, the Germans had no reprieve from the bombardment, and no way to shell the Canadians as they moved up the ridge.

Within three days, the Canadians had secured the entire ridge and their objectives and forced the Germans to retreat to the Oppy–Méricourt line some five kilometers away. In addition, they took 4000 German prisoners and inflicted an estimated 20,000 killed or wounded, while suffering 3,598 dead and 7,004 wounded of their own. This too was a first, in that all previous offenses of the war involved the attacker sustaining far greater losses than the defender.

The Vimy Monument, as seen from the west end
The Vimy Monument, as seen from the west end

In addition to being a victory for the Canadian Corps and the first successful Allied offensive of the war, the success of this assault – much their performance at the Second Battle of Ypres – was a defining moment for the fledgling nation of Canada. As Brigadier-General Alexander Ross would famously say of the battle: ” . . . in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” The triumph at Vimy also led to Byng’s promotion out of the Corps, and to his replacement by Arthur Currie — the first Canadian commander of the Corps.

Another outcome of this victory was the reputation earned by the Canadian Corps as being the army that could get things done where others could not. This reputation would further be tested in ensuing battles – the foremost of which was the Battle of Passchendaele – and The Hundred Days Offensive, the last one hundred days of the war when the Canadian Corps led the advance against the crumbling German lines through France and Belgium.

Us posing together at the top of the monument
The four of us together at the top of the monument

Anyhoo, we arrived National Memorial in the late morning and were immediately struck by its sheer size. It’s two pylons, shown above, reach 30 meters into the sky, one bearing the maple leaf of Canada and the other the fleur-de-lis of France, symbolizing the unity and sacrifice of both countries. At the top of the two pylons is a grouping of figures known collectively as the Chorus, the senior of which represent the figures of Justice and Peace. The figures of Hope, Charity, Honour and Faith, Truth and Knowledge are located beneath (as seen in the image below).

Between the two pylons is the Spirit of Sacrifice,  a young dying soldier is gazing upward in a crucifixion-like pose, having thrown his torch to a comrade who holds it aloft behind him. A lightly veiled reference to the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae,  the torch is passed from one comrade to another in an effort to keep alive the memory of the war dead. Other figures around the monument include Sympathy of the Canadians for the Helpless, as represented by a standing man surrounded by kneeling people stricken by hunger and disease.

The Two Pylons of the Monument
The Two Pylons of the Monument

Two more representations, named the Breaking of the Swords and cannons covered in laurel, further symbolize the monument’s commitment to peace. Facing east from the monument is the saddened figure of Canada Bereft, also known as Mother Canada, which personifies the young nation of Canada mourning her dead. The Mourning Parents, one male and one female, are reclining on either side of the western steps on the reverse side of the monument.

Inscribed around the outside wall of the monument are the names of the 11,285 Canadians killed in France, and whose final resting place is unknown. Some 60,000 Canadians died in the First World War, but even after all these years, 11,169 still remain unfound. To see these names listed in a continuous band, and knowing that they represent only a fraction of all those who died, really serves to drive home the terrible reality of the Great War and its brutality.

View from the monument, with sheep grazing in the distance
View from the monument, with sheep grazing in the distance

Looking upon the field that surrounded the monment, we were also quick to notice how the land was gnarled and lumpy, similar to what we had seen at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. Also like the Newfoundland Memorial, the land is surrounded by an electrified wire fence and warning signs that caution against venturing into it, and the only things allowed to walk freely there are grazing sheep. As someone who raised sheep as a child, my wife was naturally concerned about their safety.

However, the guides were quick to confirm that not a single sheep had died in the twenty years that they had been conducting tours. This was certainly a relief to hear, but it didn’t really detract from the reality of the war that this display drove home. As soon as the war ended, the farmers and their flocks returned; and over the course of the years, unexploded mines and munitions accounted for more than a few lives – human, bovine and ovine!

The Mourning Mother, and sheeps grazing in the distance
The Mourning Mother, and more sheep grazing in the distance

After scaling the steps of the monument, we began placing Canadian flag pins here and there to pay our respects. We also snapped some photos of the monument, the surrounding landscape, and of ourselves as a family standing on it. After this, we ventured to the far end of the site to see the Grange Subway – a preserved underground tunnel and stretch of trenches – and the site’s museum. On the way, we saw plenty more trenches, shell holes, and one massive crater that had clearly been left by a mine.

We reached the Grange Subway and booked a tour, and a kindly guide gathered us and about ten others and brought us inside. I can tell with you with no trace of shame that the place was pretty claustrophobic and I might have had some trouble if we hadn’t kept moving. Still, it was extremely impressive to see this tunnel that the Allies had dug during the course of the war. In addition to the walls carved from the chalk and flint that make up the ridge, the tunnel was replete with dugouts, side tunnels, officers messes, and message stations.

The German trenches
The preserved German trenches and mortar position

And of course, the whole place stunk of mold, wet stone and chalky residue. Our guide then took us back outside, to where the tunnel ended in a recreated section of Canadian trench that overlooked another massive crater. Here too, a mine had been exploded just short of the German front lines, which also had a section of preserved trench that showed us how well dug in and fortified their positions were. Unlike the Allied lines, the Germans had had time to pour concrete and build outposts and “pillboxes” to both observe and shoot from.

After the tour finished, we headed back to the museum to take one last look around and then eat our lunch. On the way, we found some additional artifacts, which included a piece of chalk and flint (pieces of the Ridge) and a piece of what appeared to be ceramic with a letter B stamped on it. From its size, contoured shape, and the way it was marked, we could only guess what it was. But the prevalent theory was that it might have been an officers china cup.

The cliffs of Dieppe
The cliffs of Dieppe

And then it was to Dieppe for the night! Despite some problems with our GPS navigator – whom we named Betty since of the female voice – we made it to the hotel down by the beach. Kudos to my mother for her good job of booking the place! After getting into our rooms, we had a nice beer down at the hotel bar, and then decided to get in a beach walk before dinner. Now I should note that this walk, despite the lovely sand and stone beach, was not strictly for enjoyment. You see, a lot happened on that beach some seventy-years ago…

In 1942, this region of France was still firmly in the hands of Nazi Germany. In addition, the Germans were still occupying much of Russia and had the British tangled up in North Africa. The United States had just entered the war and was facing a fight on two fronts – Europe and the Pacific. And with Russian losses numbering in the millions, a great deal of pressure was on the Allies to open a “Second Front” on the Continent again.

Dieppe_raidTo test the German’s coastal defenses, and evaluate the likelihood of making a successful amphibious assault, the Allies began making plans for a raid against the Atlantic coast. In what would come to be known as Operation Jubilee, a force of 6,000 infantrymen – predominantly Canadian and supported by a Canadian Armoured regiment and the Royal Navy and Air Force – the plan was to seize a port town, destroy the military facilities, and then evacuate before a German counter-attack could arrive.

Commander by Lord Louis Mountbatten, a British Admiral and 1st Earl of Burma, the attack was also intended to show that such an assault – which was the first step in liberating Europe – could be done. On August 9th at 5:00 am, the assault began as Canadian and British troops, as well as 100 US Rangers and Free French Commandos, began landing on the beach. By 10:50 a.m., the Allied commanders were forced to call a retreat.

dieppe-dsThe Dieppe Raid, or the Battle of Dieppe, would go down as one of the greatest blunders in military history, and is considered a national tragedy here in Canada. After less than 10 hours since the first landings, the last of the Allied troops had either killed, evacuated, or left behind and captured by the Germans. All told, a total of 3,623 of the 6,086 men who made it ashore were either killed, wounded, or captured, and demonstrated that the Allies could not hope to liberate Europe for some time.

There are several reasons why the raid was a failure. For starters, Allied fire support was grossly inadequate and failed to take out the German defenses. As a result, the advancing infantry was quickly trapped by machine gun fire, mortars and coastal batteries that sighted them as they tried to run up the rocky coastline. The Royal Air Force also failed to lure the Luftwaffe into open battle, and took some heavy losses themselves (96 aircraft compared to 48 lost by the Germans).

Dieppe Raid by Charles Comfort
Dieppe Raid by Charles Comfort

What’s more, the operation was repeatedly downsized, reducing its troop strength several times before it was approved. The Allied commanders, most notably Mountbatten, claimed that this would not be a problem as the attacking force would have the element of surprise. However, this was immediately squandered due to the British government openly talking about the raid for weeks before it happened. In short, the Germans knew they were coming.

While a more recent interpretation of the raid – which claims it was done as part of a clandestine operation to seize a four-rotor Enigma machine – have reevaluated it’s purpose, the outcome of the operation was anything but successful. In the end, the only good to come of it lay in the fact that it taught the Allies precisely what not to do when staging a coastal assault. These lessons greatly influenced their preparations when drafting Operation Torch (the landings in North Africa) and Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings in Normandy).

Carla, my father and I taking our shoes off to walk into the surf. Photo by Rosemary Williams
Carla, my father and I taking our shoes off to walk into the surf. Photo by Rosemary Williams

While walking the beach, my father and I noted the way that it sloped upward and was covered in r0und stones. It wasn’t hard to see at all how tanks would be immobilized by these once they got stuck in their treads. What’s more, the thought of charging up the inclined beach with a rifle and sixty pounds on gear on our backs seemed like absolute folly. Especially if we knew there were machine guns and cannons aimed at us.

Such was our attempt to understand what it must have been like for the young Canucks, Brits, French and Americans who were expected to capture this town. And when we mounted the top near the breakwater, we came to a couple of monuments dedicated to the soldiers who fell on the morning of the 19th of August. This included the Red Beach Monument, which honors the members of the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment, and all those who fell on the eastern sector of the beach.

red_beach_monumentFinanced by members of the Windsor community in Ontario, this monument was erected at town’s edge overlooking the beach and was carved from black granite with the cutout of a maple leaf in it. This cutout is aligned so that when the sun shines at 1 p.m. on Aug. 19 — the exact hour that the regiment stormed the beach — it will cast a perfect shadow of a maple leaf on the ground below. Farther down, we found another monuments commemorating the units that fell in other sectors of the beach. At both, we laid a Canadian flag pin and paid our respects.

Then it was back to the hotel for some much needed grub and some sleep. It had been quite a long day, as you can no doubt tell from the lengthy recap. And we certainly needed plenty of rest, because what came on the next day would test us both physically and emotionally. But more on that later, as it deserves a separate post for sure. Thanks for reading, more to follow, and stay tuned!

Lest We Forget

lest-we-forgetHey all! Just wanted to do a late trip update and let everybody know I’m still kicking, and to share some of the many experiences that were had so far on this trip. It’s been almost two weeks now since the family and I departed from Vancouver Island and landed on the Continent, and try as I might, I’ve been unable to resist my internet fix! So as long as I was surfing, checking messages and doing a little messaging myself, I figured I could at least post an update or two.

Currently, we are in Paris, where we arrived on Sunday after dropping off our rental car at Charles de Gaulle Airport. After finding our hotel in the Latin Quarter, we began taking in the local sites and sounds, which included the Tour Eiffel, the Arc de Troimphe, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and la Maison de Verlaine, a restaurant that is famous for having been frequented by countless literary, political and showbiz personalities (Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy’s, to name a few).

battle_of_vimy_ridge_field_gun_firingBut before that, we were in the Flanders region of Belgium and the Normandy region of France. We began with Ypres, a small city in Belgium that was the site of three major battles during the Great War. This began in 1914 when the Allies retook the town from the Germans after their great sweep into northern France failed. The second took place five months later when the Germans, hoping to break the stalemate in Belgium, used chlorine gas for the first time. It was during this gas attack that the Canadian 1st Division distinguished itself by holding its ground and repelling the attack, despite the fact that they had no gas masks. The third and final battle took place east of the city and is also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest of the war.

These and other terrible sacrifices which were endured during the war are all commemorated on a daily basis in the town. Every night, wreaths are laid at the Mennin Gate at one side of the old city where the names of the dead are inscribed and people gather to hear The Last post played. Having attended it on both a Saturday and the following Sunday, I can tell you that It is a very beautiful and moving event.

remembrance_day___poppy_day_by_daliscarWe were also sure to visit the cemeteries, battlefields and memorials at Beaumont-Hamel, Concrete Farm, Langemarck, St. Julien, and Tyne Cot. This last cemetery, which is the largest World War I cemetery ever, has a small museum where the names of every soldier who died in the Battle of Arras is named. The recording plays on a loop, and takes FIFTEEN YEARS to finish!

I should also note that within this landscape, visitors and farmers are routinely still finding small pieces of the battles that took place over a century ago. These include unexplored munitions – which have to be carefully removed and disposed of – and shrapnel, which my father and I found quite miraculously. I say this because the field we were going to search was being tilled by a large machine, forcing us to search at the very edge. But even with this small space to work with, we still managed to find a large chunk of a shell and some small pieces of shrapnel.

Vimy RidgeAfter that, we visited the Vimy Memorial in France, one of the greatest to come out of the war. This site, and the many preserved trenches, tunnels and craters that mark the landscape are preserved and attended to by Canadian students who hope to keep the memory of this historical battle alive. Not only was it a major victory for the allies – the first decisive offensive of the war – it also defined Canada as a nation. While being guided through the trenches and tunnel, my father and I once again paused to pick up some keepsakes. This time around, it was a piece of chalk and flint (which the ridge is made of) and a small bit of ceramic, possibly from an old teacup.

We then travelled to Dieppe in Normandy and began visiting the World War II sites and memorials. This included the beach of Dieppe where the ill-faired raid performed by the Canadian 2nd Division, British, French and Polish Commandos, and American Rangers. We then drove to the French countryside to the town of Grangues to see where my Grandmothers cousin (an RAF pilot who died on D-Day) was shot down.

dieppe-dsThis was perhaps the most interesting part of our journey since it involved retracing the path of an actual family member. His name was Wilmot Pettit, and on June 6th, 1944, he was shot down while towing a glider full of British Commandos into the Normandy countryside.  The mayor of Grangues was extremely helpful, and drove us to where the crash took place, told of how the survivors had been captured and executed by the SS, offered to send us some photos of the downed plane, and told us where Wilmott had been buried. We then drove to the cemetery at Ranville to pay our respects, before heading on to Bayeux.

From here, we visited Juno Beach, Gold Beach, and saw the museums set up at both that commemorated the D-Day landings of the Canadian, British and Commonwealth troops. We wanted to get around to seeing Omaha, but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough time. We also visited the war cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer, where the many Commonwealth troops who died during the Battle of Normandy were laid to rest. We also managed to walk inside the still-intact coastal batteries at Longues-sur-Mer, and took in the Bayeux Tapestry before leaving for Chartres.

Which brings us by commodious vicus back to the present. We still have a few more nights here in Paris and we intend to see as much as we can before leaving on Friday.  And when I get home, I hope to write about my experiences here in more depth. Trust me when I say that this is the explicated version. The full-length one comes with way more background info, and pictures! Until then, take care, and take care to remember…

BookofRemembrance_pg.479

The Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

Aerial photo of Pearl Harbor, Oct. 1941
Aerial photo of Pearl Harbor, Oct. 1941

Hello fellow bloggers and blogger-followers! As you know, there are times I like to break with my usual subject matter to mark an important anniversary. Not always are these dates which accord with major scientific breakthrough or accomplishments. Sometimes, they are just about the anniversary’s of major historic events that are important to us for any number of reason. And today people all over the world, including several friends and family members of mine, stop to remember the events of Dec. 7th, 1941 – the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Given the importance of this anniversary for so many people, not to mention the sheer historical importance of it, I couldn’t possibly let the day go by without saying something. And though I managed to acknowledge the 70th anniversary of Dieppe and the 100th anniversary of the War of 1812 this year, I neglected to say anything on the subject of the 68th anniversary of D-Day and never got over it! So in an attempt to not let another chance to pay my respects and acknowledge a major turning point in history pass me by, here are my thoughts on this somber anniversary. Please feel free to share your own…

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“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which live in infamy, the United States was suddenly and deliberately by naval and air forces by the Empire of Japan.”

These historic words by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which were part of his famous “Day of Infamy” speech, came just one day after Japanese forces struck at Pearl Harbor, signalling the entrance of the US into the Second World War and a major turning point in history. In addition to 2,402 souls that died and the 1,282 that were wounded, the attack forever altered American’s perceptions of themselves.

USS Arizona, burning after the attack
USS Arizona, burning after the attack

Until the end of 1941, most US citizens lived with the notion that their nation could remain uninvolved in the global conflict which was happening overseas. As Hitler overran Europe and the Japanese occupied much of China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Ocean, the majority of citizens remained committed to non-involvement, citing the state of their economy or the fact that America wasn’t “prepared for another war” as reasons to stay out of the fighting.

B-29 assembly line
B-29 assembly line

All of that changed on Dec. 7th. For the first time, all people in the US, not just FDR and a hand full of analysts, came to understand that neutrality was not, and perhaps never was, an option. Some seven million men volunteered for military service within days, and American industry was fired up to produce all the tanks, aircraft, ships and munitions that would be needed to take on the Japanese Empire and the Axis Powers. Within three and a half years, total victory was won, though not without incredible sacrifice.

Little wonder then why this day is considered so important to historians and common people alike. Not only was it a tragic day, characterized by shock, loss and fear, it also was a day which led to one of the greatest national efforts ever seen, which in turn led to a victory that remains unparalleled in the annals of history. As just about every historian would say, Pearl Harbor “galvanized” the US and turned it from a semi-isolationist country that was still recovering from the Great Depression to a superpower which helped destroy Hitler, Fascism, and win the greatest and worst war in the history of civilization.

FDR delivering "Infamy" speech before Congress, Dec. 8th, 1941
FDR delivering “Infamy” speech before Congress, Dec. 8th, 1941

However, while the history books claim that it was Pearl Harbor which galvanized the US and erased its isolationist tendencies, FDR’s historic speech had a great deal of influence as well. When news of the attack first reached the public, the mood was one of shock, fear, and uncertainty. For years now, Americans had been fearing the specter of war and now that it was upon them, no one knew how to react or what would happen next.

But when people tuned in to listen to their President speak on the following day, they heard a stalwart man praising the efforts of US personnel and calling the citizenry to stand together against an evil power that was threatening not only them, but the entire world. Knowing that a man like FDR was at the helm, the same man who had seen them  through the worst of the Depression and was famous for uttering the words “You have nothing to fear but fear itself” was as much responsible for this turnaround as the attack itself.

USS Arizona Memorial, Peal Harbor
USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor

Years later, the significance and the true nature of this event are still the subject for debate. Since the initial days after the attack itself, there were some who speculated that the attack had been allowed to take place in order to achieve US involvement in the war. In fact, nine inquiries were conducted between the years of 1941 and 1946. However, due to secrecy and clearance concerns, especially where the issue of cryptography was concerned, the full details of the attack were not made clear to the public until 1992.

Reaction to the report was mixed. The findings seemed to emphasize that a combination of secrecy, a lack of inter-departmental communication, and an underestimating the Japanese forces capabilities and intentions prevented US forces from stopping the attack. However, some have claimed that these findings did not go far enough to probe the possibility that an attack was known of in advance and was allowed to take place, mainly for political reasons.

USS Arizona Memorial, interior
USS Arizona Memorial, interior

Much like with 9/11, it seemed that there were many questions and grey areas that were likely to give rise to speculation. When all is said and done though, hindsight is always capable of making it seem that their is intent and continuity to events, when in fact all things happen on an ad hoc basis and no one can see the outcome. In the end – and in this historians opinion – those who died on Dec 7th were victims of human error and the capacity for senseless violence.

To all those who perished at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day, to all those who died as a result of World War II and all wars previous and since; I think I speak for everyone when I say rest to peace on this day.

Starship Troopers

Here we have yet another example of a sci-fi book adapted to film, with significant changes being made! And, much like with Blade Runner and 2001: Space Odyssey, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whereas the novel was an in-depth look at the timeless nature of military service with some rather interesting social commentary thrown in, the movie was all about a war with a hostile alien species. In the book, there really wasn’t much about the Bugs or humanity’s fight with them by comparison. Rather than being the focal point of the story, it operated as a sort of background to the main premise, which was the armed forces and their role in society. So its not surprising that in adapting the book to the big screen, they chose to focus on the war stuff and gloss over the rest. While this allowed for a more entertaining movie, it didn’t come without its share of consequences.

(Background—>)
Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, the movie was to have a polarizing effect on audiences and critics, much like the original novel. Though Heinlein was a gifted author and one of the “Big Three” of science fiction (along with Asimov and Clarke) I can honestly say that Starship Troopers was not his best work. But it was the themes and the central message of the book that seemed to divide the critical and the general reception it got. Was he advocating violence without a second thought and a quasi-fascist social code, or simply depicting a future society in which these things came to be? Was he serious when he said that how violence had solved more problems in history than any other means? Or was he being cynical or facetious? Who knows? In fact, Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers largely to explain and defend his feelings about the military and nuclear policy. Much like his feelings, the book was nuanced, and was therefore likely to elicit mixed reactions.

In any case, the movie had the same effect on audiences. Some were mad that it wasn’t faithful to the original novel – no doubt because of all the pretty actors and actresses and all that love triangle crap – while others were happy for the changes, hailing it for its action, costumes, settings and the way it expanded on the Bug War. Me? I kind of fall in the middle camp. While I appreciate the acting and the fact that we actually got to see much of what was explained being acted out, I didn’t much care for the cast or the teenage-type drama. I felt that it was a good effort, and a fitting addition to Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi lineup (director of such movies as Robocop and Total Recall). Still, it would have benefited from a different cast and some script changes, though it would have definitely done less well as the box office as a result. In the end, its best when filed under guilty pleasures; kind of like Independence Day, but with way less cheese!

Oh, and for the record, I will NOT be getting into this movie’s sequels! Far as I’m concerned, the less said about them the better! I’ve caught snippets and what I saw was so demoralizing, I knew I couldn’t sit through the whole thing. I can’t even begin to wonder what the hell the producers were thinking there! So… avoiding those, let’s get into the first and, as far as I’m concerned, only Starship Troopers movie worth mentioning!

(Content—>)
So this bad boy opens with a scene from Klendathu, the battle scene on the Bug homeworld that’s pretty important later on in the movie. This set up does much to establish tension and give us a preview of the movie’s later carnage. Then, cut to the comparatively domestic scene of Johnny Rico (played by Casper Van Dien) in his high school History and Moral Philosophy class. Here, we get a watered down version of what Heinlein said in the original book, emphasizing the quasi-fascist morality of voting and violence, and sans the moral responsibility stuff. But what are you gonna do? This movie is an action film, talking about the legitimacy of violence can only be seen as a set-up for how they plan to deal with a hostile alien species, one that does not understand mercy, coexistence or peace. And of course, that annoying triangle I mentioned is clear even at this point. Johnny loves Carmen (Denise Richards), Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) loves Johnny, and Carmen… she wants to be a pilot. We get an earful on the Federation and how service entitles one to basic rights – like voting – something civilians don’t enjoy, and in the course of a futuristic football scene, we see Carmen get all gaga for some dude who is a naval pilot.

In the ensuring scenes, during graduation and a whole lot of expository talk about life decisions, it becomes painfully obvious what’s going to happen. Carmen is going to join the Federation, Johnny is going to join to follow her, Dizzy is going to join to follow him, and Carmen is going to dump Rico. We also meet Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris), who is a latent psychic and is joining and getting bumped to the top because of his abilities. It’s also obvious that he’s going to develop the ability to psychically communicate with people. Why? Because he said he couldn’t… yet! And of course, Johnny and Carmen are annoying as hell. That might be prejudice on my part, but I have a hard time taking anything Denise Richards does seriously. Casper Van Diem? Can’t get past that cleft chin! And frankly, he looks the part of the clean-cut American teenager too well! And with a name like Johnny Rico, someone who’s actually Latino would have seemed like a better bet. Having these pretty cardboard cut-outs as stand-ins might have been effective as an ironic statement, pitting beauty against the ugliness of war. But that’s just not what I got from this. Seems the beauty was meant to be a box-office draw, the violence strictly for entertainment purposes. Didn’t really get the sense that there was any real meaning or depth at work there.

Quick sidenote: NONE of this happened in the novel! For starters, Johnny did have feelings for a girl named Carmen, but she was NOT his girlfriend nor even a central character, nor did she figure that prominently in his decision to join the Federation. In addition, Dizzy Flores was a MAN! Yes, in the novel this woman who was in fact a fellow grunt in the Mobile Infantry, not some love-sick girl who followed Johnny into the service (and incidentally, to her death). Oh, and the man who was Johnny’s moral philosophy teacher, Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside) was not the same man who led the Roughnecks! In the novel, it was a man named DuBois (a stand-in for Heinlein himself) who was the teacher. Rasczak was a commander he would later meet, and who would promptly die off during the Klendathu battle. This last aspect I can understand. Having his teacher return later in the book as his CO makes sense, since the teacher was a citizen in both the book and movie. And killing him off promptly wouldn’t make much sense, not if you plan on expanding on the action. But the rest… yeah, box-office draw!

Oh, and I should also mention that whereas the novel was nuanced in its approach, the movie was not. Clearly, Verhoeven chose to go with the quasi-fascist school of thought on this one. Regardless of what he thought about Heinlein message, he clearly thought the movie would be more effective if the whole issue of service and citizenship were presented in very rigid terms. Civilians have few rights, society is informed by propaganda reels instead of independent news sources, and those who serve are “meat for the grinder” (an actual line from the recruiting sergeant!). While this proved interesting at times, it was not in keeping with the message of the book. In some cases, these elements were wholesale inventions of the writers and not mere exaggerations on what was in the novel. Still, they did at times feel like a fitting commentary on the nature of war and social issues, which WAS in keeping with the spirit of the novel (if not the actual content).

Anyway, we soon get to the myriad of scenes where Rico is receiving his training at the hands Sgt. Zim (masterfully protrayed by Clancy Brown). He and his buds are run through a training regimen that is far more brutal than anything in the novel (constant cries of “medic!” demonstrate this point) but the point here is clearly to draw parallels with the kinds of brutal discipline which the Marines and other elite military units are notorious for. We also get scenes of Carmen’s comparatively cushy experiences, and in the course of her video correspondence with Rico, she of course sends him a Dear John. This, coupled with a terrible accident in which a grunt dies, causes Rico to resign. He, however, changes his mind when a sudden and unprovoked attack (echoes of Pearl Harbor) destroys his home of Beunos Aires and kills his folks. Again, not in the book people! While Rico’s training was explored at length in the novel, there was none of this high-drama stuff where he got dumped, felt responsible for getting someone killed, and took a whole bunch of whippings. Nor did he suddenly quit, only to have walk out interrupted by a declaration of war. In addition, his folks did not die in the attack. In fact, he went on to meet his father later in the novel when he himself enlisted so he could do his part for the war. This served as a resolution between Rico and his father in the novel, after the latter disowned him for joining the military against his wishes. But, like I said, high-drama! It was effective, of course; each and every one of us was probably thinking “he can’t quit now! It’s payback time!” And the news reel that followed in the wake of the attack was very effective at parodying war propaganda films, something they did often in the film. Like many elements, it gives us a sense of the timelessness of war, while at the same time highlighting the quasi-fascist nature of the Federation.

Oh, and did I mention that somewhere in between all that we got the infamous coed shower scene? Now why was it that this scene was so totally over-hyped! Are audiences really this smut-obsessed and/or puritanical? I mean really people, we saw a few breasts and Van Dien’s ass! What’s all the hubbub about? Word is that Verhoeven even got undressed while shooting just to show the actors that it wasn’t that big a deal. How’s that for irony? And considering what he got Sharon Stone and Elizabeth Berkley to do in Basic Instinct and Showgirls, this was NOTHING! Why then should this have been such a focal point when it came to the movie’s reception? But that’s Hollywood for ya. A little T&A and suddenly everybody starts going gaga and losing their minds!

Moving on, after a few minor scenes with a reunion between Rico and Carmen, Rico brawling with her new pilot boyfriend (showing the obvious conflict between the services) and the grunts getting tattoos that say “Death From Above” (a common war slogan meant to draw parallels with past wars), we cut to the battle scene at Klendathu. And as I said earlier, this first action scene was a big improvement on the book. For one, we actually get to see the fighting! Second, the Bugs are presented as a hostile swarm, not as semi-intelligent things with actual lasers mounted to their limbs (as they were in the book). I have to say I approve of this take on things, either the Bugs are an individually sentient species or a hive mind. Can’t have it both ways! Second, the scene is a faithful recreation of an invasion, reminiscent of D-Day and Iwo Jima any other “storming the beach” kind of scenario. It’s full of tension, the usual last-minute reassurances (“remember your training and you will make it back alive”), the lull as the troops hit the ground and wait for the shooting… and then, the shooting! Oh, the shooting! Yes, for the next few minutes, carnage ensues as the Bugs counter-attack, the MI get the crap kicked out of them and are forced to beat a hasty retreat. And, fulfilling the preview from the beginning, Rico gets mortally wounded, on camera no less! In orbit, the fleet does little better, getting schmucked by plasma streams – reminiscent of AAA and Flack – and are also forced to withdraw. Cue the hospital scene immediately afterwards, with all kinds of gore and a massive list full of MIA and KIA scrolling by on a huge wall screen to drive the point home. “The Bugs don’t take prisoners,” says Mr. Navy pilot man. Yeah, we get it, it was a disaster!

But of course, Rico is alive. Turns out his listing as KIA was a clerical error or something (another familiar army theme!) Another reunion follows as they get reassigned to the Rough Necks and find that their former teacher, Mr. Rasczak, is the CO. Yep, they are now part of Rasczak’s Roughnecks! WHOO! And true to form, Michael Ironside is missing a limb. That guy always seems to be losing limbs in Verhoeven’s movies! And at this point, its a clear indication of what service to the Federation means, aka. sacrifice! They take part in a new mission designed to gather intel, Rico and Flores have their hot sex scene, and then we cut to a pitch battle where they are forced to defend a fort while waiting for emergency evac. As plot contrivances would have it, their rescue just happens to be Carmen and her pilot beau! Yet another reunion! And of course, Ironside loses MORE limbs and dies as Rico is forced to kill him, Dizzy is killed too, and Rico is left crestfallen but hardened. Seems he’s finally learned what it means to be a citizen! Good for him! Too bad Dizzy had to die in order to get into Rico’s pants though. But according to her, as she said while bleeding out on the shuttle’s floor, it was worth it. And I thought guys were willing to die to get laid!

After her funeral we get another (wait for it!) REUNION, as NPH walks in wearing what is clearly an SS officer’s uniform. More quasi-fascist symbolism! And just to make it clear that he’s become an unfeeling Machiavellian dick, his eyes are sunken in and he talks like a real hard-ass now. “Oh, I’m sorry, you don’t approve (of my methods). Well that’s too bad! We’re in this for the species, boys and girls! It all comes down to numbers, they have more!” And of course, he lets them in on their plan. Seems they believe there is a sort of “brain bug” on the planet below, that each colony of drones has one that runs it like a hive mind. Which means they got another mission to fly: attack, and capture the brain! Rico, having come up through the ranks, is now CO of the Roughnecks – Rico’s Roughneck! Whoo! Convenient that his name starts with an R, keeping the tradition of alliteration alive! Naturally, events conspire to place Carmen in harms way. Her ship is destroyed by that same plasma-AAA, a little reminder that the Fleet has it tough too! And she and her beau crash land on the planet and are taken prisoner by the brain. It sucks out her beau’s brains (ick!) and is about to do her in too. But luckily, Rico and his squad come to her rescue, guided by NPH’s ability to telepathically communicate with humans now (told you he’d figure it out!). And they have one final (do I even need to say it?) reunion on the field of battle. And they even bring back Sgt. Zim, seems he’s busted himself to private just so he could get into combat and capture the brain bug himself! So, with their reunion complete, the movie ends with a propaganda reel telling the people of Earth to enlist because they need more bodies! Rico, Carmen and NPH all get some screen time as examples of what to live up to, cue the war music and roll credits!

(Synopsis—>)
Okay, so the things I liked about this film. Yes, the propaganda reels and the familiar war themes were pretty effective. Rather than being a cheap way to elicit emotions (the way Emmerich does with landmarks), it felt like there was some genuine attempts to get into the collective unconscious and call up the memory of wars past. Ultimately, it felt like the goal here was to keep with the spirit of Heinlein’s novel and show how conflict is timeless and how our experience of it mirrors those of people in the past. Things like unprovoked attacks, military disasters, recruiting drives, propaganda and inspirational pieces… all of these are common experiences and got a pretty good treatment by Verhoeven. While Verhoeven’s interpretation of the Federation as a militarized and obviously right-wing state was also debatable, he did do a good job demonstrating just how it would look and feel for those living in it. It was done subtly, much like he had done with Robocop, the viewer is not told these things as much as shown them, giving them the freedom to figure it out on their own. And the action scenes were pretty damn good! Especially the attack on Klendathu, that one really set a good tone. You really got the rah rah tempo as the MI are hitting the ground and running into the fight, and you felt pretty let down in the aftermath when it became clear what a disaster it was. “100,000 dead in the first hour” said the propaganda reel in the very next scene. 100,000? Damn! Just like Dieppe, Omaha Beach, and Iwo Jima, only not real! Also, the one-liners that were ripped from history. Like “Death from Above”, a slogan that was coined by the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne in World War II, and popularized by the film Apocalypse Now. Or “C’mon you apes, you wanna live forever?”, a paraphrasing of Sgt Dan Daley seminal words: “C’mon you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever!” at the Battle of Belleau Wood in WWI. And as for “Everybody fights, nobody quits” or “Fleet does the flying, Mobile Infantry does the dying”… probably all Heinlein, but good lines nonetheless!

Also, with regards to another major difference between the novel and the movie: fans of the former could not have failed to notice that the MI were fighting in body armor and firing rifles and bazookas, whereas in the novel they were in powered armor and used all kinds of weapons. Slug throwers, flame throwers, lasers, tactical nukes. This change probably offended some, but I have to imagine the studios felt that this kind of thing wasn’t too practical. For one, its hard to create the sense of a grand battle, the kind that reminds one of D-Day, Iwo Jima and Hamburger Hill, if you’ve got small groups of soldiers in big suits jetpacking around. That kind of technology naturally calls for smaller attack squads, not a massive hoard of grunts throwing themselves into a wholesale slaughter. Second, from a strictly technical standpoint, recreating this would have meant either meant some expensive animatronics or just a whole lot of CGI. The Bugs were already being digitally added, so if they were faithful to the book, chances are they’d have gone the cheaper route and done all the action sequences on computer. That would kind of be a rip for the actors and would have made the battles look a lot less realistic. And speaking of CGI, this was yet another thing that the movie did right. I have no idea which company provided the digital effects, but they were good! Even now, the effects still stand up and look impressive. At no point do you really feel like, “holy crap, that looked totally fake!” And I’ve said as much of some of the Star Wars prequels, and that was with Lucasarts doing the effects!

Okay, now for the bad… First up, the cast: Casper Van Dien did a reasonably good job of acting, but as I’ve said already, he simultaneously doesn’t look the part and looks it too much. He’s too clean-cut, buffed-out, and that cleft chin of his is TOTALLY DISTRACTING! At the same time, there’s no way in hell this guy’s a Johnny Rico. Rico is a Latino name, the boy’s from Buenos Aires! Much the same is true of Denise “Who did I have to screw to become a star” Richards and Dina Meyer. Whereas Meyer is a good actress and veteran of sci-fi, Richards is a one-trick pony who does nothing but smile and look wooden! More to the point, neither of them look Argentinian, and with names like Ibanez and Flores, you kind of get the impression that they should! Might seem like a minor point, but I truly felt that this clean-cut white cast was a whitewash! Did the studios think they wouldn’t be able to sell as many tickets if they used people other than these shiney-happy poster children? As I said at the beginning, this might have been a neat point if the idea was to contrast such homey looking people with the realities of war and a militarized state. It might have even been cool as a subtle parallel between the Federation and the Aryanism of the Nazis. But I mean… c’mon! I think we can all agree that Verhoeven and the producers were just hedging their bets. Some pretty faces and partial nudity to bring in the teens, some deeper themes to pacify the critics and Heinlein fans. But ultimately, the movie erred on the side of pandering and angered critics and Heinlein fans for the most part. That’s what you get when you hedge your bets. So don’t hedge em, people, place em! Even if the end products sucks, you’ll know it sucked honestly.

Also, there’s the matter of the plot being full of reunions and convenient plot twists that are simply annoying! In an entire universe full of soldiers, pilots and service people, how is it that these four friends from Buenos Aires keep meeting up? And the final scene where Rico, Carmen and Carl are all together and its like “we all knew we’d be best friends forever” is just plain dumb! For one, one of the four is dead! To boot, she’s dead because she loved Rico and followed him into the service, and hence the war. In short, Rico’s unrequited love is kinda responsible for her death, and she died saying it was worth it because she finally got to have him. Are you seriously telling me he would have absolutely no feelings about that? And of course there’s the whole love triangle thing, which in the first place is annoying and childish! I get that some drama was needed in the course of the adaptation (the novel was kinda dry!), but this was not the way to go about it. Something a little less teeny-bopper would have been just as effective, and probably way more respectable.

Aside from that, the plot is relatively solid, moving between segments that tell us about the war, the Bugs, and the Federation without getting bogged down in the myriad descriptions that Heinlein’s book focused on. This much I liked because it focused on what, for me, seemed what the book itself was supposed to be about. Aka. the Bug War, and not a detailed description of the armed services in the future. I have since learned that Heinlein had a purpose in writing this book other than just creating a fantastical story about aliens and ships, but with a name like Starship Troopers, you figure its supposed to be a war movie with an actual war. Anyone adapting this movie to film would likely be inclined to follow the same course Verhoeven did, making it a cool shoot-em up with some relatable themes about the timelessness of war.

But in the end, Verhoeven and his movie managed to succeed financially, even though he pissed off a lot of critics and Heinlein fans in the process. The movie was a big box office draw, it remains a sort of cult hit for some, and for people like me (and I do believe I am in the majority here) it’s an enduring guilty pleasure. Even though it was followed by some horrible, horrible sequels (which I will not speak of further!) and was the beginning of Denise Richard’s appalling career, the movie was still fun, enjoyable, and had just enough going on to be somewhat respectable… at times. Hell, just talking about it makes me kinda watch it again. Maybe I shall, maybe I shall…

Starship Troopers:
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Plot: 6/10
Direction: 8/10
Total: 7/10