Sunday, November 21, 2010

Comin' in on a wing and a prayer...

We had devoted the next three days in Normandy to visiting and learning about WWII related sites in the region. You may ask at this point, why would you spend your vacation on war? Not only that, but you organised your entire vacation around wanting to see these places.

Marmion Farm

We didn't have a relative who fought there, nor was there a particular grave to visit. But we love history. Speaking for myself, I find that war, with all it's horrors and mindlessness, brings out, distills even, the human spirit to it's most essential being, the finest and worst of what we, as humans, can be.

To me, everyday life is apple juice. It's good stuff. But sometimes I guess I want Calvados. It may make you feel giddy with being alive, it may burn going down, it can make you feel terrible.

War stories are the same way.

We entrusted our three days to two tours with a company called Battlebus, a name which gave me pause when Mike first came up with it, but the rave reviews online quickly silenced any misgivings I might have had.

Our guide for the first day was a tall, gregarious and immediately likable Brit named Alan. His job was to take us in the footsteps of the elite American paratroopers of Easy Company of the 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Perhaps you've heard of them.

screaming eagle symbol of the 101st Airborne

Stephen Ambrose's book, Band of Brothers, wove the story of Easy Company from their training in the States through D-Day, then the Market Garden operation in the Netherlands, Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge, and all the way to when they took Hitler's Eagle Nest and the end of the war, all as told by the veterans who were there. Then Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg (I know you know who those fellows are) made an award-winning 10 part series with HBO and the BBC based on Ambrose's book.

Through the book and then the series, Mike and I had gotten to know some of those soldiers of the 101st Airborne. Know, respect, and admire them; their heroism, their joys and agonies, friendships, grit and resolve.

So, to be able to actually see, to be there in Normandy to hear stories about Winters, Nix, Guarnere, Malarkey, Perconte, Buck, Welsh, Bull, Shifty, Luz, Webster, Toye and Spiers...the list goes on.

Our guide was well up to the challenge. More than. Somewhere between historian and war fanatic, he was utterly excited to share his knowledge with us. Our group of four was bundled nicely into the burgundy and blue Battlebus and we were off.

Dick Winters, along with many others in the 101st, donated his gear (above) to the Dead Man's Corner Museum, St-Côme-du-Mont.

That day we started at a memorial for the C47 aircraft that crashed on D-day, killing all it's occupants including the Easy Company leader, Lt. Thomas Meehan. We also got an idea of why so many of the parachutists drowned, Alan showing us how the fields had been flooded by Rommel. Then Alan took us to the actual crash site of the C47, which he and another WWII enthusiast had found after querying the local farmers and poking around with their metal detectors.

Oh, yes, these grown-up boys go hunting for artifacts, generally with the permission but not always. Alan casually mentioned how they would throw WWII mortars and grenades that they found at one another in moments of irritation or playfulness, and also told us of his friend Sparky who "got whot 'e deserved" when he was shot by a Norman farmer who didn't appreciate intruders digging up his fields and not answering to a warning shout. Not fatally.

The fantastic thing about Normandy is that nothing changes. The Normans are incredibly practical. They use what they have, don't care about money, rebuild what they lost, and the families that were there in 1944 are more often than not still there, farming their lands. For us, this meant that we could see many things much as they had been in 1944. Like...this wall, riddled with bullet holes.

It was, well it was unbelievable, pulling over on some small road and piling out to hear about where individual men had landed or where Spiers had gone off on a crazy Jeep ride through an utterly taken aback German squadron, then drove back through them, and to Marmion Farm where the Airborne from the 101st and 82nd eventually regrouped and found one another, and many of the more famous photos were taken, like this one by Forrest Guth.

Forrest Guth, who by dint of his name wasn't represented in the HBO series, it was deemed too confusing for viewers, took some wonderful photos of those first crucial days, and later wrote a book of his experiences. Here is Mike in the same spot, note the arched doorway.

Marmion Farm also should have its share of ghosts. During wartime the mother hanged herself on a beam there for some undisclosed reason, and then her husband followed suit, leaving their children orphans. Later a German officer hanged himself on that beam as well. Those children still own the farm, but they are letting it slowly fall apart, refusing to sell the place at well more than its value (offered because of its historical significance) but also not wishing to bulldoze it.

Mike with our WWII guide Alan at Marmion Farm

For the men of the 101st, though, it must have been a place of joy and relief to be reunited with some of their fellow paratroopers, after having been scattered all over the area.

We went to so many sites that day, and heard many, many stories from hair-raising to comic, indescribably sorrowful or horrifying, but the place that was probably the most interesting was Brécourt Manor. Dick Winters had become the acting commanding officer of Easy Company after the loss of Meehan, and he led a thrown together group of 13 Airborne to take out four 105 mm Howitzer cannons, machine guns...and about 60 Germans.

The assault on Brécourt Manor is still taught today at West Point Military Academy as a classic example of tactics and leadership for a small force to overpower a larger one. The Howitzers posed a major threat to the landings at Utah Beach, and had they not been taken out, many more lives would have been lost.

To recreate this legendary battlefield, Stephen Spielberg's team went to ask the DeValavielles if they could measure the fields where the battle took place, to give an accurate portrayal of what happened that day. The Chateau owner gave permission, but on one condition. You see, he'd watched Saving Private Ryan and had a real problem with it. A major mistake had been made, one which must not be repeated.

Brécourt Manor, Le Grand Chemin

The cows were wrong. The brown and white Normande breed, like the hedgerows, can be traced back to the Vikings. Spielberg, who I imagine had to hide a smile, promised to either have the correct brown and white cows imported to be used in the series, or to send cows to makeup. Turned out to be the latter, hopefully Monsieur was pleased.

This is the same family whose young son (who lived to become mayor of Le Grand Chemin) had accidently been shot by one of the Americans. Regardless, they put up a memorial in gratitude to the 101st. Shot, yet still thankful. And take a great deal of pride in their cows.

Very Norman, we were told.

We saw for ourselves what incredible obstacles the hedgerows of Normandy presented to the troops, visited museums and heard about more the Battle of Bloody Gulch, and were generally overwhelmed. The more we heard, the more we realised we'd made a great choice to spend our day with Alan.

Alan told us he was having the best time of his life, giving tours, researching and writing a book. He'd had the usual 9-5 sort of life but left it firmly behind; far from bringing him happiness it had instead given him not one but two mental breakdowns. He mentioned living on 31 cups of coffee a day and cigarettes. Now he lives on a farm in Normandy with innumerable animals, what he described as "an outdoor larder," and his wife and their three children who now speak fluent french and understood exactly where their food comes from.

He asserted with pride that his boys know not to touch the grenades they find without help from their Da to help, even though they're perfectly capable of disarming them themselves.


At lunchtime we visited the home of one of his cronies, where they had baguettes ready for us, and also all sorts of war memorabilia that had been found in the area. There were containers of metal bits found through years of metal detecting, hopefully not being shot at while doing so. One thing I wanted was a shell casing. I know, I know. But I collect sand, you see.

Another quirk. I have sand from all sorts of places in little matching jars, carefully labelled, and I intended to collect sand from the landing beaches here. How suiting to have a shell casing in with the sand.

I cringe here. Do I sound like a vapid tourist? I hope not. These were beautifully rusted, verdigris shells, old and not going to hurt or defend anyone ever again.

The containers were a bit pricey, and full of all sorts of things. I explained that I didn't really want an entire container (I was already wondering if I could even get a single casing through customs) and could I buy just a casing, or two?

The proprietress looked at me, lowered her voice and said "we don't do this, but..." and let me have my pick of two casings from the a gift. It turned out to be their last day hosting tours lunches; they were moving back to England.

Perhaps I would be able to get the casings home, perhaps not, but I was touched by her generosity.

Alan told us that he had a vet come on the tour and that it was a real privilege to hear him recall the events of those days, remember his friends and the things that happened so long ago. The veteran, he said, had places he particularly wanted to visit, and he also really wanted one more thing.

A glass of Calvados.

I want to end this Band of Brothers post for you with one last thing, a quote by Dick Winters, a hero in every sense of the word.

"If you can, find that peace within yourself, that peace and quiet and confidence that you can pass on to others, so that they know that you are honest and you are fair and will help them, no matter what, when the chips are down.”


Friendly Neighborhood Librarian said...

I'm so glad you wrote this one! I don't really know much about WW2. My Dad was in the Pacific side of the war - in the navy.
Anyway, there is something amazing in visiting historical sites - especially seeing this looks so much like it did at the time.
What a journey!

Cindy Napier said...

Beautifully written, Natalie! I always love the detail you include! :)

Nathalie said...

Didn't know you were such a history buff!!!! One thing that you can never get enough in Europe is history! Great post as always!

Natalie said...

Oh, goodness, I wouldn't call myself a history buff. Enthusiast, perhaps. Mike's far better with the dates and details. Mostly I love the stories about individuals, how everyday people experience and affect the world. Thanks all for the comments and lovely compliments.

Mumsey said...

Your account puts us right there. There is something ghostly or perhaps spiritual to those places. You can feel it. The now trite, "Thank you for your service" doesn't come close to cutting it does it?

*Paula* said...

fascinating Natalie. I've been interested in WW2 lately -- not to the same extent as you have though! Here's a tid-bit for you: WW2 was called "the Emergency" in Ireland. They were neutral for the war. Lots of kids from England were sent to Ireland for the duration. I find that fascinating - can't imagine sending my kids away for more that 6 years!

Julia said...

I should get you in touch with my friend Colleen's mom. They're doing research on her grandfather who was a paratrooper on D-day. He survived a plane crash, was hidden by the Norman locals, and was a POW until eventually coming home. I think you'd like talking to her.