Monday, November 15, 2010

Tell the one about the man who saddled up the wind, pegasus...

Over coffee and croissants at a table alongside a medieval road in Bayeux Mike and I discussed our conundrum: should we spend our one free day in Normandy trying to find Pegasus Bridge?

Opposed: would it really be worth it to go to the trouble and expense of renting a car and braving being lost (pretty much a given) or creamed (possible) on the French roads, just to see, you know, a bridge? I would have to drive. (You may recall that Mike had his license stolen in Athens.) So, while I was nervous about driving, Mike would have to endure much more being the hapless passenger whilst I attempted to navigate an unfamiliar land.

In favor: the tale of the men of the British 6th Division Airborne, glider unit capturing and holding Pegasus Bridge and keeping the Germans from blowing it up to keep it out of the hands of the Allies is our favorite story from D-Day, one told again and again by movie makers and historians, in magnificent works like Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day and Stephen Ambrose's Pegasus Bridge: June 6 1944.

There's a reason Pegasus Bridge is so well known. It's not only an amazing story, it's also an incredibly important place, historically speaking. This humble spot is the first part of France to be liberated by the allied forces. It's also where the first Allied soldier died on D-Day. Lastly, it's a place where the military plan actually went right, where, had it not, many, many Allied troops would have been lost.

Plus, we wanted to see the dent. Here's a little bit from Ambrose:

The (German) pilot dropped his bomb. It was a direct hit on the bridge tower. But it did not explode. Instead it clanged on the bridge and then dropped into the canal. It was a dud.

The dent is there on the bridge to this day. (British Major John) Howard's comment is "What a bit of luck that was," which says the least of it. Howard adds, with professional approval, "And what a wonderful shot it was by that German pilot."

So when it came down to it, our decision was the price of inconvenience vs. a once-in-a-lifetime experience? Oh please. Like we wouldn't go. I told Mike we had to go. Besides, no one was asking us to get there under the cover of night with fellows firing on us. We could handle it.


I'd already braved a used book store. It seemed like the correct vacation-in-France ooh la la thing to do. Imagine: the heroine enters the bookstore, pausing just inside the doorway for a moment, the light behind her, appreciating the scent of dust and parchment. She greets the booksellers in quiet French and then selects a tome to enjoy at leisure, to the approval of the clerks there who appreciate her taste.

It was a nice idea, to be sure, but what really happened was this: I circled the shelves in the tiny store until I was helped by the sympathetic storekeepers who, after I admitted a book in English would probably be better for me, (a massive understatement) gently and with great pity showed me the two sparse shelves of applicable paperbacks for those such as myself, tucked away in the back room.

After dithering I picked a couple of classics and while waiting to pay was flirted mercilessly with (or maybe it was at) and then discussed at length about by their other customer, a Norman who had the air of a regular, older, with few teeth but obvious village standing. It was all conducted in mostly-incomprehensible to me French, but when someone is looking directly at you and laughing, well, I suppose I should be happy to have given him entertainment.

Or something.

lovely old doorway, Bayeux

We rented the car. One would think that one line is all that sort of activity warrants in description. Not for us. I had remembered to bring along my international driver's license but not my passport. (Insert mental forehead smack here.)

We'd walked to find the rental place so Mike was generous and and loped back to the hotel to get the necessary papers while I was doing my darndest to make conversation and sign paperwork in a foreign language while praying it had been communicated as to what we did and didn't want. Idle conversation is awkward in one's own language, let alone between two people not versed in each other's native tongue. We ended up renting a four door when all we wanted was two, and once behind the wheel, the manual gears and I had a small disagreement. In other words I ground the heck out of the poor thing, causing the rental car office women to stick their heads out to see what the devil I was doing to their property. I slunk away in vehicular fashion as there was no chance of the situation retaining any sort of dignity for me.

The roads in France were just fine. With it firmly in mind that I had been driving for 2 years in the Middle East, I was neither the best nor the worst driver in France. A minimum of wrong turns later we found the Caen River and went into the museum there, which was phenomenal. If you, like me, enjoy great stories of humanity and courage, and all the lovely sepia remnants of yesteryear, you would have loved it, even without knowing the Pegasus Bridge story.

I'll do my best to tell it in brief, though I encourage you to read Ambroses' version.

flags, crosses and poppies left by relatives and schoolchildren
to remember and honor the men of Pegasus Bridge

The British knew that they had to gain control of the road and bridges on the Caen Canal and Orne River to block the Germans from sending reinforcements down to the landing beaches. They also knew the bridges would be wired for detonation.

The plan was audacious: to send a small group of gliders to silently slip behind enemy lines and land scant hours before dawn on D-day in a field so small the Germans hadn't bothered to plant anti-aircraft posts. The British glider pilots did an amazing job that night, with just the light of the sliver of a moon, landing exactly on target.

Men of the British Airborne Glider and Light Infantry Units

The men, under the command of Major Howard (pictured below), stormed out of the gliders and took the Germans completely by surprise.

It was all over in a matter of minutes. With this crucial victory, D-Day, the turning point of WWII, began.

For Mike and me to go there, to read letters from servicemen to their families back home, see the equipment the men carried and the bits and bobs of combat, was a real treat, history made real.

We even got to admire Bill Millin's bagpipes, the very instrument he famously played to lead what Lord Lovat described as the "greatest invasion in history" while in full Highland rig. Per the rather whimsical orders of Lord Lovat he walked in the traditional way three times back and forth on Sword Beach as the mortars crashed, the sands shook and men died all around him, and then piped the advancing troops up the Caen Canal to relieve the Brit glider squadrons who had taken and held the bridge.

Scottish troops, D-Day

Can you imagine how the men at Pegasus Bridge must have felt, hearing those soaring pipes coming, knowing their relief was nearly there, that they had completely achieved thier objective?

After the war Bill Millin reported that German snipers told him they'd been very aware of him but had been so taken aback by this cheeky Scot and his wailing pipes they'd not shot at him, believing him to be crazy.

Sadly, the bagpipes were a casualty. 3 days after the landings they fell victim to shrapnel, but Bill Millin survived to a ripe old age, and donated those famous pipes to the museum.

We got to walk the original bridge, sold for a sentimental 1 Franc to the museum when it was replaced, and to see the markers placed to show just how precise the pilots had been in putting down the gliders, through barbed wire and avoiding a pond. It was phenomenal.

Mike at the site of the one of the Horsa Glider positions,

reading the tribute at a bust of Major Howard.

There was a strange elation and weariness in being there, which we felt again in the days to come. When one feels this way, the only thing to do is experience it, embrace it, and go to lunch. Which we did across from the first building to be liberated in France, the Café Gondree, now owned by Arlette Gondrée who lived there as a little girl in 1944.

I felt a bit chagrined as an American, a guest in this country, to see "Liberty fries" on the menu, remembering sniggering at (if not endorsing), the idea of changing the name of "French" fries to "freedom" fries during the difficult and emotionally charged days after September 11th.

The French of Normandy have never forgotten the sacrifices made by the Allies. There are roads in the countryside renamed and signed with plaques telling the names of individual soldiers who died there. (we know this because of course we got terribly lost on those little roads on the way back,. thinking we should explore instead of stay on the highway.) They also, I think, remember better than any of us can truly comprehend, what war is.

The bridge was renamed on that day in 1944. Pegasus Bridge in honor of the regiment's symbol.

As Mike and I dined there by the river, watching the new bridge lift up to allow an enormous barge to pass through, we were paying perhaps too much attention to the bridge up in the air. Mike managed to completely miss his mouth with his glass of wine and sloshed a good amount of red down his front. The French couple next to us witnessed this faux pas, their conversation died abruptly, their mouths frozen open and eyes wide. The awkward moment hung in the air.

I snarled at Mike in my broadest and most disdainful fake French accent: "American!"

Eyes crinkled, mouths smoothed into smiles and we all had a good laugh over it, nodding and lifted our glasses to one another in an impromptu sort of toast to life's inanities.


AKBrady said...

Marvellous descriptions! Nothing like actually being someplace to allow for the senses to be completely involved, huh? So cool, we've not been there but will put it on the list!

Julia said...

I shared your story with my celtic band (complete with piper) and they thought you were very tactful in saying that the Germans were the only ones who thought he was crazy.

We all know that everyone thinks pipers are crazy :)

Natalie said...

Mad, inspiring, comic relief under the most dire of situations.

As a fun aside, apparently the piping was against British regulations but the Scots decided they didn't care what the Brits said. What a shock.

Bill Millin, the legendary Mad Piper of D-Day died on August 17th this year, and England and France mourn him. A statue of him piping is to be erected by the French at the landing beach next summer.

From Bill Millin's Special Forces Obituary in the Telegraph, UK: "the piper provided a unique boost to morale. 'I shall never forget hearing the skirl of Bill Millin’s pipes,' said one, Tom Duncan, many years later. 'It is hard to describe the impact it had. It gave us a great lift and increased our determination. As well as the pride we felt, it reminded us of home and why we were there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones.'"

Who could ask for more?

Mumsey said...

I was thrilled to see you hoisting a Gini. Fond memories of another European visit I shall treasure.