Paris to Caen – The Normandy Coast

Monday 25 October 2021

We still have a couple of more days in Paris so I headed off on the metro up to the second arch in Paris, the Grande Arche de la Defense. Inaugurated on 14 July 1988 for the bicentenary of the French Revolution, the structure stands 100m above the ground, weighs about 30,000 tons, and from what I can see seems to be office blocks on each side. It has a kind of a museum and gallery just under the roof and you can access parts of the roof but not all of it. It has great views over the city but the weather wasn’t that crash hot today. The gallery contains an exhibition of photos taken by the paparazzi over the years of various people of royalty and fame. There are lots of modern buildings surrounding it, some quite colourful.

From there I jumped back on the train and went to the other end of the No1 line to check out Fort Neuf de Vincennes, which I had discovered by accident on my first trip to Paris many years ago. Getting off the train I just did a walk by as I had toured the place back then. With its large moat and tall stone walls it’s pretty impressive.

Getting back on the metro in the front I realised that I had forgotten that these trains have no driver and are controlled from a control centre. Dismounting at Bastille I made my way through a maze of tunnels up onto the street and along the canal where lots of privately owned boats are tied up. People own these and cruise the many rivers and canals in Europe. It sounds like quite a good scheme to me – one day maybe…

A short walk up the river and I was back at the Louvre having taken in the views of a few more buildings and bridges along the way. At one point there were 30 odd police vans, lights and sirens going, heading in a hurry along a street. There must have been a big police lunch on somewhere. I enjoyed a leisurely lunch at a streetside cafe before making my way back to the hotel.

Tuesday 26 October 2021

Joined by my US friends, brothers Michael and Eric, we taxied to the Gare East Station and caught the train to a little town about an hour and a half northeast of Paris called Chateau-Thierry. The plan was to visit a famous US Marine WWI battle site. Eric is a former Marine as was his father Bob.

Arriving before noon on an overcast day we headed to a local restaurant for lunch, after which we planned to get a taxi out to the the town of Belleau and visit the famous battle site.

Around 1230 Micheal gets on the phone to order a taxi. Bugger, none available so we thought we would try getting a rental car. Oops, they are all closed for lunch until two. We were leaving in the train at 3pm. We wandered the streets trying to find a place that might be open, only to be assisted by a friendly passing woman who did not speak english. Through google translate she directed us to the local Carrefour (a large retailer that also has rental cars). Arriving there Eric hands over his passport and US drivers licence; things are looking good until the computer tells the staff they won’t accept the US drivers licence. We are still not sure exactly why. I don’t have my passport so I produced some other ID, including my APEC card and NZ drivers licence. Bingo we are on our way.

Arriving at Balleau we headed to the famous dog fountain where clear water is dispensed through a spout in the devil dogs mouth. Surrounded by some old buildings it is a beautiful spot. Micheal and Eric drink water from the spout, a long held tradition. Across the road there is a museum which is closed today.

From there we headed to the Belleau Woods where the great battle took place. The Marines charged across open ground sloping towards the german positions, facing 200 machine guns and over a thousand german soldiers all dug in and ready to fight. The French forces were attacked by the germans on 1 June 1918, and punched a hole in the lines to the left of the marines. The marines conducted a forced march of 10kms to fill the gap. The german advance was halted at Belleau Wood. The germans attacked the marines at one point across open country; the marines held their fire until the germans were 90 meters away then mowed them down, the germans retreating.  The French commanders repeatedly called for the marines to turn back. Captain Loyd Willians uttered the now famous words “retreat? hell we only just got here!” On the 6 June the marines advanced into the woods across open ground suffering many casualties.  Another famous bunch of words were from First Sergeant Dan Daily of the 73rd machine gun regiment and recipient of two Medals of Honour “come on you sons of bitches, you don’t want to live forever”.

We headed into the forest where a memorial stands with a number of guns and large shells used in the battle. There are also a number of plaques with information on them about people who were decorated and a map of the battle. It’s over a hundred years since the battle took place but some of the trenches and shell craters are still visible.

Next we visited the memorial, erected  to honour the thousands who lost their lives in the area, including over 3000 marines. Above the memorial are the remains of an old hunting lodge that was mostly destroyed. Finally on the 26 June 1918 the woods were taken after 5 major attacks by the marines, many of them involving hand to hand combat. Over the 26 days the allied line advanced less than 2 kilometres. It is really important that we remember and respect all those brave men from all nations that fought so hard to give us the freedom most of us enjoy today. Lest We Forget.

As a young soldier in the 1970s there were still many people around that fought in the second world war but few from the first world war. It is impossible to teach those growing up now all the history in relation to these wars but it is important that people at least have an understanding of the sacrifices that were made by so many.

Wednesday 27 October 2021

We caught the train from Saint Lazare Station in Paris to Caen on the Normandy Coast. It took us some time to find the right machine to print a ticket as there are no ticket offices open here.

Arriving in Caen we picked up a rental car and headed to the Memorial Museum which has a particularly good section on the Normandy invasion. From there we headed to the town of Bayeux where Micheal and Eric had booked an apartment. I chose to stay in the Hotel Churchill. This town was the first freed from the occupation of the germans during the invasion. It has Street names such as Churchill and Montgomery. We headed to a restaurant alongside the town’s small canal for a late lunch before looking around the town and visiting the cathedral. I checked into the Hotel Churchill to be greeted by Matthias, who welcomed me to the hotel and explained that when you leave just hang your key on the board in the foyer – very trusting, there must be little crime here.

Thursday 28 October 2021

At around 9.30 we headed to the town of Saint Mere Eglise, famous for the Airborne guy who got hung up on the bell tower of the church and played dead after being shot at by a number of germans. He survived but when they got him down he was stone deaf as the church bells had been ringing while he was hanging around up there. They have an outstanding Airborne museum there. With a number of small buildings the first called the C47, which has a C47(or DC3) surrounded by great displays.

Next was the Neptune building where you walked onto a gantry which vibrated and on the side are a bunch of power troopers and to the front the two pilots. Vibrations and gun fire gave it a good sense of reality. It brought back some great memories of doing my first jump from a DC3, which NZ was still using in the seventies, without he gunfire of course.

Next we moved through to the Regan Hall with lots of propaganda posters from WWII. Last was a Waco building which houses one of the many gilders used to land forces into the area during the invasion. It was surround by various  displays of items carried by the soldiers on board including some old relics that have been dug up over the years from the surrounding fields. After that we wandered the streets surrounding the Square. One house has a plaque on it noting that a parachutist had landed in their yard only to be captured by a german that was billeted there.  At the end of the square there is a plinth to the various airborne units with some very profound words on it.  “THEY GAVE THEIR TODAY FOR OUR TOMORROW”

From there we went to Pointe du Hoc where around 300 brave men of the US Rangers assaulted the cliffs to take out the guns there. By the time they got to the top only 90 were still fighting fit only to find the guns were not there but had been moved back several kilometres. They eventually found the guns and destroyed them, saving many lives of those that landed, still with horrendous losses, further down the coast. I had visited here in 2014. Back then one could wander into the gun emplacements and among the huge shell craters that still remain from the massive shelling, delivered from the many Royal Navy ships prior to the landings. But health and safety has made it all the way here too; it’s now all fenced off.

Looking along the cliffs gives one an appreciation of just how hard it must have been for those brave men to assult the clifs while under heavy sustained fire from the Germans.

Next we headed to the Omaha Museum, situated just short of the beach. This gave us a different perspective again with lots of equipment and relics used by the brave men that came ashore under extreme conditions and heavy fire to assist in the freeing of Europe. A theatre showed a movie in both English and French, showing right back to the preparation of the invasion from the many thousands of troops that came across the Atlantic from the US to the UK starting months earlier. This built up a force of around five hundred thousand that took part in the invasion. In total secrecy these men boarded ships in the south of England with a diversion being further north by placing General Paton there with a bunch of blow up tanks. As the germans believed he would be involved in the attack and due to many other diversions the German General Rommel moved many of his troops east along the french coast. Many items essential to soldiers such as cigarettes, sewing kits, boot polish and various other things are on display in various places throughout the museum. The rope ladders and and grappling hooks fired up to the top of the cliffs from the barges below were also on display. There were also some of the many obstacles that were placed on the beach to prevent the invasion, hence the troops had to land at low tide to prevent the landing craft from being sunk by the obstacles and mines attached to them.

We next headed down to the west end of the Omaha Beach where some of the German bunkers and machine possitions can still be seen.

Next was a stop at the pristine US Omaha Cemetery  where the the headstones of over 9000  American soldiers are placed in dead straight lines with the grass mowed to perfection, the trees trimmed and the whole place kept in excellent order. Mike and Eric had lost the brother of their great grandfather at sea off the Omaha coast where, Kenneth C Quinn was a cook on what they believe was a rocket ship, which struck a mine of the Omaha coast. His body was never found. We searched around and found his name on the wall remembering those that were missing and never found, a very proud moment for both Eric and Micheal.

By this stage we had run out of day so we headed back to Bayeux to the Cave for an excellent dinner and some nice wine.

Friday 28 October 2021

I checked out of the Hotel Churchill and picked up the boys and we headed to look at the Mulberry B, one of two wharves that were built on the coast, this one at Arromanches-les-Bains (Gold Beach) in the middle of the 100 kilometre long invasion coast.  First we stopped on the cliffs overlooking the remaining structures still off the coast. The other, Mulberry A, was built off Omaha but was largely destroyed by a major storm not long after it was set up.  B was used for 10 months in 1945 when other french ports were freed to bring in supplies. During that period over 2 1/2 million men, 500 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies would leave before it was fully decommissioned. Bearing in mind that that the Allies didn’t break out of the Normandy area until late August 1944 there must have been a huge amount of supplies piling up on the coast awaiting the advance.

It is always the thought of the logistics management that I find incredibly intriguing and making sure that every soldier gets ammunition, food and water no matter where he is on the battlefield.

We visited the museum there before heading down to the beach where one of the bridges is still on display, as are some gun emplacements and other relics, including smaller parts of the wharf washed up on the beach. Each museum we visited had a theme relating to the particular area making them each a well worthwhile visit. There are many we haven’t seen in the area – one would need weeks to visit them all. This one had great displays of how the 125 large concrete forms were towed from England and sunk parallel to the coast, then pontoons were set up with steel bridges between, each float running to the shore to take the thousands of vehicles, men and equipment that were offloaded from the mini ships. Some of the displays even moved up and down to represent the movement of the sea. There was also other remote memorabilia around the room representing a lot of the equipment once again that the soldiers used as they came ashore.

Around 1PM I dropped Micheal and Eric off at the Caen Station (I found out later they couldn’t get a train until 5pm). Then I headed off along the coast, some 400km to Dunkirk. By chance I had ended up with a hotel on the beach. The Merveilleux Hotel is only a couple of years old and at this time of year cheap, and much better than I expected. As I was alone I had booked somewhere cheap. It was pleasantly surprising to find such a nice place with very friendly staff.

A stroll along the beach lead me to a bar where I sat and watched the sunset and looked at some of the WWII images of the evacuation of Dunkirk from 26 May to 4 June 1940, thinking how much those people gave so people like me could sit here today.

Saturday 30 October 2021

After a good breakfast I went east along the beach to where large blocks of multi story apartments have been built. With a sealed walking and biking track above the sand it stretches out about 10 miles.

From there I took a drive around the town on the way to pick up Sylvia from the railway station. She had worked her way through the French Bureaucratic process and headed to South Africa on Tuesday night for three days of meetings, and had flown back to Paris overnight then caught the train to Dunkirk and now joins me for a week of well-earned holiday.  We headed to the Operation Dynamo Museum, past the many waterways and canals that are present in most costal french cities.

The museum was set out really well with a number of alcoves taking us through the great evacuation step by step. It was at Churchill’s instruction that the navy got every civilian boat over a few feet across the channel to rescue and evacuate the hundreds of thousands of troops with their backs to the sea, surrounded by the superior german forces. This mission started in secret without telling the French as they wanted to use Dunkirk as a resupply port for their all but defeated troops. Some 240,000 troops were evacuated from the port which was under constant bombardment from the Luftwaffe and close to a hundred thousand were taken off the beach.

The evacuating troops had destroyed the engines in their trucks, so when an enterprising engineer NCO decided to used the trucks to build a wharf they had to be pushed into the sea and lined up like a pier so the troops could walk across to board the many boats arriving to rescue them. Over a hundred thousand French troops were evacuated, many who went back to fight in the south of France later that year.

There were many interesting items on display including the front end of a rather rusted out truck only found in the sea in 2009. The displays were well done and it was easy to follow the time line through what took place. One interesting item was an armoured Skoda canon with a MG34 machine gun mounted above the canon barrel; I hadn’t realised that Skoda made such things.

A thousand British and sixteen thousand French troops gave their lives at Dunkirk.

As we left Dunkirk we realised that most of the city must have been rebuilt since the war.

Mid-afternoon we arrived in Calais. After checking into the Hotel Meurice we headed to check out the Hôtel de Ville (the city Hall), a mainly brick building with a bell tower. Building was started in the late 1800s but not finished until 1925 and required repairs after WWII. We took a tour up to the bell tower where we looked over the city and watched some of the 37 ferries a day that run between here and England, coming and going. There are remains of old forts and an old theatre in the town, the rest of the buildings look post WWII. In the distance we could see the White Cliffs of Dover.

We took a stroll down to the beach where the local dragon moved slowly past, occasionally puffing smoke and fire. It must have been a rather long, slow ride for those mounted on top. The large beach area, complete with dividing fences was pretty much deserted with summer over. Our walk back to the hotel took us past the old watch tower and a monument of the local famous corsair (pirate), Tom Souville.

As we walked through a park near the hotel we came across a really well done statue of De Gaulle and Churchill.

4 thoughts on “Paris to Caen – The Normandy Coast

  1. Roger James says:

    Yea – there are a huge number of craters in the area, few if any direct hits. But the holes did provide good cover for the rangers when they got to the top of the cliffs… ?

  2. Ray Steele says:

    Excellent commentary Roger. Great shout out for the loggies. You look like you need some sun on your legs mate!
    Love to you both. Stay safe

  3. Rosie says:

    A grim war story indeed. A salutary reminder of the cost of war and the waste of lives, sacrificed to stop a couple of power hungry megalomaniacs from taking over the world.
    Great photos and commentary again Roger.
    Hope the rest of your trip with Sylvia is enjoyable and safe.

  4. Travis says:

    Good read as always.
    Would love to go back to Normandy. Ted and I stayed at the Churchill Hotel too! Drank a bit of Calvados.
    Bayeux is a favourite, you must return with Sylvia and see the tapestry 🙂
    Omaha Cemetery is one of the most powerful places I have been to to experience the sacrifice of young men. I shed a few tears there and quietly read the names of many fallen.
    We both know that gunners saved the day at Pointe de Hoc

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