Normandy coast to Cherbourg

Monday, 28th July 2014

There was only one overnight stay left in France and that was in Cherbourg, so taking my leave of the friendly Caen B&B staff I went back into Ouistreham and took the coastal route westwards.

B&B Reception, Caen

B&B Reception, Caen

It was considerably more quiet than the day before and I easily found a place to park. The 4 Commando Museum that I’d visited told the story of Philippe Kieffer, a Free French officer who was impressed by the newly-formed British Commandos, so much so that he requested and was granted permission to form his own unit. After harsh training which led to some fatalities and which Kieffer himself undertook, Les Fusiliers-Marins Commandos (“Marine Riflemen Commandos”) entered service. In 1944 the French unit became part of No. 4 Commando under Lieutenant-Colonel Dawson which in turn was part of 1st Special Service Brigade under Brigadier the Lord Lovat. Incidentally, Lovat had film-star looks in the Errol Flynn mode which prompted Winston Churchill to say of him “he was the handsomest man who ever cut a throat“. Both men walked into legend on D-Day, Lovat for leading reinforcements 4 miles inland under heavy fire and to the sound of the bagpipes played by Bill Millin to reinforce the paratroopers who had captured Pegasus Bridge, and Kieffer for leading his unit in the capture of the heavily-fortified and defended Ouistreham Casino. Both episodes were featured in the film “The Longest Day”:

There is a memorial to both men and their Commandos near the beach, Kieffer first then Lovat:

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There are many other memorials along this historic coast, including this rather unusual one:

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It is, of course, King Neptune and is a tribute to those who took part in Operation Neptune. Whilst the invasion of occupied Europe and the establishing of a bridgehead in Normandy is well-known as Operation Overlord, the actual cross-Channel transportation of the troops and the airborne landings the previous night constituted Operation Neptune.

Continuing westwards, the next stop was Sainte-Mère-Église and the Musée Airborne – the Airborne Museum. This tells the story of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. It occupies several modern buildings and it took all afternoon to wander around. It’s situated near the town’s main square, and before going in I saw the church from which the town gets its name:

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See that white thing on the tower? Here’s a close-up:

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Yes, it’s a dummy paratrooper! The villagers keep it there to commemorate another famous episode of D-Day. The 82nd Airborne troops assigned to this area were to land to the west of the village but missed the mark and came down into the village itself. What made matters worse was the fact that a house near the church had been set on fire by a stray incendiary bomb, and not only was the square well-lit but many German soldiers, present because it was after curfew, were supervising the bucket-chain trying to douse the fire. Thus many paratroopers were killed in the air as they parachuted in by these German soldiers. One, John Steele, survived because he had his canopy caught on the church roof, as shown in the images. He witnessed what was, in effect, a massacre. Later, he was rescued by two German soldiers who attended to his injury (he’d been shot in the foot) and made a prisoner of war. Several hours later, though, he escaped and rejoined his unit. His two German rescuers were subsequently captured and in turn made prisoners of war. Again, this was re-enacted in the film “The Longest Day”:

The museum, too, told the story:

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If you look closely enough you’ll see another shadowy figure looking out at you … 😉

One of the buildings was dedicated to Operation Neptune, and in one display visitors are able to stand at the doorway of a Dakota aeroplane, look down through the darkness to the ground below and imagine what it would have been like to jump.

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There are several other pictures I have which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t post. However, you must see this sculpture by Jean-B Cacquevel which stands in the museum grounds near the entrance:

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Only the freed truly know what it is to be free.

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