Truly the Longest Day
03.04.2013 - 03.04.2013 6 °C
I cried a lot today. It had nothing to do with the weather or my ongoing wobbly tummy but unashamedly I was incredibly moved by my surroundings. Far more than I expected to be and in a way that has put life into perspective.
Today we began exploring Normandy and specifically the sites of the D-Day landings and the Battle for Normandy. Which was, let's face it, the Battle for France, the Battle for Europe and the Battle for Humanity. Make no mistake, the life that we hold so dear and take for granted was challenged 70 years ago and 1000s of brave young men gave it all to take back the continent and the principles of freedom. We've been to battle sites in the past - this was different. This was a fight that made sense and was, really, the only option.
We went first to St-Mere-Eglise. For those that haven't seen The Longest Day, this may not mean anything, but for those that have, it's the place where Red Buttons ends up hanging from his parachute on the steeple of a church. Hollywood fiction? Not at all. Buttons was portraying a man named John Steele and it really happened - in fact, the story is still remembered and commemorated by a manequin hanging from the steeple to this day. St-Mere-Eglise was the first French town liberated by on D-Day. On the night of 5th/6th June 1944, pathfinders from the American 82nd and 101st Airporne parachuted into the area with the mission of holding the road on which the town stood. It was them main road across the Cotentin Peninsula and holding it would help prevent a German counterattack against the landings at Utah Beach. Things got horribly messy because of weather and inaccurate drops and many soldiers dropped directly into the town. What made it worse is that a house in the main street was on fire and the parachutists were clearly visible in the light that was cast. The upshot is a happy one. The Germans withdrew before dawn and, despite counterattacks, the reformed Airborne Divisions were able to hold out until the advancing forces from Utah were able to join up with them some 48 hours later. This must have been an incredibly long 48 hours.
Why am I telling the story? Well because it deserves to be told. The average age of the men that jumped that night was 20 and around 50% of them were out of action either killed or injured within the first couple of days. You can't go to somewhere like St-Mere-Eglise without feeling the sacrifice and it got to us without doubt. It's the bit in the film that always finds me going to make a drink or something but I had to confront it today and there was no John Wayne with me to make me sure it would be alright. What's more, it still looks like a French village. You can recognise the town square and the shops and there is a marker in the the brilliantly done Airborne Museum for the house that burnt and caused so much trouble.
After this, we moved on to Utah Beach. What I'll remember most about that - apart from how cold and blowy it was - was the road there. On every corner was a marker or signpost. Each one of these commemorated a soldier that had fallen at that point and the street or lane was named in their honour. So many markers. So many lives. Another brilliant museum and history is coming to life at a rate that is breathtaking.
Final call for the day was equally if not more inspirational. 11km down the road from our hidey hole is Point Du Hoc. This is where the American Rangers (including Paul Anka in the film) scaled vertical cliffs under heavy attack from German Artillery with the mission purpose of taking out the apparently impregnable German batteries that had the potential to wreak havoc on the incoming waves on Omaha. When I say vertical I'm really not kidding. One of the most telling quotes at the memorial is from President Reagan - not someone I'd often quote - who talks about the effort. I can't say it better:
The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers -- at the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.
To walk there amongst the shellholes and gun placements and to look down on those forbidding cliffs is awe inspiring. And I cried again. This time. it was so cold I think the ice was forming on my cheeks.
I am truly humbled by this experience and I haven't finished yet. Tomorrow we're going to Pegasus Bridge and Ouisterheim. I still have the lines in my head...."hold until relieved. Hold until relieved" and the sound of bagpipes through the mist. Going to be a special day but today will take some beating.
I can only say - humbly - thank you!