In September I went with some friends on a road trip France to explore the Normandy invasion beaches of World War Two (WWII) I hadn’t been for ten years or more and felt the urge to go back again. Coming with me this time would be Tom and Michelle on their black Honda Goldwing 1800cc and Mark and Jeanette on their Honda Goldwing 1500 Panther Trike.
I booked the ferry and hotel through Brittany ferries, I have used these guys before and every hotel in both France and Spain has been above average with safe secure and private bike parking.
So on Friday night we gathered for a meal in Hatfield to go over any last minute worries or concerns. Tom and Michelle have been with me several times on a couple of APPY WANDERERS adventures so knew what the score was, Mark and Jeanette came on the last tour too but that had been their first time as they have only had the trike a few months.
It seems everything had been covered as nobody had any concerns. Instead we got down to a nice meal and drinks. The young waiter was a nice lad called AJ and quite effeminate, he did a great job and really looked after us. At the end of the evening he could contain himself no longer and exclaimed he had never seen anyone as big as Mark and that he was an absolute tank and very scary! This tickled everyone except Mark who came over quite coy.
Saturday morning came with sunshine and bright skies, we headed southbound on the M1..A43..M40..A34..M27 and finally into the docks at Portsmouth our Brittany Ferries fast ferry was just pulling in.
It was Marks first ferry crossing, he said he didn’t do the sea very well. “You best lie down in the middle then mate, it doesn’t rock so much from there” I offered in support. I would have said standing outside on the bows usually works but on the fast ferries you are only allowed onto the viewing balcony at the rear. Lashing the bikes down was a simple affair as the deck hands said to leave it to them, I was reassured by a supervising officer sufficiantly to believe them.
We got settled upstairs on the cavernous bar/lounge area and looked at the grey Royal Navy ships left to gather dust and all tied up, carriers, destroyers, frigates and several fleet suport vessels. I didn’t feel proud too be British at that moment, a criminal act is what the government seems to be involved in, I know we are in the red a bit but to use that as a blanket excuse to strip us bare is wrong, personally I’d happily pay extra to keep the police up to strength and our military kitted out properly to keep my country strong. Axe overseas aid to Pakistan is…oh stop me someone!
Mark overcame his queezy stomach by taking a nap, I looked at the map with the rest to go over the route to the hotel, in between this we snacked on packed sanwiches crisps and some light liquid refreshment. On the map it looked straight forward but then it always does on a map doesn’t it?
We docked in Cherbourg in the early evening and drove around the town on the ringroad, it was getting dark already and not an ideal time to hit the continent I agree but I knew which direction we needed to be heading so with Sat-Nav to give me a nudge now and again we rode towards Caen, our hotel was on the coast near Bayeux. The town of Arromanches.
I’d been in this region several times so wasn’t too worried. Normandy however is very rural with not too many towns in the area so quite often as we rode along the main route it was litterally pitch black. I pulled into the first garage for a quick refill and a quick chat as to where we were and how far we had to go. The ring road of Bayeux took us by the little coast road to Arromanches and our final destination.
Arromanches is a very small sea side village thrust into the limelight by the allied invasion of mainland Europe on 6th June 1944 and in particular, was the site of the world’s first concrete man made mobile harbour. Arromanches is in the middle of all the historic events of the period and so was perfect for us to use as a base for the week. We soon came to the Hotel Marine on the waterfront, Brittany Ferries had done well for us again with a great hotel and good private off road parking for the motorbikes. It was nearly 23.00 hrs so a quick drink and a snack was all we wanted, we had all week to get stuck into the local food and drink!
We rode in and out of the hotel via the promanade which was fun especially in the late afternoons as we returned from rideouts we had to ride slowly past the hotel guests as they sat at the tiny tables on the same prom eating and drinking, we towered over them and our trike had to pass by them even closer”
After breakfast on our first ride-out we went west to visit the landing beach codenamed UTAH, it was an all American affair here and parts of it featured in the BAND of BROTHERS mini series. Due partly to this and other recent war movies like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN for example several of the battles sites in Normandy have now been flagged up via google, and the various historic internet sights. They are easier to pinpoint than ten years ago thanks mainly to the excellent signs erected by the local highways department.
I have to admit I find it a bit uncomfortable to be strolling on the landing beaches, this morning we all drifted off seperatly to look around and I’m sure we all felt similar emotions. On this day too we visited the most prominent sights on the western edge of Normandy including Point Du Hoc, this area is heavily “moonscaped” with the hundreds of shell holes now of course covered in grass. Here and there are the remains of the fortifications, all heavily damaged, some wrecked and tipped at crazy angles, some appeared complete until you walked inside and saw the hundreds of machine gun bullet holes on most every wall inside and the burnt wood remains. The attacking forces used flame throwers against such obsticles and poured petrol down ventilation ducts, it made one shiver when trying to imagine what happened. It struck me about the noise, it must have been unbelievabley violent for the German gunners as they waited their turn to die.
Huge holes were blasted in the roof, showing they were not impregnible.
The huge American cemetary on top of the sandy bluffs at the OMAHA landing beach was next on todays agenda. This is a very moving place and stops you dead when you see the thousands off white stone crosses, dotted here and there with the Star of David. We walked amongst the crosses reading the names and regiments and swallowed as their age said 18yrs..19yrs…21yrs.. Its the same in any war I guess even now, but it’s still a shock when one actually reads it. We sat by the wall and looked around watching the older folk looking and stopping at a certain cross, visitors. relations and veterans from distant lands and people like us who just want to pay their respects.
At the U.S cemetary on the bluffs above OMAHA where over 9000 soldiers are laid to rest.
The beach itself was quiet, I have never seen many on it, just the odd soul walking, perhaps reliving that one morning on 6th June again. I did walk on it on my first visit back in the 70’s with my French girlfriend and penpal. it didn’t feel right then and still doesn’t feel right now. I imagine it would take the passing of a couple of generations before it feels right to enjoy this beach again.
In the cemetry at closing time there was the daily lowering of the flag, a small group of Americans had gathered at its base and clapped gently as the flag came down. It was very moving and solemn, it grabbed you by the throat. Its very difficult to imagine the enourmity of what had happened here and the huge loss of life encoured by the liberating forces.
The holiday mood returned as we changed into shorts and T shirts, sitting outside the hotel in the warm sunshine drinking and chatting and trying to decide what we were going to eat tonight and in what bar. The next day we would visit some old German gun batteries then turn to the eastern edge of the landings and see what our fathers and granfathers did in the British and Canadian sectors codenamed GOLD, SWORD and JUNO beaches.
After breakfast we got the bikes ready, it was a lovely warm day already so our bike jackets were stowed in the panniers and we rode lightly dressed. I took us back the way we came up the little coast route to the village of Longues-Sur-Mer. The battery was situated between the landing beaches OMAHA and GOLD. On the night before the D-Day landings of 6 June 1944, the battery was subject to heavy bombing from allied air forces. The bombing was followed from 0537 hrs on the morning of the landings by bombardment from the French cruiser Georges Leygues as well as the U.S. battleship Arkansas. The battery itself opened fire at 0605 hrs and fired a total of 170 shots throughout the day, forcing the flagship HMS Bulolo to retreat to safer water. Three of the four guns were eventually disabled by British cruisers Ajax and Argonaut, though a single gun continued to operate intermittently until 1900 hrs that evening. The crew of the battery surrendered the following day. The ground wasn’t as pockmarked as Point du Hoc. The land had been returned to farming and so looked quiet normal! I think also the ground around the bunkers had been levelled somewhat to allow ease of viewing.
See Jeanette stood by the turret to give you an idea how big these batteries were. Every survivng emplacement had been penetrated on the roof
We had a team photo taken here by another biker, the guy was Australian and was on a two year road trip around the world with his wife on their BMW, an interesting few minutes chat was had before we wished them well and rode off south now back down the coast road heading for the River Orne and canal over which the now named Pegasus Bridge stood, called so in honour of the British airborne forces who captured it thus securing the eastern flank of the invasion forces.
The “round the world” Aussie biker takes our group picture, cheers cobber and good luck!
We waved the Aussies goodbye as we headed for the D514 and meandered up the coast through quiet little villages until at Lion-sur-Mer when I cut inland towards Pegasus Bridge, I knew the direction, I could visualize it in my mind but the damn road kept cutting north towards Caen! I looked across the plains to my left and could see the hills of the eastern edge of the landings where the British Airborne forces held the flanks and knew the bridge was just in the dip before them. I took the next road left, it was a small B road and went over the open plains in the right direction but after passing a farm the road turned a bit rougher with lots of hardcore replacing the tarmac and dust, lots of dust. We had no CB so I just hoped Tom and Mark had faith in me and followed blindly! We carried on like this for about two miles, the trick was to keep it moving and don’t go so slow as to get the front end dancing around. Finally we were in site of the Bridge and were now on tarmac, the other two soon caught up and we had a bit of a laugh (understatement) at where we had just come from. I assured them the bridge was just over there and only five minutes away.
Three dusty bikes pulled into the car park at Cafe Gondre and we sat down for lunch looking at the bridge, cafe and the marked places were the glider-borne troops had landed in three gliders. The bridge is exactly the same only bigger and stronger, the foundations had been severly eroded and had to be replaced several years ago. The original bridge is just over the bridge at the new Airborne museum, it’s a facsinating visit, it was fairly quiet and so the curater gave us his personal attention for a while and told us some interesting stories, he even put the film on for us in English.
It was late afternoon before we made our way back to the bikes, the sun was in its full glory now, T shirts and jeans where the preffered riding order for the lazy trawl back up the coast road, we got back in an hour or so. The Hotel Marine was serving dinner and we had to cruise slowly through the early evening diners on the promanade, the road was closed so we had to ride our bikes along the prom a hundred yards or so, much to the amusement of the hotel staff and mild consternation of the vulnerable feeling diners!
The next day we had a rideout south to St Mont Michel on the southern edge of the peninsular, after a short hop down the Caen freeway we turned onto the back roads and explored for a while. Our destination was only sixty miles away and we had all the time in the world. We could see the abbey from about 8 miles away, its a bit like Lindisfarne, with its Abbey on a rock island a mile or so off the mainland, joined by a single road. Again I had been here several times but had never been into the abbey, so today I would take Julie right to the top and have a look around, we paired off and explored agreeing to meet later.
At the very top of the abbey steps Julie began to feel really unwell, she had some mild discomfort all morning but was confident it would wear off. Unfortunatly it got worse, she began to go hot and sweaty and felt faint, it was so bad in fact that she had to lie down in the medic room, an ambulance was called for. My mind began to race as the day took an unexpected turn. I ran to find our sacttered party finding Mark and Jeanette telling them what was happening before Mark went in search of Tom and Michelle, Jeanette and I returned to Julie in the medic room. We heard the “Dee Daa” of the coming emergency vehicle far below on the causeway, one of the French guides stayed with us to help. In no time three dashing slim fit firemen arrived. The boss did a kind of triage in broken English helped greatly by the guide. He wanted to cart my wife off to the hospital, Ok so we would follow on the bikes, they began explaining where it was, I assured them I would be right behind them! Jeanette offered to go with the three young fit firemen……and Julie! Both girls seemed to perk up a bit. Julie was strapped to one of those chairs and the three young fit ambulancemen carried her all the way down to the red ambulance. Meanwhile the rest of us hurried to the bikes and waited for the blue lights to appear, which they did in no time at all.
Jeanette takes a photo as Julie gets carried away by three fit French ambulance men….
I pulled out behind it swiftly followed by the trike them Tom and Michelle, it was a bit slow going along the causeway until we made the open road and they opened up to 90 mph, we stuck like glue, in fact on the duel carriageway section we were pulling out to close the back door giving the “Dee Daa” an open road to play with. We arrived at the hospital at Avranches in quick time. I waited in the waiting area wondering what was going to happen now, The gang explored the cafes and bars for a couple of hours before having a picnic, checking with me from time to time as to any progress. Julie was discharged after about 5 hours all fixed up by the lady doctor the cramps had gone, it was no more serious than a bad bout of constipation, it can be very debilitating as Julie proved. I was very much relieved!
Now we admitted that following the ambulance had been great fun, Jeanette tried to take a photo of us from inside the “Dee Daa” but was no doubt distracted by the three fit ambulance. The day had certainly gone a bit “skew-whiff” today! Ok so now we would go back to the hotel on the main highway, I suggested we should follow the main highway to Caen before turning off at Bayeux, from there we will pick up the road to Arromanches on the ringroad. Everyone was fine with that and so off we went. Darkness came quickly as I left the road just after Bayeux, I checked the sat Nav now in night mode and thought Ok so we will miss the town instead and just pick up that little coast road again , if we keep Bayeux to our left it will be easy (understatement)
It was slow going as we negotiated the smallest of roads in the pitch black, the bocage (high and really thick hedgerows) making our progress at times felt tunnel like. Julie felt fine and was quite enjoying this little adventure, we got stuck behind a huge tractor for bloody miles we must have looked like those spaceships in “Close Ecounters of a Third Kind” Goldwings have a peculiar light arrangement coupled with the trike lights it really must have looked odd! On and on went the bloody tractor. FINALLY a gap long and straight enough for us all to nip through came into view and we shot by swiftly. Great we could move a bit faster when a sign came into the headlights that told us the road ahead was shut! Oh for fux sake! I said loudly. We did a U turn in the black lane as the fekkin big tractor came trundling along, I bet the farmer was chuckling away up there in his glass cab. I was working with my minds eye now and took the next right and right again to take us in a similar direction, Bayeux was still to our left. I sold a few dummies as Sat Nav began to get involved and nearly took us down black paths, I ignored them at the last minute. Yes folks use the damn blasted Sat Navs as a guide and not as the “be all and end all!” On one such U turn I could hear Tom laughing as we paddled the bikes around, it was safe to do, just bloody awkward! Arromanches came into view as we landed late into the night. We were still in good spirits, the day had been a great adventure, ending in a night tour of the wonderful French countryside. Of course the hotle bar was shut but the young lady in reception pointed us in the direction of a bar run by an Englishman. We made our entrance got beers ordered some late night snacks and sat down still buzzing at the adventure, so it was only right that yer man asked us if we wanted to stay longer? “Clunk Click” went the front door, we were now part of a Lock-in. “Oh joy!” said we. I have no idea what time it all ended but I know the Belgian beer stood up to their fearsome reputation. I personally don’t drink a lot it’s just that I love the atmosphere of a pub (understatement)
0.8.00 its a bright morning..shall we walk instead chaps?
The next day I felt very fragile, the fine Belgian beer really did for me! I sugested we left the bikes alone for a while. instead we might explore the town of Arromanches the museum and generally have a lazy day. Not suprisingly everyone agreed! So after breakfast we all went for a long stroll along the cliff tops, it was warm and sunny already with not a cloud in the sky, in the afternoon we spent time in the museum and learned more about the Mulberry harbours and about what happened round these parts, we were able to imagine quite well as they had dozens of photographs to compare against.
We had a light lunch and waited for the tide to go out then we could walk amongst the huge concrete sections that still stood in position just off the beach, one huge chunk had deterioted quite a lot that one could actually step inside. We did some beach combing and generally enjoyed the warm breeze, my thoughts still drifted back to what our forefathers had done here sixty seven years ago. Suffice to say we had a much quieter evening with a view to visiting the old town of Bayeux the next day.
This is a piece of Mulberry dock, it doesnt look this big in the history books does it?
So it was to be Bayeux today then! Firstly though we were going to back track on our night-ride and try and find a monument that Mark had spotted in his headlights. I rode up the hillside and took a tiny road towards Crepon, it looked much pretteir in the day than in the pitch black of the other night! We came across a black statue of a crouching British Tommy by the church and pulled over. It was a memorial to The Green Howards and their battles in this area and of Sgt Stanley Hollis in particular as the only recepiant of the Victora Cross on D-Day.
To the brave lads of The Green Howards R.I.P
We left after taking some photographs and quite happy we were able to find it again. We now rode towards Bayeux. The ringroad led us to the Bayeux D-Day museum, we parked up near an American Sherman tank and a German Jagdpanther tank, on the other corner sat an English Churchill tank. We spent an hour or two here, inside were more tanks and arms from the confilct, arms and armour that isn’t in the museums of England. On the opposite side of the ring-road sits the Bayeux Commonwealth War Graves Commision Cemetary. It’s the largest Second World War cemetery of Commonwealth soldiers in France. The cemetery contains 4,648 burials, mostly from the Normandy battles. Opposite this cemetery stands the Bayeux Memorial which commemorates more than 1,800 casualties of the Commonwealth forces who died in Normandy and have no known grave. After a long visit and a look at the unusual graves, we had a moment of wry humour when I found a headstone of a Scottish soldier called Blackadder! We saw puzzling headstones too like the clutch of Russians and the occasional Moslem and Arabic headstone we then moved on.
No its not a joke but it did make us smile.
We travelled a little further round the ringroad to a car park for the Tapestry. This was the world famous Bayeux Tapestry that tells oddly enough of a Norman invasion of England in 1066. Julie and I had been here before so we went for a stroll around the town and the Catherdral whilst the others visited the Tapestry. Bayeux is very very old and was the first town to be re-captured by British forces, the Germans had vacated quickley thus Bayeaux didn;t suffer bombardment and distruction, the little streets retained their ancientness. Helped greatly by the British Royal Engineers who laid a huge matted road around the old town. We saw photographs of it in the museum. It was essential because the town roads were so small and made it impossible for the advancing army to negotiate, the matted ringroad was supposed to be a temorary affair but stayed for years, the current ringroad lays on the original matted road built by the British Engineers!
One last ride back to Arromanches in the beautiful afternoon French sun and a last dinner before packing the bikes for the short ride in the morning to the ferry at Ouistreham on the coast just an hour away. The hotel had been great, so had the food, drink and the girls on the front desk. Memorable too had been the long haired middle aged English socialist with his french wife and homely little pub. Hey man thank’s a lot dude, your beers were outstanding and damn right dangerous, cheers!
After our last breakfast of bread and jam with coffee we bid Arromanches goodbye, we rode again on the coast road through the quaint villages of Asnelles, Courseulles-sur-Mer, Luc-sur-Mer and Lion-sur-Mer before arriving at Ouistreham, we parked up and went for a stroll to the estuary and to the edge of SWORD beach. I had last been here in 1970’s on a visit to my french penfriend, it was that baking hot summer of ’74 and I remember ringing my workplace saying I was ill and would be off another week, Ahh those were the days! The beach was long flat and open. It seems a good place to land not too good a place if someone was shooting at you, not a rock in site! The only thing dashing about today were the couple of French dogs and their lady owner. The estuary and mud flats were being developed behind us as a bird sanctuary and the sea wall was being extended.
The D-Day landing beaches are quieter these days.
The girls called to us and we strolled back to the small terminal, we had tea and cakes and waited a short while for the ferry to arrive. The fast ferry would whisk us back to Portsmouth in just two and a half hours, slicing the old ferry time in half! The Noramndie Express was a fast catamaran which originated from New Zealand, traversing the Cook Straits before aquiring new owners.
In no time we were back in blighty and back on the right side of the road! To be honest you don’t really know the difference after a very short while, you just have to follow everyone else and try to relax, it really is that simple. The week had been a wonderful re-visit for me and Julie, for the others it had been their first time to Normandy and for sure it won’t be their last, Tom for example needs to come back and buy that elusive locally brewed cidre.