D-Day + 65 Years

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Were the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy, France, by the Western allies today 65 years ago fated to succeed? Was the German defence doomed to fail?

Much has been written about June 6, 1944, some of it hagiography, some of it revisionist.

The argument goes that with its good leadership, planning and air as well as naval superiority, the Allies could not fail in succeeding. The Germans, with a divided leadership and consequently befuddled plans as well as their lack of troops, air and naval superiority ensured their eventual defeat.

Carl von Clausewitz described war as the dynamic interaction of two opposing human wills and compared it to Greco-Roman wrestling.

One side`s victory is therefore always the sum of its own strong and weak points combined with that of its enemies. Napoleon said victory went to the side that made the least mistakes.

The success of the Anglo-American landing had as much to do with sound planning and strategic unity as it did with an appalling series of disasters such as failure at the Dardanelles in 1915, Narvik in 1940 and Dieppe in 1942 – all cases where initially successful landings were undone by ineptitude later.



Then there were the half-cocked operations, such as the eventually successful invasion of Sicily, the landings at Salerno, Italy, and the mess at Anzio – where the assault troops had to pay with their blood for bad planning and execution.

But the successful landing today, 65 years ago, was equally the result of discord in the German chain of command on how to best resist the Allied counter-invasion and the attack`s likely location, the disposition of German forces in France and elsewhere, the indifferent quality of many German units, complacency, the poor organisation of the German war economy and its growing inability to deal with the dislocation caused by the Allied air offensives against its transport and oil infrastructure.

The point here is there is that the Allied victory and the German defeat was the result of a range of factors and defy pat categorisation.          

The Day of Days

In the popular mind, D-Day was one of the turning points of World War Two (1939-1945).

The moment was suitably celebrated earlier today under tight security – perhaps tighter than that in place on June 5, 1944.

This was also the case five years ago when thousands of troops and paramilitary police as well as air defence batteries and fighter aircraft manned the invasion beaches where access was strictly controlled by means of a special pass.

Former resistance fighters must have felt a keen sense of déjà vu.

Nevertheless, wreaths were laid, lunches were had and Commonwealth veterans filed past Britain`s Queen Elizabeth II, while Americans were entertained by President George W Bush.

Today it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain`s Gordon Brown and US President Barack Obama. Joining them was British crown prince Charles, the only survivor of 2004.  

A contingent from South Africa`s 44 Parachute Engineer Regiment also took part in the 2004 celebrations, jumping from a restored C47 Dakota into the Pegasus Bridge area on the afternoon of Saturday, June 5, 2004.

Regimental commander Lt Col Krige van Heerden said his stick of 12 included three paratroops from 3 Parachute Battalion.

The only “Regular” to jump was Brigadier General McGill Alexander, a living legend in the SANDF`s Airborne.

The next morning the group attended ceremonies at the Ranville cemetery, the resting place of many British paratroops who fell on and after D-Day. Van Heerden said they have since received a letter of thanks from the Normandy Veteran`s Association for their presence. An often-overlooked footnote was the presence of South Africans at the landings.

In 1943 a group of about 40 young officers, apparently surplus to the South African requirement were seconded to the Royal Marines, which had a shortage of lieutenants. The group landed on Sword and Juno beaches at the head of their platoons as part of the 4th Special Service Brigade. The Normandy Memorial to the missing lists one of their names still.            

Context

Max Hastings put it thus: “The struggle for Normandy was the decisive western battle of the Second World War, the last moment at which the German army might conceivably have saved Hitler from catastrophe.

The post-war generation grew up with the legend of the Allied campaign in 1944-45 as a triumphal progress across Europe, somehow unrelated to the terrible but misty struggle that had taken place in the East.” One might add Italy.

Writing in 1984 Hastings added: “Today, we can recognise that the Russians made a decisive contribution to the western war by destroying the best of the German army, killing some two million men, before the first Allied soldier stepped ashore on 6 June 1944… Much has been written about the poor quality of the German troops defending the Channel coast. Yet these same men prevented Allies almost everywhere from gaining there D-Day objectives, and on the American Omaha beach brought them close to defeat, even before the crack units of the SS and Wehrmacht approached the battlefield.”

Of German armour only the reconstituted 21st Panzer Division was on hand on D-Day, the original having been destroyed in Tunisia, the year before.

The rest were, perhaps, fatally delayed by vacillation within the German chain of command, Allied air attack and sabotage.

“In the weeks that followed, despite the Allies` absolute command of sea and air, their attacks were repeatedly arrested with heavy loss by outnumbered and massively outgunned German units. None of this, of course, masks the essential historical truth that the Allies eventually prevailed.

But it makes the campaign seem a far less straightforward affair than chauvinistic post-war platitudes suggested. Captain Basil Liddell Hart suggested in 1952 that the Allies had been strangely reluctant to reflect upon their huge superiority in Normandy and draw some appropriate conclusions about their own performance: “There has been too much glorification of the campaign and too little objective investigation.”

Even in the early 1980s, 40 years after the battle, Hastings found it astonishing how many books had been published that merely reflected comfortable chauvinistic legends, and how few sought to examine the record.

“It remains an extraordinary feature of the war in the west that, despite the vast weight of technology at the disposal of the Allies, British and American soldiers were called upon to fight the German army in 1944-45 with weapons inferior in every category save that of artillery,” Hastings wrote in the introduction of his book on the subject, Overlord[1] – a reference to the codename of the June 6 landings.

                             

“Only in the air did the Allies achieve absolute dominance in Normandy. Yet if the massive air forces denied the Germans the hope of victory, their limitations were also revealed. Air power could not provide a magic key to victory without huge exertions by the ground forces,” he adds.

Hastings notes that post-war study has focussed largely on the conduct of the generals.

Too little attention have been given to the respective performance of the German, British and American ground troops. He asks how it could be that after months (years) of preparation for D-Day and the Normandy campaign, Allied armoured and infantry tactics were found so wanting.

One can add: Why was so much attention given to specialised vehicles and tactics for the landing but so little thought given to the fighting that was sure to follow inland. Every consideration was made for crossing the beaches but seemingly little forethought was given to breaching the infamous “bocage,” the formidable earth embankment and hedgerow combination that traditionally surrounds Normandy`s small pastures and fields.

Hastings avers Allied leaders were haunted by the casualties of World War One and wanted no repetition. They were also overawed by the knowledge that “the German army was the outstanding fighting force of the Second World War, and that it could be defeated by Allied soldiers only under the most overwhelmingly favourable conditions.”

As a result, he argues, it is pointless to consider whether an Allied plan or manoeuvre was sound in abstract terms. “The critical question, surely, is whether it was capable of being carried out by the available Allied forces, given their limitations and the extraordinary skill of their enemies.”

Understanding the Battle

The key to understanding any battle is knowing why the forces involved clashed at the time and place concerned. A major factor in this is knowledge of the terrain. The best way to obtain this knowledge is to visit the battlefield concerned. This is not always possible. As a result, students of the battle, particularly those in parts of the world more distant from the battlefield, often build up faulty images of the battle and how it was influenced by the terrain the opposing forces crossed.

Books, including those listed below, explain the “where and why” of D-Day in great detail, but few, if any, go to any great trouble to explain the terrain. D-Day was the start of the Allied counter-invasion of France and sought to reverse the German occupation of that state in 1940.

The Anglo-American Norman campaign lasted just over two months, from June 6 to August 19 when German resistance in the area collapsed, forcing them to evacuate the country and find forces to defend their frontiers.

One irony of the German 60-day campaign in France in May-June 1940 was that Normandy fell to a brash, young division commander – then-Generalmajor Erwin Rommel and his 7th Panzer. Four years later he was tasked with its defence.        

By June 1944 the Germans were losing on all fronts. The submarine stranglehold in the Atlantic had been broken, German cities and infrastructure were being pulverised from above. On June 4, Rome in Italy fell to the Allies, the first Axis capital to fall.

In the east, Russian troops by late May had cleared Romania of Germans and were thrusting west into Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Hungary. As a result, Greece and Albania had to be evacuated. Desperate measures had to be taken to build a new front.

Two weeks after D-Day a new wave flooded over the German eastern ramparts: Operation Bagration. Tens of thousands of tanks, aircraft and guns backed by millions of troops smashed an entire German army group (Heeresgruppe Mitte) in just days, taking the Soviet Army into Poland – to the gates of Warsaw – and into Lithuania and Latvia. In the Pacific, the US was taking the war against Japan to the Marianas Islands where fierce fighting lay ahead on Tinian, Saipan and Guam.      

Across the Channel two competing plans took shape.

In Britain, the plan called for a landing in the Bay of the Seine with the purpose of capturing the Cherbourg peninsula in order to capture the port of the same name to allow reinforcements direct from the US that would allow the build up of forces to punch a hole through the German defences. By D+90 days the Allies expected to be on the line of the Seine River.

The fact that this was achieved is about the only point of the plan and its execution not marred by bickering and dispute to this day.

The Germans were not so lucky. There was no single supreme commander and no single plan of defence. German efficiency under the Hitler dictatorship is much exaggerated. The entire Third Reich was a mess of competing fiefdoms and the occupation authorities in France were no different.

Rommel commanded Army Group B, consisting of the 15th and 7th Armies, the first covering the Calais peninsula as well as the Belgian and Dutch coasts with 25 divisions and the other the Calvados (Normandy/Bay of the Seine) coast and Cherbourg with 16 divisions.

Rommel, along with Army Group G, answered to Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the putative Commander-in-Chief West, as did Luftflotte (Air Fleet) III and Naval Forces West.

Rundstedt answered to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or Armed Forces Headquarters, presided over by Hitler, who other than being Führer (leader) and de facto head of state[2], chancellor (prime minister) as well as defence minister was also his own armed forces chief and army commander-in-chief.

But the command relationships were not entirely clear.

The Army, air and naval commanders also answered to their own service chiefs as well. This allowed commanders at various levels access to Hitler and allowed him to play these off against each other.

“It must be borne in mind that the German forces at divisional and lower levels fought with great skill and tenacity. This would be expected in the case of elite troops.., but in fact it applied to virtually all the Panzer and infantry divisions…,” Maj Gen David Belchem wrote in Victory in Normandy[3]. “In this context our principal ‘ally` was Hitler. Our problems would have been immeasurably greater if he had not interfered in the direction of his forces, in spite of the advice of the German generals…”

Belchem, who served on the Anglo-American planning staff for Overlord wrote that there “can be little doubt that had the direction of operations in Normandy been left to the German field commanders, the Allies might well have found themselves enclosed in the Normandy Deployment Zone, faced with a powerful and well co-ordinated enemy cordon.”

As it was, there was none. Personality clashes, a faulty understanding of air power and Hitler prevented a more correct placement of reserves.

Rommel wanted to stop the Allies on the beaches. His experience in Africa had convinced him the first 24 hours would be the first and last chance to defeat the Anglo-Americans. As at Alam Halfa and Alamein in Egypt two years before, he expected Allied tactical air to crush the movement of reserves.

Armour needed to be close to the coast to launch immediate local counter-attacks. But Rundstedt and General Leo, the Freiherr (Baron) Geyr von Schweppenburg, the commander of Panzergruppe West, the armoured force deployed in support of Army Groups B and G, disagreed.

Their experience taught them to hold the coast with a crust of static defenders, absorb the Allied blow with a cushion of infantry and hold the armour to the rear for the decisive counterattack. Rundstedt and Rommel had personal disagreements and Geyr was keen to keep his formation in one piece. Hitler was impressed by both arguments and ordered a compromise solution leaving insufficient forces for either option.                                           

Reading Normandy

People are prisoners of their perception. Many Germans recorded their experience of Russia`s unending forests and never-ending steppes in anxious terms[4]. Africans and Australians often feel claustrophobic in Europe where they cannot adjust to the crowding and small spaces.

We also tend to ascribe our geographical values, assuming places are further apart, rivers are wider and mountains higher than actually the case. These are but some of the factors that strike first time visitors to Normandy. The rural province is a mere 45 minutes west of Paris` Orly or Charles de Gaulle airports and can be easily reached by way of France`s excellent highways.

In Normandy itself, these run parallel to the coast, giving easy access to some of the scenes of the heaviest fighting, including the beaches. Several of the seafront towns and villages interspersing the “Plages du Debarquement” (Places of Landing) as the French call the coast, are also ferry points to southern England – connecting Normandy to the very ports from where the invasion fleet sailed.

The first lesson to learn then is that France, itself, is small, by African standards – about two to three fit into South Africa.

Normandy reminds of the Venda and Transkei regions of South Africa: It is a densely populated maze of fields and little towns seldom more than 2km apart. In feudal times these villages were home to the peasants that tended the nobility`s lands.

The chateaux where these overlords lived dot the countryside. One mentioned prominently in the D-Day pantheon is Brecourt Manor at St Marie-du-Mont, just inland from Utah beach where Lt Richard Winters and men from “Easy” Company, 2nd Bn, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment destroyed a four gun 105mm howitzer battery, as described by Ambrose in Band of Brothers[5].

These villages, fields and manors are linked by a complex network of narrow roads, once footpaths – now tarred. In 1944 they were not. In South African terms these are driveways. Only a single vehicle can drive in one direction at a time. Many are lined on both sides by a ditch and an earth embankment, between one and two metres high and two and four metres wide. They are generally topped with thick hedges. This is the infamous “bocage” that allies already reached on D-Day in some places.                   

A trip to Normandy will end in much frustration if one were to rely on the maps provided in most books on that battle.

Unfortunately, using the maps to understanding the fighting they predict is equally frustrating. By and large, the maps are inaccurate. Few show the complete topography and hardly any all the roads and towns. Place names are also often abbreviated.In short, the maps are inaccurate.

The good news is excellent 1:250,000 maps are available from the Institut Geographique National in Paris. Extracts are available gratis at tourist bureaux in towns like Falaise. Michelin, the tyre company, also publishes an outstanding series of maps. Using these one can start to make sense of the battles and see where, how and why attacks went in and places defended.        

Another error concerns topographical relief and elevation. Normandy is hilly but not mountainous.

For historical reasons prominent hills and ridgelines are often called “mountains”. Of these, Mont Pinçon, an east-west ridge overlooking Villers Bocage and areas north, towards the sea, is the most often cited.

It was the reputed site of many German observation posts from where the Germans could watch the advance of British forces southwards and interdict them. As a result, the area was heavily counter-bombarded, causing the residents of the nearby le Plessis-Grimoult and St Jean le Blanc to lament on a monument that they had suffered dearly for their liberation.

But an inspection of the site shows the ridge to be little higher than the Kliprivierberg in Johannesburg – and with the same limited view, for north of the ridge is no open plain but a series of rises and much dead ground.

Tips for the Traveller

There is a major celebration of the D-Day landings every ten years. The next will be in 2014, a year that will be overshadowed by the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. The 2004 events were touted as the last major anniversary to be attended by participants, as veterans of the campaign are now passing on in ever increasing numbers. Their survivors and the French will no doubt continue the practice.

To make life easier for tourists, the route to most Normandy battlefields are sign posted. Maps and narratives explain what happened. The reader can further ensure a fruitful experience by studying – and taking along at least Belchem`s work – as well as Richard Holmes` Fatal Avenue, subtitled a traveller`s history of the battlefields of Northern France and Flanders.

Visitors would be well advised to plan what they want to see. In addition to the D-Day beaches and Normandy campaign battlefields, other sites within easy reach are German V1 launch positions on the nearby Cotentin Peninsula as well as the fields of Crécy and Agincourt. Belchem`s book is a slim and useful account of the battlefield that includes useful maps and statistics and directions to the various war cemeteries, Allied and German. Holmes` fine work, reviewed elsewhere on defenceWeb, links these battlefields to the modern road network and gives easy-to-follow directions.          

Hotel and inn accommodation are plentiful and the Norman people are friendly. The best places to stay are at inns in the small villages. Booking is not always required. Eating with the locals and walking the villages, many severely damaged or destroyed in the fighting gives a slice of life no book reading can.

But one must have read in before going to know where best to go. Lunch is best had on the go. Stop at a supermarket, buy some baguettes and wine and dine al fresco on the car`s bonnet at one of the observation points marked on the map. A detailed discussion of whatever fighting took place to one`s front can then take place.


Reminiscence
That, at least, is what I and African Armed Forces Journal publisher Peter McIntosh sought to accomplish when we visited the region all-too-briefly in May-June 1998. We were in town for that year`s Eurosatory event and arranged to arrive slightly early to see something of Normandy and also make a side-trip to the Ecole Speciale Militaire at Cöetquidan near Guer in Brittany. Better known as “St Cyr”, this is where France trains her officers.  
We arrived at Orly on a flight from Johannesburg via Brussels, hired an Opel Corsa and headed for Normandy. We both knew the history well enough, but we had neglected to make any plans beyond “going to Normandy” and had both left behind our books. The inauspicious start was made worse as we got lost on the freeways around Paris and ended up at Charles de Gaulle Airport at Roissy north of Paris (Orly is in the south).       
A quick re-orientation saw us turn around and head west – to Mantes-la-Jolie, where we turned off the highway, the idea being that we could see more on the country roads. We knew we were “in the area” when we reached Vimoutiers, which I now know to be the heart of the Camembert cheese country. If we had Holmes` book – or planned better, we would have located the German Panzer VI (Tiger I) on display there or headed north to the village of St Foy de Montgommery. It was on the stretch of road linking the two that a Canadian fighter bomber found Rommel`s staff car in the open, subjecting it to a cannonade and seriously wounding the field marshal. The point, above, on proper planning and packing those books, come from first-hand experience then.
From Vimoutiers we travelled southwest to Trun, reaching it quite late in the day. The town was ruined during the fighting of late August (it was liberated by Canadians) when it lay at the mouth of the Falaise pocket. (Falaise lays a distance, about 15km, east-north-east). Trun has, of course, been completely rebuilt and no trace of the fighting remains. Here we discovered the Hotel de Ville housed the mairie (mayoral office), not guests. We found lodgings for the night across the road, however. Dinner was delightfully French.
The next morning, a Friday, we set off for Brittany and St Cyr, reckoning it would not be open over the weekend. Eurosatory was set to start Monday and we would have to return to Paris on Sunday. After a breakfast of freshly baked croissants and baguettes we turned southeast for Argentan and Alençon. We then navigated west to the Breton[1] capital Rennes, circled the city and made for Guer, where we found the military base. There we met, without appointment, the commandant and visited the museum, dedicated to Napoleon who established the school in 1802 and its famous “old boy” Charles de Gaulle.
The visit over we headed northeast to Combourg and a well-deserved beer in the shade of a beautiful old castle. Bypassing the Mont St Michel monastery, we rushed back into Normandy, reaching Mortain, scene of an attempt by Hitler to destroy General George Patton Jr`s breakout, by 8pm. Since it was still daylight we did not immediately realise the hour and then had some trouble finding accommodation in the town. We found an inn in neighbouring Neufbourg and the next morning found a large blue “monolith”, common on Normandy battlefields, in a small park outside giving details of heavy fighting in the village, involving a trapped US detachment of 60 men. Interesting is that Patton`s 15th Corps, which retook the area, also took Argentan, which we had passed through previously.
The next morning – Saturday – we passed by Domfront where Holmes locates the ruins of an important castle, once a haunt of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. At St Georges de Groseillers, near Flers we found the memorial of the 11th (British) Armoured Division. At Falaise we finally obtained a free but detailed map of the area. Just outside the city, dominated by the fortress of Henry, son of William, Duke of Normandy (but better known in the English world as “the Conqueror”), along a country lane on a wheat-covered plateau, we found a small cemetery containing the graves of four Resistance fighters shot there by the Germans. The plateau features in most books on the Normandy campaign as the location the Royal Air Force coveted for its airfields.
From here we plotted our way along a series of country lanes to Mont Pinçon, which was a disappointment. The western edge of the ridge, near the modern-day signal tower, is a memorial to the 13th/18th Hussars who seized the area after heavy fighting during Bluecoat, the British companion operation to Cobra, Patton`s breakout.  From here we raced north to the coast, through Villers Bocage – scene of the famous shoot-out between SS Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Michael Wittman and a squadron of Cromwell tanks as well as a company of the Rifle Brigade under Lt Col Lord Cranley. In our haste we did not even stop to take photographs – a pity when on an once-in-a-lifetime adventure. (Interesting was occasional warning signs along the road to Mont Pinçon warning of remnant explosive ordnance in the brush on the slopes).   
On we rushed to Balleroy – missing one of Normandy`s most picturesque palaces – to Pointe du Hoc, a rocky promontory jutting into the Bay of the Seine and allowing for flanking fire into landing craft approaching Omaha between Vierville-sur-Mer and St Honorine-des-Perles. On D-Day it was assaulted by three companies of the 2nd Ranger Bn, who had to scale vertical sea cliffs to get to the battery position. Fighting their way into the bunker complex, they found the massive fortifications shattered by the 14-inch gunfire of the USS Texas laying just offshore as well as aerial bombardment. The guns, however had been withdrawn inland by a prescient battery commander. The 600 shells the US Navy hurled at the bunkers left some impression, however. (The Ranger assault is best described by Chester Wilmot in his seminal The Struggle for Europe.[2])
Vierville-sur-Mer awaited. The village is a distance inland and the beach itself is reached by a road clearly mapped in Warren Tute`s D Day[3]. Indeed Tute provides an extract of the invasion map of this section of Omaha, clearly showing the German obstacles, bunkers and weapons. This is Dog beach (Omaha subdivided into Dog, Easy and Fox and each of these into white, red and green). At Omaha landed the Vth Corps consisting of the 2nd Infantry Division as well as the 29th (National Guard) Infantry Division. The memorial to the 29th ID stands in the draw (narrow valley) leading down from Vierville to the sea. It started to rain lightly as we stood there; fitting as the day itself was of similar inclement. We observed the villagers going about their Saturday afternoon business, working in their gardens and chatting to neighbours, while above their homes, out of the sea cliff, a bunker stared blindly down. In addition to the 29th ID, two companies of the 2nd Rangers (130 men) and the 5th Ranger Bn (450) landed on Dog White and Dog Green, the landing immortalised in the opening sequence of the fictional Steven Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan). Standing on the actual beach was a humbling experience – Vth Corps suffered 2500 casualties trying to get off the beach – including about 1000 dead. Much of this is said to have been the fault of corps commander Maj Gen Leonard Gerow who under-estimated the value of amphibious Sherman tanks offered him. The bluffs overlooking Hamel au Prêtre, as the seafront houses are called, were well fortified and look quite a formidable obstacle: attacking up hill through wire and other obstacles under fire is never easy.      
We visited at high tide and the water came up to the seawall, hiding the expanse of beach the Americans had to cross (they landed at low-tide to avoid anti-landing craft obstacles otherwise covered). The 2nd ID`s memorial is slightly further along the beach road. Next to it is a bunker housing a German PaK 50 (50mm Panzerabwehr Kanonne) – a nice touch.
Our next target was Longues-sur-Mer, a distance east from Omaha. Here remains one of the few beach batteries not demolished after the war. The bunker complex housed four 152mm (6-inch) naval guns and a headquarters overlooking the sea. Two of the guns remain – the other two were blown out when their bunkers took direct hits from naval fire from British cruiser HMS Ajax and the Free French cruiser Georges Leygues. The bunkers were as imposing as the accuracy of the naval gunfire. Since it was now early June – invasion season –we were also thrilled to see re-enactment enthusiasts at Longues, catching on film a fuel tanker with US markings and a truck with Canadian regalia.
              
On to Arromanches-les-Bains, site of the British Mulberry anchorage: Although damaged in a storm on June 19, 1944, this prefabricated harbour floated across the Channel performed sterling work ad was the main logistic hub during much of the campaign. The remains of several of the massive Phoenix caissons used as breakwaters can still be seen off the town. Sadly, when we visited, the rain had intensified and mist obscured the bay, ruining the experience.  
Sadly it was also time to bid the coast goodbye and we headed to Bayeux to refuel, skirting the town itself and not even seeing the Abbey housing the famous tapestry before heading inland for Tilly-sur-Seulles, another famous locality. Our objective was Thury Harcourt in the Suisse Normande (Swiss Normandy), a picturesque and especially rugged area. The plan was to stay the night before visiting Falaise Pocket sites on Sunday morning and making our way back to Paris. We found a lovely hotel on the banks of the Orne River.           
Sunday morning saw us at Urville, on the Falaise-Caen main road (the main Canadian axis-of-advance) where we stumbled onto the Polish war cemetery – the Polish 1st Armoured Division played a decisive role in plugging the Pocket. We crossed our path, driving through Trun on our way to Chambois, a particularly picturesque village overlooked by a Donjon (square castle keep) flying the bright Norman flag: two gold leopards on a red background.
It is here, a monument relates, that the 1st Polish armoured division, part of Montgomery`s 21st Army Group met Patton`s troops, closing the Falaise pocket. What a wreck the town must have been at the time! Our next stop was Montormel – a scenic spot – where German troops both inside the pocket and outside, furiously fought the Poles to re-open an escape route. Fighting involved the 2nd SS Panzer Korps outside the bag trying to brake in and the remnants of 18 divisions inside the kessel battling to get out. The spot is now marked with the divisional museum. 
Here we, alas, had to call it a day and return to Paris to get ready for Eurosatory. It was a quick drive back to Vimoutiers – where we again missed the Tiger – and then to Paris via Lisieux, where it was a brisk morning at the Cathedral. In Paris we returned the car to the rental company at the Gare du Nord station. Our hotel was nearby. After booking in we went on “Mr Mac`s” regular Sunday-afternoon-in-Paris excursion, a trip by metro to the Arc de Triomphe where courtesy of a longstanding friendship with the Gendarme sergeant-in-charge we were guests-of-honour at that evening`s wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown.
The ceremony takes place every evening at 6.30pm and involves a small parade, the dimming of the eternal flame as well as the laying of wreaths, after which the flame is again turned up. The flame, honouring the dead of World Wars One and Two, has been burning since 1920 although it was extinguished when a drunken Mexican reveller urinated on it during the 1998 soccer World Cup. It was relit during a more sober ceremony.     
  
Selected reading
·         Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers, Simon & Shuster, London, 2001.
·         Stephen Ambrose, D Day, June 6, 1944, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1994.
·         Maj Gen David Belchem, Victory in Normandy, Book Club Association, London, 1981.
·         Max Hastings, Overlord, D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, Pan Books, London, 1984.
·         Richard Holmes, Fatal Avenue, A Traveller`s History of the Battlefields of Northern France and Flanders 1346-1945, Jonathan Cape, London, 1992.
·         BH Liddell Hart (Ed), The Rommel Papers, Collins, London, 1953.
·         BH Liddell Hart, History of the Second World War, Cassell, 1970.
·         Field Marshal The Viscount Bernard Montgomery of Alamein, Normandy to the Baltic, Hutchinson & Co., London, 1947. 
·         Cornelius Ryan, The Longest Day, June 6, 1944, Victor Gollancz, London, 1960.
·         Lt Gen Hans Speidel, We defended Normandy, Herbert Jenkins, London, 1951.
·         RW Thompson, D-Day, The Great Gamble, History of the Second World War, Purnell, London, 1971.
·         Warren Tute, John Costello & Terry Hughes, D-Day, Pan Books, London, 1975.
·         Chester Wilmot, The Struggle for Europe, The Reprint Society, London, 1952.
 


[1] Brittany is named for Celtic settlers that came to the region from Britain where they had been evicted by Anglo-Saxon settlers, about 15 hundred years ago.     
[2] Chester Wilmot, The Struggle for Europe, The Reprint Society, London, 1952.
[3] Warren Tute, John Costello & Terry Hughes, D-Day, Pan Books, London, 1975.

 

Pic: US President Barack Obama touring the Normandy coast this morning. Here they overfly Pointe du Hoc, blasted by the 14-inch guns of the battleship USS Texas, pounded from the air by the US Army Air Force and stormed by three companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion – who first had to scale the treacherous 30m high sea cliffs.      


[1] Max Hastings, Overlord – D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944, Michael Joseph Limited, London, 1984.   

[2]Führer” was a nebulous title. Hitler never took the oath as President of the (Weimar) Republic, as this would have legally required him to uphold its constitution. Free of that obligation he could undermine that basic law and establish a dictatorship.      

[3] Maj Gen David Belchem, Victory in Normandy, Book Club Association, London, 1981.

[4] See, for example, the history of the 98th (Franconian) Infantry Division with reference to their 1941 advance through Belarus.     

[5] Stephen E Ambrose, Band of Brothers, Simon & Shuster, London, 2001.