La Perche and Normandy.

La Perche and Normandy.   5-8-17   After one of longest journeys yet; from Charente, through the central and Loire regions, we finally arrived in the La Perche region. The landscape became more familiar as we travelled; very similar to the South of England. One of the saddest sights I’ve seen was the fields of drooping sunflowers. At this time of year, they are sprayed to preserve the seeds at the optimum time for cutting.  A sign that the summer is coming to an end.                                                 . After 5 long hours, the beautiful stone farmhouse we were staying in for the next two weeks was a very welcome sight; although not as welcome as the sight of our Josie and Luke, who arrived as we were still unloading the car. What a wonderful feeling it was to give my baby a cuddle. We’ve never been separated for so long, and I miss my girls more than I could ever explain. SUMMER ENDING…… BOOO. THE YOUNGSTERS ARRIVING FANTASTIC, AS JU SAYS WE REALLY MISS THE GIRLS …. WHATS HER NAME AND THINGY. 🙂 (ONLY KIDDING, XXX) We did some serious catching up on the sunny terrace in the enormous garden; meeting our latest ‘holiday pet’, a very friendly sheepdog from the goat farm next door. THE DOG WAS A BIT WHIFFY, I WAS NOT KEEN ON HIM. THANKFULLY HE LOVED JO AND LUKE SO PESTERED THEM ALL THE TIME. IT WAS GREAT TO CATCH UP ON WHAT HAS BEEN GOING ON BACK HOME. WE DO TALK ON THE PHONE ONCE A WEEK (IF WE HAVE A SIGNAL OR WIFI.) WE ALSO MESSAGE EACH OTHER MOST DAYS WITH RANDOM NONSENSE. HOWEVER THERE IS NOTHING LIKE HAVING A GOOD OLD CHAT FACE TO FACE.   6-8-17      – 11-8-17   We had a fantastic week with our lovelies. Mostly chilling (it was their holiday after all). We had all kinds of weather, from glorious sunshine, to chilly, drizzly days. When the weather was good, we visited the local sights, like Chartes Cathedral. But mostly, we mooched around the house and grounds, enjoying the chance to spend time together. Jo and Luke did venture into the local countryside, but the orchard attached to the house was too full of buzzing, hissing things and the goat-farm next door was too smelly! For me, the evenings were the best. Our darling Luke had brought us Game of Thrones  and Walking Dead episodes. I love him soooo much! THIS I ALSO ENJOYED, I ALSO ENJOYED PLAYING ON THE NINTENDO THINGY. (LUKE I WILL BEAT YOU AT THAT BLOODY RACING GAME ONE DAY.)         11-8-17   – 19-8-17 It just wasn’t the same after they’d left. Even though we knew we’d be seeing them again in less than a month, saying goodbye was hard. The house seemed so huge and empty after they’d left. Apart from a little fishing expedition, the week dragged. In fact, if you’d offered us a chance to go home, we probably would have taken it. KIDS GONE…….. GUTTED. THE LOCAL FISHING LAKE DIDN’T PRODUCE ANYTHING DECENT EITHER JUST A FEW SMALL FRY….. GUTTED AGAIN. THAT IS ALL  🙁                 19-8-17   And we’re so glad we didn’t. Today, we moved on to Beaucoudray, in Normandy. We’re right on the border between the La Manche/ Calvados regions and right in the middle of Battle of Normandy country. The landscape is very similar to our own Sussex/ Dorset countryside; until you get right into the bocage. The bocage is the name given to the area dominated by narrow lanes, separating tiny fields and orchards, surrounded by high hedges and trees. If you have ever seen films about the D-Day landings and the subsequent battles (The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers etc), you would find these scenes very familiar.  It’s impossible not to superimpose images of soldiers over the landscape around you.   We were lucky enough to be staying in another big, beautiful farmhouse, with huge wooden beams and enormous fireplaces. The garden was full of apple trees. The big cast iron pans hanging from hooks in the lovely French kitchen soon had to be removed though, after Steve cracked his head on them a fair few times. POXY CAST IRON POT AND PANS, NOT YOUR NORMAL ALUMINUM ONES. BLEEDING GREAT BIG HEAVY ONES. I SOON HAD THEM DOWN AND SAFELY STOWED AWAY. I MUST SAY THOUGH THEY DID MAKE A GREAT COMICAL CLANGING SOUND WHEN I WACKED MY SWEDE ON THEM THE FIRST FEW TIMES. We set off the next day to explore the Cotentin (North-West) coastline.  It’s a beautiful stretch of coast; predominantly marshlands, with lovely seaside villages and protected wetlands. This area was the sight of the very successful American advance, so there are lots of references to this. The most impressive sight for us though was Mont-St-Michel; the medieval monastery on an island in the bay where Normandy and Brittany meet.  We chose not to visit the monastery itself, especially not in August, as we’d been warned that it would be swarming with tourists. We preferred to view it across the enormous mudflats. It’s a magical sight. GREAT LANDSCAPE, FANTASTICALLY LONG, STRAIGHT SECTIONS OF B ROAD TO DRIVE ALONG AND TAKE IN AND ENJOY THE SCENERY. MONT-ST-MICHEL…… WELL WE HAVE OUR ONE IN CORNWALL, I SAW THAT WHEN I WAS A KID. COULDN’T FACE DOING IT WITH HUNDREDS OF OTHER TOURISTS, SO WE SACKED IT.       21-8-17   You really can’t visit Normandy without ‘doing ‘ the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy; so today we started with a visit to Caen- a key objective back in June 1944. The Caen Memorial Museum gives a fantastic overview of Operation Overlord- the invasion of France by the Allied forces. It’s a huge museum; on a similar scale to the British War Museum in London, and covers all aspects of WW2, from the issues leading up to the conflict, the main events around the globe during the war years, and the aftermath and repercussions. There was a large D-Day/ Battle of Normandy section, but not very much detail about individual areas, apart from Caen itself. I was interested in this part, because I knew that my Dad was involved in the push for Caen. We spent a good 3 hours in the museum itself and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area. FANTASTIC PLACE. IF YOU COME OVER HERE, GO THERE -YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED. I ALSO LIKE THE FACT THAT SOME GERMANS WERE VISITING THE MUSEUM AS WELL. HOWEVER I FORGOT THAT THEY WERE THERE WHILST WE WERE WATCHING A FILM, IN THE MUSEUM CINEMA ABOUT THE LANDINGS. DO NOT CHEER WHEN A GERMAN PLANE OR TANK GETS BLOWN UP. APPARENTLY THAT IS INAPPROPIATE BEHAVIOUR AND THE GERMANS FOUND IT OFFENSIVE!!!!!! (AWKWARD :-)) Hmmmmmmmmmmm, so you won’t be applying for a job as the cultural attache to Germany then?       23-8-17   Today, we set off on a full day of sightseeing in Bayeux; a lovely old city, one of the few in the area which wasn’t devastated during the war, because it was liberated by British troops very quickly on D-Day. The cathedral is gorgeous and dominates the city. We had lunch in a restaurant overshadowed by its imposing presence. We started off in the museum devoted to the Battle of Normandy. I enjoyed this even more than the Caen museum; mainly because it focused far more on D-Day and the pockets of fighting in the surrounding areas over the following months. It gave me more useful information and backed up the research I’d been doing into my Dad’s involvement.   Next stop was the museum which houses the Bayeux tapestry. I’ve taught children about this many times and have always wanted to see it. Wow! It’s hard to believe that this amazing work of art is almost 1000 years old. It’s so beautifully preserved; I was blown away by the intricacy and the rich, deep colours of the embroidery. GOT STRIPED UP FOR A COUPLE OF TOASTED SANDWICHES. BLEEDING BIG TEA TOWEL IN THAT MUSEUM. SURPRISING WHAT YOU CAN KNOCK UP ON A SINGER SEWING MACHINE. JOKES ABOUT HOW KING HAROLD SHOULD HAVE BEEN WEARING ARAMIS (ARROW MIST) AFTERSHAVE, WERE MET WITH GROANS AND NO LAUGHTER, HOW DISAPPOINTING. 🙂 (I’LL GET MY COAT.)     On our way home, we stopped off at the British cemetery. It was so sobering to see the 1000s of graves- mostly British- on a scale I’d never seen before. Of course, the ages of these brave souls- boys, rather than men- was upsetting. And one thing most of them shared was the date of their death- 6-6-1944- D-Day. AWFUL, SAD. R.I.P         24-8-17 Today was more of a personal pilgrimage. I wanted to see for myself the locations where my Dad would have served, when he was involved in the Battle of Normandy.  When we were planning our trip all those months ago, knowing that we would be spending August in Northern France, it was an obvious choice to base ourselves in close proximity to the D-Day beaches and battlefields. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for many years, but never felt I had enough information to do properly. The problem has always been that, although I knew Dad had taken part in the battle, I had very little solid information to help me pin down where his experiences would have been. I saw his wounds many times- fist sized craters on his back, numerous scars on his face, neck and shoulders, and a scar where his tongue had been sewn back on after being severed. When he was in hospital once, a few years before he died, we were told that an x-ray showed that he still had loads of shrapnel in his chest and abdomen. I only remember asking him about them once; I think I was about 8 or 9 and we’d just been watching a programme about war heroes. I asked him if he was a war hero and when he laughed and told me no, I said that he must be, because of his scars. He then told me that his section had been under attack from mortar fire, and that he’d dived for cover under a water bowser. I think he said something along the lines of “I wasn’t bloody quick enough. Heroes don’t have wounds on their back!” He died when I was 18, having suffered from Alzheimer’s for at least 4 years. Like most men of his generation, he didn’t regale us with “ During the war…..” stories, so all I had were snippets of information, mostly things that he had told my Mum when they first met in the early 1950s:
  • He hadn’t embarked on D-Day, but several days later.
  • He hadn’t volunteered. Being 28 when the war started, he was already 33 by the time of the invasion of France. He’d not been conscripted until then. So, he was no naïve youngster.
  • He had served in a battalion who were almost all Geordies. (He was always fond of the accent. I remember him loving the programme Auf Wiedersein Pet.)
  • He was wounded within a few weeks of the battle and after a short period in hospital in France, he was sent home.
  • He was involved in the offensive to the West of Caen, in bocage countryside. He described how units would be marching down narrow lanes, either side of small fields, surrounded by hedges you couldn’t see through.
  • He described one incident when his unit had found a group of German soldiers in one of these fields. He told Mum that they were incredibly young “just kids”, and that they had surrendered immediately. Then, as they were walking towards his unit, the British unit on the other side of the field had opened fire on them, killing them all. Strangely, Mum said that it was the only time she saw him cry about his experiences. Perhaps because he had two young boys at home of his own.
  Anyway, with this scant information, I set about doing a little research. War records can be very useful, but contain very little detail. The worst thing is trawling through the hundreds of men with the same name and seeing how many of them were killed in action or missing in action. After reading some detailed accounts of the Battle of Normandy, I eventually managed to narrow down the possibilities. It seems very likely that he served with the Durham Light Infantry Brigade. They had several battalions in the area on and after D-Day, who served in the bocage area to the West of Caen. They were up against the Hitler Jugend ( young soldiers, mainly formed from Hitler Youth brigades) in a handful of battles from Mid-June through to the end of July.   With this in mind, we visited several places today: Gold Beach-although this is actually a stretch of coastline, rather than the long sandy beach I’d been expecting. (This image is based on films about Omaha beach, where the Americans landed.) Port en Bassin-a harbour which was the border between the American and British landing beaches, with Omaha to the West and Gold to the East. A lovely town, with a moving memorial to the commandos who landed there and scaled the cliffs on D-Day. Longues- a stretch of Gold beach where there are 4 well preserved German gun batteries facing the beaches. Very chilling. Arromanches-also known as Port Windsor- now a lovely seaside town, but a key landing beach, and the location of the Mulberry harbour; the ‘temporary’, floating harbour, which was towed across the channel on D-Day and played an essential role in the success of the invasion. Its remains are still a few hundred metres off the beach itself, and it was very touching to see children playing in the waves there.   After lunch in Arromanche (fish and chips for Steve, moules frite for me), we turned inland. We visited the towns and villages where Dad was most likely to have been involved: Tilly-sur-Seilles, St Pierre, Lingevres, Villers-Bocage and Fountenay le Persel ( dubbed Piss in the Fountain by British troops!) What all of these places have in common is that almost every building in the town or village was built after the war, as the original was reduced to rubble by the fighting. They’re not the places to visit if you are looking for quintessential old French villages. The other thing they share is that each of them has a war cemetery. Beautifully maintained, they are a heart-breaking memorial to the thousands of young men who lost their lives, from all sides. It was especially poignant for me to see so many graves of those who served in the Durham Light Infantry. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them had been Dad’s muckers. Had he seen any of them die? Had any helped him when he was wounded? Futile, I know, but I’m glad I got the chance to pay my respects. And, despite his protests all those years ago, I left with the firm belief that anybody who suffered the horror of those days is, in my eyes, a hero.     Next destination? The Somme! In amongst the gloom and doom, we had a lovely moment- seeing the latest scan pictures of our grandchild. 20 weeks and all is well. Fabulous! CAN’T BELIEVE IM GOING TO BE A GRANDAD.   🙂

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