THE NORMANDY INVASIONS:
Normandy’s D-Day landing site becomes the highlight of a Seine River cruise. At Rouen, American shipmates board motor coaches heading to Omaha Beach, interpretative centers and cemeteries. Joining a smaller group of Brits, Aussies and fellow Canadians, we travel to Juno Beach.
Stopping first in Bayeaux, we walk through its medieval core to view the famed tapestry. Pointing out its magnificent gothic cathedral, our guide Peter recounts, “The bishop displayed the Bayeaux Tapestry to help parishioners understand the invasion of England.” A refurbished 17th century seminary now exhibits this seventy-meter masterpiece.
Using audio guides, we study the remarkable needlework chronicling the Norman Conquest. King Edward is shown first promising his English throne to William of Normandy. Panels next depict Edward’s brother-in-law Harold arriving in Normandy to confirm his vow. Subsequent panels illustrate Harold’s return to England, Edward dying and Harold claiming England’s crown for himself. William reacts to this betrayal. We see Norman boats loaded with men-at-arms, archers and cavalrymen. The final section portrays the 1066 Battle of Hastings with lurid details, including the fatal arrow shot into Harold’s eye.
Arriving at Juno Beach, Peter points out and explains remnants of World War II’s crucial battle. Of five concrete German blockhouses, one remains atop a sand dune. All had housed deadly machine guns. Mine explosives lay buried and barriers of barbed wire covered this sandy expanse and fields beyond. An amphibious tank perches on another dune. Such British tanks led the Canadian infantry through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
A rusted British landing craft, once carrying thirty-six men, lies derelict along the beach. Far offshore, waves break on crumbling caissons. By sinking these huge concrete chambers and scuttling ships, the Brits constructed an artificial harbour. Generals named it for Winston Churchill, its creator. I visualize my father-in-law, an artilleryman, arriving at Port Winston just after D-Day.
After lunching at a village restaurant, we enter Juno Beach Interpretive Centre. A film portrays some of the 14,000 Canadians who landed on D-Day. “Our soldiers courageously established this beachhead and continued to capture three seaside towns,” the Canadian docent recounts. “Advancing ten-miles, they cut off the Caen-Bayeux highway, seized Caen’s western airport and connected two British beachheads”
Proceeding along the coast, we pay our respects to fallen soldiers at three of the fifteen Commonwealth cemeteries. Countless gravestones stand in rows across expansive manicured lawns. Flowers surround each gravesite. Maple leaves, hometowns, ranks and names of each young soldier are etched into gray limestone markers. Most bear large crosses. Traditional ‘visiting stones’ lie on those displaying the Star of David. Some inscriptions indicate French resistance members, who fought alongside Canadians. Our group places roses on several gravesites.
At Pegasus Museum, we learn about the 6th British Airborne’s remarkable D-Day success. “On June 5th British planes towed six Horsa Airspeed gliders …and released them at midnight 15-miles off Normandy’s coast,” guide Marie explains. “Navigating just with stopwatches through the dark cloudy night, pilots landed the first three gliders within one hundred and fifty meters of Caen Canal Bridge, their target.”
We examine the replicated wooden glider resting on a large lawn. The twenty-seven meter wingspan lifted its twenty-meter fuselage, which barely accommodated the two pilots and twenty-eight-soldier platoon. Every trooper packed a personal weapon, ammunition and up to nine grenades. Each glider carried a two-inch mortar.
Leading us onto the original bridge, Marie continues the story of its capture. “A night guard heard the landing thuds and sought shelter from what he thought was aerial debris. Meanwhile, his regiment of fifty Germans slept nearby. The bridge was easily seized. Three other gliders landed near River Orne Bridge and captured this equally strategic crossing. The six airborne platoons then held both bridges by repulsing a tank, gunboat and infantry counter-attacks. Paratroopers eventually reinforced their positions. German staff officers refused to wake their Fuhrer to report this allied invasion,” Marie smiles. “And only Hitler could order the advance of their Panzer divisions.”
Back in Rouen, shipmates re-board the Viking Rollo and over dinner review our eventful day. When talking about the Bayeaux Tapestry, a fellow adds, “William of Normandy was the great-great-great-grandson of another invader, our riverboat’s namesake!” Others note how Rollo’s Vikings invaded 10th century France and how King Charles’ peace treaty gave him Normandy. All know the first Duke of Normandy, Rollo rests in Rouen Cathedral.
The conversation shifts to D-Day’s insights and highlights. All of us have gained a greater understanding and appreciation of our soldiers’ valour. Their sacrifices will long be honoured on Remembrance Day. ________________________________
IF YOU GO:
• www.vikingcruises.com check River Seine itineraries.
• For convenient flights, see www.airfrance.com
• You may easily check schedules and buy train tickets at: raileurope.ca
PHOTOS by Rick Millikan
1.Bayeaux Monastery contains the amazing tapestry that chronicles the Norman Conquest.
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