Hermanville-sur-Mer, in the heart of D-Day

Saturday 25 May 2019

Using a visitor guide, I’d identified a few places to visit along the D-Day beaches. I’d broken them into bite sized areas and picked an accessible aire for each.

I’m in Hermanville-sur-Mer, a beautiful village no more than two kilometres from ‘Sword’ beach, the most easterly of the five landing beaches and one of two the British, along with 150 French commandos, were responsible for.

The village was cleared by the British by 10:00 on D-Day, June 6 1944. It has permanent boards telling what happened where, like this one,

There’s an awful irony in the picture of liberating troops walking past the WW1 memorial.

There are lovely accounts from the British of how warmly they were welcomed and how, despite language differences, they became part of the community. There is a tangible reverence to the events of those days, a determination not to forget.

The beaches, wide and sandy, are, as they should be, for fun and recreation,

but there are plenty of memorials.

This one,

had Winston Churchill’s words upon it.

A Europe in which men will be proud to say, “I am a European”. We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and that without losing any of their love and loyalty of their birthplace. We hope wherever they go in this wide domain, to which we set no limits in the European Continent, they will truly feel “Here I am at home. I am a citizen of this country too”. Let us meet together. Let us work together. Let us do our utmost—all that is in us—for the good of all.

“Here I am at home. I am a citizen of this country too”. Pretty much sums up how I’ve felt on these tours.

At the far end of the beach, in Ouistreham, stands The Bunker, a restored German fortification.

The Atlantic Wall was the line of fortifications the D-Day Operation had to breach. There was, on average, a fortification every 250m along 500km of coast.

After four hours, and a few attempts to blow the doors off, this bunker was taken by Lt Bob Orrell, 53 Germans willingly surrendering to him and three of his men.

Like many of the restored sites, it is run and maintained by local people.

Outside, there is a landing craft used in Saving Private Ryan,

as evidenced here.

It was well worth the visit, the four floors giving an insight into the how the Germans ran things. I climbed the narrow ladder to the roof, which gave a good view of the beach.

The manikins in the displays were ‘interesting’.

“Five seconds, then we’re going to blow!”

“Mr Spielberg says he’s got a part for me in Raiders. Ends with a dissolve, whatever that means.”

Ouistreham stands at the mouth of the Caen Canal and the River Orne. I followed the canal for a few kilometres to get to Pegasus Bridge. The bridge, and another over the nearby river, were strategic targets for the success of D-Day. Just after midnight, a unit of infantry led by Major John Howard landed in five gliders, took the bridges within ten minutes and held them.

The gliders can be seen in the background. Just take a moment to let that all sink in. Landing in gliders, a one way trip, in darkness, 50 metres away from an enemy held position, and dashing out of the damaged aircraft into a full assault.

Two men died. Fred Greenhalgh drowned in a nearby pond when his glider landed. Den Brotheridge was killed in the assault and became the first to die of enemy fire on D-Day.

Cycling on into the countryside, I got to Hillman Stronghold. Situated on a road leading straight from the beach, on a rise overlooking the beach and surrounding countryside, heavily fortified and dug in, it was a German command post that fell to a Suffolk regiment to take.

As I’d been cycling, I’d seen small banners on lampposts, each with the face of an individual soldier, of different nationalities, such as this one.

Everyone had their story, I’m sure, but I saw this banner coming away from the Hillman Stronghold. This is James Hunter’s story.

I did a quick search to see if the Hillman Hunter (a car, kids) was named for him but it seems not.

Hillman Stronghold is maintained by local volunteers. There were a dozen or so trimming hedges, cutting grass and doing small building works in preparation for the season. They have a couple of weeks of special events at the beginning of June and then do tours throughout the summer. Remarkable; the events are not forgotten.

In fact, the whole region is gearing up for its annual month long programme of events remembering the liberation.

Returning to base, I stopped at the cemetery a few hundred metres from the van.

Many graves are dated June 6 1944, but all seemed to be within just a month afterwards.

I’ve been deeply moved by my experiences today. I sort of knew what happened, I kind of knew the names of places and events, but, in reality, I was ignorant.

This was never meant to be a battlefield tour, and anyone who knows me knows this is not my thing. Visiting the area is worthwhile without getting drawn into the events of the war. But experiencing history lies in individual stories of ordinary people, with names, put in extraordinary situations and doing exceptional things and I’ve been on the edge of tears a few times today.

Thanks to Bob, John, James, Fred, Den and hundreds of thousands of others, June 6 1944, with everything than ran up to it and everything that followed after, was the most important day in modern history. I appreciate that better than I did.

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