by Evelyn McKechnie
The greatest sea-borne landing exercise in the world and the Liberation of France.
“I came back to see you all”
In 2004, I was in Normandy for the very first time, to pay respect at the grave of my uncle, Robert McKechnie. It was when I went to write in the visitor’s book, that I noticed the very last person’s entry – it was short but what an impact it had on me.
The handwriting in the visitors’ book at Hermanville Commonwealth Graves Cemetery was the shaky script of an old person. In the comments section, the old soldier had written simple words –
“I came back to see you all”.
I was very, very moved by his writing and his words. I thought of the comrades the old man must be remembering that are buried here in a foreign field. The young men he trained with, laughed and cried with, young men who he went into battle with and young men that never returned home. While he grew old they have are not, remaining forever young. It struck home to me at that moment the scale of the loss. I did not see the white Portland headstones, I saw the young men like my uncle, who gave everything they had – their life.
The Battle begins
Over 100,000 people died during the battles after the invasion forces landed in Normandy. British, Germans, French, Canadians, Poles and Americans and many others from other nations lost their lives. There were also about 14,000 French civilian casualties, victims of the very heavy Allied bombing, with the US saturation bombing of Marigny and La Chapelle-Enjuger (Operation Cobra – to end the battle of the Bocage) and the British bombing of Caen.
The British 2nd Army under General Dempsey landed at Arromanches (Gold Beach) with the 50th Infantry Division and the British 8th Armoured Division. The 3rd Infantry Division and the 27th British Armoured Brigade landed at Ouistreham (Sword Beach). The Canadians landed at Bernieres-sur-Mer. (Juno Beach).
A Kings Own Scottish Borderer
I was in Hermanville, just north of Caen, near Lion-Sur-Mer, at the graveside of my father’s brother, Robert, a Kings’ Own Scottish Borderer, the 1st Battalion, who was killed aged 25 on 11th July 1944. He had landed on Sword beach on 6th June 1944 and was wounded on the 9th July 1944 in Caen. He succumbed to his wounds without regaining consciousness, two days later.
This was the first time I had visited a military grave where it was a direct relative and I am not sure quite what I felt, except it was rather strange, feeling such sadness about someone that I never knew in life.
The inscription on his gravestone read,
‘He died the helpless to defend,
A Scottish soldier’s noble end’
Many of the headstones had personal inscriptions from the families, some you could not read without your whole throat tightening up. Robert’s was written by my heartbroken grandmother, and like so many mothers, she never got to visit her son’s final resting place.
I started my journey in Normandy at Benouville (Pegasus Bridge) and the first part of France to be liberated by the 6th British Airborne Division in the early hours of 6th June. The bridge changed its name in order of the division who liberated it. They landed in Horsa gliders with 28 soldiers in each with the first glider only 47 feet from the bridge. The capture of the bridge was a strategic objective across the River Orne and was the first Allied victory.
There is an excellent museum on-site and well worth a visit. You can also see the original Pegasus Bridge with the marks of assault still on it and the holes where the explosives were rigged by the Germans to blow it. You can also view the remains of a Horsa glider. Many of the abandoned gliders were used as much needed fuel by the locals.
Just north of Pegasus Bridge at Ouistreham is the Musee Number 4 Commando, which retraces the epic story of the first commandos to land on Sword Beach.
Also in Ouistreham is the Musee du Mur de l’Atlantique which is situated in a former artillery range-finding post also known as ‘The Grand Bunker’. It is a fantastic sight. The 52ft high concrete tower has been restored to its look like how it was on the 6th June 1944. It took soldiers four hours to break open the door with explosives which resulted in the German garrison of two officers and fifty men surrendering.
Taking the coast road west from Ouistreham (D514) you can stop off at all the beaches with everyone having memorials, a museum or the remains of the Atlantic wall with many of the German bunkers and fortifications still visible.
THE MIRACLE OF THE MULBERRY HARBOUR
The biggest visible remains of the invasion must be the Mulberry artificial harbour at Arromanches. It is a tremendous sight and is quite an astounding feat of the Allies to construct a floating harbour on such a scale.
Hitler had always thought that there could not be an invasion in Normandy as there was no deep-water harbour – but the Mulberry artificial harbour gave the Allies what they needed – a safe, deep water port.
At Longues-sur-Mer, just west of Arromanches is the Batterie de Longues. This is the only coastal battery that still has its guns intact, giving an impressive picture of what an Atlantic Wall gun emplacement was like. Definitely worth seeing.
Just a little further west is Port-En-Bessin where the Musee des Epaves sous-marines du Debarquement has relics of impressive remains and personal items from many of the great warships sunk on or around the 6th June 1944.
The American cemetery at Coleville-Sur-Mer has a stunning view over Omaha Beach. This is where the opening scene of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was filmed. The film was based on the four Niland brothers, two of whom are buried in the cemetery. One was a POW after being shot down in Burma and after a lot of bureaucracy, the fourth brother was sent home. The cemetery contains the remains of 9387 soldiers with 1557 missing.
Travelling further west is Pointe Du Hoc, where the US Rangers scaled the cliffs. This is another visible example of the ferocity of the fighting. Bombers pulverised the coastal batteries situated on this strategic point and there is a multitude of different shell holes. Some so big they could take 3 or 4 double-decker buses. It has been left as it was in 1944 and for me this site summed up the horrific nature of war. The sheer destruction and terrifying scale that was meted upon the Germans here is plain to see.
German Cemetery at Le Cambe
I finished my tour of Normandy with a visit to Le Cambe and the German cemetery. It is only a couple of miles inland from Pointe de Hoc. In contrast with the American cemetery and its rows of perfectly aligned 9387 crosses, there are 21,115 German graves here but you would never think it. It is one of the largest German military graveyards of the Second World War in France.
Some graves have two soldiers to a plot and the marker lies flat, so visually it does not have the same impact as standing stones. I started my tour of Normandy with a visit to a British cemetery and finished with one to a German cemetery where there is great emphasis placed on young people working for the German War Graves Commission and the premise of ‘Reconciliation above the graves – working for peace’.
There is an excellent visitor centre at the cemetery with a similar message to the one in the Ypres ‘In Flanders Field’ museum – that millions have died in ‘conflicts’ since the end of the Second World War but that the desire for peace is still strong and the best reminder of peace is the millions of graves.
The German cemetery at Le Cambe has serenity in abundance. I would recommend a visit and to see the excellent displays of peace and hope in the visitor centre.
Some of the landscape has changed but not much and there is much that is the same. Normandy is one of the most beautiful landscapes of France, with its lush, green pastures fenced in by the bocage and its stunning beaches. It is rich in culture and medieval history.
It is also the final resting place of so many young men from the D-Day landings. It also claimed the lives of so many more after the initial landings with the sheer scale and brutality of the fight for Normandy, for France, and to break out for the road to the liberation of Europe.
Anyone visiting Normandy cannot do so without reminders of the war all around them, but life goes on for the French. Many people who lost someone will continue to return to this part of France where the liberation of Europe began.
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