“They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate.” — President Franklin D. Roosevelt
“And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred.” — Winston Churchill
We got up about 8.20 this morning and went to have our breakfast in the Palms Café. Judging by the fact that the pool deck was wet, it had obviously been raining again, and we hoped it would fair up for our excursion later on. The Balmoral was due to dock on the Seine in Honfleur at 12.15pm.
We went along to have a look in the shop and see what special offers were on today. People (mainly ladies) were milling around at the tables laden with various wares such as bags, scarves, jewellery etc, but we didn’t see anything we wanted to buy today.
At 10 o’clock we went along to the Morning Light to do the quiz. There was only Trevor and me in the team but we did quite well between the two of us, getting 16/20. The winners got 18 however, so no prize for us once again.
As we had to be in the Neptune Lounge for 12.30pm for our excursion, we had an early lunch today, going up to the Avon Restaurant at half-eleven, as soon as it opened. I enjoyed some braised pork loin with broccoli, carrots and small potatoes, followed by a fruit jelly.
After lunch we returned to cabin 6009 and gathered together cagoules, money, credit cards etc and made our way to the Neptune Lounge. John and Linda had said they were also going on this trip, so we thought we might see them. We were allocated bus #1, and we made our way down the gangplank and crossed to the waiting coaches nearby. Our guide was called Michelle and our driver was called Michel. 😊
We set off for a fairly longish ride (56km) to our first stop today which was at the War Graves cemetery at Ranville. On the way, Michelle told us the fascinating story of the 6th June 1944 D-Day landings, and the events that led up to them. As going into detail about the Invasion of Normandy would fill a book two inches thick, I’ll try to explain it in a nutshell.
Germany had invaded France and was trying to take over all of Europe including Britain. However, Britain and the United States had managed to slow down the expanding German forces. They were now able to turn on the offensive.
To prepare for the invasion, the Allies amassed troops and equipment in Britain. They also increased the number of air strikes and bombings in German territory. Right before the invasion, over 1000 bombers a day were hitting German targets. They bombed railroads, bridges, airfields, and other strategic places in order to slow down and hinder the German army.
The Germans knew that an invasion was coming. They could tell by all the forces that were gathering in Britain as well as by the additional air strikes. What they didn’t know was where the Allies would strike. In order to confuse the Germans, the Allies tried to make it look like they were going to attack north of Normandy at Pas de Calais.
Although the D-Day invasion had been planned for months, it was almost cancelled due to bad weather. General Eisenhower finally agreed to attack despite the overcast skies. Although the weather did have some affect and on the Allies ability to attack, it also caused the Germans to think that no attack was coming. They were less prepared as a result.
The first wave of the attack began with the glider pilots and paratroopers. They jumped at night in the pitch dark and landed behind enemy lines. Their job was to destroy key targets and capture bridges in order for the main invasion force to land on the beach. The most famous of the bridges that was captured was the Bénouville Bridge, which was later renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the emblem of the British Parachute Regiment which featured Pegasus, the Winged Horse. Thousands of dummies were also dropped in order to draw fire and confuse the enemy.
In the next stage of the battle thousands of planes dropped bombs on German defenses. Soon after, warships began to bomb the beaches from the water. While the bombing was going on, underground members of the French Resistance sabotaged the Germans by cutting telephone lines and destroying railroads.
Soon the main invasion force of over 6,000 ships carrying troops, weapons, tanks, and equipment approached the beaches of Normandy. As there was no port of harbour in which to land, the British and other Allies decided to construct their own artificial harbour to aid getting the equipment ashore. A lot of old ships were scuttled to create a breakwater, and the artificial harbours, codenamed Mulberry A and Mulberry B, were constructed in Britain and then towed across to France. It was a daring plan right under the enemies’ noses.
Our coach arrived at Ranville War Cemetery, which contains, by nationality, the following casualties:
The cemetery had been funded and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and contained serried rows of clean white headstones, set out in peaceful, beautifully-kept grounds. Most of the British fallen were from the 6th Airborne Division.
In the middle of the grounds was a large Cross of Sacrifice, at the foot of which was laid several wreathes of poppies in this year of the 75th Anniversary. As we walked around reading the inscriptions on the headstones, it was very moving. The ages of the fallen were pitifully young: aged 19 years, aged 22 years, aged 27 years. Some were married with babies that would grow up never to know their fathers. There were English, Scottish, Welsh; some from the Ulster Regiment. All of them had mothers who had lost their sons. The rows of thousands of graves reminded us of the huge losses and the tragedy of war. As I walked around, I couldn’t stop a huge lump from forming in my throat.
As we walked around in the peaceful atmosphere, we came to a large church, the Eglise de Ranville. The churchyard contained more graves and family plots. As we looked on, a hearse and several mourners arrived carrying floral tributes; there was obviously a funeral going on. To add a little humour to what was otherwise a sombre occasion, one of our tour group, and old man with a walking stick, just walked into the church, oblivious to the fact that he’d just gate-crashed a funeral! 😊
Afterwards, Michelle rounded us all up and we boarded the coach once again to our next destination, that of Bénouville, which contains a replica, built in 1994, of Pegasus Bridge. The original Pegasus Bridge was contained in an open-air memorial museum around the corner, along with one of the gliders that had landed.
As we walked around towards the bridge and the landing sight of two of the gliders, the heavens absolutely opened and we hurriedly donned our cagoules. A group of us hurried up a grassy bank verge to seek refuge under some trees. As we looked at the rain pelting down, there was suddenly an almighty crash of thunder, and we decided that sheltering under trees during a thunder storm was probably not the best idea so, braving the elements, we went back down to the road again. Another rumble of thunder rent the air, and I pulled my hood tighter into my head. It was uncanny really; I can remember learning about the Pathetic Fallacy in English at school, a literary technique where the weather seems to match the mood of the occasion. It seemed strange that we should be hearing the thunder now, when the skies were filled with the rumble of aeroplane engines and gunfire and conflict in this spot 75 years ago.
The rain eventually eased off a little and we made our way to the monuments that marked the exact spots, near Pegasus Bridge, where the gliders had silently landed in the early hours of 6th June 1944. One of them contained a bust of Major John Howard, who had led the glider-borne assault, codenamed Operation Deadstick. Another had many poppy wreaths and other tokens of respect and remembrance. It was all incredibly interesting and fascinating, and we realised how amazingly clever and daring the whole Normandy Invasion had been.
We then boarded the bus again for the short ride to the charming beach-front town of Arromanches-les-Bains. During Operation Neptune, as the actual landing was codenamed, the beaches had been divided into five and codenamed Utah and Omaha, which was where the Americans landed; Juno, which was where the Canadians landed, and Gold and Sword which was taken by the British. The seafront at Arromanches, where we were heading, contained Gold beach.
The bus dropped us off and our guide, Michelle, said we would first of all go into the nearby D-Day museum to watch a 20-minute film all about the construction and deployment of Mulberry B, the artificial harbour at Arromaches-les-Bains (Gold Beach).
Inside the museum we looked at the uniforms and other relics of the war, and we came across John and Linda who had been on bus #2. As we’d stood waiting to get in to see the film, we looked at a glass case containing a sailor’s uniform with the cap tally proclaiming “HMS MAGPIE”. This again added some humour to the situation, as The Magpies is the nickname of Newcastle United, of whom John is a staunch supporter. Trevor and I, of course, are Sunderland supporters. 😊
We went into the darkened room to watch the film. It was incredible how the Allied Forces only had a matter of days to construct a harbour out of iron and concrete and get it into place without being caught. Muberry A was constructed at Omaha Beach and Mulberry B – which was later named Port Winston in honour of Winston Churchill – was constructed here at Gold Beach. At one stage there had been a storm and part of the harbour had been damaged, and needed to be repaired in a hurry, as the operation risked being cancelled.
After we came out of the museum we had some free time to do as we pleased. We therefore went down the slipway onto the actual beach itself. There we saw the remains of Mulberry B, still there after 75 years. We could also see the breakwaters a short distance out to sea. I stood on the sand, breathing in the sea air, looking at the famous relics and imagining thousands of soldiers storming the beaches in this very spot, the sky dark with aeroplanes and parachute canopies. It was certainly something and, for me, was the absolute highlight of this cruise so far.
Walking back up the slipway again, we walked along the seafront looking at the souvenir shops and little cafés, and I went in and bought a D-Day 75th Anniversary fridge magnet for my aunt. Then we went into a pleasant little snackbar and ordered a beer each, and shared a bag of crisps as we’d missed our dinner tonight.
It was the time to board the bus once again for the return journey to Honfleur. It had been an absolutely incredible, and very emotional, experience and we were so pleased we’d done it. We were also happy to see several children in our tour party, as I think it is something every child should learn about.
We arrived back at the Balmoral around 7.45pm, far too late for our first-sitting dinner, but we were advised we could either dine in the Palms Café or wait until second-sitting at 8.30. We were far too hungry to wait, so we returned to cabin 6009, dumped our bags, got a quick wash and brush-up (what is known in nautical terms as a submariner’s dhoby) and went up to the Palms. We shared our table with a pleasant couple, where we enjoyed our meal sharing stories of what we’d seen and done today. This couple had been along to Bayeux, to see its famous tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
We managed to finish our meal and leave the Palms at 8.40pm, just in time to make it to the first show in the Neptune Lounge at 8.45. We sat with Gill and Carl, who asked us how our trip had been and said they spotted us coming back while they were in the restaurant.
Tonight’s show was shared between the Balmoral Show Company and the comedian Gerry Graham. We enjoyed his patter more this time; he was really quite hilarious. While we were in the Neptune Lounge the increased vibrations coming up through the deck told us that the Balmoral was on the move once again, next stop the historic city of Rouen.
Up in the Observatory there was no sign of John and Linda, so we formed a quiz team with another very pleasant couple who were in their 70s. The lounge was pretty packed. Just minutes before the quiz was due to start, John and Linda appeared and had to search for a couple of spare chairs so they could join us. Again, we made the mistake of changing our minds about some of the answers, which effectively cost us the quiz. ☹
Afterwards we sat around talking and enjoying a few more of the (free!) drinks and discussing the D-Day Beaches. John in particular is fascinated by anything to do with World War 2 so for him it had been a very special visit. It was about 1.45am before we left and went to bed.
What a day it had been!