Saturday, May 12, 2012

D-Day and Val de Saire

This was a clear, spring-like day, a bit chilly but bright. As we walked toward the car park (as in Rouen, this hotel has no parking but the municipal lot a few blocks away is free) we paused to wonder if the Liberty Tree was getting any sunlight on it.

Why yes, it was. Click through to see a tiny tourist for scale.

The Liberty Tree is a plane tree that was planted on the North side of the cathedral, between the cathedral and what was then the Bishop's Palace. The time was 1797, the French Revolution was in full swing, and the Liberty Tree was a popular symbol. Anyway, 215 years on, the tree is immense, biggest plane tree we've ever seen, and seems quite healthy.

After that we embarked on a run along the D-Day beaches and to the Cotentin Peninsula.

Arromanche and "Mulberry"

The D-Day beaches were chosen because they were less well defended than the big harbors of Le Havre or Cherbourg. However, that meant that after the initial landings, there would be no harbor facilities to bring in the vast volume of supply and reinforcement needed. So the plan included two portable harbors, code-named "Mulberry." These consisted of temporary floating piers, roadways and breakwater units, all towed across the English Channel in the 24 hours before June 5th and assembled under fire on the 6th. By June 7th, both were in operation. A storm on June 19th destroyed one, but the second continued in use and by August, was the busiest harbor in the world, by volume. (Read more...)

That harbor, dubbed "Port Winston" at the time, is documented in a museum in Arromanches. The museum is well done, with excellent models of the harbor and its components. Unfortunately the models are under glass and not easy to photograph.

Scale model of entire harbor — the breakwater was about 8 km long

Model of floating road section in use.

Preserved road section, tourist for scale.

Tourist inspects old float units

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

A few kilometers down the road is a cemetery holding about 9,000 American casualties of the invasion, and documenting another 1,500 MIA. According to a plaque there, about 60% of the dead were sent home for burial in the U.S., so at least 20,000 Americans died in Normandy.

The cemetery is a first-class operation, beautifully designed and impeccably maintained.

A very few of the crosses, and some of dozens of perfectly groomed trees.

Omar Bradley quote in the visitor center.

Marker for an Unknown.

Just beyond the Cemetery entrance is this rather endearingly over the top 20-foot high statue of Peace.

Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc is a sharp peninsula dividing the two beaches assigned to American troops, Omaha beach and Utah beach. Fortified by the Germans, it presented a danger to the landings. The Second Ranger Battalion was assigned to climb the cliffs to the point, control it and destroy the guns, which they did on the morning of June 6. Then they had to withstand counterattacks for two days before being relieved, at which time only 90 of the original 230 could still fight. Per the Wikipedia story, this action is featured in the computer game, Call of Duty 2.

Today you can tour the top of the peninsula and peer out of a gun emplacement.

The cratered ground, torn up by aerial and naval bombardment early in the morning of June 6.

Looking for invaders from a gun emplacement.

Valley of the Saire

Marian had noted a scenic drive through the valley of the Saire, south of Cherbourg on the Cotentin peninsula.

Today was the first time we've had strong sunshine on the Normandy trees, and now we are ready to say that Normandy is at least as vibrantly green as New Zealand.

Green, with tractor.

Toward the end of the road, in the tiny village of Le Vast, a bakery makes a specialty, an oversized brioche. N.B. "vast" in not a synonym for "huge" in French, but "vaste" (with an e) is.

"Vast" brioche et chocolate chaud.

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