Magic and Mayhem — Off to Normandy

It’s 5:00 am, and my brain and body have suddenly remembered it’s 11:00 am in France, waking to remind me why we were ended up outside Gare du Nord where I took the picture of the Metro sign. It’s no use to try to fall back to sleep; I will write my next installment instead.

We ended up in Gare du Nord to try to find a French sim card for my phone so we would would be able to call, text, and use data, particularly the GPS (“SatNav” in England and Europe). Gare du Nord is quite a busy station with lots of stores, so we figured it would be easier, and after wallking around (something we do much of when on a trip), we found a store called “The Phone Store.” Eureka!

Not really. It turned out they sell phones, but not sim cards. They gave us directions to another place, which we didn’t find, and eventually we gave up and went back to the hotel, where I used the WiFi to look up where we might be more successful.

All signs pointed to Relay. This was encouraging until The Engineer pointed out I’d nipped into one that evening and straight back out having not seen any sim cards. However, the information I found pointed out the stores kept the cards behind the counter, and I’d not gone up to the counter because there was a long line.

We resolved to try again in the morning.

Now, my unrestful brain is prodding me to say something about the French vaccine pass, which we expected to have to get. We never did because — with the exception of one restaurant — they accepted our vaccination cards everwhere. And by the time the restaurant refused us entry, the mandate was being lifted the next morning.

But, back to our trip to Normandy. Because the hotel’s breakfast had been so lavish the day before, we made sure we were up to enjoy it before leaving for Gare du Nord. The cheeses! The meats! The yogurt! The latte machine! Even the not-very-warm roast potatoes, sausages, omelettes and potato casseroles were tasty.

Also, they had a little device where you could boil your own eggs, which meant we could hard boil a few for our trip, to take along with some fruit for a light lunch on the train. So clever (both the device and us, or so we thought)!

The Engineer put in a couple of eggs while we enjoyed our breakfast, allowing plenty of time to make sure they were completely cooked. Then, we packed up and headed to the train station, where we eventually managed to get a sim card.

The data never worked very well, probably because we were mostly in rural areas, but we re-discovered something we’d learned on our previous trip. If you put the destination in your map app before leaving WiFi, the app will continue to give you direction to where you’re going even when you no longer have access to WiFi, either until you reach your destination or until you make a completely wrong turn. If you do make a wrong turn, the map will continue to show you where you’re at, and you can usually find your way to the destination.

It can’t look up a new destination until you have data or WiFi, but seems to use satellites to let you know where you are.

But perhaps you already know this?

During our previous trip, we’d also discovered how wonderful trains are in France (link goes to first installment of posts about that trip) and resolved to make use of them again this time.

Initially, we planned to travel all the way from Paris to Carentan, where we’d be picked up by our tour, then return to Carentan on Sunday to take a train to Bordeaux on Sunday after our tour. Only there was no train to Bordeaux on Sunday from Carentan. Carentan is a fairly small town, so it seems travel by train there is limited.

No problem, we thought. We’d just rent a car on Sunday and drive to Bordeaux.

Nope. The car rental agency in Carentan was closed on Sunday.

And Saturday.

And when we tried to rent a car for Friday, the website kept glitching to change the rental date to Saturday … when the agency isn’t open. We considered putting in Thursday, but worried because we weren’t sure it would come up properly.

While this certainly doesn’t qualify as travel mayhem, it’s a fact to remember when traveling. Although people may be similar the world over, the customs are not.

Thus, one should not be surprised if one is unable to rent a car or take a train from a small town in France on a Sunday. It’s their country, they run it, we are visitors traveling to explore new places and customs.

These customs may include different ideas about when businesses should be open.

In the end, we decided to take the train to Caen, which we knew somewhat from our previous trip, rent a car on Thursday, and drive the rest of the way to “The Manor,” where we’d be staying as part of the tour in a hamlet near Picauville.

According to Ben, our guide, a group of houses isn’t a village unless it has a church. The group of houses where the Manor is located doesn’t, therefore it qualifies only as a hamlet.

It’s tiny; I’d guess no more than 50 people living there now, and I’m sure there wasn’t many more on 6 June 1944, but it was nonetheless highly contested ground, which we shall explore later.

On the train, we settled in to enjoy the trip. Eventually deciding it was time for lunch, we got out our eggs and fruit, along with some snacks I’d brought from home. (Travel can be unpredictable, so I always carry snacks.)

I carefully cracked open my egg … and discovered it was basically raw. Not runny. Raw. Apparently, though our idea was clever, the egg boiler wasn’t, at least as not as clever as it originally appeared. Or maybe the hotel employees just hadn’t kept it full enough or hot enough.

No matter. It’s hardly travel mayhem; perhaps we should call it “Travel Mischief?”

About three hours after leaving Paris, we arrived at Caen, picking up our car at an agency near the train station. It was a turquoise Citroen C3, which we ended up christening C3PO for its habit of beeping at us whenever The Engineer strayed near the center line or a car came too close (a frequent occurrence in France).

Amazingly, it looked like we would be arriving too early, so we stopped off at Sainte-Mere-Eglise. I’d heard the story of John Steele (probably from a movie), a paratrooper who had the misfortune to land on the Sainte-Mere church roof.

I wanted to have a look at the church.

Steele survived by playing dead and was eventually taken prisoner, but managed to escape and survive the war, dying in 1969.

There is a dummy paratrooper hung on the church to commemorate the event. According to Ben, the parachute is the wrong color as white chutes were only used for backup, and it’s hung on the wrong side to make it more visible.

Other than that, it’s completely accurate. 🙂

Front view of Sainte-Mere church with paratrooper dummy visible on the right side.
Wrong side of the church, wrong parachute, but otherwise accurate

Sainte-Mere was the first town to be liberated in Normandy, though The Engineer, C3PO, and I later blundered through Ranville, a village that has the distinction of being the first village to be liberated.

That day, however, a quick look at the time showed we would now be only fifteen minutes early, and we set off for Picauville and The Manor, which we found without incident thanks to Ben’s excellent directions.

As we venture further into Normandy, I must preface these blog posts by admitting how hopeless I am about the details of history. I remember past events instead as stories about people. As a result, Ben’s method of touring, which focused on individuals, suited me, as well as The Engineer, not a fan of museums.

Thus, although Ben certainly gave dates and places, I will share the stories I remember. If you are interested in more details, there are inumerable books and websites that can provide them. Ben’s tours involved driving around, stopping at what seemed to be a random landmark, getting out of the car, and showing us pictures of what it looked like in 1944 and explaining what happened to people there.

First, The Manor: As I mentioned, it is near the (very) small village of Picauville, and is a cluster of old buildings, several of which belong to Ben and his wife Hannah.

Ben has lived in France for about thirty years, and it wasn’t until after he bought his property that he discovered it was directly across from one of the paratrooper drop zones. Also, he learned a C-47 crashed in the field near his house, killing the paratroopers onboard.

As he came to know his neighbors, some of them elderly and alive during D-Day, Ben, who is an avid history buff, began to learn the story of what happened around Picauville and their hamlet that day.

Tower of The Manor, with some of Ben’s WWII memorabilia

One of the stories Ben told was that of Lucien and his little brother Albert, who were children living in a house nearby during D-Day (also referred to as Operation Overlord).

On the day before the invasion, Lucien had been pushing Albert on a swing when Albert fell off and hit his head. Probably concussed, he later began to vomit, and as they sheltered from the planes, his parents began to fear for his life.

A village girl ran out and grabbed a passing Amerian medic. Because she had no English, she dragged him to where the sick boy lay, hoping the man could help.

The paratrooper gave Lucien’s parents some tablets from his pack and gestured that the child should take them. Albert took the pills, and his sickness passed. The medic promised to return the next day.

Ben’s theory is the tablets were the 1944 equivalent of Dramamine, given to Allied troops to prevent motion sickness on the way over, and that Albert’s illness might have passed anyway.

Albert’s family believed differently, and I tend to agree with them. A small child unable to keep anything down can quickly become dehydrated and possibly die, so it may be that the paratrooper really did save Albert.

Lucien was so driven by his debt of gratitude that he felt he had to commemorate the paratroopers in some way.

And so he built this wall, which is now an official memorial and can never be destroyed, even if his family property passes out of family hands.

Sadly, for many years, Lucien was unable to learn the name of the medic, who they knew had perished during the battle for the hamlet and so never returned.

Later, Ben shared the story of the wall with Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of General Eisenhower (Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during D-Day), when she visited the area with students.

Susan, did a bit more research and was, according to Ben, about 99% sure she and her students had found the right man. Since she was visiting France again later that year (2016), Ben arranged for her to reveal share the information then.

He said Lucien was concerned that it might be a long name because the only stones in the wall left uncarved were on the small side.

Ben was worried about that 1% possibility it might not be the right man, but when Susan showed Lucien and Albert the picture of Frank Mackey, they immediately recognized him, and Lucien was able to complete his wall at last.

Click here to watch a YouTube video of the moment.

Later, that day, we stopped at a nondescript bridge near the “Memorial des Parachutistes — La Fiere.” We’d driven over it the day before, not realizing it was one of the two bridges integral to the invasion.

On D-Day, it was absolutely imperative the Allied paratroopers take and hold two bridges near Sainte-Mere until 4:00 pm. The bridges were over the Merderet River, and the paratroopers would be relieved by the forces moving inward from the beaches. These bridges were the only way troops could move heavy equipment in the area, where fields turn into lakes during the cold months, a characteristic the Germans had exacerbated by keeping nearby locks closed.

The task of holding the bridge proved even more daunting than expected.

The one we parked by was just a tiny bridge in an out of the way place, not much to look at, but 254 allied troops were killed and 525 wounded during the three-day battle for the site.

A contemporary account of the incident said a man could have walked from the church to the bridge over the bodies of soldiers without touching the ground.

Here is a picture of that church, taken near the bridge, which was to the left of the where I stood.

The paratroopers held that bridge until 8 June, when they were finally relieved by other troops.

These paratroopers, with little in their favor, had one stroke of luck, when German General Wilhelm Falley was killed in a firefight with American paratroopers near his headquarters at the Chateau de Bernaville. According to Ben, Falley was in a vehicle on his way to a bus he’d parked behind the chateau as a backup headquarters since he expected enemy troops to look for him in the Chateau.

According to Ben, if he’d gone to the Chateau, instead of being so cautious, he might have survived. Ben also told us the paratroopers didn’t even know who they’d killed; they were just trying to meet up with the rest of their troop and left the general lying in the road.

We went to that spot, an unremarkable place in a small road behind a Chateau in France. There are many such sites in the country — completely unexceptional except for the appalling loss of human life required to take them back from Hitler’s troops and liberate Europe from his clutches.

As we explored these places, none of us could avoid noticing horrifying parallels to the current situation in the Ukraine. One can’t help but wonder if, in a decade or two, our children and grandchildren will be walking around the Ukrainian countryside gazing at similar sites.

Utah Beach was next, and Ben explained that the troops landing there had an easier time than those at Omaha because they landed in slightly the wrong place, where the German troops had already been shelled. This happened more or less accidentally because of the way the air bombings were carried out.

“Easier” doesn’t mean easy, however; according to Wikipedia, some 197 men were killed, but that was much fewer than Omaha, as we shall learn later.

By this time, the morning drizzle had cleared, allowing us to explore in bright sunshine.

German fortification on Utah Beach

I must end here since I have to get ready for work, but I’ll continue with Day 1 of Normandy in the next post. Au revoir until then!

3 thoughts on “Magic and Mayhem — Off to Normandy

  1. I’ve really enjoyed seeing these photos, because they would have been familiar scenery for my father. He landed on Sword Beach in his tank on D-Day +1, a young lieutenant fresh from basic training. I cannot imagine the sights that met him, and he rarely spoke of it. Now, it’s too late. We often went to Normandy for our family summer holidays, and I know he loved the area, so not even war was able to ruin that for him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Saint Robert and an Almost Visit to Lascaux | The Byrd and the Bees

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