Port-en-Bessin – classic Normandy coastal village. Gorgeous at sunrise and sunset. Even cloudy or rainy days have their charm. Climb the cliffs on both the East and the West sides of the centre ville port for spectacular views of the coastline.
Now to the WWII history of this seaside hamlet:
Part of the Atlantic Wall, Port-en-Bessin was heavily fortified by the occupying German military. Those cliffs flanking the village were ready for attack from sea and air with concrete artillery emplacements, bunkers, trenches and a few hundred Germans. Part of the Gold invasion beach just to the east of Omaha, British marine commandos lost about 40 men taking the position high on the bluff right of the pier in the photo. You can see clear remnants of these fortifications, even trench lines along the very edge of the cliff. Photo above was taken in 1948; below, May, 2012 from the bluff where the British commandos perished.
Imagine. It’s 6:30am, June 6, 1944, and you’re one of 225 well-trained Rangers arriving via Higgins landing craft to the base of a 100 foot high cliff with about 25 yards of beach in front of you before you start climbing ropes to the top of the cliff. Oh and there are more than a few dozen Germans at the top shooting at you with rifles, machine guns, lobbing potato mashers and cutting your ropes and pushing your small frame ladders back towards the sea. That’s what happened here that morning, at almost the same time GIs were landing at Omaha just a few miles east along the coast. Intelligence had placed a bunch of large artillery guns here in fixed positions bombing Omaha. However, the Rangers only found tree trunks posing as gun barrels. The mission was for naught until they located large field artillery guns a mile back. We had to go with the action painting here along with an aerial photo of the previous bombing raids that left Pointe du Hoc a moonscape field of craters – some ship-to-land as evidenced by a shallow, oblong crater, and deep 10-15 foot round craters from aerial bombardment.
The serenity of this little fishing port belies its significant history in the Battle of Normandy. For starters, General Omar Bradley established his headquarters here after the village was seized on June 9, 1944.
However, the really big story surrounding the D-Day history of Grandcamp-Maisy is still unfolding.
Until 2004, the Maisy Battery, located on the southwest side of the village in an area called Les Perruques, was forgotten by historians and even locals, almost completely buried under a yard of topsoil. Gary Sterne, a British World War II enthusiast had first learned of the site from an old Allied map that described this location as an “area of high resistance.” After an intial exploration revealed the tops of concrete fortifications, he determined that this was a sizable German battery, and set about acquiring the land in order to excavate it to reveal the buried fortifications.
Here’s what he found: a nearly undamaged major artillery gun complex the size of Point du Hoc, outfitted for (3) fixed and (1) field 105mm cannons, among other large artillery weapons. There are an officers quarters, extensive trenches, and large bunkers. Stern theorizes – and he may be right – that this battery was the culprit behind the devastation of Omaha Beach. It certainly wasn’t Point du Hoc, because after 225 Rangers attacked it amphibiously at 6:30AM on D-Day, they found telephone poles in the gun positions. The Maisy Battery is an amazing modern archaeological site that will keep historians debating its role on D-Day for years to come.
Carentan, a city of about 4,000 people in 1944, was viewed as so important by Erwin Rommel that he ordered Major Heydte, who had retreated his paratroopers from the causeway against the advancing 101st Airborne, to defend it to the last man. From the Allied perspective, capturing Carentan was critical to Eisenhower’s invasion plans in order to join Utah and Omaha forces into one cohesive defensive line.
From June 10-15, the 101st Division engaged the German Wehrmacht at various points in and around the city, culminating in the “Battle of Bloody Gulch” to the southwest of Carentan. A must see is Band of Brothers – Episode 3, Carentan.
Caen figures prominently in the Battle of Normandy. Originally, British and Canadian forces expected to take Caen on D-Day. However, the 21st Panzer Division stopped them short of the city by only a few miles. Subsequent allied ground offensive operations from June until early July failed in their objective to capture Caen from the Germans. It wasn’t taken until July 9, a full month later than planned, and only after extensive allied bombing which destroyed much of the city. Despite allied leaflet droppings warning French civilians of pending attacks, the majority of Caen’s 60,000 inhabitants remained, and, as a consequence, hundreds died from the bombing raids.
Brits and Americans pronounce the name of this awesome medieval city “brooge” with a soft g, but in West Flanders, it is pronounced “brooga”, with a hard g and short a. We prefer to use local parlance. Also, we rarely use the word awesome, except where it truly applies.
So, Brugge is an awesome medieval city in West Flanders. It was miraculously spared during the war years of the last century. The Germans occupied Brugge twice, and no doubt appreciated it as much as we do today, because they left it untouched for posterity on their way out of town in 1918 and 1944 – no scorched earth here. Of particular interest to beer fans are a bunch of great beer bars, the most notable of which is the t’ Brugs Beertje. If you want to go back in time 500 years plus, roam Brugge late at night when many cars and virtually all pedestrians are absent – it’s amazing to experience these streets as they were centuries ago, except with modern street lights, of course.
Slightly more than one kilometer north of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont is a French farming chateau called Brécourt Manor. Across the curvy road from the stone barn is a pasture and on the southwest side of the hedgerow/tree line (diagonally pointing northwest towards the hamlet of Le Grand Chemin) is the site of a famous and impressive military undertaking. The internet is replete with descriptions of this attack against a German gun battery shelling Utah Beach the early morning of June 6, but the short, short story is this: a near spontaneously planned assault was executed by just 13 soldiers of Easy Company led by Lt. Dick Winters against a platoon of about 50 German troops. They were manning (4) trenched 105 mm Howitzers and guarded by an equal number of MG42 machine gun nests from across the west side of the field as they launched their shellfire onto Utah. Winter’s squad launched their attack and destroyed all of the Howitzers with TNT and German potato mashers, one after another down the trench line towards the Manor and then withdrew with two soldiers killed, having wounded and killed about twenty German soldiers. First stop is Band of Brothers – Episode 2 for an authentic recreation of this operation.
Longues-sur-Mer Battery, a few miles west of Arromanches and on 215′ high coastal ground was ideally positioned for bombardment of invading naval craft: (4) Krupp-manufactured long-range (more than ten miles) 150mm guns. They were bombed before D-Day, but still fired over 100 rounds during the morning and afternoon landings until captured by English and French troops. All but one are visually intact from the front, and one gun took a direct hit on D-Day and completely destroyed.
By December, 1944, the Allies had recaptured much of Belgium from the Germans who had occupied this small country (about one-fifth the size of Wisconsin) since early 1940. Bastogne lies in the heart of the hilly Ardennes Forest, which the Allies assumed would notbe a region in which the Germans would likely launch a counteroffensive. They were wrong. Bastogne possessed a junction of roads that was a key strategic advantage to controlling the whole region and the advancing Germans wanted this intersection badly.
On December 16, more than 250,000 Germans attacked along a 60 mile front into Belgium known as the “Battle of the Bulge”. Unable to recapture Bastogne and its crossroads, the Germans pushed around and past the village – their goals were to divide the Allied forces and capture the city of Antwerp. On December 21, with the German army surrounding the village, they asked that the Americans surrender, which was promptly turned down by the famous reply of “NUTS!”
The 101st Airborne Division which was positioned in and around the Bastogne area held their ground through intense fighting until skies cleared on December 23, allowing airdrops of badly needed food, medical and ammunition supplies. The siege ended by December 26 with the arrival of Patton’s Third Army.
The Battle of the Bulge is forever associated with Bastogne. However, armed conflict encompassed a massive area throughout the Ardennes involving hundreds of towns. Over 75,000 American soldiers were killed, wounded or missing and about the same rough numbers for the Germans.