Sunday, May 16, 2010

Upon waking, we decided to immediately investigate Maisy Battery – well, after some breakfast first.  We had stopped by the afternoon before, but the attendant said we’d need more than a half hour to go through all of it, and it was too close to closing time.  She was right! You need a solid two hours to soak it all in.

A modern archaeological site, this German artillery gun installation was only discovered a handful of years ago by a British WWII enthusiast who suspected there was more underneath the farm fields and hedgerows on this parcel of land just a short distance from the coast.  He had seen markings on a WWII map that suggested there was a German gun emplacement on this site, and so he went about acquiring the land and digging it all up.  His excavation revealed bare 150mm gun turrets, ammunition storage rooms, bunkers and officers quarters – most of which are intact!

There is still much mystery around the significance of this battery, and why, soon after being captured by the US Army Rangers on D+3, it was buried and simply forgotten by locals and historians.  What was this battery’s role on D-Day?  Was it responsible for the shelling of Omaha Beach?   Was this location missed by intelligence and was the assault at Point du Hoc (which revealed no active artillery guns) for naught?  It will be interesting to see how historians address the revelation of the Maisy Battery and it’s impact on D-Day.

After Maisy Battery, we drove east towards Omaha Beach, coming in through the Vierville draw.  The day had started bright and sunny, but now a a gray mist settled along the coastline, weather which felt appropriate for our visit.  The span of Omaha Beach is about 5 miles from the waterfront bluffs on the western side (Vierville Draw) to a bit past the American cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer.  Aside from many markers, monuments, and a few surviving German bunkers, little evidence of what took place here remains from the bloodiest day for the Americans in World War II.  But you certainly feel it.  On June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach alone, approximately 2,000 soldiers of the US 1st and 29th Divisions were killed in a single day of fighting.

We parked our car at the beach and went into the D-Day Cafe near the Omaha Beach memorials for a late morning brew.  The bartender told us a poignant story about an American D-Day veteran who returned a number of times to Omaha Beach in recent years hoping he would die there, joining his 11 fellow soldiers who perished there on landing, leaving him as the sole survivor of their squad.

Next, we drove up the hill to check out the church of Saint-Laurent-Sur-Mer.  It was here that Jeff’s friend’s father landed with the 1st Division (Big Red One) as a Warrant Officer, and wrote specifically about this church in their field notes.  In the graveyard, you can actually see shell damage on the graves.  We asked an old woman tending a grave about actually getting in, because it was locked.  After first saying she had no idea, she came back over and said that the Mayor of the village has a key and that she owned the D-Day museum back down the hill.  So, we went over and spoke to her about the field notes and our wanting to get in the church.  She gave us the tour of the inside of the church, and read the field notes from the Security Division of the Big Red One.  The stained glass of the church had etched depictions of D-Day – the shelling of Omaha Beach, Point du Hoc, and the burial of American soldiers at the original gravesite along the beach.  Amazing….

The mayor gave us a lift back to the museum, taking us en route to the site of the airfield for Allied aircraft that was quickly built in the days after the invasion.  At the museum, she photocopied the field notes for reference use at the museum, and we continued on our journey to Colleville-Sur-Mer.

Just a few miles up the road, we stopped at a cafe in Colleville and struck up a conversation with the staff and locals.  On our way out, the waiter showed us a book called “WN62″, by Hein Severloh, who was one of the German soldiers who manned this station on D-Day.  In the book was a picture of another soldier, Franz Gockel, standing in front of one of the homes near this cafe.  These two are attributed with many of the American casualties suffered on D-Day, as the WN62 nest was obscured from the beach, and they fired their MG42 machine guns for hours at incoming attackers.  Both men not only survived, but were taken prisoner and lived another 60 years!

Next, we visited the American cemetery at Colleville which holds the graves of nearly 10,000 American soldiers who died in the invasion of Normandy.  We took the paved path that winds gracefully to the beach.  It’s so hard to visualize the chaos and turmoilof what happened here on June 4, 1944! Powerful.

It was late afternoon and we decided that Port-en-Bessin would be our last stop for the evening.  We found a hotel, got steak-fritessandwiches and wolfed them down by the harbor.  We then climbed a footpath along the east side of the sea port village.  It was an awesome view as the sun dropped in the west and a drizzle started to fall from the bluish gray, chilly skies.  On our walk, we discovered some trenches, a tobruk and a bunker with a small plaque honoring the 48 British commandos that attacked this German stronghold in the invasion.

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