Monday, June 5, 2017

Normandy: World War II Tour, Part Deux

German bunker; now ours.
This World War II-themed tour connected England (Portsmouth) with France (Caen) with a seven-hour ferry cruise. Emanating from Cape May as I do, I didn't think the ferry cruise would be a highlight. Then I realized that this route over the English Channel was very similar to the route that the Allied forces took on D-Day 73 years ago TODAY! That realization cast a solemn note onto the cruise, but that shouldn't infer that the trip wasn't fun. It was! It was windy on deck, and very refreshing, and the enormous ferry was fun to explore.

We dined aboard ship, and the part of this meal I remember best was the eclair I had for dessert which had chocolate cream inside. We arrived in France rather late, so headed straight for our hotel in Caen, a city in Normandy.

The flags of the Allies outside the Caen Memorial
Bright and early the next day, we were off to the Caen Memorial. This huge modern structure featured a museum-like exhibit of artifacts from the Normandy region.

Book casualty of war
 Let me set the Normandy scene: Normandy is the region, and the beaches on which the Allied forces came ashore were Utah (American troops), Omaha (American), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian), and Sword (British and some Canadian). Each of these beach areas is a village with a French name known to the locals. Caen is a moderately-sized city which the Allied forces were heading for after taking the beaches. Although these battles were extremely bloody, the Allies did manage to reclaim the areas from the Germans as they made their way inland to Paris and points beyond.

At the Caen Memorial, we watched a compelling movie about D-Day and the events following. I don't remember how long the movie was, and I can't even estimate the time because I was so captivated by it. Somehow, the film-makers were able to tell this story without words. There were pictures and video clips, but no words. Sure this was a handy device to use for multilingual visitors, but honestly, the wordless movie was SO GOOD. It prepared me for the sites I would see next.

We jumped on our bus with a local guide named Mario who would tell us all about the area, D-Day, and the events following. Our first stop was Point du Hoc, a piece of land that juts out into the English Channel. Point du Hoc is a promontory, meaning that it ends with cliffs that fall into the channel. When the U.S. Army Ranger Assault Group arrived, they had to scale those cliffs to get to the Germans hiding out in pillboxes, bunkers, and hidey-holes.

This is a 'pillbox' bunker
Only one or two guys would fit in this hidey-hole.
 We got to tour and inspect those concrete ruins, climbing on, in, and down into to see Point du Hoc from the perspective of the Germans. These concrete ruins were fascinating, but the craters really grabbed my attention. Point du Hoc was assaulted by explosives from Allied aircraft, but also from ships at sea. Those very strong explosives made craters that can still be seen today, 73 years later. The round craters were made by bombs dropped by aircraft, but the oblong or oval craters were made by missiles launched from ships. their flight would make an arc and then when they hit they would push the earth in front of them resulting in deep, oblong craters. They are huge!

HUGE craters!
Back on the bus, we toured through some cute French seaside towns sprinkled with tanks, vehicles, and other war-like artifacts. Having recently read through the Normandy chapter of Donald Miller's The Story of World War II, I was aware of the carnage at Omaha Beach 73 years ago. The vicious battle was here between the Americans and Germans, thousands of guys died, and dead bodies were lined up on the beach for retrieval. Yet, people were frolicking, and swimming, and playing in the sand as if it were any other beach. I felt the same kind of internal schism that I felt on the ferry. I don't resent the beach-goers, but I could never enjoy a relaxing day in the sand there as I do at home...knowing what I know. It was a moving thing to see this beach site, so similar to my own favorite beach in New Jersey, but not exactly.

Omaha Beach
Finally, we arrived at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. The photographs you've seen of this place are no substitute for being there. It is huge. Hundreds and hundreds of crosses and stars of David mark the graves of Americans who lost their lives here 73 years ago.

The whole time we were there, I could hear the waves of the English Channel crashing--I hadn't realized that this cemetery was so close to the water. As sad as it was, it was beautiful, too. There's a chapel in the middle and a large memorial near the entrance surrounded by a wall in which the names of MIA soldiers and sailors are engraved. Now and then there would be a name marked with a brass rosette--this would be a person whose remains were found later. This site effectively illustrates the magnitude of those Normandy battles.
The cemetery chapel

The cemetery memorial
Having no relatives here that I know of, I went in search of the Roosevelt brothers that our tour guide Mario told us about. I remember learning their stories on a documentary years ago. Quentin Roosevelt was President Roosevelt's youngest son, and he died in France during World War I (1918). His family was given special dispensation (eventually) to have Quentin's remains exhumed and re-buried here next to his brother, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. He died at Normandy during the World War II battles on July 12, 1944. His grave marker is distinctive with its gold Medal of Honor designation. Mario explained that these would be easy to find as they sat at the edge of the second block of graves on the English Channel side of the huge cemetery. I walked right to them, and when I was there, a rope was tied around the area to keep people off, perhaps to let the grass get started growing in the spring.

The Roosevelt Brothers, Quentin and Theodore, Jr.
 It was a long day exploring the emotional sites of Normandy. I was just saying to a friend that I feel that I lived through World War II since I had such a strong connection to my parents who did. Seeing these parts of Normandy was meaningful to me and got me thinking of all I knew from them and all I've learned recently in preparation for this trip. It was a special day and was topped off by a lovely dinner in Caen, on a pedestrian street full of quaint restaurants and European beauty. This is what we fought for.

Caen street: Dinner!
Could this street be prettier?
Caen menu
Caen dessert

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The World War II Tour: Part One, London

The Imperial War Museum, formerly Bethlem (mental) Hospital from which the word 'bedlam' sprung as a synonym for chaos
 If you had told me before this trip, me, a Princess Di fan from way back and general royal-watcher, that a museum with the word 'war' in its name would be the highlight of the London part of this trip, I would not have believed you. But, I had just read Donald L. Miller's fantastic book The Story of World War II (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and that war was so firmly planted in my head that I was having WWII dreams. This museum was a fantastic compliment to my recent study of the war and my almost-lifelong interest in the homefront of that time. First I was mesmerized by the music of Glenn Miller from watching The Glenn Miller Story on TV with my parents, and then I became interested in the clothing of that time, and then I wrote an A+ research paper in 12th grade entitled, "The Effect of World War II on American Styles." It wasn't until recently, in preparation for this trip, that I delved into the details of the war.

So the Imperial War Museum (IWM) was fantastic, and I limited myself to the WWII floor. That was roughly one-quarter of the museum. I took many photos, and I'll pick out the best for this blogpost. (If you come to my lecture at Bucks County Community College on November 9, 2017, you'll see these and many more!) Walk into this museum, and the first exhibit you encounter is the atrium collage of aircraft and vehicles from various wars. It's overwhelming, and difficult to pick out the WWII artifacts. Most importantly, among the planes suspended from the ceiling, there's a Spitfire. That is the model flown in the air battle with Germany over London in the Battle of Britain in 1940. The daring Royal Air Force Spitfire pilots shot down many German Messerschmidts.

That's the Spitfire in the middle with the circles on the side. This is the Atrium of the IWM.
The IWM also boasts a thrilling display of a Japanese Zero plane. It's a bit beat up and British bullets were found in it when it was being prepared for display. The Zero had been in multiple battles--parts of it were patched-up.
Beat-up Japanese Zero plane
I suppose I should explain how I found myself on this World War II tour...a colleague at the college brought it to my attention: "It's experiential learning. That's what you write about, right?" Indeed it is, and I signed up for the trip straight away, keeping my fingers crossed that enough people would sign up to make the trip go. The leader, Jerry, did a lot of work spreading the word to history classes and the college at large. One needn't be affiliated with the college in order to sign up. At last we ended up with a group of 14: four young ladies, three young men, a dad with two college-age girls, an older fellow from the community, Jerry and his wife, and me. Most had never met, but by the end of the tour the group had come to know one another pretty well. It was a good group. We were blessed.

Back in the IWM, I was pleased to see displays on the British homefront. Unlike the US homefront, the British homefront was also at times the frontline. Nevertheless, housewives were encouraged to "Make-do and Mend" and to serve potatoes instead of bread.

This was just the tip of the IWM iceberg, but we had to move on to our next stop, Churchill's War Rooms. Our tour director, Christoph from Paris, led us through the streets of London, onto a bus, off the bus, and between two large, official buildings to the entrance. Just as we were to go in, a bus full of Beefeater musicians pulled up and the guys walked past us. We never saw the performance, but when we came out of the War Rooms, they were loading up their bus again.

I wish I could have heard them perform!
I was especially looking forward to Churchill's War Rooms underneath that big official building. This is where Churchill and his cabinet and staff worked during the air raids on London. Even his wife Clementine had a room here.

The Cabinet Room, just as it was left in 1945. Except for the blotters: those were replaced every day just in case there were any incriminating impressions left from cabinet members writing notes.
Clementine Churchill's underground bedroom
We would see more of London by walking tour and bus tour. We were warned months before we left that we should expect six to ten miles of walking each day. Really? That seems like a lot. But we did walk that much except for one day which I'll tell you about next time. In London we walked around St. Paul's Cathedral, Winchester Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, and many other photogenic spots. My favorite was St. Paul's Cathedral, not only because Princess Diana got married there and I woke up very early that day to watch it on TV in New Jersey, but because during the Battle of Britain in 1940 when so much of London was destroyed and damaged, the gorgeous dome rose above the smoke unaltered. There's a famous black and white photograph of this scene, but I'll close with my own shots here.

Three shots of St Paul's Cathedral
And yes, we did hear the famous bells of St. Paul's: