Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Villagers from Baron

The Bailleul chateau feast.

Raining parachutes St Mere Eglise

American parachutist incident recreation St Mere Eglise

Lang and Bill in French resistance outfits

Fireworks Port en Bessin 05 June

Lang film interview Point du Hoc

The team Bailleul chateau

Beach celebration Arromanches 6 June

We organised with the English MVT (Military Vehicle Trust) to stay at their campsite at Etreham during our week long stay in Normandy. This camp ground is in an ideal situation just out of Bayeux and close to all the coastal towns that were involved in the D day landings.

On the first night several of us began the week with a little culture and attended a symphony recital at Bayeux Cathederal featuring Mozart's Requiem, as well as music from Brahms and Haydn with a beautiful 53 strong choir.

Our second day was spent driving around the pretty harbour of Port en Bessin and other local areas, introducing Rhonda, Lang's sister, to a very different experience from her touring around France in her little Fiat Panda for the last nine months..

The whole coast line is dotted with camp sites of all different nationalities and their vehicles. There are around 3,000 military vehicles in the area for the D Day celebrations. Every five years they have an extra big celebration and this year will probably see the last time there are so many veterans still able to attend.

On Wednesday the MVT arranged for a convoy to go to the village of Baron-sur-Odon near Caen. The Mayor of the village welcomed us with a reception at the local "Marie" and from there we transported the people from the village to a tank memorial where a wreath laying ceremony was held. Lang had taken the canopy off the back of the Chev and when we went back to the vehicles after the reception we had a load full of locals already to go. We had brought four other Aussies with us from the camp so had to do a quick run around to make sure they could ride in another vehicle.

On Thursday we started out to visit some of the other camp sites but came to a halt a few kilometres from camp. The starter motor on the Chev had ceased to work. Lang managed, with Rhonda's help, to push the Chev up and over a hill and I was able to do a clutch start. We then drove to some camp sites to see if anyone was carrying or selling spares. Lang decided then to abandon us women and went off on his own to find a hill and attempt to rebuilt the starter, unfortunately to no avail.

After returning to camp some of the English vehicle owners had just returned from a swap meet and had seen a brand new starter at one of the stalls. Two of them took Lang in their Jeep and were able to locate the prize and following a quick fit we were back on the road.

Rhonda and I did not waste the day and headed into town to see the world famous Bayeux Tapesty which is a 70 m long tapesty a thousand years old and tells the story of the Norman invasion of 1066. It is in amazing condition and the colours and condition of the linen are remarkable.

Mobile again on Friday we drove to look at Pointe du Hoc where the American Rangers landed and were faced with high rugged cliffs. The surrounding area is still pock marked with huge bomb craters and has been left as a memorial to an incredible feat. We then went to Isigny sur Mer near where the French are camped and we had lunch with Herman Pfauter and his cousin Mark as this was our last chance to see them before we go our separate ways. We then went on to Ste Mere Eglise which is famous for the parachute drop on D Day and the parachutist who was trapped, when his chute was caught on the steeple of the church. There is a model of the soldier with his chute on top of the church which is in the town square. Here we were able to catch up once again with the Tomb's family who had two of their vehicles on display in the square albeit unofficially and were being hounded to move by a very patient but persistent gendarme.

On Friday night at 11pm - since it is still light until 10.30pm - there was a fireworks display at 25 different locations along the coast line. Most of us went down to Port en Bessin and because of the very high cliffs and a break-water that juts out from the town we had a great view of about 12 sites up and down the coast as well as in the small harbour of the spectacular coordinated show that ran for 20 minutes.

Saturday saw the D Day celebrations, and quite a number from the camp were on the beach for a small dawn service. The majority elected to leave camp at 10am and we assembled waiting for the tide to fall and were able to drive in a 200 vehicle convoy along the beach from Asnelles to Arromanches where later in the afternoon there was a big ceremony for the British Veterans that Prince Charles attended. Initially the British generally and the royal family had been snubbed by the French but with a lot of bureaucratic manipulating and high outrage in the British press there was an appropriate representation.

The atmosphere in the town and on the beach was amazing, it was almost impossible to walk through the town because of the crush of veterans, serving personel, locals, vehicle owners and bands marching. The British decided to go for a Guiness book of records to break the standing record of 49 WW2 bikes in the one place and did it easily with 145 bikes driving down on the beach.

Our Australian group left the beach and headed to the garden party we had been invited to at Anna and Franck Bailleul's Chateau near Villers Bocage. We also had organised on our way there to lay a wreath at the Typhoon Memorial at Noyers Bocage. This being the only recognised memorial in the Normandy area that has an Australian representation. About 2000 Australian airmen were part of the assault on D Day.

Our luck with the weather ran out but the rain did stop to allow our little ceremony to take place. We were a bit of a rag tag group as Anna and Frank's invitation had said dress was Allied, Resistance Chic, and most of us had already changed either in the back of trucks or the local bar's toilet area.

Down the road at the Chateau though the rain caused everything to have to be moved in doors. The tables had been laid for 100 people along the long front driveway and after they had been completely soaked during the afternoon everything was dried and when we arrived it had been rearranged and looking beautiful in two of the down stairs rooms. Even though it was a little crowded it certainly allowed people a better chance to mix.

A fabulous dinner was served, with nibbles to begin with then salads and cold meats including a pheasant terrine, with stuffed pheasants as decoration. This was followed by platters of cheese then beautiful little petit four desserts and coffee. It was a very generous offer of the Bailleuls to invite our group so we could all have a wonderful finale to not only a very significant day but also an incredible week. Anna also related the story of owner of the Chateau who was taken prisoner on D Day 65 year ago and the Germans took over the building and he was shot on the the same day.

A nice touch to our arrival even in the rain was the Bailleul boys dressed in military uniforms very formally directing all our vehicles to their allotted parking in the grounds of the Chateau.

On Sunday, our final day in Normandy, we went to St Mere Eglise to see the parachute drop reenacted by American, British, German and French paratroops. Again the weather was bad but after a delay of an hour we saw wave after wave of parachutists dropping with old fashioned round chutes from C130 aircraft. It was worth the long walk and getting drenched, along with the jostling with thousands of spectators. The wind was extremely strong and there were a number of soldiers injured upon landing.

Now Normandy has finished and we are on the last few days of our trip to northern France and the prospect of organising for the trip home.

For the last week we have had a two-man film crew with us on the trip. They were able to get some funding from the History channel so they hope to make a documentary of our trip combined with historic footage.