Mike Strachan’s e-mail journal — Entry #2, from France
Received 22 April 2008
Hello fellow travellers and history lovers — here's a message from Caen, France.
Having picked up my rental car on Saturday afternoon, I spent Sunday going to Juno beach center (see image below), which is very good from an educational perspective, showing aspects of Canada before, during and after the war, and is well suited to the many school groups from both Canada and France which come here.
It was very emotional for me to see over 2000 graves of Canadian soldiers, many very young. However the cemetery is very well kept, as are all the Commonwealth war grave sites here as I was to discover.
Then I went to Bernieres-sur-Mer where the Queen's Own landed, my uncle among them, and the famous “first liberated house” (shown at the left) that we all see in the film of the soldiers leaving the landing craft is still there, and is now called “Maison Queen's Own Rifles”. However it sits amongst a bunch of modern buildings and there are beach cabanas right beside it. (The wartime photo below shows the house in the distance, with German POWs being marched away by Canadian soldiers.)
All the small towns around here are much the same — stone houses with stone walls, winding roads, usually a church and occasionally a manor house or chateau, all set amidst farmland. Perfect places for tank traps and gun emplacements, and in June and July of '44 the enemy troops would hide in the fields of grain. There are lots of tourists here now, especially on the weekends, from all over but mostly French and British. The difficult part for me in driving here is going in the wrong direction, but within a km or two a road sign tells me so. Gas is more expensive here 1.25 euros per litre or about two dollars Canadian. I chose a small car (Peugeot 107 with a stick shift) to economize.
Yesterday I went to Merville to see the large German artillery emplacements in bunkers. Interesting to see but the sound and light show was a bit tacky. Then I spent about an hour driving around in circles looking for the Pegasus Bridge Memorial where British and Canadian troops landed in Horsa gliders to capture the bridges over the Orne river and canal. It was an amazing piece of pilotage, and the first bridge was captured in a matter of minutes. A guided tour was very interesting and the man who gave it, Mark Worthington from the UK, is obviously very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He made the whole visit very memorable, and in chatting with him afterwards he said his wife Nathalie is the manager of the Juno Beach Centre. He also said the one of the pilots in the first glider to land is Staff Sargeant Wallwork, who is still alive at 87 and lives about 4 blocks from my daughter Roberta's house in Ladner. I'll be visiting him when I get back.
On the way to some more of the small towns on my list I discovered the Airborne cemetery at Ranville in which three Canadians are buried. The First Canadian Parachute Brigade was part of the Pegasus Bridge force.
My route through the small towns ended at Le Mesnil Patrie, the famous town where there was a big battle on June 11/44 between an attacking force of SS Panzers (tanks) and grenadiers, and the attacking First Hussars and the Queens Own Rifles (1H and QOR). The result was severe losses on both sides — the worst day, “Black Sunday'”, in the whole war for both the 1H and QOR. The professional German officer corps were led to believe that the Canadian army would not be difficult to deal with as it was an all-volunteer army. The local commanders certainly changed their minds on June 11/44. The well-known commander of the 25th SS Panzer Grenadiers, Kurt Meyer, said that the Canadians were the best tactical fighters he ever faced. Although Le Mesnil Patrie is a very small place there is a large memorial to “our liberators”, and lists the names of all the members of the 1H and QOR who died here (click on the small photo to see an enlarged version.)
The fields between Caen and the coast are filled with a plant about two-and-a half feet high topped with bright yellow flowers. My host at the hotel tells me it is called calzo and the seeds are used to produce oil for cooking and biofuels, similar to canola in Canada.
I drove past Carpiquet airport outside Caen on my way home to see if I could find the SS concrete bunker the QOR had to deal with, but the airport is now surrounded by farm fields and closed industrial estates, so no hope there. I also discovered another British cemetery at St. Manvieu — over 1500 graves, 79 Canadian, and over 300 “foreign German nationals”.
Things to be aware of here in France: The pay phones, like in Portsmouth, are vandalized and France Telecom has apparently decided not to fix them. One can use Skype from the internet cafés but when they are open people are asleep in Vancouver, and I don't see many people using it here so the quality might be poor. Secondly, almost everything here is closed on Mondays except the Invasion museums, of which there are 28, mostly along the coast. So one has to be very selective in choosing which ones to see if time is short.