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WAR MEMORIES
This area of the site is in rememberance of all the service men and women from Ashburton who lost their lives in two world wars and to keep their memories alive through the stories of those that lived through them.

Introduction
War Memorial
Remembrance Sunday 2011
A quiet pilgrimage to Normandy
War Veterans

 


Sixty years On ( A quiet pilgrimage to Normandy )

By Henry Bradford (Sergeant Major, 5th Bn. The Devonshire Regt. Anti-Tank Regt.)

To enable me to return to Normandy for the first time since 1944, my Driver / Guide duly turned to at 4 a.m. on Thursday, 23rd September 2004, and we made our way to Poole to catch the fast ferry to Cherbourg. Regrettably, half a gale was blowing as we made our crossing, and to say it was bit lumpy is a major understatement (however, it was 'fast').
Pegasus Bridge - a moment of reflection

Pegasus Bridge (a moment of reflection)
Having disembarked, our first port of call was St. Mere Eglise, to see where the American 82nd Airborne division had landed on the night of the 6th June 1944. They have a model of a paratrooper, in full uniform, hanging by his parachute from the belfry of the church and a museum to record the events of that night. After an enlivening beer (regrettably very much needed, as I was still rocking on dry land after my Channel crossing), we set off to the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

The vast cemetery at Colleville overlooks Omaha Beach and (in addition to a huge monument to all the troops of the campaigns across Europe) it has an array of 9,387 white marble crosses, in perfect geometric patterns, stretching far into the distance. We walked to the viewing area, on the cliffs above the landing beach, and looked along the coast towards the cliffs at the Pointe du Hoc battery that the US Rangers had stormed. The cemetery was finalised in 1956, bringing in most of the American war dead from the surrounding areas, unlike the British and Commonwealth cemeteries, which tend to be sited where the field hospitals were placed. However, I was overwhelmed by the effort that had been given towards ensuring that everything was in perfect order and remained as fresh as the day it was consecrated; an immense task.

We then made our way, via the coast road, to Port en Bessin, which is now a delightful, working, fishing port and is the place where the first of the 'PLUTO' fuel supply pipes came ashore. After a leisurely lunch, we travelled the short distance to Bayeux to book into our hotel and, as neither of us had enjoyed much more than a fleeting sleep the night before, it was rapidly agreed that we would grab a short siesta, to avoid us falling asleep at the dinner table. After dinner, I retired to my room and slept my first night in Bayeux, just as I had done sixty years ago - though, in '44, it was certainly not as comfortable as it was this night.

Next morning, well slept and fully re-charged, we travelled the few hundred yards down the road to the Bayeux British and Commonwealth Memorial and graveyard. This is one of the largest of our fifteen cemeteries in Normandy, with over 4,000 allied graves, plus a further 1,800 names on the Memorial for those with no known grave.
Arromanches, in front of some of the remains of the Mulberry Harbour

Arromanches, in front of some of the remains of the Mulberry Harbour
After paying our respects to these brave young men, we made our way to Bayeux Cathedral and had a brief look round this ancient church (consecrated in 1069). Leaving here, it was time to go to my own landing beach, at Arromanches, and try and work out whether or not I would remember it. First of all, we arrived at the viewing platform on the cliffs above the town, so that I could get an idea of the layout of the town, and look down the coast towards Caen and the three allied beaches. Below us was the Mulberry Harbour outer ring of concrete floating docks (remarkably intact after so many years), then, on into the town, to visit the museum. Arromanches is quite a large seaside town now, though when I was last there, the Mulberry wasn't built yet, and there were only six 'standing' houses. With the assistance of some photos of the beach landings, we were able to identify where I had landed in June '44, and we drove up the road from the beach, just as I had - though it was a lot smoother and faster up that steep hill than it had been in a tracked vehicle with a limber and a gun on the back.

Gaining the top of the hill, we turned right to visit the nearly intact gun battery at Longues sur Mer, remarkable for the fact that the heavy guns are still in their emplacements. This battery had been taken, by The Devons, on the 7th June (although the famous cruiser, Ajax, had managed to dislodge rather a lot of concrete from the first emplacement, which had dampened the defenders' enthusiasm for the fight!).
Arromanches, looking across the beach

Arromanches. We landed here (before the Mulberry was built) and drove up the road to Bayeux, which joins the landing slipway in the distance. The Longues-sur-Mer batteryis on the cliffs in the distance (not visible in this picture).
After exploring the area, we returned to Bayeux, for dinner and then, a well-earned rest. However, the next day was going to be 'the big one' as far as I was concerned, as I was going to visit the site of the worst fighting my unit encountered and the greatest losses of my men that I was asked to face in the advance to Germany.

Our journey in the morning took us through the beautiful Normandy countryside, via the back roads to Ouistreham, and up the Orne Canal towards Benouville and Ranville. Stopping, just before we got to the Orne Canal and the new bridge, we visited the Café Gondrée (the first building liberated in France), had coffee there, and then walked across to the landing site of three of the six gliders to take Pegasus Bridge.
Standing in front of The Café Gondrée (the first building liberated on D Day), with the new 'Pegasus Bridge' to one side

Standing in front of The Café Gondrée (the first building liberated on D Day), with the new 'Pegasus Bridge' to one side. This is where the gliders landed.
The first glider, under the command of Major Howard, had landed only 50 yards from the bridge, just after midnight on the 6th June, on a tiny spit of land only about 30 yards wide. Two other gliders landed immediately behind (one partly in the water) and D Day had begun. The whole assault at Pegasus, was an incredible achievement and very easy to admire. We visited the excellent museum at the site, which has been recently enlarged, so that we were able to climb up on to a Horsa Glider, newly placed at the Museum. Then, on to Ranville, where the rest of the airborne troops had landed, by parachute and glider, and had performed such heroic acts that night.

However, now it was time for me to visit Hill 112, which I knew was going to be difficult, but it was where I had lost most of my unit and I owed them this visit of remembrance. The ridge is to the west of Caen, and is a long gentle slope, but which gives whoever holds it, an overview of all of the area for miles around.
The original 'Pegasus Bridge' in the Airborne Museum

The original 'Pegasus Bridge' in the Airborne Museum
Unfortunately for us, it was held in July '44, by three SS Panzer divisions, who weren't very keen to give it up. We drove to Eterville (on the eastern end of the ridge) then stopped for lunch in Verson. After lunch, we drove up to the Memorial at '112', only recently placed there, but recording the battle where we lost over 4,000 men. I couldn't recognise anything, which was a bit of an anti-climax, given that this was one of the most important reasons for being there, as far as I was concerned. I wandered about for a bit, and I sort of recognised some areas, but it wasn't my battlefield. Happily, at this point, my driver mentioned that, firstly, if I had seen the battlefield from here, I would have been German, and second, my unit had advanced from 'down there at Baron-sur-Odon', at the other end of a road, that had been a dirt track in '44.

We travelled down the road, all beautifully metalled now and no problem at all. At the bottom of this steep road was the Odon River, which we crossed and then climbed up the long slope on the opposite bank. My battery was sited on the edge of a steep slope, overlooking the ridge of 112, almost straight across to their guns at the top of the ridge on the other side (where the memorial is now).
At the Hill 112 Memorial

At the Hill 112 Memorial ('We tried to take this spot, but it was too heavily defended')
We stopped on the northern side and I knew I had found the approximate area that we had occupied sixty-odd years ago. Of course, it was very different now; trees had grown, houses and roads had been built, and the world has moved on, but I was where I had intended to visit and it all seemed worthwhile. We made our way to the cemetery at Mainvieu, where a large number of the casualties had been taken, because it had been the site of a front line hospital. I couldn't find the graves of any of my pals there, which is probably just as well given the emotional nature of the day, but it gave me a place for quiet reflection and remembrance, which was as I felt it should be.

Back to Bayeux, dinner, bed, and back to Ashburton the next day, after a quick tour of Cherbourg and a very flat, very fast, comfortable ferry crossing. So many things to reflect on, and all those years that had passed since I was last there, and then, these hours that shot past faster than I could take it all in. I wore my medals, discreetly, under a scarf, as I arrived.
looking at a piece of artillery at Arromanches

Arromanches. The piece of artillery we had was three times the size of this and towed by a 'Cromwell Tank' without a turret.
Whilst at Colleville cemetery, a Dutch man of about 65 came over to me, as the wind had moved the scarf, and thanked me for what we had done. The same thing happened several more times whilst we were visiting various places, different people of differing ages, acknowledging the medals and the sacrifices that many had made for their freedom and the liberty to wander round as we were doing on this trip. I stopped wearing the scarf, and I realised why it was so important to wear the medals with pride. It symbolised what all those we had left behind had died for - it wasn't for me (which, deep down, I had known anyway), it was for them. As we say on every Remembrance Sunday, 'We will remember them.'

View from the top of Hill 112

View from the top of Hill 112. Only 112 feet above sea level, nevertheless, a commanding view of the surrounding countryside in every direction. This was held by the Germans and only surrendered at the end of the Normandy Campaign. Although we lost so many men trying to win this, we never took it.
Reconstruction of a Horsa Glider

Reconstruction of a Horsa Glider. Made entirely from plywood and balsa, the only metal in the whole contraption is a bracket where the wings bolt on. It was in this that Major Howard landed to take Pegasus Bridge, shortly after midnight on the 6th June 1944. There was a larger one, which could carry a Jeep and a field-gun, which was also used in the assault.

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