Friday, September 6, 2013

The Snows of Sword Beach

The Advance Begins

The chronicles of my late Normandy adventure continue today as we finally hit the beaches and begin wading ashore.  The first landing zone our caravan arrived at was Sword Beach, the eastern-most beach of the 1944 invasion.  Located at the mouth of the Orne River, this area of coastline became one of several corridors for the advance inland, including the approach to the all-important transportation hub at Caen.  Tasked to the British Second Army on D-Day, the dreary English Channel appeared almost blood-tinged for a short time upon our visit.  British Major K.P. Baxter reflected on his own arrival to the beach sixty-nine years earlier: "Closing to the shore rapidly, eyes scanned the clearing haze for familiar landmarks.  There were none.  Suddenly a burst ricocheted off the front of the craft, telling us that this was no covering fire.  The opposition was very much alive and well."  I gazed out upon the sea, which looked as ominous now as it did then.

While our group's journey to the coast was not as lethal, the trek was nevertheless anything but simple.  As was mentioned in an earlier post, we reached France from England amidst one of the worst snowfalls in recent European memory.  Over one foot of snow accumulated.  The French people were beside themselves.  Roadways quickly devolved into small mountains of mud-logged slush and thick sheets of ice.  Unable to reach Caen on schedule (much like Bernard Montgomery himself), we were forced to take refuge in shady port city of Le Havre, some twenty miles up the coast from Sword Beach.  For lack of anywhere else to stay, I found myself in a lackluster waterman's hotel room with a cracked window as the snow billowed through the covered streets outside.  Simultaneously, a near-disastrous clash with Filipino sailors who desired us to buy them liquor was averted.  We happily left the city the next morning as the sun tried to peek through the gray clouds.

During the war, Le Havre was one of the largest ports in Europe and one of the strongest points in Hitler's Atlantic Wall.  The city was bombed some 130 times by the Allies and later became a major hub for supplies and reinforcements.  The city was completely rebuilt after the war.  One G.I. I subsequently spoke to passed through Le Havre in 1944 and called it "a shit hole."  I was not one to argue with his blunt assessment.

Finally reaching Sword Beach, we discovered that high tide was rolling through and much of the coastline was currently submerged by the channel.  Determined to set foot on all five major beachheads, I ran down the seawall and stepped in the saturated sand within one of the five second intervals between frigid waves.  Smart?  No.  Exciting?  You bet.  Bill McQuade, our excellent tour guide pictured above, used the seawall as his platform to discuss the importance of this location.  The British hoped to use this site as a stepping stone toward moving on Ouistreham to the east in order to advance on Caen and the noteworthy Carpiquet airbase nearby--leapfrogging essentially.  Also moving out from this point were the commando units of Lord Lovat and Simon Fraser, who sought to seize the Orne River Bridge and surrounding canals.

With our backs to the Channel, we looked into the town of Lion-sur-Mer.  One can see the snow-filled streets still partially obstructed.  Houses such as these were converted into miniature fortresses by the German defenders, turning them into machine gun nests and artillery dens.  Nazi gunners had clear fields of fire as they aimed their pieces down the broad streets and alleyways of the coastal community.  The seaside dwellings had once been used as places for merrymaking for vacationing families.  Now, it was a war zone in the truest sense.  As the British prepared to move ashore here, Lieutenant H.M. Edwards of the Royal Engineers stood aboard a vessel, gazing at France.  "Casting his eyes over the long yellow strand from Ouistreham to Lion-sur-Mer he could see beach huts, cafés and little seaside houses.This pretty three-mile stretch of shoreline was Sword Beach, the eastern extremity of the invasion area."  Attempting to shake off any nervous apprehensions, he reflected, "Everyone appeared casual, almost unconcerned, in those last few minutes before going to our LCA."  All of that was about to change.  (Bastable, Tales from the Front Line - D-Day).

As a monument on site suggests, the landing was not an easy one.  On the outskirts of Ouistreham, the German fire reached its lethal potential upon French forces.  Further to the west, matters were not as harsh as French civilians emerged from their homes and cellars to greet the men of the 1st South Lancanshires--the first liberators these civilians had the pleasure of meeting.  The ensuing hours passed rapidly as tides rose and additional troops waded ashore--making the beach increasingly cluttered.  After regrouping, the commandos continued advancing on Benouville to link up with the 6th Airborne, which had dropped into the countryside the night before.  Piper Bill Millin helped lead the way, playing his bagpipes as "the local people clapped in appreciation."

Despite warm welcomes by some, Millin himself nevertheless noted Normandy as a shear "killing ground."  Churchill AVRE vehicles such as the one above were implemented after the disastrous raid on Dieppe in order to protect engineers as they were coming ashore.  Even so, scores of such vehicles were lost amidst the chaos of coming onto the beach.  One British soldier had been using a tank such as this for cover when it suddenly erupted into a ball of flame.  Realizing it was filled with ammunition, he hurriedly relocated.  He stated, "I moved to a position to be able to view the ground over and beyond the sandbank.  The area all around seemed to be covered by creeping barrages of small fire, raging and rolling over the ground, threatening to overwhelm us all."  I could only imagine such individuals and vehicles creeping their way up the bluffs and into these villages under withering fire.

Following our short visit to Sword Beach, we continued moving west as we headed to our next destination: the Canadian sector known as Juno Beach.  The region has very much reestablished its beachfront tourism atmosphere of the interwar era.  Snack and souvenir stands dotted the sandy landscape.  This commercial development of the area will be discussed in a future post.  In the meantime, I noticed this unique memorial dedicated to the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.  With them, correspondent Ross Munro of The Canadian Press reported that day:
"Bloody fighting raged all along the beaches. On the right, the Winnipegs had to battle their way past five major concrete casements and 15 machine gun positions set in the dunes commanding a long sweep of beach. From dune to dune, along the German trench systems, and through the tunnels, these Manitoba troops fought every yard of the way. They broke into the casements, ferretted out the gun crews with machine guns, grenades, bayonets and knives.  The Canadians ran into cross-fire. They were shelled and mortared even in the German positions, but they kept slugging away at the enemy. After a struggle that was . . . bitter and savage . . .the Winnipeg's broke through into the open country behind the beach."
 At our next stop, we discovered just how "bitter and savage" that onslaught was.  Stay tuned.

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