Friday, November 15, 2013

"The Gods of War"

Coming ashore at Arromanches 

Look what washed ashore!  For the next installment of the Normandy adventure our caravan headed to the vital French resort town of Arromanches-les-Bains.  Here, the drenched and seasick combatants of Britain's Royal Hampshires and the 1st Dorsets stormed the area beginning around 7:30 a.m. on the morning of June 6, 1944.  In the days and weeks that followed, the seascape in front of the formerly sleepy tourist hub bustled with the activity of landing craft, victory ships, and assorted cargo vessels.  In short, the site became the aquatic version of Grand Central Station for the Allied advance into the heart of France.  This springboard constantly flowed like a military ant farm thanks to the construction of the hefty and ingenious artificial ports known as Mulberry Harbors.  In the photo above, I stand before one of the sections of that mobile harbor that has since lodged itself in the sands.

To efficiently connect land and sea, British engineers constructed floating highways known as "whale roads."  To make this daring feat reality, the laborers built massive pontoon bridges spanning from the concrete, artificial docks from harbor to shore.  Look closely out to the Channel's horizon and you can still see many of these concrete barriers standing vigilantly.  What we see above is one of several whale roadway entry points--as well as one of the Bailey pontoon bridge structures.  (Refer to the photo below to see these materials in action.)  Anti-aircraft guns point upward nearby, seemingly waiting for the return of the Luftwaffe.

Officially known as Mulberry Harbor B, the task to create it was underway hardly before the firing ceased.  In order to make this tedious process function well, Allied planners devised a number of methods to harness the rough waters around Arromanches.  Heavy duty breakwaters known as "Gooseberries" were scuttled to offer security from incoming tides.  Here, we see a British-operated Sherman tank driving inland via one of those whale roads built upon concrete foundations known as "Beetles" or "Spudheads."  (Photo courtesy of the BBC.)

At the beach's edge, I could not help but appreciate the irony in this parking lot scene.  Not only does it present us with the amusing correlation between past and present, but also the military battles between White Motor Company and Volkswagen vehicles.  A 1940s American half-track versus the great-grandson of the Nazi-driven KübelwagenWhich do you think would win a match?

Between snapping photos and buying up artifacts that had not seen the light of day since the 1940s, I took a brief respite at the Hotel De Normandie, an historic structure present at the time of the invasion.  In it's sauna-like terrace, my meal included real French Fries and a potent but delicious beverage entitled "La Cocktail de Normandie."  Why not?  Yet, the formidable Flak 88 German anti-aircraft gun across the street served as a stark reminder that previous visits to this seaside village were certainly not all vacations.

British Lieutenant Colonel Donald May of the Royal Engineers recalled a close encounter he had near this cafe on D-Day.  Going ashore to coordinate building efforts with fellow officers, he wrote:

"We were walking along the prom to where we thought the meeting was going to be, and we heard some foreign language being spoken.  [Brigadier] Waters said, 'That isn't French, it isn't English: I'll see who they are.'  He went to this cafe, which was on the side, and came out with three [German] fellows in front of him.  He had his pistol in his hand and they had their hands up, and he took them over to the seawall and they stood there....[H]e came and said, 'Donald, have you got any cartridges in your bloody gun?  Mine is empty." (Van Der Vat, D-Day, 130)

A somewhat unprepared, lucky man indeed.  He undoubtedly had other matters on his mind.

As I gazed out to the crumbling remains of the concrete docks, they seemed eerie sentinels of what had occurred there nearly seven decades earlier.  The appeared almost as miniature Fort Sumters, anticipating the next bombardment.  Swept up in the overpowering volume of the waves and seagulls, the scene was one not difficult to visualize.  

Our afternoon in Arrmomanches was one of the first big breaks in the weather our troupe enjoyed.  While still blustery and frigid, at least the snows had stopped and the sun emerged from the harsh clouds.  The boys and girls of '44 endured only slightly better conditions.  Come June 19 of that year, the most horrendous of Channel storms in nearly a half-century occurred.  The combination of spring tides, gale force winds, and a constant pattering of rain made their efforts less than enjoyable.  Thanks to the security provided by nearby rocks and reefs, the Arromanches infrastructure was able to withstand what the American harbor at Omaha Beach could not.  

Incoming troops from the Channel faced equal hardship.  One U.S. officer on an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) said the captain had the ship's hatches, deck plates, and winches tied down so tightly that the "ship was strung like a mountaineer's fiddle."  Dwight Eisenhower subsequently wrote to his chief meteorologist, Group Captain James Stagg: "I thank the gods of war we went when we did" (Beevor, D-Day, 216).

Regardless of the battered remnants they now are, these Mulberry harbors were massive and impressive undertakings that involved the efforts of thousands of engineers, soldiers, and sailors.  One can gain a true sense of the magnitude by viewing aerial photos of the docks in operation.  The undertaking was a round-the-clock feat, with each ship and float acting as one of countless cogs in a machine.  Some 200 tugboats pulled in the concrete barges to serve as foundations in the opening stages of the invasion.  Block ships, immense chains, barges, and floating roadways somehow connected it all, despite the horrid weather that June.  The mammoth effort speaks of the great urgency of the moment, and how humans are driven in times of dire desperation.  (U.S. Army photo.)

Arromanches was within the confines of Gold Beach, the British sector that was closest to the American area at Omaha.  As with other regions along the Normandy coast, pillboxes and fortifications still dot the lush landscape.  This pillbox hovers above the cliffs overlooking the harbor and one can still see the artificial docks in the far background.  From this point, the beaches ended and hedgerow country began.  As twenty-six year old Bill Cheall of the 6th Green Howards recalled, "The earth from the ditches formed a bank and on the tops of the banks, hedgerows had been planted.  It was ideal country for defensive positions to be set up, but disadvantageous to attackers" (Van Der Vat, D-Day, 130).  In that simple description, Cheall foretold of the bloody uphill struggle Allied forces faced over the next two months.

As one of my final excursions in Arromanches, I scaled the bluff overlooking the town and the many beautiful structures therein.  A French Sherman Tank named "Berry Au Bac" sits defiantly near another memorial.  Apparently, the French and English had fought here before--against each other in an 1811 naval battle during the Napoleonic Wars.  Only 133 years later, these most historic of enemies found themselves fighting for a common cause in a familiar place.  History can be funny like that.

In our next installment of the Normandy adventure, we at last reach the venerated sands of Omaha Beach.  Stay tuned.

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