The April Fools Club visited the Normandy beaches in order to obtain a better understanding of the D-Day landings, to visit various war cemeteries and to understand the strategic importance of Operation Overlord.
Air Power elements: Air transportation of troops and equipment, gliding, air support, military planning.
On Thursday 16th June, AFC club members travelled to the city of Caen in Normandy, via air and sea ahead of the trip commencing more formally on Friday 17th June.
Friday 17th June
Club members were led by Simon Footer, who scheduled our first visit to Pegasus Bridge, which was built in 1934 across the River Ornel and was the objective of British Airborne troops on the night of D-Day. Here, Simon gave an excellent summary of the course of events on the evening of the 5th/ morning of 6th June including the landing of 5 gliders in the pitch black within metres of the target landing zone. AFC members then visited the first building in occupied France to be liberated in France on D-Day and the daughter of the family who was in the house at the time, Madame Gondree, greeted us and showed us around the building which is now full of memorabilia and operates as a café.
We then travelled to Ranville Cemetery where many of the casualties from the 6th Airborne Division are buried along with over 2000 Commonwealth burials of WWII. It is here that Lieutenant Brotheridge is buried, the first man KIA on D-Day. We then visited Point de Hoc, the highest point during WWII between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach. Point du hoc was bombarded from the sea as well as the air, due to 155mm guns being present. During Op Overlord, the cliffs were scaled by the 2nd ranger battalion and a small number from 5th ranger battalion. Upon reaching the top and the ground forces taken out, it was discovered that the 155mm guns had been removed due to the aerial bombardment and telegraph poles, were left in its place.
A short coach ride from Point du hoc and we arrived at Omaha beach, the setting for the film Saving Private Ryan. Omaha Beach is the site of the hardest fought and most costly of all the D-Day landings but was vital in order to attack Cherbourg. It was very apparent to all, why this beach was so deadly, due to its long flat nature and the surrounding bluffs which were heavily fortified and very difficult to climb. Unfortunately, air power did not succeed to take out the strong German defences, hence why so many casualties were taken on the ground. Lunch was taken on the beach near the Omaha beach memorial.
Following lunch, we headed to the Colville Cemetery which is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France. It was established on the 8th June 1944 and contains the graves of over 9000 military dead. There are many notable soldiers buried here, including the son of Theodore Roosevelt, who was awarded the Medal of honour, along with two of the Niland Brothers, whom the story saving Private Ryan was based on.
Our final stop of the day was at Arromanche where we visited a 360 degree cinema, which depicted D-Day and the huge sacrifice made from all sides. Following the cinema we headed down to see the remains of the temporary harbour, Mulberry Harbour, which was put into place after being moved by boat over from England.
AFC members then headed into Caen in the evening in order to refresh and in some cases, to build international relations.
Saturday 18th June
AFC members were up early in order to visit the Merville battery, where the Allied Intelligence believed heavy calibre guns were being stored that could threaten the British landings at Sword Beach. After significant air bombardment the British had hoped the battery would be easy to take, unfortunately though, most ordnance missed its target and it was left to the 3 and 9 Para which were dropped over Normandy in order to take the battery. Commanded by lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, a force of 600 were due to mount an attack, however due to the disbursement of the Paras, only 150 were able to attack the battery, with no heavy weapons or equipment. A fierce and bloody battle ensued, and Otway was left with 75 men after capturing the battery. An awe inspiring display of courage, mental and physical agility by British forces was appreciated by all AFC members.
From Merville, we travelled to St Manvieu war cemetery, Cheux in order to visit the graves of fallen soldiers including the Grandfather of AFC member Andrew Simpson (Simmo) flowers were left on behalf of the club and Simmo’s family at his grave. The group then moved on to Bayeux, where many AFC members visited the Bayeux tapestry and then went on to an alfresco lunch.
After a stroll around the town we headed back to Caen in order to refresh.
On Sunday 19th June all members returned to the UK with a much better appreciation of the planning, execution, bravery and leadership carried out on D-Day and the days to come.
A huge thank you must go to Simon Footer, who not only has an encyclopaedic knowledge of each location, but for organising and hosting an amazing tour. I am sure all on the trip will join me in thanking Simon.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.