A month or so ago Becca and I booked a cruise on P&O’s flagship, Brittania, a seven day round trip from Southampton, visiting the ports of Cherbourg, La Coruna, Bilbao and Guernsey.

During the port stops there were numerous excursions for sale and a couple stood out for me… a visit to a Rioja vineyard when we dock in Bilbao (at the time of writing that’s still to happen) and in Cherbourg a visit to Utah Beach, including a tour of an intact German bunker system at Azeville and a visit to the village of Sainte Mère Eglise.

The Azeville bunker system was thought to be originally 650m of tunnels.  350m have been found/opened up, of which approximately 300m are open to the public.  These were left derelict for around 30 years after they fell into Allied troops’ hands.  Handheld audio guides provided an insight to the conditions the German solders lived in and what would have been housed in the various rooms and alcoves, including a very interesting description of how two holes in a particular room where created by a shell which, although it never exploded, killed 15 men by the shockwave it created.  The guns placed here1 could fire shells almost 12k, easily reaching the beaches being invaded.

I’ll skip over Utah Beach for a minute and go onto our third stop at Sainte Mère Eglise.  The main story of this little village is that in the early hours of 6th June when paratroopers were being dropped across the Normandy countryside, one in particular – Paratrooper John Steele, got his parachute caught on the village’s church spire.  He stayed up there for a couple of hours playing dead so he wasn’t immediately shot which worked for a while as the Germans based there, as well as the villagers, where fighting a fire in a field across the road from the church.  They did realise he was alive eventually, but he survived the war and died in 1969.  As you can see from the photograph2they keep a mannequin hanging from the spire, although he was actually stuck on the opposite corner.  Inside the church there is a stained glass window remembering the various airborne divisions3which liberated the village and also one of the Virgin Mary with a couple of paratroopers alongside her4.

On the site of the burning field mentioned above there is now an airborne museum with a C37 aircraft5and a glider6 (which would have been towed by the C37) used to drop the paratroopers.  A total of 821 aircraft took to the skies that night to deliver the paratroopers into France.

There was a very strong sense in the village of the celebration of the liberation and a gratitude towards America, with cafes and bars having names associated with paratroopers and airborne divisions and a restaurant named after Paratrooper John Steele.  In the hotel de ville (the village’s town hall) they have the American flag handed over by the liberating troops on show.  Unfortunately, as it was Easter Sunday we weren’t able to see it, but it pre-dates the states of Alaska and Hawaii so only has 48 stars.  One final fact about this village was that scenes for the film ‘The Longest Day’ were shot here… our guide pointed out that this film is not a real representation of the facts of that day, however, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was a lot closer to the truth.

Between the two visits above we stopped for 30 minutes at Utah Beach.  The first thing I noticed as we got closer to the area were the amount of Tricolour and American flags being flown together (this was before getting to Sainte Mère Eglise and realising the connection between the French and America in the area).  At the beach, the café is named “The Roosevelt” after the President’s son who led the first wave of troops ashore at Utah beach (being the oldest invader at the age of 56) and died just over a month later from a heart attack.  He was buried in France at his request with the young soldiers who fought so bravely.

We were bombarded with facts and figures by our guide, but one thing that stood out for me was that at Utah beach the Americans lost 200 men, compared to 3,000 at Omaha beach along the coast.  This was because the fortifications and German troops weren’t as intense at Utah.

On show was a replica of one of the landing craft used and statues of soldiers running from it7.  By coincidence whilst taking a photograph of it there was some soldiers visiting and doing a selfie!

7 – Soldiers running from a landing craft

There were numerous monuments and plaques remembering different people and groups dotted around but I really just wanted to find a “Utah Beach” sign8 for that all important picture with the SHAEF flag.  I was starting to think that I’d be out of luck, but just around the corner by one of the few paths down to the actual beach, there it was.  As I laid out the flag I did get a few wondering looks from people, although no one asked what I was doing… which was a shame as I would have liked to spread the word of the SHAEF organisation.  I did find it a bit strange that nowhere other than on one keyring at the airborne museum was the SHAEF emblem shown, but I suppose it’s about remembering the soldiers/divisions that took part rather than those sitting in a hut in Bushy Park.

8 - This sign is just behind the dunes

It was a thoroughly interesting visit and felt more special with it being the 75thanniversary.

Ian Collier

(On D-Day, 6thJune, this year I’ll be taking part in a SVN’s D-Day Challenge (http://www.saxon-shore.com/D-Day/), which will actually start running up the beach at Birchington on Sea, near to where the bouncing bomb practice runs were made).