Wednesday, September 10, 2014

they have come back

1066.  William, Duke of Normandy, bastard Viking turned nobleman, gathered his retainers together to invade England.

The pope had blessed his efforts to claim the throne of England that Harold had recently acquired and had just defended against a Danish invading force.  Poor Harold was not so lucky -- losing his crown to William and getting an arrow through the eye in the bargain.  He was probably lucky.  For a king dying in battle was far preferable to being captured by the new winner of the game of thrones.

And England had a new royal line -- one that still warms the cushions in Britain’s royal establishments. 

Yesterday, we visited the site of another Norman invasion.  This one with the British returning the favor.  Along with Americans, free French, Belgians, Poles, and assorted other nationalities.  Just months over seventy years ago, the world’s largest invasion force sailed across the English channel and spilt plenty of allied and German blood.

It was an audacious plan.  To land where no military objectives were immediately at hand.  And landing in the face of strong defensive positions -- with a plan that required immediate success on the ground and some rather ambitious time tables.  Most of which would stall.

Ken is an avid military historian.  Normandy has long been high on his list of places to visit.  We did just that yesterday -- visiting the beaches assigned to the American forces.

I am not going to recount the history of the invasion.  You can read about it elsewhere in much more detail than I can offer.  We hired a guide steeped in the history of the invasion to be our personal Homer through what was undoubtedly an inferno when the young American soldiers attempted to cross their assigned beaches.

Of the four designated beaches covering over 60 miles, the Americans were assigned the two most-westerly.  Utah on the far west and Omaha to its east.

Utah proved to be a rather easy invasion.  The German ground troops fired a few shot and surrendered to President Teddy Roosevelt’s Army general son.

The beach offers very few natural defenses.  When we were there, it looked as Normandy beaches should look.  A grand place to have a holiday.

Things did not go so well on Omaha beach.  Numerous movies have covered the travails that the American troops met.  The forces were jumbled together by currents.  The German resistance was well-planned and fierce.  As a result, the beach was not under control as quickly as planned, and casualties were higher than anticipated.

This is the beach where the rangers scaled cliffs to take out the artillery and mortar emplacements that bombing had missed.  At a great cost to the rangers themselves.

Of course, it all turned out well for the allies in the end.  The forces joined up and marched on to defeat Germany.

We were very fortunate in having a German-born guide who is married to a French woman.  He offered a perspective that was as objective as any portrayal of partisan warfare could be.  I raised the fact that it was at Omaha beach that a large contingent of German soldiers, who had surrendered, were summarily shot by their American captors.  And, of course, atrocities happened at the hands of each national forces.  It was a terrible war.

We had to stop at Ste-Mere-Eglise for the ultimate tourist stop -- and one of the best plates of veal I have ever tasted.  The tourist portion of the trip is best evidenced by the historically inaccurate dummy handing by a parachute from the parish church’s roof.

The night before the invasion, paratroopers were dropped behind German lines.  Two Americans were caught in the dark by the church’s roof.  The Germans shot both of them.  One died.  The other faked death through the night and survived.  You probably remember Red Buttons in the role.

Thousands did not survive.  About 40% of them are buried in the American cemetery (the families of the remainder requested the return of the bodies to The States).

Like most military cemeteries, the number of crosses and Stars of David are overwhelming.  Ranks of orderly markers reflecting marching souls.  It is difficult to visit any place hallowed by the blood of heroes and not feel moved.  We can debate the wisdom of participating in any war (including both the first and second world wars) without diminishing in the least the service that the men (and four women), who are buried there, carried out.

I want to add one footnote.  A tale of French courage.

Bayeux contains an ancient church built just a decade after William the Conqueror added the title “king of England” to his résumé.  It is a beautiful building.

When the Americans dropped leaflets that the city would be bombed and that the civilians should evacuate, the Germans also left.  Realizing that his church was about to be reduced to rubble, as many Norman churches would be that week, the village priest bicycled to get word to the Americans that Bayeux was now a German-free zone.

It worked.  The church still stands.  Of course, it still bears the vandalism committed by the crazies of the French Revolution.  (Mexico is not the only country where the Catholic church has suffered at the hands of The Establishment.)  But, better that than being a bomb crater.

Seeing Ken engaged in lively discussions with our guide made the trip one of the highlights -- maybe the greatest highlight -- of this trip.  As for me, our visits to military sites are starting to gel some philosophical adjustments in my view of life.

But those observations can await another day.  This is a day to celebrate friendship between my comrades and to remember the service of others.

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