A JOURNEY OF REMEMBRANCE Pt3.

By Dave Hughes.Airframes.


If you've read the previous parts you will know the reasons for the journey I was about to make with my two grandsons and you will also know that I had made what I thought to be appropriate preparations. As it turned out, much of the preparatory work might be considered as not having been necessary. Yet that is the chance we each take isn't it? Had I not been prepared, would fate have then decided to play tricks on me, endeavour to create a puncture, for example, have me caught in a French police radar trap? That aspect is all now confined to history, which, as you all realise, is what this story is all about!

We met up at our overnight hotel in Portsmouth, a hiccup greeting me when I tried to check in. Because I knew in advance that J . . . and D . . ., my grandsons, would arrive before me, I had earlier allowed J . . . to download the hotel booking onto his phone, thus allowing the boys the facility to get settled. When I arrived, a glitch in the hotel booking system suggested that my room had already been taken (because the boys had already booked in). Eyebrows were immediately raised in my direction but preparatory work ensured I/we had documentation to cover all such eventualities and after a few words of advice with the back office, all was cleared and we retired to my room. Later we went down to the quays and enjoyed a meal together.

After a quiet night we were up early in order to be at the ferry, the Normandie, at 7.30am for loading. We arrived at the check-in area and almost immediately, customs decided they would like to look into the boot of my car. I had no problems with that, none of us were carrying anything out of the ordinary. Customs chose one of their bags and asked if I'd packed it, what was in it, etc. I naturally hadn't a clue so I summoned J . . . and he went with customs into the search room. He wasn't there long and they both came our smiling and chatting so all appeared to be well.

We boarded Normandie and went up to our pre-booked seats in the forward lounge, this giving superlative views ahead and, generally, to right and left. We watched the departure noting some of the new navy vessels, though not the new carrier, and were soon on our way out of the Solent and into the Channel. A meal later and a very calm crossing saw us arrive at Caen on time; we then headed along the coast for our first stop, approx. where my cousin had landed.

I'll probably say this more than once but isn't life strange sometimes. We drove along that coast line not knowing where we were heading until I eventually decided to make a right turn. It could have been any right turn, there being many. Yet it just happened to be the one that positioned us right in front of the Invasion Memorial (see photo) in Corseulles/Graye-sur-Mer. I almost couldn't believe it. It might not have been the precise spot my cousin landed in 1944 but it was certainly so very representative of it. What a start to the journey.

Our need to delay our arrival at our hotel then allowed us time to wander the lanes in the direction of Caen, this taking us down through Corseulles village. As we did for the remainder of our journey, we looked for reminders of the conflict but we also looked for older houses, churches, other buildings, anything that my cousin might have seen during his journey. We were helped by the Battalion Histories I had with me and as we travelled, comparing what was then alongside what is now, we were able to readily identify streets through which the 1944 photographer and, most likely, my cousin and his colleagues travelled. At times, there was so little change between the two it was almost uncanny.

The following day, our first full day in France, saw us visit the Caen Memorial, well worth a visit if you are ever in the area. Of interest to me, an aircraft fanatic, was Typhoon 1B JP656, hanging from the ceiling (sadly a replica apparently). I didn't notice any blurb which suggested why 656 in particular; many Typhoons would have been active in the local area I would imagine. But the presence of Sukhoi "45 Red", part of the Cold War exhibition, or of that part of the exhibition, left me feeling rather uninspired.

After a while, we began our journey in earnest to visit some of the places my cousin had been, first visiting the village of Epron just north of Caen, this featuring in the early but ongoing conflict that my cousin saw. We then headed just up the road to the cemetery at Cambes-en-Plaine. In this beautifully maintained Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery (CWGC for future reference), we noted 224 graves, 134 (60%) of these being ex-colleagues of my cousin from both the North and South Staffordshires, these units being very active in the area at this time. During subsequent visits to other cemeteries we would eventually come to realise the extent of the losses of these two Battalions causing us also to feel how lucky my cousin must have considered himself to be at this point.

We travelled on, looking particularly at the area to the north and west of Caen. We had beautiful weather, the harvest was in the process of being gathered in and these, along with the beautiful French countryside, left us with little imagination as to what might have been going on in 1944.

We then came to the village of Creully and decided to stop for a coffee and a walk around after all our driving. Having stopped, coincidentally outside a bakery, my lads wanted to buy some croissants, something they were to do regularly during our journey. It gave them a first opportunity to try to connect with local people though, in the end, most of that connection was through sign language rather than the spoken word, she, though young, not speaking English and my lads not speaking French.

We walked around the village and, coming back past the church, D . . . noticed impact marks on the stonework and asked what they were. Suddenly, we were back in 1944, there being little doubt in my mind. We talked a bit about that, about the direction from which the firing came, level of damage, why impact marks were also high up the tower, etc. etc. and I think it brought home to them, if only in a small way, what the village people might have experienced.

That day we returned again to Corseulles-sur-Mer; I felt I wanted to take further note of where that earlier continental journey had begun.

The following day we headed south and west of Caen, again visiting cemeteries, monuments and locations I knew my cousin had visited. Not far from Caen we came to the cemetery at St Manvieux-Norrey, somewhat larger than Cambes, there being 1627 allied and 555 German graves including, unsurprisingly, quite a few from those Staffordshire regiments. This place is located in the middle of fields, down a farm track, and could easily be missed were it not for a large roadside monument. Here we also found half-a-dozen CWGC employees in the process of tending to gravestones, cleaning and re-engraving emblems and inscriptions, a remarkable illustration of the care that is still taken to both these and to WW1 graves. Another smaller cemetery was somewhere nearby but frustratingly we did not find it.

Just down the road is the town of Villers-Bocage and we used this location to enjoy a lunch break. There's nothing spectacular about Villers. However, I had access to one of the history's photos which shows the place in 1944, almost totally destroyed. Yet for all the destruction, looking at the town in 2017, it is so easy to recognize that in the interim, all that has happened is a rebuilding of what once existed, there apparently being so little change.

Villers didn't really excite or attract us in any way and having read about the battle for Mont Pincon, I felt I had to pay this large hill a visit. Reaching the summit via farm tracks, it was easy to see what a commanding position the enemy were in prior to it eventually being taken by the Hussars. "He who holds the high ground", (Foggy, Last of the Summer Wine and others) sprang to mind!

Our last visit on this day was to the villages of Goupillieres and Grimbosq. The areas surrounding these villages are heavily wooded. However, control of the River Orne crossing was considered essential back in 1944 and it was with this in mind that the 7th South Staffs fought a major battle at, or in the vicinity of, that river. Again, pictures taken at the time, when related to pictures taken today, literally look the same. There is a bridge, the La Bas Bridge, a five-arched construction over the river and it was this bridge that was heavily fought over for it controlled the crossing of the river. The 1944 picture shows the partly missing and damaged bridge alongside which has been built a 'bailey' type bridge. In the background above the bridge is a house, quite distinguishable, and that house still stands today. Both the 6th North Staffs and the 7th South Staffs were involved at this point, the major battle for control of the bridge beginning at 6pm on 7th August 1944. By the evening of the 8th August, i.e. 24 hours later, the 7th South Staffs Battalion had virtually ceased to exist through losses. Those that were left amalgamated for a very short time with the 6th North Staffs before it too was disbanded, again through the losses it had suffered. I quote, "The fighting here was described as being one of the fiercest actions in France during the month of August 1944".

Somehow, my cousin survived the encounters he must surely have met thus far and a short while later, along with about 80 or so other survivors from the decimated Staffs Battalions, he moved to the 7th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry.

In the next part we head for Belgium.