Thursday, 30 July 2015

2015 Canadian Battlefields tour post-script: Paris interlude

Following three nights in Caen, we left Normandy for Paris, our last stop on the trip. After a quick sightseeing tour and a farewell dinner, the formal tour came to an end and I said goodbye to a wonderful group.

I decided to stick around for a few extra days, rent a car, and head back north on my own to go over some of the First War battlefields in greater depth. Before picking up my car I spent a couple of hours at Notre Dame. This is my favourite spot in Paris and I've been there a number of times. This was my first trip up the towers to see the cathedral from another perspective.
It was about 400 steps to the top of the bell tower. On the way, I passed these guys, who have arguably the best view of the city. More amazing was the young couple who went up with two young children plus the baby which dad took up on his back. Did I mention it was 400 steps to the top? Up a narrow, twisty, and crowded stairway? I thought they were nuts, and certainly more ambitious than I. Turned out they were also from Winnipeg!

And finally, this photo just to show that the French do, in fact, have a sense of humour.

Next up, Ypres and the Last Hundred Days from the backroads where we can't take a motor coach... Stay tuned.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

2015 Canadian Battlefields Tour summary: Normandy

From Dieppe we took the road for the Normandy battlefields. Our first stop, on the way in to Caen, was the Abbaye Ardenne. This medieval abbey was the headquarters of Kurt Meyer's 25th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 12th SS Hitler Youth Division. On the night of 7-8 June 1944, troops under Meyer's command interrogated and then murdered 18 Canadian prisoners of war in the abbey garden. Two more were murdered in similar fashion later in the month. This was just one site among a number in Normandy where similar war crimes were committed by the SS.

The following day, we hit the D-Day beaches. We began at Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery. Most of the burials are for the casualties of the fighting in the early stages of the Battle of Normandy.

This group shot was taken right outside the cemetery.

Next stop was Juno Beach, and the town of Bernieres-sur-Mer. The Queen's Own Rifles assaulted this beach, assisted by tanks from the Fort Garry Horse. The large house on the beach is visible in many period photos taken during the assault.

After Bernieres, we headed for the Juno Beach Centre, in Courseulles-sur-Mer. Courseulles was taken by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and the Regina Rifles. It was the toughest of the Canadian targets on D-Day owing to the number of German strongpoints on this sector of the beach. This photo shows a 25-pounder, the primary field gun in the British and Canadian armies.

This bunker at Courseulles was taken by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.

 The plaque reads: "'Cosy's Bunker.' This bunker was stormed and taken by Lt. W.F. (Cosy) Aitken and 10 Platoon of 'B' Company, The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, on 6 June 1944. 'B' Company suffered 78% casualties assaulting 'Mike Green' Beach."

Churchill tank on Juno Beach at Courseulles.
Remains of the Mulberry harbour are visible in the English Channel at Arromanches on Gold Beach. The Dieppe raid taught the Allies how difficult it would be to capture a defended port, and port facilities were crucial to the logistical build-up that would accompany the invasion. So, the Allies simply towed their own pre-fab harbours across the Channel and assembled them off the beaches! The American harbour off Omaha Beach succumbed to the great storm that hit the area beginning on 17 June, but remnants of the British harbour survive to this day.

Our last stop of the day was at the American cemetery at Omaha Beach. The mood and the message is quite different here than it is at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. For me, the large monuments and ringing bells suggest almost a Disneyfication of remembrance. "Our" cemeteries seem (to me) much more reserved, thoughtful, and touching.

Omaha Beach. German bunker visible at centre.

The next day we explored the battlefields south of Caen in the rain, so the next few photos are from the 2014 tour, which was graced with better weather! This is the Canadian memorial at Point 67, taken by the Calgary Highlanders during Operation Atlantic. This position overlooks the towns of St-Andre-sur-Orne and St-Martin-de-Fontenay, with Verrieres Ridge in the distance.

A better look at Verrieres Ridge and St-Martin, from where the Black Watch made their disastrous assault on the ridge during Operation Spring, 25 July 1944. The ridge was not taken until 7-8 August, during Operation Totalize.
Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery is the resting place of those casualties who fell during the latter stages of the Battle of Normandy.

We stopped in Falaise for a very rainy lunch break. Last year it was much sunnier!

Here is William the Conqueror's statue and his castle, with the hotel de ville in between.

After lunch we looked at the closing of the Falaise gap. This field of poppies overlooks the gap near St-Lambert-sur-Dives.

Major David Currie of the South Alberta Regiment won the Victoria Cross at St-Lambert-sur-Dives, for holding the town amidst determined counterattacks from German troops trying to escape the Falaise pocket.

This is the Polish memorial at Mont Ormel, which overlooks the Germans' escape route out of the the pocket.

This Tiger tank outside Vimoutiers broke down and was abandoned by its crew during the final stages of the battle to close the Falaise gap.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Canadian Battlefields 2015 tour summary: Dieppe

The Canadian cemetery at Dieppe is south of the city, so it makes sense to stop there on the way to the beach if one approaches from the Amiens area as we did. This year we got a surprise. The headstones were in the process of being replaced, so things looked somewhat dishevelled. The headstones here are interesting for another reason: the dead were buried by the Germans, in German fashion, head-to-head, producing these double-rows of headstones.
After our stop at the cemetery, we headed for the lookout over the main beach, which is just beside the chateau on top of the west headland. Looking eastwards, this is the beach that was assaulted on 19 August 1942 by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (nearest the headland) and the Essex Scottish (nearest the harbour jetty which can be seen at centre-left). Furthest penetration was about to the right-hand edge of the grassy boulevard that parallels the beach. The metal dome in the right foreground is part of a German observation post.
This is the Canadian memorial park at the foot of the west headland, with the chateau clearly visible.

Here are a couple more views of the west headland, looking west from the beach. This photo gives some impression of the steep rise of the beach -- from this point, one cannot see over the rise to observe the town itself. The chert (fist-sized stones covering the beach) constituted a significant obstacle to Allied tanks during the Dieppe raid.

Again, looking west along the beach.

Part of our group assembled for a closer look at the beach before setting out for a rather long walk to Blue Beach at Puys.
Along the beach are located memorials to the RHLI...
...and the Essex Scottish.
We walked along the beach to the harbour, which we had to cross to find the way to Puys. From the harbour we got a good look at the eastern headland. The Germans had guns in the caves at the foot of the headland and concrete casemates on top, from which they were able to pour devastating fire onto the beach.
Between Dieppe and Puys you can still see the remains of a German anti-aircraft battery on top of the east headland. There were a number of casemated positions along the headland between Dieppe and Puys; three remain visible -- two on the clifftop from the AA battery, and another which has fallen onto the beach. On my first visit in 1996 I was able to inspect the position, but it is now fenced off for safety reasons.
Because you're not supposed to climb up to the casemates, of course I did just that.
When you get a look from the edge, you can plainly see why you're not supposed to go up here. This casemate is right on the edge of the cliff, and erosion is gradually reducing its support.

This is the third casemate, seen from the beach between Dieppe and Puys. It is even more obvious from here why the other two are now fenced off!

This is the beach at Puys where the Royal Regiment of Canada landed on 19 August 1942. Their objective was to climb the cliff west of the sea wall (to the right of the photograph) and take out the German battery on Dieppe's east headland. Most of the men were pinned down on this stretch of beach, seeking shelter from German fire directed from the cliff shown in the distance, on the eastern end of the sea wall. A few men made it to the top before surrendering.

The Canadian memorial was constructed on the remains of a German bunker which had been built after the raid. The pathway ascending the cliff leads to a house with an adjoining bunker (not visible in this photo) that was in action during Operation Jubilee.

The post-Jubilee bunker is visible at top-left.
The memorial reads: "On this beach officers and men of the Royal Regiment of Canada died at dawn, 19 August 1942, striving to reach the heights beyond. You who are alive, on this beach, remember that these men died far from home, that others, here and everywhere, might freely enjoy life in God's Mercy."

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Canadian Battlefields 2015 tour summary: the Somme

Our exploration of the Somme battlefields began at Beaumont-Hamel, well-known as the site of the destruction of the Newfoundland Regiment on the first day of the battle. 1 July 1916 was the costliest single day in all of British military history. Roughly 20,000 men were killed out of an approximate total of 60,000 casualties from the various British and empire units. The Newfoundland Regiment, part of 29th British Division, lost 324 killed and another 386 wounded here, leaving just 68 men to answer roll call the next day. After the war the Newfoundland government purchased the site, along with four other battle sites in France and Belgium, to commemorate the colony's contribution to the Allied cause. These sites are now marked by the caribou memorial. Newfoundland, of course, did not join Canada until 1949, and July 1 is still observed there as Memorial Day.

The 29th Division's front line trench at Beaumont Hamel. The Newfoundlanders had been forced to advance overland from their support position in the second line (the St. John's Road trench, as it was called). Few of the men made it beyond this point.

The ground in the Somme region features rolling hills, unlike the predominantly flat terrain around Ypres. The Newfoundland memorial park at Beaumont-Hamel features one of the largest and best-preserved sections of the battlefield remaining to us, so it is a little easier to envision the course of the battle here than at most other sites.

German lines at Beaumont-Hamel incorporated a formidable obstacle called the Y-Ravine, a feature which lent its name to this cemetery on the grounds of the park where many of the fallen Newfoundlanders were buried.

In November 1916, the 51st (Highland) Division finally captured the German trenches which were the initial target on the first day of the battle. The division is commemorated at the back of the park.

Hunter's Cemetery is one of the more unique Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in Europe, and one of a relatively small number of mass graves.

From Beaumont-Hamel we moved on to visit the Thiepval memorial to the missing of the Somme. Similar to the Menin Gate in  Ypres, the Thiepval memorial lists the names of 72,000 British Empire troops who fell in the Somme battles and who have no known grave.

The cemetery beside the memorial contains graves from both the British and French armies, thus honoring the wartime alliance.

We stopped for lunch in Albert, a key town held by the Allies throughout most of the war. The church was a notable landmark for British troops moving to the front, particularly because of the damaged statue of the Virgin Mary. The church had been damaged by shelling in 1915 and the Virgin leaned parallel to the ground. Soldiers being somewhat superstitious, it was said that the war would end when the Virgin fell. It finally did fall in April 1918 (a consequence of British shelling after the Germans took the town during their spring offensive), but the war of course carried on until November. The church and the sculpture were rebuilt according the original plans after the war.

Our next stop was the Historial de la Grande Guerre, a museum in Peronne. The Historial has a good collection of artifacts that helps to illustrate what we read in the history books. One of the reasons why the French army lost so many casualties in the war's opening months was the high command's belief in the power of the offensive spirit, morale, and esprit de corps to conquer the enemy. Colourful uniforms were a reflection of their pride, and of course they illustrate perfectly the argument that the generals were fighting a 20th century war with 19th century ideas. These uniforms would not have been out of place in Napoleon's day, when soldiers needed to be highly visible to their commanders on a battlefield shrouded with smoke. Such visibility was fatal on battlefields dominated by machine guns like the ones at left.

The French had actually ordered the less-conspicuous horizon blue uniforms, seen here, before the war broke out, but they had not arrived before the Battle of the Frontiers cost them 329,000 casualties in August and September 1914.

The Germans, of course, had their feldgrau, or field grey, uniforms. They seem to have learned earlier than the French (so did the British), having adopted this colour in 1907.


When we talk about the Somme, we usually mean 1916. But of course there was fighting over much of the same ground throughout the rest of the war, and particularly in 1918. After the 1916 battles ended in late autumn, the Germans stepped back to prepared positions at the Hindenburg Line. In the spring of 1918, however, they retook all of the territory they had given up and more. They advanced beyond the old 1916 front lines towards the key rail centre of Amiens before exhaustion compelled them to stop, and it was the Battle of Amiens in early August 1918 that inflicted a defeat on the Germans from which they could not recover.

The British attack at Amiens was led by the Canadians and the Australians, and here at le Quesnel we saw another of the standard granite Canadian memorials. The Canadian Corps advanced eight miles on the first day of the battle, 8 August 1918, the greatest single-day Allied advance to that point in the war.

The Australian contribution to the fighting on the Western Front is commemorated near Villers-Bretonneux, on their startline for the Battle of Amiens. This is their equivalent of our Vimy Ridge memorial, with the names of 11,000 Australians inscribed who fell in France and have no known graves.


The Villers-Bretonneux Australian memorial includes a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, seen here from the top of the memorial tower.

Villers-Bretonneux is largely an Australian cemetery but it is also the resting place for a number of Canadians. Probably the most notable is Victoria Cross winner Jean Brillant of the Royal 22nd Regiment.

Our hotel in Amiens was a very short walk from the magnificent cathedral, one of the largest in western Europe. During the summer months, the cathedral is the focus of a spectacular sound and light show which illuminates the statues on the fa├žade, revealing what the painted face of the cathedral may have looked like in the medieval period. Unfortunately, our tour passed through Amiens in mid-May, too early to see the show, which only begins in June.

I took these next two photos in July 2014 during last year's tour.