It is perhaps fitting that our first D-Day stop is at Ranville Cemetery, the final resting place of the first Allied soldier killed on D-Day. His name was Den Botheridge, and he was a member of the British 6th Airborne glider infantry, whose mission was to secure the two bridges linking Ranville to Bénouville, the major artery between Caen and the sea. (Map of the area.)
Just after midnight on June 6th, 1944 three Horsa gliders landed silently just yards from the Caen canal bridge, an astonishing feat of flying accuracy. Within minutes, men from the "Oxs and Bucks" Regiment under the command of Major John Howard swarmed over the bridge, surprising the sleeping Germans. When the shooting stopped, Lt. Botheridge was found lying near a café on the far side of the bridge, lethally wounded. The doctor who treated him reported that Botheridge was "lying on his back looking up at the stars and looking terribly surprised, just surprised." He died before the doctor could dress his wounds.
The cemetery at Ranville is deserted this November morning. My feet leave prints in the dew as I make my way along the long rows of graves. Most of the men buried here are British, many from the 6th Airborne, but there are a handful of Canadians and a few Germans as well. I read the headstones. Such British-sounding names: Algernon and Terrance; Ian and William.
There’s a sheltered portal at the main entrance to the cemetery with a brass vault containing a thick visitor’s book. I read the hometowns of the visitors: Stoke-on-Trent and Norwich; Doncaster and Cheltenham. I make an entry, "from Washington, D.C." Beside the date, November 27th, I write "Thanksgiving Day," by way of cross-cultural clarification.
Leaving the cemetery, we drive the short distance to the museum housing artifacts from the daring British airborne assault. The bridge across the Caen canal was renamed "Pegasus Bridge" in honor of Operation Pegasus, the codename used for the plan use glider to land early and seize the bridges. Numerous roads in the area also bear the name of D-Day heroes, while the village of Colleville-sur-Mer was renamed Colleville-Montgomery.
The 6th Airborne Museum (Mémorial Pégasus) on "Avenue du Major Howard" is relatively new, as is the bridge which is now used to cross the canal. The original bridge sits on the lawn outside the museum, the flags of the six armies, which fought in Normandy snapping in the breeze above it. There are plaques where each o the gliders landed, as well a series of markers for the Pegasus Trail, a walking tour of sites associated with the 6th Airborne.
The new bridge over the Caen canal
After Howard’s men captured the bridge shortly after midnight, they had been instructed to "hold until relieved." Other gliders and parachutists were landing, but they had separate objectives, such as destroying the battery at Merville. Howard’s men were under heavy rifle, rocket, and mortar fire from the German garrison in Bénouville. It was almost two o’clock in the afternoon when the besieged men at the bridge heard the skirl of bagpipes in the distance. It was piper Bill Millen, coming down the road with Lord Lovat and his commandos. He was playing Blue Bonnets over the Border to make sure the men of the Oxs and Bucks didn’t mistake the approaching commandos for the enemy. The troops who had landed at Sword Beach were at last linking up with the airborne men holding the bridges.
Jack and Greg express impatience at the prospect of visiting the museum, so I content myself by looking at the original bridge and a few of the memorials nearby. We drive across the new bridge to Café Gondrée, the first building in France liberated by the Allies. The Gondrée family still operates the café, which serves as a sort of informal museum with memorabilia displayed on the walls. Unfortunately, it wasn’t yet open. I would have liked to meet descendents of Madam Gondrée, who passed key information about the bridge to the Resistance, or Georges Gondrée, who broke out his reserve of champagne on June 6th to serve it to the liberators.
However, I know the day will be short and we have barely begun our pilgrimage. Regrettably, there’s no time to linger at the café until it opens. We bundle back into the car and head for Sword Beach.
Approaching Ouistreham, we’re surprised at how tidy and prosperous the town looks. Although this is an historic area, commerce marches on: the valuable beachfront has sprouted countless holiday cottages and villas, while the fishing port of Ouistreham goes about its business.
I get out and walk a section of the Sword Beach, a broad, flat swath of burnt orange sand dotted with bathing huts. It’s hard to believe that this area was once fortified to within an inch of its life, with anti-tank ditches, ‘dragon’s teeth’, enormous concrete walls, tetrahedrons, tank traps, and mines. A bunker armed with cannon was placed every 100 meters along the 8-kilometer-long beach, though the main defense came from 75- and 155-mm guns positioned further away. It was a formidable section of ‘the Atlantic wall’ devised by Rommel to keep the Allies from advancing inland.
Here at 7:30 on June 6th, the first British troops arrived with specialized tanks, nicknamed "Hobart’s Funnies". Equipped with floatation devices, the Sherman and Churchill tanks swam ashore bearing an astonishing array of specialized equipment. There were tanks with mine-clearing flails mounted in front of them, tanks with ramps and bundles to go over or fill anti-tank ditches, bulldozer tanks to clear paths. There were even assault bridges mounted on tanks, enabling them to span gaps of up to 30 feet. "Hobart’s Funnies" were a triumph of ingenuity over seemingly insurmountable obstacles, clearing paths and allowing troops to get off the beach.
As we drive along the D514 coastal road toward Lagrune-sur-Mer, we see monument after monument, each commemorating a regiment or particular event. I begin to suffer from ‘monument overload,’ but we stop at Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to get a closer look at the remains of a bunker.
It is at this point that my 13-year-old son finally expresses enthusiasm about the day’s proceedings. Monuments he’s seen out the whazoo in Washington, but the chance to clamber over an enormous concrete bunker was something else again. To my eye, bunkers are squat, evil-looking things, but to his they are miniature fortresses. I think to myself, ‘Wait till he gets to the gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer. He’ll be in hog heaven.’
The morning fog has given way to a piercing blue sky with banks of purple-tinged clouds scudding swiftly inland from the sea. We’ve reached the Canadian sector, Juno Beach, where we make a stop at the Juno Beach Centre, just opened in June of 2003. The metal façade of the new complex gleams in the sunlight. Rows of pentagonal-shaped stele inscribed with the names of the Canadian combatants stand in front of the center.
Juno Beach Centre
We go in and approach the front desk, where a movie-star-handsome young man is conversing with a visitor in rapid French. When I address him, he switches to English spoken with an unmistakable American accent. Ah yes, the bilingual Canadians; so useful now, as they were sixty years ago. French villagers near Juno Beach were astonished to be hailed in their native tongue when the 3rd Infantry Division and 2nd Armoured Brigade came ashore.
The Canadian D-Day force consisted entirely of volunteers, anxious to avenge the terrible losses suffered two years earlier at Dieppe, where 3379 Canadians were lost out of force of 5000. The soldiers who came ashore at Juno Beach were magnificently trained: former lumberjacks, farmers, fishermen, and other tough outdoorsmen spoiling for a fight. Germany’s 716th Division was no match for them.
Outside the Juno Beach Centre once again, the weather has dramatically changed. The sky over the channel is dark with an approaching storm, but still the areas inland are bathed in sunlight. I walk toward the beach, drawn to the sight of the angry purple sky over the slate blue sea. An enormous double-barred Lorraine cross, symbol of the French resistance, holds a lonely vigil on the edge of the beach. The approaching storm makes it easier to imagine what took place here sixty years ago. As I stand gazing out to sea, a rainbow forms at the edge of the dark bank of incoming clouds.
By sunset on D-Day, the Canadians had progressed further into France than any other force, facing opposition stronger than any save at Omaha Beach. The men who’d waded ashore that morning, spoiling for a fight, had found one.