Forty four Fahrters set off from Linlithgow on 4 September to travel together to the Chateau du Molay near Caen in Normandy on our D Day Expidition. We are Fahrters who have travelled before to many gorgeous places in Europe for fun, frolics and fahrts. (If you don’t know – Fahrt = German for travel, journey.) It was organised by my dear friend Bruce Jamieson, retired history teacher from L’gow, and a few years ago he said ‘no more Fahrts’. I suspect the organisation of these trips takes it toll on a perfectionist. However, we had heard so much about these wonderful school trips that he did with his pupils that he agreed to do one more for the 70th anniversary of D Day.
We travelled overnight on the ferry from Hull to Zeebrugge in Belgium which brought hilarity in narrow bunks and much fun in the Moonlight Bar. Lunch was at the Somme estuary with ducks and the first of many baguettes with jambon and fromage. (Why can’t we get baguettes like that at home?) Our next stop was the Bayeux War Cemetery where we laid a wreath at the memorial and poppy crosses at the graves of three Linlithgow men. Fellow Fahrter John McIntosh had brought his Bose and hid behind the memorial cross and played the Last Post when we laid the wreath. As all the war graves we visited, this cemetery was beautifully kept, immaculate lawns and clean grave stones shining brightly in the hot sun. I have visited WW1 war graves at Tyne Cot and they never fail to move you deeply as the graves stretch out forever, each one telling a story of a life lost.
After getting lost in the hedgerows of the countryside we eventually rolled up to the Chateau du Molay in acres of beautiful countryside. The Chateau is used for school trips so the accommodation was a trifle basic and there were competitions on who would fit into which bunk bed. But we gathered in the bar, ordered local cider, and scoffed our dinner with wine galore. Who cares about a narrow bunk bed after that?
On Saturday we drove to Arramanches and visited the Diarama up on top of the hill where we saw incredible footage of the D Day landings. Staggering out into the sunlight looking down on Mulberry Harbour it seemed incredible to actually be standing there on a beautiful September day remembering the deeds of that awful time. A statue of Our Lady looks peacefully down on the beaches where storms brought danger to the thousands of men who risked their lives on that day. Into Arramanche for the museum and more films and lectures on the making of the Mulberry harbour, and then lunch and a wander along Gold Beach. There are still pieces of the harbour remaining, large jagged pieces of metal sticking out of the golden sands.
We then drove to La Cambe German Cemetery which had a very different feel to it. The grave markers are flat not upright in dark basalt lava, not white marble. Throughout the cemetery there were groups of dark crosses and a large central memorial where you could climb to the top and look down on the graves. The memorial sits atop a mound six meters high under which lie 207 unknown dead and 89 from a mass grave. No wreaths of poppies there, but wreaths of corn and pine cones, with a harvest feel about them. Originally this area had been for American and German soldiers but after 1945 the Americans were moved to St Laurent-sur-Mer and the fallen German soldiers from there to La Cambe. There are now 21,139 German soldiers laying to rest here.
Our days were to prove very moving and breathtaking at times. Yes, there were tears at times. At times you just had to wander off on your own and spend a moment with sorrow and memories. Would I be so brave? I think not. Just before I left I had read Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, a children’s book about two brothers in the war. If you don’t know it, I can recommend it and won’t spoil the story here but it kept coming back to me as I looked at all the graves and heard the stories about incredible heroism. Whether you are a pacifist or not, you can’t help but swallow the lump in your throat.
At night, however, we gathered in the bar to reflect on the sights and stories we’d heard and then to singalong to some war songs. The young staff in the Chateau gathered at the door of the lounge marvelling at these old wrinklies enjoying themselves and singing so loudly. Gracie Fields and Vera Lynn have nothing to fear from our singing. Some of us took part in an Allo Allo sketch which Bruce had written. I was Michelle from the Resistance (‘Leezen verry carefully, I shall zay zis only once.’) with a deep and husky voice as I’d picked up a chest infection on the day before we left. More tears, with laughter this time.
After breakfast on Sunday we headed off early back to Bayeux so that some of us could visit the Bayeux Tapestry which was incredible. Not a tapestry, of course, but embroidery. I’d seen the pictures of course, but nothing compares to actually seeing the needlework up close.
We then drove on to Omaha Beach (opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan) and visited the American Cemetery and Memorial which sits on the top of the cliffs. Nothing had prepared me for the sheer size of it. As you walk from the car park you look down on Omaha beach and then walk through the Garden of the Missing where a 22-foot statue ‘The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves’ looks west on headstones. White Lasa marble crosses and Stars of David stretched in straight rows for what seemed like miles (actually 172.5 acres). Among oak trees, topiary shrubs and beds of roses they shone in the sun. There are over 9,000 headstones among whom are 45 sets of brothers, and 1,557 missing in action. Half way down the beautiful manicured paths there is a Peace chapel where Jewish and Christian iconography sit side by side. I tried sitting down there to say a wee prayer but the clicking of cameras and loud exclamations made it difficult. (Yes, I took photos too but the beauty of the Tablet is that there is no click!) At the east end of the cemetery there are two statues of Italian Raveno granite representing the United States and France.
From there we went to the Overlord Museum at Colleville then to Pointe du Hoc.
After we stopped at Sainte-Mere-Eglise where the American paratrooper John Steel got stuck on the belltower and had to pretend to be dead, hanging there all day long, in case the Germans shot him down. At night he was able to climb into the belltower but the ringing of the bells all day had made him deaf. There is a dummy of him still hanging from the steeple! The church inside is old and shabby but it dedicated to Peace. There was some beautiful modern stained glass and I lit a rainbow candle there and said some prayers. It was Sunday, after all.
Back at the Chateau we had frogs legs and snails for dinner (deliciously like chicken and very garlicky) and then a French sing-song which provided much hilarity and even more young staff members coming to join in. There was much rolling of Rs and my fruity chest infection helped greatly with some of that.
Monday was my birthday and we packed up to move out of the Chateau as 100s of school kids were about to arrive. We drove to Pegasus Bridge and another museum. This one had lots of artefacts in cases, including an interesting one full of medical equipment. Pretty barbaric stuff. Some stayed for the film but I’d had enough and was in desperate need of a coffee so a few of us crossed the bridge to have a quick snack. There we were greeted by the grumpiest french woman I’ve ever met who practically threw the food at us, forbidding us to sit at most tables as they were set for lunch (at 10am!). No decaff (‘We only do proper coffee here.’) Then the bridge opened up to let a boat through and the rest of our party got stuck on the other side for about half an hour until the bridge opened again.
We eventually went on to Ranville Cemetery which was smaller but contained a lot of Black Watch and Argyll soldiers. We laid another wreath, played the last post, and found the last Linlithgow man. Rest Eternal grant unto them O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them. May they rest in peace and rise in glory. That was all I could think of saying when asked to lay the wreath. I found a headstone for an Army Chaplain age 30, Rev R A Cape MA, and I’m going to try and find his story.
From there we drove to Ouistreham and then Merville Battery where we visited the underground bunker to experience the sound and light show which recreated what happened there on the night of 5 June 1944. The sign said ‘this show is extremely realistic representation of combat and is not recommended for children under 8, persons of a nervous disposition or suffering from heart, or claustrophobia’. I risked it and it wasn’t that scary at all. Loud rumblings certainly and a wee puff of smoke and a lot of shouting but we survived.
Then on to Caen Peace Museum. This was the best museum we’d visited and was modern and enormous. We watched a movie of the D Day landings and then wandered through the museum. I had time to visit the other museum which focussed on the earlier war and it was really harrowing. I got lost in it because I was on my own and got a bit panicky because it was hot and dark and was so relieved to finally find my way out. At that point I knew I’d had enough of war and museums. Best framboise tart ever and coffee to recover.
We stayed overnight at the Kyriad Memorial Hotel in Caen and was thrilled to have a double bed and a shower which didn’t throw more water out of it than in. Dinner was served by the receptionist/barmaid/waitress and it was a bit Fawlty Towers but much wine was consumed for my birthday treat, as well as getting some lovely poppy pottery stuff from my friends. That night I took my swollen ankles to bed with a litre of Evian and woke up just fine.
Tuesday saw us head off back to Belgium stopping at a huge shopping mall where some stocked up on French wine and then back to Zeebrugge for our ferry home. We watched The Longest Day movie on the bus amid exclamations of ‘Oh that’s whatsisname that was in what was it called!’ There was a beautiful sunset which dragged us out of the Duty Free with our cameras. Much perfume was purchased with birthday money and Ruth is happy once more. The cabins were very hot and stuffy and I think I kept my German neighbours awake all night with my coughing which by now sounds like the worst case of consumption ever. I’m sure I will have passed it on to all 44 of my comrades and some small part of Europe.
Wednesday was a sad journey home, watching Saving Private Ryan on the bus. Looking back I must confess that I didn’t know very much about the D Day landings before I went but it was an incredible trip. The images spoke for themselves and I know will stay with me forever. Yes, it was sad and harrowing at times. Thankfully the crowd I was with were the sort who looked after one another in the sad times and cheered one another up at other times. My team lost in the D Day quiz on the bus back home but I think we had some of the funniest answers!