My 84 year old French friend and neighbour Henri discussed the possibility of travelling together to stay at his small apartment in Villers-sur-Mer in Normandy close to the D Day landing beaches. It seemed an opportune time to take my Grandfather’s war medals with me (he was killed during service with the BEF in 1914). Henri suggested we might be present at the 11th November remembrance day parade and service to be held at Ranville Military Cemetery, near the site of the epic capture of Pegasus Bridge by members of the 6th Parachute Brigade and thereafter spending a few days touring the landing beaches. After the securing of Pegasus Bridge, the German garrison at Ranville itself was attacked on 6th June 1940 by soldiers of the 13th Lancashire parachute battalion and the Germans capitulated at 2.30 am on 7th June. As such it became the first French village in Metropolitan France to be liberated.
In the event Henri was taken ill and was unable to travel and rather than give up the opportunity of free accommodation for a week, I contacted an old friend of both Ron Anders (29th) and mine whom I first met 51 years ago when I used to spend leave at Ron’s home in Lancashire. Bill readily agreed to come and he decided to fly to Tours in the Loire Valley before travelling by train to Caen, arriving on 10th November. I would meanwhile drive from my home in SW France to Caen and pick him up at his hotel on Remembrance Sunday. Ably assisted by my Sat Nav, all went to plan and Bill and I met in Caen at 9am on 11th November. We travelled immediately by road to Ranville, arriving there at 9.30 am meeting up with an American couple Nick and Holly Harkins from California who live for several months each year in the apartment opposite. We quickly became good friends they and later turned out to be not only excellent hosts but very competent landing beach tour guides. Already gathered were veterans of the 6th Airborne Division most of whom are now well into their 80s. Immaculately turned out wearing the green, mustard or red berets of their respective regiments, it was fantastic to talk to these men, chests full of medals and to hear some of their stories. One veteran was part of what he described as a pathfinder platoon, which laid flares to guide in not only gliders but also assaults by allied bombers and fighters. He told me that during the attack on the German garrison at Ranville, bombs were landing so close the dirt thrown up by the explosions rained down on them in their slit trenches. Another told me that he was now 86 and that his late wife who had recently died aged 94 used to call him her toyboy!
Gathered too was the local French band dressed in white trousers blue blazers and Noel Coward peaked caps. Its members ranged from a young lad and lass of about 12, to teenagers and players in their 60s. The band was mainly made up of buglers, trumpeters and drummers somewhat reminiscent of the RAF Apprentice band I once belonged to at RAF Hereford. The parade itself consisted of both French and British veterans led by their respective standard bearers. They marched proudly, standards flying to the Ranville church cemetery where a roll call of the French dead of both world wars was read by the town mayor before wreaths were laid by representatives of both countries. The short ceremony ended with the playing of both national anthems. The parade reassembled outside the church and then marched the short distance to Ranville Military Cemetery where the remains of British 2,186 servicemen are buried.
The service there was led by a Scottish veteran of the Parachute Regiment who despite the blustery cold was complete with kilt and cassock. Standing next to him at the memorial itself was a French trumpeter from the band and on a low table there was a music centre through which both the Padres voice and music could be relayed to the 250 strong French and British congregation. The padre spoke excellent French and it later turned out he had been living in Normandy for many years. The service sheet however, was in both English and French and all of it was relayed by the Padre in both languages. The remembrance service was conducted with great dignity with hymns and prayers commemorating the war dead, before the wreath laying ceremony took place just before 11am. The trumpeter then played the last post when standards were dipped and the following silence was broken by the trumpeter playing reveille. The service ended with the playing of both the French and British national anthems. Altogether it was a moving experience and it was very apparent that there is still a strong bond of friendship between the people of the towns and villages surrounding the Normandy landing beaches. For example, shops still displaying signs saying, “Welcome To Our Liberators” and an enduring bond of affection for both the British and Americans is not something I have ever seen where I live!
In the second part of my account of my visit I will attempt to describe some of the other fascinating and interesting battle sites, museums and war memorials that
abound along this coastline.