D-day

There was not much to see in the dark room. 



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Standing still with my back bent under the low ceiling all my senses picked up was the echo of water drops landing in puddles on the muddy floor. The heavy doors to the corridor were long gone. In the corridor algae had traced green vertical lines following the water leaking through from the soil cover above. The trenches once linking the bunker with machine gun and mortar positions further down the slope were long filled in leaving but faint indentations in the ground. In the steeper slope below two casemates cut into the ground meant for 75 mm artillery guns pointing out of large panorama “windows” towards the shore line. Inside one of the two swifts flies in and out at breakneck speeds, oblivious to the history of the concrete relic. A beak full of insects is dropped off at one of the spitball nests hanging below the low rusted ceiling.  


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WN62 (Widerstandsnest 62) was but a dot along the Atlantik Wall stretching from Northern Norway to the tip of Spain’s Atlantic Coast. In June 1944 it was manned with forty men and a strong point along Normandy’s coast. 


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RUN FOR LIFE

Off the coast Higgins landing crafts made by plywood filled up with seasick and fearful US soldiers ready to set foot on French soil. The boats churned slowly through choppy surf and dropped their gates. For the soldiers of the 5th Engineer Special Brigade and the 1st Infantry Battalion “The Big Red One” tasked to neutralize WN62 it must have been sheer horror as they jumped, fell and were pushed into the chest deep water trying to make their way towards the shore in a hail of bullets.


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In a foxhole behind one of the wars most lethal weapons, an MG42 machinegun, stood 20 year old Heinrich Severloh. He looked down on the beach filled with hedgehogs, concrete ramps, mines and barbed wire awaiting the invaders. As they came ashore he opened fire and claimed to singlehandedly have killed two thousand US soldiers. His account has been discredited as the total number of US casualties during the first day was around 2400 along the entire Normandy coastline. By 1530 he had fled and most of his comrades were dead. The Allied had taken WN62. Severloh and two others surrounded in Colleville-sur-Mer the day after. 


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Down on the beach a couple of kids play on concrete remnants, perhaps of ramps meant to flip and destroy approaching landing crafts. A dog run along, stop to sniff a dead fish in the waterline as a light breeze rustles grass in a soil erosion conservation area.  Overall it is a wide sandy beach below a bush covered slope and a blue sky. It is hard to comprehend that something so idyllic once was the stage for so much carnage. Four-hundred-eight men of the Big Red One, remembered on a tall stone obelisk, bore witness but did not live to tell.


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LOST STORIES

A few hundred meters further inland more than ten thousand of their comrades are remembered at the meticulously kept Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Across the cut grass row after row after row of white Crosses and here and there a Star of David all chiseled out of Lasa marble. The cost and senselessness of war is real and the numbers are names. There are fathers and sons, cousins and brothers including the Niland Brothers on whose story the Spielberg movie Saving Private Ryan is loosely based.  


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Further Westward along the coast a narrow road lead all the way down to the beach at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer.  Two monuments stand on the beachfront, one in stone on a concrete platform with an inscription “THE ALLIED FORCES LANDING ON THIS SHORE WHICH THEY CALLED OMAHA BEACH LIBERATED EUROPE JUNE 6th 1944”. The other more modern, Les Braves with jagged wings jut out of the sand. This is where dignitaries lay wreaths at anniversaries. 


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POINTE DU HOC 

One of the toughest tasks during D-day fell on the two hundred men of the 2nd Ranger Battalion who scaled the sheer vertical cliffs at Pointe du Hoc. Their task was to capture the strategically placed German heavy artillery gun position. They reached their target under fierce resistance but found no guns.  The Germans had already removed the six 155mm guns as the position had been bombed by the aerially superior Allied forces. 


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As the Rangers pushed on they found wheel tracks which lead them to the guns hidden in an apple orchard. The guns were rendered harmless with termite grenades before ever firing a single round. The heroism and story of the Rangers have made Pointe du Hoc a popular tourist attraction pockmarked with craters from air and sea bombardment. Kids run in and out of the deep holes and concrete shelters that make up the battery placement. In the Command and Control bunker a young boy in camo jacket and helmet carries a toy gun as he peaks between jeans legged tourists onto the Atlantic Ocean. In the unfinished heavy gun positions bomb shrapnel have carved the steel ceiling into razor sharp edges, a monument to the bravery of the Rangers stand by the cliff edge. 


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Even as the guns at Pointe du Hoc were never used during D-day artillery fire killed scores on the landing beaches, so where did the fire come from?  One answer was found sixty years after the war.  


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TREASURE CHEST 

A kilometer and a half inland, outside the coastal town of Grandcamp-Maisy (and seven kilometers from Pointe du Hoc), stand a collection of rusty armaments, a landing craft and two monuments.  In a hut sits the Brit Dan Sterne surrounded by a curios Labrador and shelves filled with WWII memorabilia. 


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Dan tells that it all began over a decade ago in the US. Dan’s dad Gary an avid collector and publisher of a WW II magazine had spotted a trunk at a memorabilia fair, he gave the seller an offer, and offer the seller refused. As the trunk had garnered little interest by other buyers the seller gave in and the trunk became Gary’s. Traveling light Gary enlisted the help of a Dutch collector who had a container to get the trunk back to Europe and it arrived at Gary’s who had almost forgotten about it three months later.


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Digging through the chest he found at the bottom the uniform of the owner, an aircraft navigator. The uniforms leg pocket contained maps of missions flown, one of them over the D-day beaches. On the map hashmarks indicated heavy enemy fire but the direction from where the fire came did not correspond to any known German gun positions. In 2006 sixty years after the war lots of information had been unclassified and Gary did dig through the US war archives in Washington. He noted a mention of a battery or batteries close to Maisy of which he had never heard before. The information came from the Rangers that had taken Pointe du Hoc. Off to France with his two sons they lurked around the countryside and found a large bush and tree covered patch in the well farmed country side. 


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Amongst the thorny bushes shovels were stuck in the ground here and there. So under a bush he spotted a hole in the ground and started to dig. Soon it became evident that it was a concrete structure of sorts covered by the bush. Keeping silent about the find he asked around and eventually managed to buy the patch of bushy unused land. They started to dig and unearthed the bunker only to find trenches and structures that would lead them beyond the land they owned. More acreage was purchased and to-date they have unearthed over three kilometers (2 miles) of original trenches four gun positions, command bunker, canteen, personnel bunkers, the foundation of a large radar station and is digging out the remnants of a small field hospital. It is still impossible to spot the extensive complex from the ground as it is well hidden amongst tall bushes and trees. The dig is a work in progress but as it is mostly done by hand in season it will take time. There are also future plans of a museum, a small movie theatre, etc. How and why it was covered up and forgotten for sixty years is still unknown. 


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Gary have found original records from 9 June 1944 where the Rangers detail the capture of 170 Germans, the equivalent of 42 million French Francs in cash from a safe on site as well as mentions of FLAK anti-aircraft gun emplacements.  Even today there are treasure chests to be found. 


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