We started our morning in Dinan, had a fabulous breakfast, and drove to see Mont Saint Michel. As we got closer Adam made me close my eyes until we got closer. When he said I could look, I literally gasped. It is breathtaking. Here is a little history:
Le Mont Saint-Michel is an island commune in Normandy, France. It is located approximately one kilometre (0.6 miles) off the country’s northwestern coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River 100 hectares (247 acres) in size, the island has a population of 44 (2009).
The island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times, and since the 8th century AD has been the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name. The structural composition of the town exemplifies the feudal society that constructed it: on top, God, the abbey and monastery; below this, the great halls; then stores and housing; and at the bottom, outside the walls, fishermen’s and farmers’ housing.
Mont-Saint Michel has always been an island and if you leave your car there during high tide it will be washed away. There was a bridge constructed in the late 1800’s that kept the silt from passing through and around the island. In 2006 a project was begun to remove that bridge and move the silt so that it can return to being the island that it once was.
It is a bit touristy, but we had a great time just walking around and avoiding the swarms of tourists that came after us. We decided to have a local cider and just as we sat down it began to pour down. Thank heaven for good gear that keeps you dry.
We left there and started making our way to Normandy – a place I have always wanted to see. Along the way we stopped in Percy, a tiny little town that was having a celebration of sorts. We found out that it was an agricultural festival where you could buy a cow or a sheep, do a little dance in big tent, and buy from some local vendors. We decided to have lunch in the tent with the locals. I can only say it was like going to a rubber chicken dinner in a ballroom, but with Paella. Just as you get up to the food, they ran out of the chicken that went with the Paella for the masses, and we were treated to a big piece of city ham (the kind from a can that I am NOT a fan of) to go along with the mayonnaise, mayonnaise potatoes served with a little mayonnaise. It was a fun and interesting stop and that meal is unfortunately and somehow pleasantly burned into my memory.
We made our way to Normandy and our first stop was Sainte-Mère-Église. The town’s main claim to fame is that it played a significant part in the World War II Normandy landings because this village stood right in the middle of route N13, which the Germans would have most likely used on any significant counterattack on the troops landing on Utah and Omaha Beaches. In the early morning of 6 June 1944 mixed units of the U.S. 82nd Airborne and U.S. 101st Airborne Divisions occupied the town in Operation Boston, giving it the claim to be one of the first towns liberated in the invasion.
The early landings, at about 0140 directly on the town, resulted in heavy casualties for the paratroopers. Some buildings in town were on fire that night, and they illuminated the sky, making easy targets of the descending men. Some were sucked into the fire. Many hanging from trees and utility poles were shot before they could cut loose.
A well-known incident involved paratrooper John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), whose parachute caught on the spire of the town church, and could only observe the fighting going on below. He hung there limply for two hours, pretending to be dead, before the Germans took him prisoner. Steele later escaped from the Germans and rejoined his division when US troops of the 3rd Battalion, 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment attacked the village, capturing thirty Germans and killing another eleven. The incident was portrayed in the movie The Longest Day.
Later that morning, about 0500, a force led by Lt. Colonel Edward C. Krause of the 505th PIR took the town with little resistance. Apparently the German garrison was confused and had retired for the rest of the night. However, heavy German counterattacks began later in the day and into the next. The lightly armed troops held the town until reinforced by tanks from nearby Utah Beach in the afternoon of 7June.
We went to the Airborne Museum to hear the stories of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division, to see the planes and historic objects and to begin our emotional trip through Normandy. A parachute still hangs from the church where John Steele hung for 2 hours.
After we left there we still had sunlight and headed to Utah Beach. I grew up knowing a little about WWII. Of course we learned about it in middle school, but it wasn’t until Mr Lester, the sweet school custodian, came into our History classroom in the 9th grade and began to tell us about his part in the liberation of a concentration camp, that I understood how horrific this war was. He had photos and stories. He had never talked about it before, and our teacher had asked if he would talk to us. He got through about 20 minutes, and then broke down and had to stop. Those images in his photos will always be with me. I was 13 years old, from Danville VA and could not understand how anything like this could happen. Who could do this? It left me speechless and left me with emotions that I still can’t put into words now. Seeing the beaches of Utah, and Omaha and the cemetery at Omaha also left me feeling speechless. The Nazi war machine was incredible, in the very worst way. Hitler created “The Atlantic Wall” that stretched all the way from Norway, along the Belgium and French coastline to the Spanish border. The Atlantic Wall covered a distance of 1,670 miles and it formed the main part of Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’. The wall was built to repulse an Allied attack on Nazi-occupied Europe – wherever it was planned for. The building of the Wall started in 1942 and ended in 1944. The Wall used up over 17 million cubic metres of concrete and 1.2 million tons of steel. Some of the bunkers still remain and we saw a few of them.