AirTanker Services and RAF-embedded employees completed a battlefield tour of Normandy at the end of May:
The sky overhead was a perfect blue. Walkers strolled along a vast expanse of golden sand, while children trailed behind their parents as they collected shells, the picture-postcard scene betraying nothing of the drama that had unfolded there almost 70-years before.
This was Gold Beach, which with Utah, Sword and Juno, were chosen by the Allies for the Normandy Landings and the invasion of German-occupied Europe, which began in the early hours of 6 June 1944.
Our own journey had begun a day earlier. A mixed party of AirTanker Services, RAF embedded and PSCs leaving RAF Brize Norton late on Friday afternoon for Portsmouth to catch the overnight ferry to Ouistreham.
It was from here that we made our way to Café Gondree. A stone’s throw from Pegasus Bridge, it was the first building to have been liberated by the Allies following a daring assault by British airborne troops.
After croissants and coffee in the early morning sunshine, our guide, historian and author, Major Tim Saunders, explained how 180 men from Ox & Bucks Light Infantry had been loaded into Horsa gliders and towed across the Channel to land almost on top of their target on the Caen Canal.
Taking the German guards by surprise, the bridge was secured within 10 minutes, making ‘Operation Deadstick’ not only one of the first but one of the most successful, assaults by Allied forces in the Normandy campaign.
This success was not repeated at our next destination, Merville Battery. Here the grim realities of war were all too apparent. The attack, another airborne assault, this time by 9 PARA on the four strongly defended concrete casemates that made-up the German artillery position, ended in near disaster.
Scattered in their initial drop and facing determined German resistance, by the time the operation was completed only 50 of 550 men who began the fight were able to continue the march into Normandy, the remainder either, dead, wounded, missing in action or captured.
From here, we headed out along the Normandy Coast from Ouistreham to Arromanches, and to Gold beach, where thousands of men of the 50th Northumbrian Division made up the major British landing.
Here, British intelligence officers had used seaside postcards taken before the war to plan their campaign. Now, some 70 years-on in bright mid-May sunshine once more it appeared a postcard scene but with insight, the sands gradually gave up their stories of bravery and sacrifice.
Our guide took us through the German firepower, mine and shell-tipped wooden stakes, ramps and the maze of metal and wire, that had met the Northumbrians on their arrival, with an expert military eye.
This was brought to life with great poignancy on the beach itself. Strewn across an area the size of a tennis court were the remains of a British tank. Hit by German fire, it had exploded, taking the lives of all those on board, the only reminder remaining today, the fragments of steel and metal, that now rested on the sand among the sea shells and pebbles.
“Finding a bit of the tank gave me a kind of connection to what happened here”, says Simon Wheeler, Building Technician, Babcock. “You can go and see it in a museum, where it’s laid out for you but it’s somehow not as powerful as the experience of actually picking up a piece of history from the beach for yourself.
“You think about what happened to that tank and what happed to the people inside it – it’s a powerful thing.”
And with the help of Major Saunders, the beach also gave up other stories, including that of Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis. He became the only British soldier to win the Victoria Cross during the Normandy campaign, after ‘single handedly’ taking-out German defensive positions at Ver-sur-Mer.
Following lunch at Arromanches and in sight of the ‘rotting’ remains of the Mulberry Harbour (a concrete breakwater built in secret around the English coast and towed to the Normandy to support the landings) the AirTanker battlefield tour headed inland to ‘Point 54’. The tranquility of the lush Normandy countryside its buttercup filled meadows, woodlands and rolling hills, belying what had gone before.
Here the Dorsets had run into unexpected German fire power as they attempted to take high ground outside the town. Our own tour taking in the heavily camouflaged bunker complex that had alluded British reconnaissance and delivered the damage to the West Country soldiers.
If the serenity of the French countryside made the full horror of war at times difficult to comprehend, our next stop, the Arromaches 360 degree cinema drove it home. The powerful film showing how the fields and cliff tops outside, had teamed with humanity throughout June 1944, also portraying the cost of that activity to soldier and civilian.
The following day we started out in Caen, (many of our party somewhat ‘the worse for wear’ after sampling the city’s ‘cultural’ attractions the night before!).
Caen itself had been subjected to fierce fighting, so much so that the British Army had pressed the RAF for its bombardment to drive out German soldiers. This eventually took place on the evening of 8 July 1944, leveling large parts of the city at the cost of more than 1,200 French lives.
The ‘bogged down’ Allied campaign also ran into stiff German resistance at Hill 112, our next destination. Here the RAF took on an increasingly important role in support of tank Brigades and the infantry of the Wessex Division.
Out-gunned by German Tiger Tanks, the 5th Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry struggled to push onto the hill. Improved communication between the ground troops and the RAF led to improved tactical use of Typhoons to drive back the Tiger Tanks – a defining moment for the tactical use of the RAF in the Normandy campaign.
With the rain now tipping down, we headed for Taillerville. A few miles inland from the Juno Beach, where Canadian forces had landed, it became the site of one of the RAF’s first temporary airfields. In addition to forming the operational base for the Typhoon, it became a medevac centre, bringing injured soldiers back to the UK from the field in as little as 12 hours.
But the most poignant moment was our last. As the rain poured down, the white gravestone’s of just a few of the thousands of servicemen to have lost their lives in the campaign, continued to stand to a ‘perpetual attention’ – a generation cut down in their youth.
The ramifications of this sacrifice were not lost on those of us who now came to acknowledge their sacrifice and to pay our respects. This was done individually, in quiet compilation and collectively as AirTanker’s Finance Director, David Haydock and Squadron Leader Hester Yates, laid a wreath of poppies at the base of a cross of remembrance.
Helen Kayley, part of AirTanker Services Cabin Crew team, just one of those to have been struck by the emotion of the occasion.
“When you see the graves – so many of them – it has a big impact on you and I felt myself fighting back tears. Having heard the individual stories of some of those who fought here and the sacrifices that they made, made it all the more poignant.
“It’s been an incredibly interesting but also a really quite powerful experience – understanding what people did collectively but also what they sacrificed individually to achieve it.”
This was acknowledged formally by our battlefield guide, Major Saunders as he led a two-minute silence in remembrance of those who served and those who lost their lives in Normandy, WWII, conflicts present and past.
Citing the war memorial in Kohima his words cutting loud and clear through the rain: ‘For your tomorrow we gave our today’. They will remain with all of us who attended.