Each year, AirTanker and the Voyager Community embark on a number of Battlefield Tours. This year we visited Passchendaele, Dunkirk and Bastogne to retrace the steps of the many who fought for our freedom. In recognition of Armistice Day, we would like to share stories of the journeys we’ve been.
Guided by the very knowledgeable war historian and friend of the company, Major Tim Saunders MBE of Anglia Tours, we were transported back in time to gain an insight into the events of years ago.
Also known as the ‘Third Battle of Ypres’, Passchendaele has become a symbol of the worst and indeed the best of World War One, its name synonymous with sacrifice, futility and mud.
At this point of The Great War, both Germany and Britain were suffering at home. The war effort in Germany was crippling the country and civilians were literally starving to death. The Allied assault launched in the early hours of 31st July 1917, lasting three months, one week and three days before allies recaptured the village of Passchendaele. The ‘liquid mud’ ground in the village rendered tanks practically useless in battle, becoming stuck or even sinking, along with men and horses.
Travelling from RAF Brize Norton, we crossed over to France, arriving before the light faded at Abeele Aerodrome, wartime home of No. 10 Squadron (Royal Flying Corps) during the final stages of the battle. Early the next morning we visited Hill 60 where we learned of the work of Allied sappers and engineers in the battle for Messines Ridge. Harrowing accounts from those digging the tunnels and the aftermath of the explosives they planted deep beneath German positions were raw insights into the horror of this phase of the war. From there we ventured on to see the German trenches at Bayernwald which have been preserved and recreated to give a clear view of life in the trenches as well as the narrowness of the “no mans land” between the opposing front lines.
Later that day we visited the casualty dressing station and cemetery of Essex Farm where we discussed Surgeon John McCrae and his poem “In Flanders Fields”. We learnt about the treatment and evacuation of casualties and the organisation behind mass burials before visiting the grave of Valentine Strudwick who at a mere 15 years of age was one of the youngest men to die on the front line.
Continuing to Ypres, we were able to witness the moving ceremony of remembrance at the Menin Gate; a memorial to the 54,395 commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient but whose bodies were never found. Every night at 8.00pm the Ypres Volunteer Fire Brigade Buglers march under the gate and play the last post in respect. A wreath was laid here on behalf of our Voyager Community by Tony Carder, Director of Civil Business (AirTanker), who had relatives who fought in the campaign.
On the final day of our tour, we visited a mining engineer memorial and traced our steps to the start line of the Battle of Passchendaele. We learnt about the struggles that our allies faced – although it started well for them, the battle swiftly took a turn for the worse. With unexpected German resolve and the worst rain for thirty years, tanks and artillery became stuck and men and pack animals quickly became exhausted. Three further battles in August eventually gave the Allies the upper hand. On 6th November the British and Canadian forces finally captured what remained of the village of Passchendaele leading Field Marshall Haig to call off the offensive and claim victory.
Dunkirk and the 'Fall of France'
As part of the Battle of France, the Battle of Dunkirk was the defence and evacuation to Britain of British and allied forces in Europe, May – June 1940. This life or death battle against time was won in just ten short days when Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay pulled off what came to be known as “The Miracle of Dunkirk” from his Naval HQ in the tunnels below the castle. He was regarded as the mastermind behind the rescue of the 338,000 troops.
On 26th May 1940, War Minister Anthony Eden told the Commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that he might need to “fight back to the west” and ordered him to plan for the evacuation. The C-in-C had foreseen the order and preliminary plans were already in hand. The following day, the British fought back to the Dunkirk perimeter line. The story of Operation Dynamo, codename for the evacuation from Dunkirk’s beach of over a third of a million allied troops in a flotilla including hundreds of “little ships”, has been told in many books and films.
We travelled to Dover to start our battlefield tour. Before crossing the channel, we were able to visit Dover Castle and explore the ‘Top Secret’ wartime tunnels. These tunnels were used as part of the desperate mission to rescue the troops stranded at Dunkirk as German forces closed in.
We continued our journey to Dunkirk, visiting a number of memorable sites on the way. We stopped at the very impressive Vimy Ridge which hosted a military engagement, fought primarily as part of the Battle of Arras, involving complex trench and mine warfare. Standing inside the British/Canadian trenches surrounded by a moonscape of craters from artillery fire, it was easy to see just how close they were to the enemy trenches, just metres away.
Tim relayed the events that occurred, known as the Arras Counter-Attack. On 21 May 1940 during the ill-fated Dunkirk Campaign the British launched an operation to help secure the City of Arras. This was the only significant armoured operation mounted by the British during the campaign. The Arras counter-attack contributed to Hitler issuing the famous ‘halt order’, allowing the British Army to withdraw to Dunkirk and escape total destruction.
At the start of our final day, we visited the site of the Wormhout massacre; a barn (rebuilt) where 90 men of 2nd Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment; 4th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment; Gunners of the 210 Battery, 53rd (The Worcestershire Yeomanry) Anti-tank regiment, Royal Artillery; along with a number of French soldiers were mass murdered during the battle.
We visited Bray Dunes – one of the Dunkirk beaches where soldiers were waiting to be rescued. For many of the waiting soldiers, the first indication that their evacuation was not guaranteed came when they saw that the ships sent to rescue them were being attacked by German planes.
The alarm caused by this attack was recorded by Gunner Lieutenant Elliman:
“The first attack was most unnerving. You felt so completely exposed on the beach. For a time some of us huddled under the hull of a wrecked steamer, but as nothing happened for some time I called in all my men, and formed them up in a queue again for fear we should lose our place.”
Nathan Boyd, IT Project Manager (Air, Aviation), Babcock International Group, is a regular attendee on our Battlefield Tours. He said:
“It’s always difficult to imagine what it would have been like during the time of Battle, when today it is so peaceful and serene. This tour put the events that took place into perspective; following the retreat back to the beach gave a different insight to the war and the events that took place during every day combat.”
We concluded our tour with a visit to Dunkirk War Museum. Close to the East Mole and the evacuation beaches, the Dunkirk War Museum is located in Bastion 32, headquarters for the French and Allied forces during the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo. It tells the incredible stories of the many places we’d visited.
The Siege of Bastogne
This Battle was fought primarily between the forces of Nazi Germany and the United States Army. However approximately 55,000 troops of the British Army, including the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, also participated in the struggle.
“The night between 15th and 16th December 1944 was pitch black. There was frost. The enemy’s artillery was about as active as in the past evenings and nights. Nevertheless, his infantry remained passive, so we were able to occupy our points of departure for the attack completely unnoticed. Thus, the element of surprise seemed to have been achieved.” - General Von Manteuffel, Commander of 5th Panzer Army, 16th December 1944.
Travelling to Luxembourg, we started our tour in the little town of Clervaux, close to the German border. Clervauz is a beautiful, quaint, “alpinesque” town that 74 years ago stood on the axis of Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive. With our bellies full of breakfast, Tim set the scene for the group in front of the GI Memorial.
We set off for the River Our on the Luxembourg / German border, the start line for Operation Herbstnebel ("Autumn Mist"), the German name for the offensive. This was Hitler's last throw of the dice and his personal plan; a German counterattack aimed at splitting the allied armies in two by cutting a line between them from the Ardennes to Antwerp. The Allies believed the German Army was a spent force and no longer had the manpower, machinery or morale to launch any type of offensive. Their intelligence pointed towards an army in full rout, back to Germany, to defend the Fatherland.
However under the cloak of total operational security and with superb logistical mastery, the Germans massed almost 250,000 men (they were now drafting both pensioners and teenagers), 1400 tanks, 2600 artillery pieces and 1600 anti-tank guns in the Ardennes forest. What they lacked was plentiful munitions and more importantly fuel; both of which were known to be at a town called Bastogne.
Entering Germany by crossing the bridge at Dasburg we ascended to the castle from where the German commanders planned and then watched the opening phases of Fifth Army's dawn assault on the 16th December 1944. From the Castle, the group moved back down into Luxembourg to discuss the river crossing and then up the other side of the river valley to talk through the initial US defences on "Skyline Ridge" and the battle at Marnach.
We moved back to Clervaux where Tim taught us about the destruction of the town and the quick withdrawal of US forces. Situated at the bottom of the valley with German tanks dominating the hills, the town could not have been saved.
We moved on to discuss the hastily brought together delaying actions of Teams Rose, Harper and Cherry which once again bought more time for Bastogne to prepare. Sadly the fate of most of the men fighting these delaying actions was sealed and, as expected, very few made it back to Bastogne.
We left the battle there for Saturday and would re-join it the following day looking outward from Bastogne. In the interim we went to the Bastogne Memorial, built in the 1950s in memory of 76,890 US servicemen killed or wounded during the offensive. Here Briana Openshaw laid a wreath to her fellow countrymen, on behalf of Voyager, accompanied by a few words from Tim; a small, familiar and very moving few minutes.
Shannon Roberts, Voyager Training Service Technical Training Coordinator, and organiser of the tours, said:
“The moment we lay the wreath and Tim Saunders says the Ode of Remembrance is always the part of the tour that touches me the most. Always find myself shedding a tear for those that gave their lives fighting for our freedom.”
Our final day was spent focusing on the siege of Bastogne. We worked our way along the siege perimeter talking through the various attempts by the Germans to break the US defensive lines. We started with Team Desobry's defensive action to the northeast with 1/506 Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) and the fight at Noville. From there we moved south to Foy woods where we walked through foxholes left behind by Easy Company 506 PIR, 101st Airborne, as immortalised in Stephen Spielberg's "Band of Brothers". We took some time to visit the only WWII cemetery in the immediate area; the German cemetery at the hamlet of Recogne, near Foy, where 6,807 German soldiers are buried.
We resumed our journey with a short hop west to Champs Church. Here we learnt about the very personal battle of Private Willis Fowler of 501 PIR, who, on Christmas Day, almost single-handedly stopped a significant German action through the village of Champs and was subsequently awarded the Silver Star. Tim then took us further up the same valley, away from the defensive perimeter and more towards the heart of Bastogne where we stopped just north of the town.
On the 23rd December 1944 after 8 days of bitter fighting the weather (that up until then worked in the German's favour by preventing any allied air support) finally broke. This mean that allied transport could finally deliver much needed supplies to the beleaguered town of Bastogne. The situation was turning against the Germans; stiffer resistance than they had expected, difficult terrain, dwindling supplies, lesser quality troops and changing weather meant that the Germans offered the US defenders terms for surrender on the 22nd December. The offer was rejected with a single word - "NUTS!".
We made one last stop to the small, beautiful Belgian town of Celles – the furthest western point reached by the Germans in Operation Herbstnebel, Christmas Day 1944. On a hill, three miles short of the river Meuse, sits what is left of a German Panzer V Panther tank from Kampfgruppe (combat group) von Cochenhausen, 2nd Panzer Division. The tank hit a mine that threw it in the air and left it upside down in a field to the south of the town. Cochenhausen had almost accomplished the impossible but he and 600 of his men, finally realising that they could go no further, abandoned their tanks and escaped on foot back to Germany.
Summarising the tours, Shannon Roberts said simply that they were:
“Historical, Enjoyable and Humbling”
These thought-provoking and insightful tours provided a window into the selfless acts and devastating events that took place during WWI and WWII. They have been a poignant reminder, as we celebrate the RAF centenary this year.
As we reflect on the sights we have seen through these tours, we remember and honour all of the courageous men, women and animals who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.