Tour de Landing Beaches
Our French neighbours across the pond
It is pretty cool how close we live to our friendly garlic smelling, baguette eating neighbours - it is only a 15 minute boat trip away (if the petrol bill isn’t a concern!). You can pop there for dinner after work and sample the famous French cuisine - think moules frites, vin rouge etc etc. This is still got to be one of the coolest things about living in Jersey and I love winding up mates from England whenever I manage to do it!
However, beyond Carteret and Portbail across the Cotentin Peninsula our the Normandy Landing Beaches not far at all from our tiny island. If the allied forces hadn’t landed on D Day June 6th 1944 and taken back Europe this blog may have been written by a chap called Gunther or Jurgen! It feel a little bad that I had never gone there - a place where such courageous acts by so many and so young. To think that on D Day whilst Jersey was occupied by the Germans you would have seen the smoke and the planes overhead but Jersey was to stay under Nazi rule for nearly a whole year. It would have been agonizing i’m sure.
I decided that It was time to visit: at the end of October seafaris were slowing down, half term gave the perfect window, some settled weather and some teacher friends on holiday wanted to join me on this adventure..
Operation Tour de Landing Beaches was in motion. We loaded our vessels with all the necessary equipment under the cover of darkness - think bikes, padded shorts for some, euros and a couple of bananas. We zipped across in 20 minutes on the RIB Captain Dan evading the dangerous lobster pots as we snuck into Portbail with just enough water as the sun rose in front of us. This landing was somewhat easier than what they went through 72 years ago, we even managed a pre battle coffee and croissant.
Armed with google maps we set off, much to our delight there is an almost direct cycle route from Portbail all the way across the Cotentin Penisula to the small town of Carentan. The cycle route is actually and old train track much like Jersey’s Railway Walk, few hills and stunning country views. Pace wasn’t rapid and Tommy’s racing bike probably wasn’t best suited to the gravel track but Pauly on his city cruiser and basket was loving life!
This was the way to do this, we saw practically no one apart from a couple of young French kids on bikes that tried to race us for a short while - thankfullly Wiggins et al showed them how it was done. The country side was beautiful. After Carentan we onto asphalt Tommy and Ross’s had a chance to put the bikes through their paces in their streamlined poses with their padded shorts. Pauly slightly more upright (think of how your great aunt would cycle) bought up the rear. The legs by this point started to feel the strain a little more with the hills but we made Pointe Du Hoc by 1300 chuffed!
Pointe Du Hoc
Pointe Du Hoc is left pretty much as it was, there were still craters, battered bunkers and imposing cliffs! It doesn’t bare thinking about how scary it would have been to attack this stronghold on the coast. The allied forces had to scramble to the top of 200ft cliffs under heavy gunfire. Imagine climbing the cliffs of Noirmont or Gronez, hard at the best of times but with the added issue of machine gun fire, the weight of equipment and sheer terror it would have been horrific. First impressions of the area and the memorials and monuments were really impressive, it was all so well kept and clean. Reading the many stories on the plaques bought it all to life, how young the soldiers were and the contrast to present day was fascinating.
For us this was a whistle stop tour, we could only do so much and there is so much to do and see. More for next time! Next up was to Omaha beach, cycling along the beach front it is a little harder to imagine than at Pointe du Hoc as there are luxurious houses underneath the bluffs; swimming pools and manicured gardens where there was carnage and death so graphically portrayed in the epic Saving Private Ryan.
We then cycled up to the American Cemetry overlooking the beach where there are literally thousands and thousands white crosses honouring the fallen soldiers. It was even more sombre and emotional than i could have imagined. The sheer volume of the graves, but the thing that got me was the amount of unidentified soldiers lying there, no name for the body....Visiting this site promotes slightly strange thoughts and feelings - i was amazed by how well kept the grass was, how clean. The Americans have certainly have a great deal of respect for these fallen heroes, the cemetry is a fitting tribute to these soldiers.
Experiencing places like this with good friends is something I will not forget, the cycle full of meaningless light hearted chat to these more sombre moments. We had a couple of beers sharing a few of the stories that we had read about at the cemetery, before heading back to the hotel for night.
Note to self - google maps routing isn’t always the best! This short journey turned into an off road special along muddy footpaths in dense woodland, bikes were carried, expletives shouted before we arrived at our destination!
After a few too many beers the next morning wasn’t quite so simple, we had a another 4hr cycle ahead of us - considering none of us had cycled further than St. Aubin’s to town in a while there were a few weary bodies and plenty of side saddle action going on. Ross was resembling John Wayne and i’m sure Tommy had a few socks to help pad his arse!
A German Perspective
The cycle home was all on the road and certainly wasn’t so chatty, especially after another google map classic that had us walking through fields we found tarmac again. We did however manage to squeeze in a visit to one of the German cemeteries. Looking back this was a highlight of the trip, I hadn’t envisaged visiting this and when you think of the Landing Beaches all you think of really is the Allied forces side of it - this gave a great opportunity to see it from another perspective. The cemetery was much more understated than the American one, less money spent on the museum side, but the graves again extremely well kept. One of the things I remember most from the museum was reading about when they first spotted the Allies. They were not expecting them at all, the first sighting they just assumed they were German ships, but then there were more and more. There were more ships than you can ever imagine each carrying soldiers - as far as the eye could see. This must have been terrifying, a force that just kept on coming, no end as soon as one fell another took their place.
I have always looked at D Day from the Allied perspective, but every soldier it must have been such a frightening experience and their bravery was extraordinary.
Going by bike was a memorable adventure, and I highly recommend doing it. We need to go back as there is so much we missed due to time constraints and distance on two wheels, I would love to see some of the British beaches like Sword and Gold. If you haven’t been you need to go, you will not regret or forget it.