Friday, April 18, 2014

Exploring Normandy and Ypres: Battle Plan Day 1 {Part 3}

After strolling around Honfleur it was time to get back on the road and head to the first WWII site we had on our itinerary.

We made our way through the narrow and winding roads until we came upon the quiet seaside town of Villerville. According to the census in 2008 there were about 770 people living here and it looks to be about the same today. The site we had come specifically to see here were some pillboxes along the coast and it could not have been a more perfect day for it. It was bright, sunny, and just about the perfect temperature. All those warm clothes I packed were left in the suitcase and we set off down the beach in just our short sleeves. Besides when we got out of the car and looked down the beach the pillboxes were just there, on the other side of those rocks. It would just be a quick walk and then we'd be there so no need for sweaters. Oh how wrong we were. Not about not needing the sweaters but how far away the pillboxes actually were.

Looks close doesn't it? Don't let that fool you.
As it turns out pillboxes on a beach in Normandy are just like a mirage in the desert. You walk and walk and get over that pile of rocks that they are behind and find you're no closer to them now then when you got out of the car miles and miles ago. Well that might be a wee bit of an exaggeration but we were surprised at how far down the beach they actually were. Of course that might have also had to do with the fact that we took the most difficult route across the beach to get there that we possibly could. *Note to L- when your girlfriend says "We should walk on the rocks because it'll likely be harder to walk on the wet sand"...yeah just tell her she's a nutter and go walk on the sand. :-)  Because as it turns out the sand was basically like a paved sidewalk while the rocks were a sprained ankle just waiting to happen. But L held my hand over all the slippery mucky patches and big rocks that needed to be climbed over and in the end we made it. So how does a girl say thank you to the guy that kept her off her behind, out of the mud, and with no sprained ankles so she would be able to enjoy the rest of the trip ahead of her? This is how...

Thanks time we'll walk on the sand. :-)

Awwww...yes sometimes you just have to write your initials in the sand like you're still in grade 8. :-)

But back to the task at hand- exploring pillboxes and the really great beach we were on because the tide was coming in and we didn't want to have to walk back through all the rocks again!

Port of Le Havre can be seen in background of photo on left

Pillboxes are basically concrete guard posts whose primary function was to protect the German troops from artillery bombardment. Some of them were solely for that purpose but others, like the ones we saw on this beach, had a opening, called a loophole, in which to fire guns through too. They were low and often covered in debris to make them harder to see. The smaller ones could hold about five men with some bigger pillboxes holding 10-20 or even 40 men. 

The ones we visited looked like they had slipped down the side of the cliff along the beach and unfortunately they were also covered in graffiti and had lots of trash inside them. L braved climbing inside them but I stayed firmly outside on two feet and then just stood there saying "What do you see?" , "What does it look like in there?", "Be careful of the puddle that guy just stepped in and got his foot all wet" etc. until I'm sure he must have been thinking I should have just gone in there myself. So for those of us that haven't ever climbed inside a pillbox here is what they look like least what they look like now.
Photos by L
I can't imagine even back all those years ago they were a nice place to be. With all that concrete and metal it must have been so loud, and frightening, when bombs hit nearby or even directly. These pillboxes were part of the Atlantic Wall that Hitler ordered built in order to defend against the Allied invasion he was anticipating.

View of the Port of Le Havre from inside the pillbox- photo by L

Photo by L

With the tide coming in on us we decided it was time to head back to the car and on to our next site. It was a much quicker walk back and along the way we met up with other folks out for a walk along the beach and some guys fishing from the beach.

Back at the car I couldn't resist taking a photo of these two old guys enjoying their drink, chatting about the good old days, and looking out to sea.

The next stop on the Battle Plan was the battery at Mont Canisy that sits atop a hill overlooking the Seine and the harbour of Le Havre. It was an important part of the Atlantic Wall but was barely used in the battle in Normandy so it is still very well preserved.

Photo by L

Because of its elevation it has been used as a defensive site since the Middle Ages and then in 1935-1940 the French army built a battery to protect Le Havre, however the Germans overtook it and realized the importance of its location to build their own coastal defence here.They placed four 155mm guns here, initially open with a 360° traverse, but then, like other sites, they built casements to protect those guns, leaving them open to fire towards the coast only.

The Allies knew about this battery, calling it the Batterie de Bénerville, but despite their repeated bombings the guns were not damaged. After D-Day the guns became a meaningless target for the Allies because they could no longer fire inland (due to the earlier built casements) so they just bypassed this battery from that point.

Photos by L

Today this site is open to the public and you can wander the above ground emplacements as you wish. Over the years the trees have grown up and the site is quite heavily wooded but there are still a few places that offer some beautiful views out across Normandy. There are also hundreds of metres of tunnels connecting the casements but we didn't get to go down inside them. Even without being able to do that it was still very worthy of a visit and the climb up the hill.

With it getting on in the afternoon and still another hour to drive to get to our hotel we decided we best get back on the road again. It is really a beautiful drive through that area and we got to our hotel, la Ferme de la Rançonnière, in Crépon about 6:00 that evening. Our hotel was every bit as charming as the photos we'd seen on TripAdvisor before our trip suggested it would be and we settled into our very comfortable and quiet room. As part of the package we reserved with this hotel we were also treated to the most delicious four course dinner with a selection of local dishes. At the end of this series of posts I'll do one devoted solely to this lovely hotel and our meals as we would recommend it highly to anyone visiting this area.

Up next in this series of posts will be Day 2 of the Battle Plan with our visit to some other batteries, Utah and Omaha beaches, Pointe du Hoc, and American and German military cemeteries. 


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