D-Day: Operation Overlord - Tour Diary & Images - July 2019
Our D-Day: Operation Overlord tour departed in July 2019 and was guided by leading expert, Dr Simon Trew. Tour Manager, Shaun Bartlett also accompanied the tour and has written the following tour diary.
After meeting at the John Betjeman statue at London St Pancras, the group checked in for our 9:24 Eurostar to Paris. After arriving at Gare Du Nord, we took a quick bus transfer to St Lazare for our afternoon departure to Bayeux.
We arrived at our hotel, the Churchill, just before 6pm and checked in for 4 nights. After a quick shower and change we met in the hotel bar for welcome drinks and an introduction to the tour by our expert guide, Dr Simon Trew.
Our restaurant for the evening, Le Volet qui Penche, was a very short walk from the hotel and we enjoyed a three-course meal in a lovely setting next to the river. After a long day of traveling we headed back to the hotel for an early night and to prepare for the next few days.
After breakfast at the hotel we were met by our driver for the week, Frank, and boarded our bus to our first stop, Pegasus Bridge. We gathered at the seating area near the bridge where Simon took us through the events that took place here on the night of June 5th 1944, where a force of 181 men, led by Major John Howard, took off from RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset, southern England in six Horsa gliders to capture Pegasus Bridge, and also "Horsa Bridge", a few hundred yards to the east, over the Orne River.
Five of the Ox and Bucks's gliders landed as close as 47 yards from their objectives from 16 minutes past midnight. The attackers poured out of their battered gliders, completely surprising the German defenders (especially the young 16 year old who was patrolling Pegasus Bridge) and took the bridges within 10 minutes. They lost two men in the process, Lieutenant Den Brotheridge and Lance corporal Fred Greenhalgh.
Greenhalgh drowned in a nearby pond when his glider landed. Lieutenant Brotheridge was mortally wounded crossing the bridge in the first minutes of the assault and became the first member of the invading Allied armies to die as a result of enemy fire on D-Day. It is now thought to be highly likely that Greenhalgh was wounded from behind, meaning he was hit by his own troops.
From here, we walked over to the Pegasus Memorial Museum where we able to walk over the original bridge and see a replica glider.
After spending 40 minutes in the museum we hopped back on the bus and headed to the Merville Battery via Drop Zone B, the rendezvous pint for the attack on the battery. Here, we learned that the attack was rehearsed 9 times to specific timings, all meticulously set out by Lieutenant Colonel Otway, but by 02:50 on DDAY only 150 men had arrived at the battalion's assembly point with 20 Bangalore torpedoes and a machine gun. The mortars, anti-tank gun, mine detectors, jeeps, sappers and field ambulance section were all missing.
Aware of the time constraints, Otway decided he could wait no longer, and the reduced battalion headed for the battery and joined up with Major Smith's reconnaissance party just outside the village of Gonneville en Auge. The reconnaissance party had cut a way through the barbed wire and marked four routes through the minefield. Otway divided his men into four assault groups, and settled down to await the arrival of the three gliders…….
Once we arrived at the battery, Simon continued to tell us the rest of the story right next to the attack track used by Otway.
Unbeknownst to Otway, back in England, one of the gliders had landed at RAF Odiham as its tow rope had snapped during bad weather. The other two gliders, unable to locate the battery, did not land where expected. On their run in, both gliders were hit by anti-aircraft fire. One landed around 2 miles away, the other at the edge of the minefield. The troops from this glider became involved in a fire fight with German troops heading to reinforce the battery garrison.
Otway launched the assault as soon as the first glider overshot the battery, ordering the explosives to be detonated to form two paths through the outer perimeter through which the paratroopers attacked. The defenders were alerted by the explosions, and opened fire, inflicting heavy casualties; only four attackers survived to reach Casemate Four, which they disabled by firing into apertures and throwing grenades into air vents. The other casemates were cleared with fragmentation and white phosphorus grenades, as the crews had neglected to lock the doors leading into the battery. During the battle, 22 Germans were killed, and a similar number made prisoners of war. The rest of the garrison escaped undetected by hiding in the underground bunkers.
Standing in the place where this all happened was incredible, but there was a lot more to see and we needed some replenishments, so after 30 minutes more exploration of the battery, we headed back to Pegasus Bridge for some well-deserved lunch at the famous Café Gondrée.
It was now time to see some actions on the beach, so we headed to the most central of the five areas attacked on DDAY, Gold Beach. Unfortunately, we got typical Normandy beach weather, rain, which made some of the concrete ramps leading down to the beach very slippery but most of the group were able to brave the downpour to hear Simon discuss the amphibious landings which commenced at 05:30 on June 6th 1944.
Our last stop of the day was to be one of the most eventful. Simon gathered the group outside the gate of a house. Here he began to tell the story of Stanley Hollis, a recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC) .
Simon had just begun explaining the story behind the award of the VC when the owner of the property approached us and invited us in to his garden to see exactly where the action happened.
On D-Day, the 6th Green Howards landed on Gold Beach. As his company moved inland from the beaches after the initial landings, Hollis went with his company commander to investigate two German pillboxes which had been by-passed. He rushed the first, taking all but five of the occupant’s prisoner; and then dealt with the second, taking 26 prisoners. He next cleared a neighbouring trench. Later that day, he led an unsuccessful attack on an enemy position containing a field gun and Spandau machine guns. After withdrawing, he learned that two of his men had been left behind; and said to his commanding officer, Major Lofthouse: "I took them in. I will try to get them out." Taking a grenade from one of his men, Hollis carefully observed the enemy's pattern of behaviour and threw it at the most opportune moment. Unfortunately, he had failed to prime the grenade; but the enemy did not know that and kept their heads down waiting for it to explode. By the time they had realised their mistake Hollis was on top of them and had shot them down.
Our French host went on the explain that he had met Hollis a number of times after the war, and that he had even returned to the site. A truly fascinating story.
We returned to the hotel to freshen up before heading to La Table du Terrior for dinner before retiring for the evening.
We began day three with a short stop just outside the town of Mère Église before we headed to La Fiere Causeway. Here Simon explained the fierce battles that occurred involving U.S 82nd Airborne Division.
The 82nd Airborne Division's objectives were to capture the town of Sainte Mère Église, a crucial communications crossroad behind Utah Beach, and to block the approaches into the area from the west and southwest. They were to seize causeways and bridges over the Merderet at La Fière and Chef-du-Pont, destroy the highway bridge over the Douve River at Pont l'Abbé (now Étienville), and secure the area west of Sainte Mère Église to establish a defensive line between Gourbesville and Renouf.
We walked along the causeway where Simon to continued to explain the action at the local church, which is dedicated to the 82nd Airborne Division.
None of the 82nd Airborne Division's objectives of clearing areas west of the Merderet and destroying bridges over the Douve were achieved on D-Day. However, one makeshift battalion of the 508th PIR seized a small hill near the Merderet and disrupted German counterattacks on Chef-du-Pont for three days, effectively accomplishing its mission. Two company-sized pockets of the 507th held out behind the German centre of resistance at Amfreville until relieved by the seizure of the causeway on June 9.
We left the church at Amfreville and headed into Sainte Mère Église for an hour for some well-deserved lunch.
It was time to see another one of the DDAY beaches, this time Utah. The weather was a little better than our visit to Gold Beach and we stopped at one of the many memorials that stretch along this sector. Before leaving the bus, Frank, our driver, revealed that his uncle had been part of the French army that had liberated Strasburg. His Uncle had actually climbed to the top of the train station and tore down the Nazi flag upon it. Frank now had this in his possession and brought it along with him, along with some daggers.
Further down the beach we stopped again, this time at another memorial and Simon explained the landings here whilst looking across the beach.
At our next stop, Port en Bessin, we headed up a long steep hill to gain spectacular views over the port and Simon explained the operations in the area as part of the Overlord Campaign.
The Battle of Port-en-Bessin also known as Operation Aubery took place from 7–8 June 1944. The village is between Omaha Beach to the west in the U.S. V Corps sector, and Gold Beach to the east in the British XXX Corps sector. An objective during Operation Overlord, the fortified port was captured by No. 47 (Royal Marine) Commando of the 4th Special Service Brigade.
Our final visit of the day was to the Longues Sur Mer battery.
The battery is sited on a 60 m cliff overlooking the sea and formed part of Germany's Atlantic Wall coastal fortifications. It was located between the Allied landing beaches of Gold and Omaha and shelled both beaches on D-Day. The battery was captured on June 7 and played no further part in the Normandy campaign.
The battery is the only one in Normandy to retain all its original guns in situ and It was fascinating to stand atop the gun placements and look over the sea to where their targets would have been situated.
The events of the day were discussed over a lovely dinner in a private room at le Lion d'Or.
Our morning began at the spectacular site of Pointe du Hoc. Simon explained the attack on the German fortified area at one of the many gun placements and then we carefully navigated the many huge craters to explore the rest of the site. Many of the group headed straight for the surviving observation bunker, whilst others took in the views at the memorial.
After spending an hour exploring, we headed to the Overlord museum and spent 45 minutes viewing the many artefacts including over 35 vehicles, tanks and guns whilst also ensuring many souvenirs were purchased in the gift shop.
Our next stop was at our final beach of the tour, Omaha. We first grabbed some lunch before all meeting up again at the Omaha memorial. For an hour, Simon detailed the complex landings.
The primary objective at Omaha was to secure a beachhead of eight kilometers depth, between Port-en-Bessin and the Vire River, linking with the British landings at Gold to the east, and reaching the area of Isigny to the west to link up with VII Corps landing at Utah.
Very little went as planned during the landing at Omaha. Difficulties in navigation caused the majority of landing craft to miss their targets throughout the day. The defences were unexpectedly strong, and inflicted heavy casualties on landing U.S. troops. Under heavy fire, the engineers struggled to clear the beach obstacles; later landings bunched up around the few channels that were cleared.
Weakened by the casualties taken just in landing, the surviving assault troops could not clear the heavily defended exits off the beach. This caused further problems and consequent delays for later landings. Small penetrations were eventually achieved by groups of survivors making improvised assaults, scaling the bluffs between the most heavily defended points.
By the end of the day, two small isolated footholds had been won, which were subsequently exploited against weaker defences further inland, thus achieving the original D-Day objectives over the following days.
Simon also read an extract from a German soldiers account which made everyone realise just how tough this landing would have been.
Our last stop of the day was the U.S National Cemetery, situated just above Omaha beach. Simon lead the group to a couple of graves before we had tome to explore the vast site, and take in the observation deck that looks back down on to the beach where many of these soldiers lost their lives.
It was a sobering reminder of the cost of the operation and the journey back to the hotel was one of reflection.
Our last meal of the tour was taken at a lovely small restaurant, L’Assiette Normande which is situated next to the entrance doors of Bayeux Cathedral. We enjoyed a traditional beef bourguignon and some lovely French wine before heading back to the hotel for the final time.
Our final day had arrived and after a slightly later start we took a gentle stroll to the Bayeux War Cemetery where Simon spoke about all of the different soldiers who were buried here. After 40 minutes to explore the cemetery and the memorial to the missing, we walked along the road to the Museum of the Battle of Normandy for the final part of the tour. Whilst some chose to explore the museum, others used the time to head back in to Bayeux to view the world famous tapestry.
The group met back at the hotel at 13:30 ahead of our 14:30 train back to Paris. After a quick transfer across Paris to Gare du Nord, we boarded our 19:12 Eurostar back to London, arriving just before 9pm.
We said our goodbyes on the train and thanks everyone for a wonderfully enjoyable tour, one that I will certainly not forget.
View details of this tour - D-Day: Operation Overlord