Normandy Pilgrimage 2nd – 8th June 2009 – 65th Commemoration of D-Day by Stockport & District Normandy Veterans

Written by Linda Varley

Tuesday 2nd June

Our journey down to our base at the l’ermitage in Lisieux lasted 13½ hours, starting at 6.00 am at Our Lady & The Apostles RC Church in Stockport. We made good time to Dover & then repeated the same distance in France to reach Lisieux. Our accommodation merits mention; as a location for pilgrimages it was clean, basic and functional (what more do you want in a bedroom than a bed and a small table, with crucifix and picture of Sainte Thérèse) although it was the first time that many of us had arrived at accommodation where we had to make up our beds. No problem, although the 11.00 pm curfew was a little more of a trial. The following days we settled into a pattern: we cleared our tables; sang the Ave Maria prayer with the trainee missionaries (they have to study for 5 years before they are sent out to any location in the world) at the end of the evening meal; a number joined the nuns at 6 pm for Vespers. There was a delightful simplicity about the place that kept the modern world out of sight & I enjoyed the opportunity to switch off from work.

Wednesday 3rd June

We had a relaxing morning scheduled for today and felt we should go & see the Basilica, built relatively recently (1920s) to celebrate the sainthood of Marie Therese. The crypt & the church are filled with the most beautiful mosque pictures & it is the site of pilgrimage for many Catholics because of the miracles that have taken place in both her lifetime & to this day.

The afternoon started our pilgrimage with a visit – 5 kilometres away – to the local Allied war cemetery & adjoining German war cemetery at St Desir. The graves in both cemeteries are from the final operations in Normandy following the battle around Falaise, which was the decisive conflict of the Normandy Campaign, leading up to the crossing of the River Seine. In the Allied cemetery there are a large number of men from 51st (Highland) Division buried in the 597 graves. The German cemetery contains those soldiers who died of their wounds in the nearby German hospital at Lisieux, or who were killed in the fierce fighting around Falaise. In total there are 3,735 German soldiers buried here (the German soldiers are buried two to a grave, which seems strange to those of us used to seeing only one name on a tombstone). Surprisingly, the cemetery was not made until 1957/58 and it was officially inaugurated on 21st September 1961.

Our visit brought back memories of a chance meeting with a coach of Germans at the 60th commemorations who were amazed & touched when we held a ceremony for the German soldiers in their cemetery. As Father Vin reminded us this time, these were German farmers & young boys who were ordered to fight – they had no option, just as our British soldiers were ordered to fight – and on the occasion of our encounter in 2004 there had been a sense of a shared experience between the surviving veterans, rather than animosity.

Thursday 4th June

We left at 9.30 am to travel 1½ hours to St Croix-sur-Mer. This village has welcomed the Stockport branch each year since they began their pilgrimages in 1992 when the small church (it holds about 100) is opened up for Father Vin (and with Bishop George this year) to conduct mass. As Kath and I stood outside at the spot where 5 Canadian soldiers had been lined up and shot by the Germans, we discussed how alien (and beyond our understanding) it was that such an atrocity should take place in a peaceful little backwater. The church was filled with the veterans’ party & the villagers.

B3 memorial is nearby – one of the first landing airfields to be established by the allies during the war (B3 was commanded by Johnny Johnson, who was patron to the Stockport Branch). At the memorial, complete with the metal mesh that was put down to stop the planes sinking into the mud of the flat field, we had a chance encounter with Alan ‘Mac’ Macintosh, who worked on this site as a member of the army airfield construction unit. When he arrived there was no fuel or ammunition so his group raided the Beach Dumps and waylaid supplies from the landing crafts until they had everything they wanted to equip an operational airfield. He added his recollections:

‘There were two airstrips [B2 & B3]. The normal aircraft to land was Spitfires which had to be refuelled using 5 gallon drums which had to brought up from the beach. On one occasion a Halifax Bomber landed that required 90 drums to refuel it & the base commander said to the pilot: “Don’t bother coming back here again!” The ground crew camped in the local orchard & at one point there were 160 men billeted there. Mac made us laugh as he reminded us that the one change he’d noticed was that in 1944 there was a bar – and now there wasn’t.’

After the memorial service (when the wreath was laid by Lesley in memory of her father Stan Weatherall who served in the R.A.F. and whose ashes had been scattered at B3 in 2006) we went back into the village for a reception at the Mairie – sparkling French wine, Pommeau (apple juice + calvados) & nibbles.

An hour later, following speeches & much drinking on an empty stomach, we travelled to Juno Beach. Here we met a party of 6 regular Royal Engineers (R.E.) soldiers who had been employed for the past 2 weeks restoring the Petard, a special tank used for clearing mine-fields. This was had been preserved because it had been the first over the dunes and had got stuck in a culvert that was flooded because of the torrential rain and had been used as a solid base for other vehicles to cross the waterway. It had remained in the mud until 1976, when it had been dug out and placed on display. The R.E. soldiers had recently been deployed building bridges in Afghanistan & had been seconded to renovate the tank because it was their unit which had been part of the first landings on Juno beach on 6th June. They had had to strip it down, weld it and repaint it in its original colour (dark green) and were completing the finishing touches as we arrived. We conducted another service, but this time we asked the 6 regulars to join us. They told us afterwards that they had been told to disappear at 11 am when another service had been due to take place & were taken unawares when we arrived later in the afternoon. As they were R.E. & Jim’s brother (who was killed on 7th June) had been serving in the same regiment Jim was directed by Father Vin to stand alongside the regulars. It was very moving to see an 85 year old – whose brother had been killed on active service & who was himself on active service in the Navy (aged 20 years old) on D-Day – joining those 21 year olds who had also seen active service. They told us afterwards that moment had been special to them as well – lovely young men.

We travelled on to another reception in a marquee – located where those regular soldiers were billeted. Coffee & tea + cakes were offered – we all selected the filling Madeira cake, since (at 3.00 pm) it was clearly evident there was going to be no lunch that day!

We went on to the Juno Beach Centre (otherwise known as the Canadian Museum), which opened at Courseulles-sur-Mer on June 6, 2003. The Centre presents the war effort made by all Canadians, civilian and military alike, both at home and on the various fronts during the Second World War. It was built through the sponsorship of Canadian veterans, their families and various charitable trusts to record their arrival on D-Day at Juno beach because at the 50th commemorations returning Canadian soldiers had been disappointed that there was no permanent record of their assault of the beaches. (My own father landed on Juno beach, with Canadians, later in the campaign, to re-lay all the railway track & rail bridges that had been destroyed in the early stages of the assault. His wife, May, remembered him telling her that the quality of food was so much better with the Canadian troops than when he rejoined the British troops at Nijmegen in the Netherlands as part of Operation Market Garden in September 1944.) The museum identified the immigrant origins of Canada (predominantly European & British) and which accounted for Canada’s declaration of war 9 days after Britain & France declared war on September 1st 1939 and recorded the experiences of Canadians using all the interactive, audio & visual devices that are found in modern museums. It needed far longer to do it justice than we were able to give it that afternoon.

We had been asked to attend the launch of Jean Pierre Benamou’s D-Day Academy located at Rots at 5.00 pm & felt that we should go and support our ‘French connection’, so we turned up for the French speeches which heralded the opening. We only had 30 minutes scheduled and since the speeches took 20 minutes it was a 10 minute gallop round before we got back on the coach.

Back to the Ermitage at 7.15 pm – nearly a 10 hour day.

Friday 5th June

It was an early start today – 8.15 am on the coach, since we had to get to Colville-Montgomery for a parade and presentation of medals. We arrived at 10.30 am at the war memorial for the parade and our veterans joined in, some marching & the rest joining the standing group, along with a range of regular service personnel & cadet units. Two spitfires & a Lancaster bomber, flying in formation, flew over the parade, three times in total. It was a revelation to me to see how small the Spitfires were, used as I am to the size of modern planes. A contingent of the British police was on parade; they had volunteered to use part of their holiday entitlement to act as volunteers to help with the logistics of the D-Day commemorations in Bayeux & Caen.

Following the parade we walked down to the beach, about 200 metres down the road, and the veterans were able to sit down whilst (following more speeches) they were presented with a 65th Commemorative medal.

It was a long morning (we were beginning to learn the meaning of the army expression Hurry up & Wait) & I queued for the one toilet on the beach front which had no lock on the door & no light inside. The wartime spirit was rekindled as we arranged that the person in the queue behind had to hold the door closed – but not quite shut – in order to let the light in. Of course, back at the coach my delightful husband informed me that there were more civilised toilets available at the Tourist Information Office.

Off to Ouistreham for a relatively quick lunch & on to Hermanville to lay a wreath in the Allied War Cemetery. The cemetery was started just after D Day, and was originally known as Sword Beach Cemetery because of its close proximity to that landing area. Most of the original burials were men from the 3rd Division who stormed ashore here on 6th June 1944, and liberated Hermanville. The stone work of the parking area of this cemetery takes the form of the 3rd Division battle flash – a red triangle in a larger black triangle.

Jim’s brother (& John’s father) John McHugh was buried at Hermanville; he was injured on June 6th and died of his wounds the following day. Another Normandy Vets group from the Wirral, with members as far away as Chester & Liverpool, arrived at the same time. A quick chat with the female organiser allowed us to merge our two ceremonies, with Father Vin taking the service, since although they had music they lacked their own padre, who had moved to a distant parish (it made us reflect how lucky we were to have Father Vin with us). A member recited Rupert Brookes’ poem If I die think only this of me, that there is a corner of a foreign field that is forever England and both groups laid wreaths. Once that more public service had taken place, Jim & Tess McHugh and John & Vera McHugh, accompanied by a small group, went to John McHugh’s gravestone to conduct a personal service. John had never known his father, since he had been born (2 months premature) when his mother had received the news of her husband’s death. John recalled being told by his aunt that on the day of his christening two widows had their children christened.

Close by, another member of the Wirral group laid a wreath to his uncle, who had also died early in the campaign. This soldier’s wife never re-married and she and her daughter (who had tragically died young) had had their ashes scattered at the graveside. Their section of his family had died out and although very emotional, he really appreciated that Father Vin was there to pray for his family.

There were a couple of interesting veterans with the Wirral group. There was a Chindit (identified by his bush hat): the Chindits were the largest of the allied Special Forces of the 2nd World War. They were formed and lead by Major General Orde Wingate DSO. They operated deep behind enemy lines in North Burma in the War against Japan. For many months they lived, and fought the enemy, in the jungles of Japanese-occupied Burma, totally relying on airdrops for their supplies. This veteran, of whom there are now only 4 survivors, told John V that they received their parachute drop every 5 days. There was also a 100 year old man from Liverpool who had lost his hearing from the firing of the guns. Granada TV (& interviewer/ camera operator Mel) were following his return to Normandy – it was scheduled to be televised on Monday 8th June at 6 pm.

That visit was a moving experience for us all & I think we were grateful when Father Vin suggested that we omit the Caen Peace Memorial from the itinerary & return home. It allowed us to relax before our evening meal – we even found time to visit Bar de Paris to enjoy the beer.

Saturday 6th June

We had to set off at 9.15 am for the Allied war cemetery in Bayeux for the commemorative celebrations, arriving at 10.30 am. Another case of Hurry Up and Wait as we arrived in the cemetery and a number of our veterans lined up to march. There were far more people than I had expected – 36 coaches + armed service personnel – probably 2500 people. The rest of our group stayed together about half way down the marching avenue, lined with cadets. These young people were 14 years old & they had to stand for a considerable time in the heat – one young girl near us felt faint at one point, but rallied round following elevated feet & water in her hat.

There was an Air Force Cadets band playing for our entertainment & when the parade started, the Standards & the marching veterans preceded the King’s Regiment Band (based in Preston) and then the following dignitaries, who included the French Prime Minister & his wife, the VERY new Defence Minister of Britain (none of us could remember who the previous one was, although we believed this one was called Johnson) and Prince Charles. As he passed us Mum shouted: “Hello” and he nodded to her (or so she was told). We were too remote to hear the full service, but it was (generally) a repeat of the previous day, so it didn’t seem to be a great loss. At the end of the ceremony, Charles destroyed the schedule arranged by his entourage by lingering as he walked back down the avenue, keeping the cadets (& the rest of us) standing. Jim told me that he included in his walkabout a chat with another Stockport Normandy vet who had made a private journey to be there – Wally MacKenzie. Wally was in the Royal Army Catering Corps, and Charles commented that the army had needed the cooks. His final chat in the cemetery was with the 100 year old Wirral veteran – he nearly walked past but was directed by his Aide to speak to him.

We had time for a leisurely lunch in Bayeux and then travelled on to Jerusalem War Cemetery. This is the smallest War Cemetery in Normandy (47 graves), started in June 1944, while fighting was taking place in the area around Tilly-sur-Seulles. The nearby farm buildings were used as an Advanced Dressing Station by the RAMC, and several of those buried here died of wounds in the farm. The cemetery contains the grave of the youngest soldier killed in WW2 (Pte J. Banks, Durham Light Infantry, who was killed on 21st July 1944, aged 16). As we arrived the inhabitants of the local hamlet were holding their own ceremony, complete with a French bagpiper and it was most moving to see that they had arranged for 47 children to be present, each with a rose, which they placed at the tombstone of each soldier. It must have taken some organisation to have arranged that number of children from the surrounding area, and I saw one toddler, so young he was held in his father’s arms, being carried to place the rose. Since he went in the direction of the youngest soldier, I wondered if it had been arranged that the toddler should place it on that grave to signal the poignancy of Pte Banks’ death. The contingent of R.E. we had met restoring the tank at Juno beach, led by their Major, had been invited by the local inhabitants to join their ceremony, and we asked if they could stay for ours, which they did, snapping to attention at the sounding of the last post. We talked to the regulars after our ceremony and I recorded an interview with Staff Sergeant Purves.

(Click here to read a letter from SSgt Purves to Linda explaining the presence of 26 AES at the cemetery)

Steve gave us the interesting background to Jerusalem Cemetery. The farmer, whose buildings had been used as a makeshift hospital and whose field was used to bury those who had died, cared for the cemetery, and when the graveyard commission came along after the war with the intention of removing the bodies to a larger military cemetery nearby, he refused to allow them to do so – they were to stay where he and the hamlet would look after them. Following prolonged negotiations (or probably a lot of argy-bargy) he ceded that corner of his field to England and it became an official war cemetery. Within the 47 graves are 2 army chaplains, 3 lieutenants, 1 captain, I Czech and 1 unidentified soldier.

It was just beginning to rain – the weather had been glorious all week, sunny and warm – and it felt appropriate that the last cemetery (Tilly-sur-Seulles) should be visited in the rain, reflecting the end of our pilgrimage on a sad note. Between the 7th and 26th June 1944, the village of Tilly-sur-Seulles changed hands more than twenty times. The 50th (Northumbrian) Division engaged the Panzer Lehr division here, and other units involved include the 56th Brigade and 8th Armoured Brigade. Little was left of the village at the close of the fighting, and 76 members of the local population had been killed. Tilly remained on the front line until mid-July. There are 990 Commonwealth burials commemorated in this site (of these, 45 are unidentified and 232 are French national casualties).

And that was it. We had completed our pilgrimage, and for all of us it had been an emotional journey; not in the same way that it was for our veterans – it could never be – but moving and very special all the same.Bill Ward

Sunday 7th June

This was our driver’s rest day, and here it would be appropriate to indicate how important to our trip both Neil, the driver, and Tony, our courier, were. Both were helpful, unflappable, friendly and had a can do response to every request; they became part of our ‘family’, with Father Vin the glue which bound the whole group together. Those of us who were not veterans would like to offer our thanks to the members of our party who were involved in the campaign, either as combatants or as those back at home (particularly the wives and girlfriends). This is my tribute to them.

  • Freda & Bill Ward RA
  • Tess & Jim McHugh RN
  • Bertha & Joe Withnall Black Watch
  • Vera & Ben Shaw Black Watch
  • Harold Addie RN
  • Eric Glennon RN
  • Jim Clegg RN
  • Harry Gordon RA
  • Alan Johnson RN
  • Mike Davies RAF/Royal Fusiliers (June – 39th BGH)
  • David Chyoweth Kings
  • May Moore (Arthur – RE)
  • Beryl Dawson (George – REME)
  • Audrey Chambers (Eric – RA)
  • Stephen Whaite (John Albert – RE)
  • Lesley Nottle (Stan Weatherall – RAF)
  • Lynn & John McHugh (John – RE)
  • +
  • Wally MacKenzie RACC