Our next destination was Austria, where we’d planned to stay for six nights to give us a break from travelling, and a nice chunk of proper relaxing holiday time. Our campsite was close to Zell am See, with snow-capped mountains surrounding it on all sides.
It was nice to know we were going to be in one place for a few days, and we spent our first night watching a livestream of the Eurovision Song Contest while we ate strudel, which felt exceptionally European of us.
Despite staying in Austria, our next Band of Brothers destination was back over the border in Germany. We drove to Obersalzburg near Berchtesgaden, to visit Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, also known as The Kehlsteinhaus. It is a mountain retreat which was presented to Hitler as a birthday present, but apparently he wasn’t all that keen on it, and only visited a handful of times. There is some debate about which Allied troops were the first to liberate it, but Easy Company were amongst the first men to reach it.
It was wet and chilly, so luckily both of us had put on our winter coats and boots. When I packed for this trip I felt insane throwing in shorts and strappy tops as well as my winter coat and boots, but I am so glad I did.
When we arrived, we had to board special buses which took us to the top of the mountain. The track is narrow and steep, so this is the only way to get to the top. The buses made their way up in convoy, then we had to book ourselves a slot on one of the return buses, for when they made their way back down the mountain.
The Eagle’s Nest is over 1800 metres above sea level, and halfway up the mountain it started to snow. We were expecting rain and cloud, but we were not exactly prepared for snow, the weather forecasts had made no mention of snow at all. It got heavier and heavier the closer we got to the top.
When you disembark, you make your way into the tunnel carved into the mountain, then you get in the shiny brass lift which takes you up to the top. We snapped a selfie before we realised you weren’t supposed to take photos. Whoops.
We also both thought, independently of each other, that the lift area reminded both of us of the Gringotts ride at Uinversal Studios in Orlando, which is a bit weird.
My first impression when I got to the top was how accurately the TV series had recreated the main room, which is now the restaurant. The stone walls and the windows looked exactly how they did in the series. It was crammed with people, but we eventually found a table by asking to share with some young American girls, and we had sausage soup and apple cake. It was a little bit surreal to be eating lunch in Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest!
After we’d eaten, we made our way outside. First we came out into a corridor, which is obviously the setting for the funny scene in the Points episode of Band of Brothers, where Nixon, Welsh and Speirs are all drunk. Again, I was amazed by the accuracy of the TV show, it looked exactly the same.
There’s a famous photo of Major Winters and the other officers sitting on the balcony at the Eagle’s Nest, and our main goal of the visit was to pose for a photo in the same spot. Unfortunately, it was difficult to figure out exactly where this was because the weather had obliterated every single geographic landmark we could have used to pinpoint it.
We posed for some photos anyway, and both of us were excited to see that the paving slabs look like they’re the exact same ones as in the photo, so we were walking on exactly the same ground. Yes, we’re that nerdy.
Just to illustrate how unforgiving the weather really was, this is what you’re supposed to be able to see from the balcony, and this is what we could actually see.
We attempted to walk the ‘panoramic mountain path’, but after having to scale a huge icy, snow-covered slope, we decided we’d turn back before one of us slipped and fell off the mountain. We got massive giggles about how ridiculously rubbish the view was.
After we headed back down the mountain we went to the Documentation Centre Museum, which has a lot of very interesting information about the Nazi takeover of Obersalzburg, and the construction of the Eagle’s Nest. Underneath the museum you can enter part of the huge complex of bunkers which spread out beneath the buildings.
It’s a fascinating place, and we enjoyed our visit despite the weather.
Our final day of Band of Brothers tourism was a visit to Kaprun and Zell am See.
In Kaprun we found the area opposite the castle where the last photographs of Easy Company were taken. It was tough to see from the old photos exactly where they’d been taken, but we think we got close enough.
In Zell am See we went on a boat and afterwards dipped our toes in the lake where Major Winters had taken his morning swim every day. I’ve heard that a lot of Band of Brothers fans have gone for a swim themselves, but it was way too cold for that!
We had hot chocolate and cake in the Grand Hotel tea room. The Grand Hotel was the Battalion HQ while the 506th were based here. After our cake we skulked about a bit and went upstairs into the hotel for a nosey. There were lots of old photos of the hotel on the walls, but nothing from 1945. Apparently other people who have visited have found the hotel staff to be unaware of the connection with the 506th, which I think is a shame.
That brought an end to our tour of Easy Company locations. We had originally planned to visit Haguenau and Mourmelon on our return journey through France, but time didn’t really allow for it, and we couldn’t find many significant locations in either place for us to visit.
But the Band of Brothers touring is not over for us! In December we’re headed back to Bastogne for another actors’ reunion, where we’re going to take another tour of the Bois Jacques with the actors. We hadn’t planned on visiting twice, but the reunion was announced after we’d booked this trip, and we couldn’t pass it up. The reunions are always fun for us on two levels – we love to see the actors and hear about the real stories behind the series, but we’ve also made a lot of very good friends through the various events we’ve attended, and the same faces tend to show up each time, so it acts as a reunion for us too.
I’d also like to tour more of the UK sites where Easy were based, and it seems crazy to have not done more of that. We’ve been to Upottery, but I’d like to see more of the places where they were based during their training. Also, next year we are hopefully planning to combine a holiday to Orlando with a few days in Georgia, where we’ll visit Toccoa and climb Currahee. I’m sorry to say that it will be a slow walk, rather than a run, for us though. Three miles up, three miles down!
There wasn’t a campsite near to Dachau in Germany, so we booked into a hotel. It was called something like the Tulip Inn Alp Style, so we were expecting some sort of quaint Alpine-style lodge, but what we got was a concrete block overlooking a roundabout and a Burger King. But it was clean and modern inside, so it was fine with us.
I was a bit hot and sweaty from sitting in the car all day, so I decided that before I had a shower I may as well get myself even more sweaty by going for a run. I got to the main road, randomly picked a direction and set off. I hadn’t been running for very long when I saw a watchtower and barbed wire.
Our purpose for coming to this area of Germany was to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, which I’ll admit is not a typical kind of holiday destination. As depicted in the Why We Fight episode of Band of Brothers, Easy Company liberated one of the satellite camps of Dachau, at Buchloe. There is nothing left of that site, so we decided to visit the main camp, which is now a memorial centre and museum. It’s a grim but important piece of Easy Company history.
Even though I’d done research into the location of the hotel, I had no idea it was quite so close to the camp, and it came as a bit of a shock to be jogging past it, it looked very eerie and imposing against the grey sky, which was by now promising rain.
It felt fitting that the weather stayed grey and cloudy the next day when we visited the camp. I expected it to be a very emotional experience, and it was, but not quite in the way I’d imagined. I cry easily, and I expected to be a blubbering wreck throughout our visit, but instead I just felt drained and exhausted.
Dachau was the first Concentration Camp built by the Nazis, and it was in operation almost continually for the whole 12 years of Nazi rule. It was used as a template for the other camps, and also as a training facility for the SS. Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was a product of Dachau’s training programme. The people imprisoned here were mostly political prisoners at first, but this was widened to include Jewish people, homosexuals, gypsies, beggars and criminals.
I found it all very hard to process. The camp was enormous, especially the main yard where the prisoners were made to line up for hours for roll call. To think that this was one of a series of camps in the Dachau area, which was in turn part of the even bigger network of camps across the whole of the Nazi territory is mind-boggling to me. I have difficulty extrapolating the figures on that sort of scale.
I also found it difficult to process the horrors the prisoners were subjected to, which included sadistic experiments into infectious diseases and the effects of air pressure on the human body. The crematorium here is intact, as is the gas chamber, and although there is no evidence to suggest the gas chamber was ever put into large-scale operation, I still did not want to set foot in there. This was the part of the camp I found most affecting, there is a memorial trail behind the crematorium with markers placed at various points where there are mass graves, or where there were execution areas. My eyes welled with tears a few times and I felt physically sick, but on the whole I just felt too stunned to cry. I found it all so unfathomable.
I think everyone should visit a place like this just once, to see the devastating effect that prejudice, hatred and ignorance has on the world. I left the camp feeling drained, exhausted, and with a real sense of despair at what humans are capable of.
We’d planned to go out for dinner, but neither of us were really in the mood, so we retreated to our concrete block hotel with supplies from the supermarket, and had a hotel room picnic. The following day we’d be heading to Austria.
When we were in Normandy for the Band of Brothers actors’ reunion last year, we got chatting to Chris Langlois, who is the grandson of Eugene ‘Doc’ Roe, and we told him about our plans to take this trip. He mentioned a tour guide in Belgium called Reg Jans, who does WWII history tours around the Bastogne area, and said that nobody knew more about Easy Company’s part in the Battle of the Bulge than he did. So a tour with Reg was actually the first part of the holiday that we booked, the rest of the trip was planned around it.
We met at the Mardasson Memorial in Bastogne, which is next to the Bastogne War Museum. Reg took us to the aid station first, in the seminary school in Bastogne. This is the aid station which appears in Band of Brothers the TV show, although in reality the nurse Renee Lamaire wasn’t based at this station. Reg also told us about a Congolese nurse, Augusta Chiwy, who was based in Bastogne and who is alluded to in the series. I would really like to find out more about both Renee and Augusta.
We drove out to Halte Station, where there is a 101st memorial, paid for by various people including Tom Hanks. It’s very similar in design to the memorial at Brecourt Manor in Normandy, but there are some inaccuracies on the inscription, for instance Eugene Jackson was killed in Haguenau, yet his name appears on this memorial.
As we entered the Bois Jacques, Reg showed us where the patrol led by Johnny Martin had started out, and the area where John Julian was tragically killed.
Reg showed us where Major Winters had pointed out to him that he’d positioned the Battalion CP, there is still a horseshoe-shaped configuration of trenches visible in the grass. The CP would normally have been a lot further back from the front line, but it’s typical of the kind of commander Winters was that he chose to make it so close. We walked into the woods and Reg showed us the area where Guarnere and Toye were wounded, then we went deeper, right up to the front lines, which overlooked a road. The other side of the road was where the front of the German lines were, and I was amazed by how close it was, it was shown as being much further away in the TV series.
There were still some foxholes visible, and Reg thinks he is able to pinpoint which foxhole belonged to Smokey Gordon, as he was a machine gunner, and the machine gun trench was always a T-shape.
An unofficial memorial has sprung up in the woods with sticks, crosses, candles and other objects which people have left. I found the woods very atmospheric, and it was quite easy to imagine it covered with snow in the winter of 1944-45.
After we grabbed lunch, we drove to Foy, where Reg explained the assault on Foy, which was much longer and more complex than it is depicted in the TV series. We saw the building (below) from behind which Captain Speirs set off on his daring run across town to meet up with another company and exchange information on their positions to prevent friendly fire.
We also saw the window where the German sniper was positioned, and the place Shifty Powers was standing when he took him out. The sniper was in the top window in the photo below.
Above is the shot Shifty made, with the window just visible over the horizontal roof. Shifty really was one hell of a shot!
We moved on to Noville, where Lipton, Alley and Shames narrowly escaped being blown up by a tank, then on to Rachamps, which is a pretty little place with a nice church. There’s a tree which was planted near the church by Babe Heffron and Bill Guarnere
This is also the location of the ‘convent’, actually a school, where Easy spent their first night indoors after moving out of the woods.
The tour with Reg was excellent, he was so knowledgable and interesting, and I’d be willing to bet money on there being nothing about the military history of Bastogne that he doesn’t know. He really brought all the locations alive for us.
The following day we were back in Bastogne to visit the Bastogne War Museum and climb the Mardasson Memorial.
Bastogne War Museum is very interesting, and they have some great exhibits, including some of General Patton’s stars from his helmet. The museum gives a lot of information about the Battle of the Bulge, plus background information on WWII in general, and it always terrifies me that the lead up to the war has a lot of similarities with today’s politics – financial problems being blamed on minorities, the rise of far right politics, etc. It saddens and frustrates me that people just don’t seem to learn.
Outside the museum is the final beacon on the Liberty Road, which stretches all the way from Normandy. I’ve now visited the first and the last beacons.
We drove all the way to the American Cemetery in Luxembourg in the rain, only to find it was closed, which was bad planning on my part, but the only itinerary fail we had throughout the whole trip. We returned the following morning, in glorious sunshine. There are five Easy Company soldiers buried here: Patrick Neill, Kenneth Webb, John Julian, Warren ‘Skip’ Muck, and Alex Penkala.
We visited all the graves and left poppy crosses for Muck and Penkala. I was kind of sad they weren’t buried closer together.
General Patton is also buried here.
As always, the cemetery was immaculately maintained. It’s so sad to see all the thousands of gravestones, but I like visiting these places to pay my respects and keep the men’s memories alive, and I’ve always had a weird thing about liking graveyards ever since I was a toddler. I’m a bit of a war graves nerd since I started volunteering for The War Graves Photographic Project, and I like to see war graves being preserved and maintained.
One of the relatives of Warren ‘Skip’ Muck actually saw Jo’s post on Facebook about visiting the cemetery, and sent her a message to say how much it meant to them that people went there. I wish I could have placed a poppy on every single grave.
After the cemetery, we got in the car and travelled to the next destination on our trip – Germany.
Being huge Band of Brothers fans, me and my best friend Jo have been wanting to visit the locations where the real Easy Company fought for a while. Originally the plan was to do the whole thing from Normandy right through to Zell am See in Austria, but we soon realised that this was going to be too expensive. We did Normandy on its own in two trips, because there was just so much to see. If you click on the Normandy tag on the right, you’ll find my blog posts about those trips, and the Band of Brothers actors’ reunions.
This Band of Brothers trip was years in the planning, and the itinerary had to be scheduled very carefully, because we had such a limited time in each place to see everything. I spent ages researching the exact locations of all the key Easy Company history, as well as some other WWII stuff that would be interesting to see along the way. We decided the best way to do it was the way which made the most sense for us geographically, rather than following Easy Company’s route in the same order they did, but in the end, we did it in almost chronological order anyway. We were getting the ferry from Dover to Dunkirk, driving to the Netherlands, then on to Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria, and then back into France, getting the ferry back home from Calais two weeks later.
We drove from Dunkirk to Hilvarenbeek in the Netherlands on our first day, arriving in scorching sunshine on our Eurocamp site. The campsite was enormous, part of a huge safari-themed complex with chalets, tents, mobile homes and amusingly named ‘jungalows’. The site is attached to an actual safari park, hence the safari theme. Once we were on the campsite, it took us about half an hour to find the Eurocamp section, and the signs said we had driven through Angola and Botswana. It felt like we’d driven through Mordor and Narnia by the time we found it. It turns out we just had to turn left at the signpost with the yak on it. Once we figured that out, it was pretty easy to navigate.
Our first day of Band of Brothers tourism was based in and around Nijmegen and Arnhem. The first place we stopped was Tor Schoonderlogt, which was a farm that acted as the 2nd Battalion Headquarters while they were based in the area. It’s where the famous photo of Major Winters was taken, under the archway on the drive, so of course we had to try to recreate it. This house is private property, so we felt a bit cheeky sneaking up their driveway to take photos, but nobody ran out and chased us away, so I think we got away with it!
This is the iconic photo of Winters, with Damian Lewis’ pretty accurate reconstruction on the left, and my not all that convincing attempt on the right.
Those who have watched the series will remember the scene in the Crossroads episode where Easy Company are positioned along a dike, then they make a run across a field, and come face-to-face with a whole company of Germans at the crossroads. The crossroads was our next stop. There is a memorial to mark the battle, and also in memory of Sergeant Dukeman, who was killed there.
On a beautiful day like this, with people cycling along the dike in the sunshine, it’s difficult to imagine combat taking place here.
There is another memorial to the 101st a little further down the dike.
Next we headed to the Island Museum. I’d looked it up online and found the location, but we were both very confused when our sat nav took us to a housing estate. After a little bit of driving around, I happened to turn my head and caught sight of a small plaque on the side of a house, which said it was the museum. We had to ring the doorbell and enter through the house’s kitchen to get to the museum, which was a remarkable collection of rare uniforms and equipment in a small outbuilding, all expertly cared for and preserved by Marcel, who lives there. He also has a very cute dog, which is something I wish all museums had.
I liked Marcel’s garden, complete with bits of tank, artillery and helmets.
Because of the size of the museum, we expected to be there for less than an hour, but we were actually there for over 90 minutes, as Marcel possesses an astonishing amount of knowledge about the military action in the area. He knew specific details about items and uniforms in the museum, and even knew which particular soldiers had owned a lot of the exhibits. My favourite item was this section of wooden boat. It had been made into an apple and pear selection table by a farmer, but was actually one of the boats used by Easy Company in Operation Pegasus, when they rescued British Airbourne troops who had been stranded after the fighting in Arnhem.
After we left Marcel, we went to the Airborne Museum Hartenstein in Oosterbeek, which tells the story of the fighting in and around Arnhem. I found it particularly interesting to read about the effect the fighting had on the civilians, most of whom were forced to pack up what belongings they could and leave. I think the effect of war on regular people is something that gets overlooked a lot in military history.
They have some memorials in the grounds, plus some artillery and tanks.
Our last destination for the day was the John Frost bridge at Arnhem – the famous ‘bridge too far’ from Operation Market Garden.
Again, I think it’s tough to imagine combat taking place here, so this is a photo of the bridge from September 1944. I believe the bridge that stands today is a new one which was rebuilt after the fighting.
The next morning, we made our final stops in the Netherlands, one of which was at the 101st Airborne Memorial in Eindhoven, placed in the spot where the men of the 101st entered the city to liberate Eindhoven. Private Robert Van Klinken is one of the names on the memorial.
Unfortunately, the liberation was not the end of the suffering for the people of Eindhoven and the surrounding areas, as they were bombed heavily the following day and suffered a large number of casualties. The men of the Allied forces were not the only people who paid a high price to liberate the Netherlands, the people endured huge hardship and suffering too.
The very last place we visited was the Wings of Liberation Museum, outside the city. It was only a small place, but had some interesting exhibits, and was where I bought my only souvenir of the trip – a 101st decorative plate. I’ve yet to decide whether to display it or use it for serving custard creams.
Our time in the Netherlands had been really fascinating, but it was time to move on to Belgium.
For those of you who don’t know, Me-Made-May is a challenge run by sewing blogger Zoe, which aims to get people who knit, sew or upcycle clothes to wear their own creations during the month of May. Everyone who signs up sets their own challenge, and most people share their experiences, and sometimes photos of their outfits, on their blogs and social media. You can find out how to sign up here.
I think the challenge is a great idea. I always feel very proud when I’ve made something new, but I do still feel a little bit self-conscious about wearing my own creations, because people tend to comment on them (mostly because I usually choose unusual print fabric!). Plus, there’s the issue that I know all the little things I botched while I was making it, like a wonky hem or a slightly less-than-perfect zip, and those things are always on my mind when I’m wearing something. Anything that gets me more used to wearing my own creations can only be a good thing.
I wanted to take part in Me-Made May last year, but because I had a two-week holiday booked for May, I decided it wasn’t going to be possible, and that I’d do it this year instead.
Then I booked a holiday for May this year too, so it looked like I would have to postpone for another year, but I’m determined not to let it stop me in 2016.
I’m going on a European World War II road trip with my best friend for two weeks in the middle of May. We’re huge Band of Brothers fans, so we’re going to be visiting some of the places connected with the real soldiers behind the story of Band of Brothers. We’ll be visiting France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria, and we’ll be camping for the most part, so it’s not exactly the most practical setting for wearing my me-made wardrobe, most of which is dresses and skirts I wear to work.
So, I’ve had to tailor my pledge a bit more specifically to allow me to take part:
I, Lindsey of Squeakythepin.wordpress.com (Twitter: @squeaky_the_pin, Instagram: squeakythepin), sign up as a participant of Me-Made-May ’16. I endeavour to wear one me-made garment each day for the duration of May 2016 while I am at home in England, and as many as I can practically manage while I am zooming around on a European road trip with my best friend for two weeks in the middle of the month!
There are a few things I can easily see me wearing on our trip, particularly a warm jumper I knitted, and a corduroy skirt I made, which tends not to crease. I may pack a couple of the cotton dresses I made in case we go out for a meal, and maybe a top too. Other than that, I think I’m going to be mostly slobbing around in leggings and T-shirts! I will definitely do my best to wear something every day for the rest of the month though.
I will try to make a blog post or two about how I get on once May arrives!
While it would have been nice to be out and about all day on the 6th, it being the actual 70th anniversary of D-Day, it was near impossible for us to get anywhere because of the traffic restrictions. There was a huge exclusion zone which you couldn’t drive in without a permit, and we couldn’t get a permit because our campsite was outside the zone. So we only attended one event on the 6th, at Utah Beach – but it was quite an event.
We had to formulate a very long-winded route from our campsite to Utah Beach, in order to avoid driving in the restricted zone, but we got there without too much of a problem. We had time for a wander around and a sausage baguette (the staple food of a busy sightseeing holiday in Normandy – I think I was turning into a sausage by the end of it), before we had to make ourselves respectable for the Band of Brothers actors’ reunion at Utah Beach. By ‘make ourselves respectable’, I mean getting changed in the car while tourists wandered all around us. We’re so classy. Jo even ended up putting mascara on some French bloke through the car window. Suitably attired, we headed over to the museum and caught a glimpse of Damian Lewis! Our hunch was right! He was the special guest Ross Owen had been talking to us about the previous day. To say we were excited was an understatement. To say there was much internal flapping when I found myself standing next to him at the buffet table is even more of an understatement.
We met up with our lovely fellow nerds, Laura and Elodie, then excitedly headed into the museum. One of the first people we saw as we went in was Scotty Gordon, son of Easy Company’s Walter ‘Smokey’ Gordon. We’ve met him before, when the crazy fool jumped out of a plane with the other Band of Brothers actors in Devon, and he’s one of the nicest guys you could meet. He greeted us so warmly, with a big hug and a shout of “My girls!” – it put the biggest smile on my face. All night I was struck by how nice everyone was to us. At the end of the day, we’re just nerdy girls who are fans of a TV show, and the people at this event didn’t have to be so nice to us – but they all were. They make us feel so welcome and it means the world to us. Scotty posed for a picture with me, Jo and Laura.
Before I go any further, I want to just say that I don’t think I’ll be doing anything with this hideous dress ever again, except for maybe setting it on fire. And as for the red lipstick, I think I might have to retire that too. It’s amazing how you don’t realise what you look like until you see photos. *shudder* Anyway, moving on…
We also had the pleasure of meeting George Luz Jnr, who was also really lovely to talk to. He gave us both a regimental coin, with all of Easy Company’s campaigns on it. It was so kind of him, and it now has pride of place in front of my Band of Brothers book on my bookshelf, which is heaving under the weight of my various collected treasures, more than it is with actual books.
Now it was time to meet the Band of Brothers actors. First up was James Madio (Perconte) and Ross McCall (Liebgott). Jimmy decided they looked like a couple on their wedding day, receiving guests at their reception. Ross’ response to that was, “I don’t like this at all.” Here is a photo of me lurking terrifyingly behind them. Also, we appear to be being photobombed by a ghostly paratrooper…
After I’d met Ross and Jimmy, I headed over to see Shane Taylor, who played Doc Roe, and Robin Laing, who played Babe Heffron. I’ve met Shane before, and he remembered me, which just illustrates what a genuinely lovely guy he is. He always takes so much time to chat to everyone, and as a consequence, the queue to meet Robin and Shane was the longest all night!
Next was Damian Lewis. I don’t really remember much of our conversation except for me spelling out my name for the autograph! It was very cool to meet him, I think he’s an exceptional actor, even if I did give up on watching Homeland (sorry!).
Finally, we met Ben Caplan (Smokey Gordon) and Nick Aaron (Popeye Wynn). It was really touching to hear Ben enthusiastically introducing Scotty Gordon to people too, these guys have the utmost respect for the men of Easy Company and their families.
I also got the chance to meet some more US veterans, including this awesome lady, May Alm, who was a nurse who landed at Omaha Beach. She seems like she had a real sense of adventure when she was young, and I hope I have half her energy and get-up-and-go if I’m lucky enough to live to 93!
With my special Band of Brothers nerd album now full of new signatures, we spent the rest of the evening, rather than milling about, sitting in a corner with our fellow geeks Laura and Elodie, chatting. It was such a great evening. I was struck once again by how nice everyone was, when at the end of the night Robin and Shane came over to say goodbye. They really are very patient and lovely with us. Jimmy Madio was making a very impressive effort to get all the actors out of the door and off for dinner, but with limited success. It was a bit like herding cats, and every time he got one guy ready to leave, another one would wander off. Then Jimmy would come back saying, “We’ve gotta go, we’ve gotta rock and roll now,” and then dart off to try to round somebody else up. He must have been hungry!
The next morning, on about four hours’ sleep, we got up at the crack of dawn, in the pouring rain, and drove over to the Winters Memorial for a wreath-laying ceremony. I ended up completely mis-judging the weather and had to get changed in a grotty service station while Jo drank the world’s strongest coffee. It really was a very early start.
The wreath-laying was very poignant, especially since they got PeeWee Martin, a 101st Airborne veteran, to place the wreath. Damian Lewis spent a lot of time speaking with him, which was lovely to see. It was also a touching sight to see Damian Lewis paying such respectful tribute to the man he portrayed so well on screen.
After the wreath-laying, there was another ‘herding cats’ operation as the designated adult tried to get all the actors back into their mini-buses, which was pretty funny to watch. Also, star of the show was George Calil (who played Alley), who had had a *few* wines the previous evening (he turned up late so I didn’t get a photo), and was expected to have a stonking hangover. He didn’t appear to, and was the perkiest of the bunch, running around in the freezing wind and rain in just a T-shirt. Shane told me George is the noisiest roommate too, they were supposed to be sharing but he had to switch rooms to get some sleep! Robin came over to say hello, and he’d remembered my name from the previous evening. There were 500 people at that event, so for him to make a point of remembering my name was really nice. They really are a genuinely lovely bunch of guys.
The sun was starting to try to make an appearance as we headed to our next stop, the Thomas Meehan Memorial. It’s by a church in a tiny village, and it is in remembrance of First Lieutenant Thomas Meehan and his men, who tragically never made it out of their plane on D-Day, thus giving command of Easy Company to Dick Winters. I think it’s important to remember the part Meehan played in making Easy Company what they were.
We headed onwards to St Mére Eglise, made famous because of paratrooper John Steele’s unlucky landing on the church roof on D-Day, where he had to play dead to avoid being shot at. They still have a paratrooper up there today.
We visited the 101st Airborne Museum. It was so packed, we pretty much had to shuffle around the whole place in single file. I did buy a most excellent sweatshirt from the gift shop though and I think it’s going to be my new favourite, it has the Screaming Eagle on the front.
My favourite part was where you walk through the fuselage of a C-47 plane and you can hear the men sounding off for equipment check. Then you walk out of the door on to a glass walkway above a model of the Normandy countryside, surrounded by paratroopers in the air, with flashes and gunshots all around you – it’s very atmospheric. St Mére Eglise was a hive of activity, with re-enactors and a lot of actual military personnel all over the place. We found a pizzeria, shared a pizza, and watched the world go by for a while.
By the time we got to Dead Man’s Corner Museum it was turning into a scorcher, unrecognisable from the freezing cold rain in the morning. Dead Man’s Corner Museum was a German command post in a house, so named because a soldier was killed as he emerged from a shot-out German tank outside the building, and remained there for several days, becoming a sort of geographical marker (“You turn left at the corner with the dead man.”). It’s only a tiny museum, but it’s a real gem, with well-presented displays and information. The highlight for me was their collection of Easy Company artefacts, including Winters’ uniform.
The star of the exhibit, though, is this letter from Captain Speirs to Forrest Guth, which we could just about read through the glass. The letter was written at the end of the war, bringing Guth up to speed on all that had happened since Bastogne. Speirs actually told him that Easy “hadn’t done much”. Not done much? They’d liberated Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest! It really tickled me, only a badass like Speirs could consider that unremarkable.
Before we headed to Carentan, I had to get changed into more appropriate clothing for the baking heat: cue me stripping off on a grass verge as about 200 paratroopers marched past me. They all got a look at my M&S undercrackers, but I was past caring by this point, it was so hot. They got their revenge for the almighty scare it must have given them by marching very slowly to Carentan, with us stuck behind in the car.
We eventually stopped off at the road into Carentan, where Winters took off his helmet and ran up and down shouting at his men to get out of the ditches and fight. It’s odd to think of that taking place on this quiet road.
We didn’t actually stop in Carentan because it was hot, we were tired, and the traffic was horrendous. I think we only missed a photo opportunity of the town square. We didn’t stop at the Memorial of the Battle of the Bloody Gulch either (the battle featured in Band of Brothers, where Blithe shoots the German soldier and takes some edelweiss). I figure we have to leave a couple of things for when we go back again! To finish the day we visited the Airborne Memorial.
It was an incredible experience to have the privilege of meeting the Band of Brothers actors, family members of the men of Easy and some US veterans. I’m so glad we attended this event. In my humble opinion, Band of Brothers is the greatest TV series ever made – it was a truly unique show which was absolutely a fitting tribute to the heroic men it portrayed. Visiting the places they fought, and seeing their uniforms and letters feels like an enormous honour, especially given the anniversary. This was a couple of days I’ll truly never forget.
Our next day of activities in Normandy centred around the Utah Beach area of Normandy, a pretty long drive from our base in Houlgate, and a journey we were to make three times in three days while we visited all the sites associated with Band of Brothers and Easy Company.
Our first stop was St Marie du Mont, where we saw a house for sale, which we immediately started fantasising about buying and turning into a 1940s-themed B&B and tea room. One day when we win the lottery maybe…
St Marie du Mont was like walking into a timewarp – the whole town had been taken over by re-enactors, and the area surrounding the church was filled with tents, trucks and jeeps. It was a fantastic atmosphere, and made us thankful all over again that we’d chosen to visit at such a special time.
We went into the tiny museum in the village square. The museum exhibition isn’t anything special, especially when you compare it to some of the bigger museums in Normandy, but the building itself is really interesting. It was worth the admission price just to see this photo displayed on the museum wall. The building highlighted by the arrow is the building in which we were stood, and those soldiers standing in the foreground are from Easy Company. I have to admit to being very excited and uncool about this!
It really was such a thrill to be somewhere steeped in so much Easy Company history, and the re-enactors made it even more special. I’ve seen period photos of the real paratroopers sitting on this exact statue and this water pump, so I got a kick out of seeing them in real life, and the re-enactors were an added bonus.
Our next stop was the 101st Airbourne Memorial, which is situated at the top of the field at Brecourt Manor, where Easy made their textbook assault on the German guns on D-Day.
It was a nice touch that someone had left a photo of Major Dick Winters on top of the memorial, I think it always helps to think of the men involved with all of these places when you think about the history. It’s incredible to think what went on in this peaceful field 70 years ago.
We moved down the lane to get a look from the bottom of the field, and had trouble finding somewhere to park, so we just left the car by some big white gates, only realising later that what we’d done was blocked in the entrance to the gates of the actual Brecourt Manor, from which the operation got its name. Obviously, the site of the battle is just a field, but it was very cool to visit this particular field!
As we went back to the car, we spotted Ross Owen, who organised the parachute jump that some of the British actors from Band of Brothers took part in (and which we’d attended) in Devon a couple of years previously. The event had been organised to help fund the memorial to Major Winters. We stopped to chat to him, and saw that he was with Ross McCall (who played Liebgott), Robin Laing (Babe) and James Madio (Perconte). It took all my inner strength to remain cool and not start embarrassing myself, knowing that we would be seeing the actors again the next day at an event at Utah Beach. There was a lot of internal flailing, which I hope didn’t show on my face. Ross dropped a hint that there would be a special extra guest at the event, who’d not been announced. We got the feeling he meant Damian Lewis, and we really hoped we were right.
Next was to visit the Winters Memorial. I thought I would cry, because he is my all-time hero. Instead, I just felt incredibly proud that I’d helped to fund (in a very small way) this incredible memorial to an outstanding man. I think I admire Winters so much because he was a gentle, moral man, and he managed to lead his soldiers through one of the bloodiest and toughest campaigns in WWII without it changing his character. That’s true strength. The men adored him, which is all the testament to his character that you’ll ever need.
We left our poppy cross, which Jo wrote a message on (because I write like a child), and then headed off to Utah Beach itself.
Utah Beach Museum is really excellent, and there’s a section devoted to Easy Company and their action at Brecourt Manor, so it’s a must for any Band of Brothers fan. There was a parachute drop right outside the museum in the evening, accompanied by the Band of Brothers music. It was a lovely moment, and a nice way to help mark the anniversary.
After Utah we drove to Pointe du Hoc, which was the site of the daring mission by the Rangers to scale the cliffs and capture the German guns. This wasn’t on our original itinerary, but I’m glad we went, if only to point out how wrong we were when we thought the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach were Pointe du Hoc. The size of the craters caused by artillery are still impressive 70 years on.
Point du Hoc is also where our obsession with popping out of gun turrets began. We were climbing around inside one of the bunkers when we saw a set of steps leading up. Not knowing where they were going, we climbed up anyway and happened to pop up out of the top in front of a very surprised American tourist, who laughed heartily at us and then snapped this photo.
The final stop of the day was Omaha Beach, worth a second trip if just for the impressive sunset.
As the sun went down and the beach finally went dark, there was a laser show and firework display. The lasers and fireworks were dotted all the along the Normandy coast, so from where we were we could see them from Utah Beach all the way towards Gold, Juno and Sword. We walked down on to the sand to watch them, and we were the only people on the beach as far as I could see. It was pretty eerie to stand on that beach and listen to the waves crashing somewhere beyond my field of vision and think about what was happening at that moment 70 years ago. Paratroopers were in the air above, less than an hour away from the moment they were to make their jumps, and the sea was filled with hundreds of boats making their way in formation across the channel. The German soldiers had no idea what lay out there in the darkness, just as we couldn’t see the waves we could hear rolling on to the beach.
We went back to our tent exhausted, but feeling like we’d had a very special day, and knowing that the highlight of our trip was about to take place the next day…
Our second day of sightseeing in Normandy was the wettest, it threw it down almost all day, which was apt since we were visiting the first of the British locations – Pegasus Bridge. If you’re into military history and haven’t read Stephen E Ambrose’s book, Pegasus Bridge, then you’re missing out, because it’s a fascinating story. Pegasus Bridge was a vital operation carried out in the first minutes of D-Day. It was the task of the British Airbourne troops and the Glider Pilot Regiment to capture the strategic bridges in Bénouville which would play a key role in stopping a German counter-attack from the east. During the night of the 5th June, pilots landed gliders full of soldiers by the side of the bridges, and Major John Howard led his men in the first successful operation of D-Day. The bridges were captured intact and the British troops liberated the first building in France, Café Gondrée, which still stands today and serves as a focal point for visiting veterans.
I’ve been to Pegasus Bridge before, but I was keen to go again, and it still takes my breath away to see the narrow margin of error the Horsa glider pilots had. Landing on a small triangle of grass between the water, the road and boggy marshes, the pilots had to land with a precision that was a lot to expect from men going into combat in the dead of night, scared and not sure what they were going to encounter. When you see the plaques which marked where the Horsa gliders touched down you realise what an extraordinary feat of flying it really was.
The museum at Pegasus Bridge is excellent, and even though I’d been there ten years previously I couldn’t actually remember a lot of the information, and so I enjoyed reading all about it again. I’m like a goldfish, I bet I’ll go back in another ten years and be able to read it all again as if it was for the first time. There were a lot of veterans there, and as we came back indoors from the outside section of the museum, there was a brass band playing for them. They were playing wartime songs, and the veterans were all singing their hearts out, which brought a tear to my eye.
Outside the museum we had the chance to chat with a veteran, called Ted Hold, who was involved in the operations at Pegasus Bridge. I particularly enjoyed the sticker on his wheelchair which read, “Straight from the Horsa’s mouth.” I later learned this was the title of his book, which I will have to make a point of reading.
To get out of the rain we went for a cup of tea in Café Gondrée, which I’d never done before. The place is always packed, and there are always a lot of military personnel and veterans there, so we were pretty lucky to be able to share a table with a nice couple from Leeds. It’s not every day you get the chance to have a cup of tea in the first building to be liberated on D-Day.
On the way back from Pegasus Bridge we stopped off at Ranville. By now the rain had stopped and we were able to look around in brilliant sunshine. Not for the first time, I was struck by the care that’s taken over Commonwealth War Graves. Ranville is a beautifully maintained, peaceful place of remembrance with immaculate lawns and well-tended flowerbeds.
I’ve become much more interested in Comonwealth War Graves recently, as I’ve started volunteering for The War Graves Photographic Project (twgpp.org), which is working as a joint venture with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to build up a photographic database of all known Commonwealth War Graves. A lot of people are unable to visit the graves of their relatives, so for them to be able to access a photo instead means a lot to them. They have volunteers across the globe, but I’m the only volunteer photographing graves in Shropshire currently, and have spent many an afternoon with my clipboard, wandering around cemeteries chatting idly (it’s a bit strange, but it sort of seems rude not to say hello) to the servicemen I’ve had the honour to ‘meet’ on my travels. My adventures so far have included me doing an impressive face plant on to one of the graves (sorry, Able Seaman Barlow) and, this weekend, actually climbing inside a huge overgrown conifer tree in order to get a photo. I bet Sergeant Slater had a giggle at the state of my twig-infested hair afterwards.
I think the work of the CWGC is really important, and I’m glad that wherever you go, if you go into a cemetery you will likely find at least one of the white Commonwealth gravestones. They’re easy to spot even in a large cemetery, I find my eye is drawn to them now. I’m amazed that even in a town as small as the one I live, in the cemetery there are two dedicated CWGC plots, with their manicured grass and perfectly tended flowerbeds.
It’s events like the 70th anniversary of D-Day that hammer home the glaringly sad realisation that every year there are fewer veterans who can attend the events, fewer men who can visit the graves of their fallen comrades and revisit the places where they fought. I’m a sentimental person, but that’s why I like to do my volunteering for TWGPP, because I like the idea that someone is still visiting these graves, especially the ones from 100 years ago. Someone is remembering, even if it is just me with my little camera and my bright purple clipboard. Sadly the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s ethos, to “remember in perpetuity’, is becoming more and more important as each year passes.
Being a pair of WWII (and especially Band of Brothers) nerds, me and my travel-buddy Jo had been talking about a trip to Normandy for a while. When we realised that 2014 would mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, we decided it was the ideal time for a visit. We had to book a year in advance, and still the closest we could get to all the main sites was to be east of Sword Beach in Houlgate. I’m a bit over camping, I like my comforts, but we booked ourselves into one of Eurocamp’s ‘Safari Tents’, which turned out to be quite luxurious. We were higher up than all of the other tents too, so we kind of felt like we were lords looking down on our serfs.
We had a wooden floor, a fridge, proper beds with mattresses and duvets, and a little heater. I still had to trek to the toilet block, walking past everyone in my super hero PJs, but it was better than a bog standard tent.
Our first day in Normandy was the 2nd June, and things were already gearing up for the anniversary celebrations. We headed to Omaha Beach first. The small museum there was a little bit dated, it was basically a lot of 1980s shop mannequins in army uniforms, arranged in slightly unconvincing tableaus.
After that we had a walk down to the beach and looked at the memorials. I like the new modern sculpture which they have erected on the beach.
We decided to walk up to the cliffs, which we mistakenly thought at the time was one side of Pointe Du Hoc. Geography never was my strongpoint. As we walked up the cliff we came across a bunker which had obviously housed a German gun. It’s easy to see how they caused such devastation on the beach on the 6th, the view they had on to the landing area was pretty formidable.
On our way back to the car, we spotted a US veteran. I was a little shy of talking to him at first because I didn’t want to seem rude or disrespectful, or annoying. I asked one of the people he was with if he’d mind us bothering him and I was assured he loved people bothering him. So, I met my first D-Day veteran, Duckie Robertson, who landed on Omaha Beach on the 6th. He was quite a character. Despite failing eyesight, he spotted my labret piercing and questioned me on it, telling me it, “looks like shit, honey.” He can’t have thought it looked too bad though, because his ‘fee’ for a photo was for me to give him three kisses!
It was so fascinating to speak with Duckie, he was telling us all about being stationed in the UK prior to D-Day, in Devon, with a British family who he formed a very close bond with. It’s stupid but it made me feel a little bit proud to think that the US soldiers were made to feel so welcome and treated with such warmth while they were stationed in England. After we’d been chatting to him for a while, someone else came over to get him to sign a WWII book. When he flicked to a page showing a German soldier he proclaimed, “Look at that Jerry sonovabitch,” which did make me laugh quite a lot. Duckie says he just, “says it how it is.” I think if you made it up Omaha Beach on D-Day, you’ve earned the right to say whatever the heck you like. It was a real honour to meet such a character, I’m so glad people like Duckie were still able to make it to Normandy to mark this anniversary.
On our way to our next port of call, we happened on the Overlord Museum, which turned out to be one of the best museums we visited. It’s well worth a stop if you’re in the area.
Our next stop was the American Cemetery behind Omaha Beach. I’ve seen it on TV and in movies, but they really don’t do it justice. Seeing those seemingly endless rows of crosses stretching as far as you can see really stops you in your tracks. I struggled to comprehend what I was looking at, if I’m honest.
I was holding my composure reasonably well until I spotted a grave for an unknown soldier. I don’t know why that’s so much more tragic than the ones with names, but it got to me. That man gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country and the Allied forces, and we don’t even know who he was. I’m not ashamed to say that I stood and cried.
We walked around for a while, it really is a beautiful, well-maintained and peaceful place. Eventually we walked to an area we suspected got less foot-traffic than elsewhere and chose a grave at random to place one of our poppy crosses. It’s really the least we could do.
And so that was the end of our first day in Normandy. Already I could tell this was going to be a pretty special and memorable trip.
Our evening ended with a barbecue on the campsite, then a lovely hour spent ignoring each other and using the campsite wifi in the bar. I see that I noted in my holiday diary that Jo pushed me in a hedge on the way back to the tent. In fact, she may even have shouted, “HEDGE!” as she did so. Do you see the abuse have to put up with?
There will be more of our Normandy adventures to follow on several other long-winded and rambling blog posts….
I’ve been back from my holiday for two weeks, so I’m very tardy at writing a blog about it. I went to Florida for the fourth time with my bestest mate Jo. We booked it in August, so I have been looking forward to it, and saving up for it, for what seems like a very long time.
Our itinerary was very hectic for this trip, I don’t think we’ve ever attempted to pack in as much in one holiday before. Despite a few days of rain which cocked plans up somewhat, we managed to visit Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios, Universal Islands of Adventure and Seaworld theme parks; plus Aquatica, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach water parks. On top of that we had about three shopping trips and drove to the middle of nowhere to swim with manatees.
The swimming with manatees was an incredible experience. Being the pessimist that I am, I was convinced that we wouldn’t actually get to see any. They’re wild manatees swimming in freshwater springs, you’re not guaranteed to find any who are willing to tolerate a load of tourists swimming by them. The first time our captain spotted a manatee, we got all togged up in our wetsuits and snorkels, got off the boat and swam around in the murky water to no avail, the manatee had gone. So by the time we got off the boat in the second location I’d given up hope. I was actually beginning to get very frustrated as other people could clearly see a manatee (Jo included), and I couldn’t see a thing. That’s when I felt something pretty substantial bump me from underneath. I was right above it! These things are monstrous, up to three metres long, but they are so serene and gentle. I feel really honoured to have patted one and swam beside one. There was another one later who came up for air right in front of me, and looked me square in the face as it went back down. It was a pretty spine-tingling moment. This is one of the cuties we swam with!
Here you can see Jo (with the red swimming noodle) trying to get a shot of one with our underwater camera.
New experiences this time included the Cheetah Hunt rollercoaster at Busch Gardens, which has three high speed launches. It was OK, but the ride in between the launches was pretty slow. The Aquatica water park was also new, but it was nowhere as good as the Disney water parks. They make a massive fuss over the fact they have a flume that goes through the dolphin pool. I went on it, and I couldn’t see a thing.
Another new ride was Universal’s Hollywood Rip Rocket rollercoaster, which has a vertical lift. It. Is. Terrifying. The ride’s gimmick is that you choose a song to be played to you as you ride. I picked the Beastie Boys both times I rode. The second time I went on, I got put right on the front, which was awesome, but really scary. The first bit is the most terrifying. This video doesn’t even do it justice!
I’m not going to waffle on for hours and hours about my holiday in tedious detail. But here are some things I saw that are worth remarking on:
* a roadside stall selling “peachs” and gator jerky. Frankly, I’m not going to buy a meat product from someone with such a bad command of plurals.
* a man wearing a Florida (the “Sunshine State”) T-shirt that said, “Welcome to the Gunshine State”, and some charming slogan about shooting first and asking questions later. Mind-boggling.
* Denny’s diner’s new range of bacon desserts, including ice cream sundaes and milkshakes, all complete with bacon. *retches*
My favourite park by far is Universal islands of Adventure, especially the Marvel Super Hero Island. This year I was a sad loser and had my photo taken with all the characters. My favourites were Captain America and Wolverine.
Next time we go (hopefully 2015) the new Transformers ride will be open, and the Harry Potter expansion will be complete. I can’t wait!