Reflections from Normandy Part 5: Utah and the Airborne

Overview of all five beaches of the D-Day landings

Overview of all five beaches of the D-Day landings

After a short detour inland on the highway towards Cherbourg, one arrives in the real Band of Brothers country.

Heading back out towards the coast, the first stop is Ste Mère Eglise. This picturesque little town, sitting roughly 10km behind the coastline, was undoubtedly going to see enemy reinforcements piling through once the landings became apparent – which meant that airborne infantry units were parachuted in during the hours before the sea invasion to head off any such threat.

Mixed units of the U.S. 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions were dropped shortly before 02:00 on June 6th – including the real-life Lt. Dick Winters and Easy Company. Due to an earlier aerial attack fires in the town illuminated the parachutists, resulting in enormous casualties among those directly overhead. Among these men, however, was Private John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whose story would be immortalised in the movie The Longest Day.

Private Steele is a permanent presence watching over visitors to Ste Mère Eglise

Steele escaped the bullets only for his parachute to become ensnared on the church steeple. Steele was wounded and played dead until he was rescued and captured by German troops – although he subsequently escaped and joined forces with the other airborne troops who successfully captured the village. Today a waxwork of Private Steele hangs from the Steeple in perpetuity – a major draw for visiting tourists, who were also being treated to a 1940s dancing display and re-enactment event when the S&G visited.

More re-enactors camped out at Ste Mère Eglise

American hardware was much in evidence throughout Normandy for the 70th anniversary commemorations

Heading back out towards the coast, Utah Beach is seen after driving down a road littered with memorials to the Allied forces, including the Danish seamen as well as markers for every state of the USA at 1km intervals. Once again it was time for a commemorative event when the S&G arrived, bringing with it crowds of French families and, in anticipation of a VIP arrival, many gendarmes too.

The US Navy is featured heavily in the memorials at Utah Beach – and among the artefacts on show

One of the plethora of Sherman tanks to be found in Normandy – outside the Utah Beach museum

Visiting the beach at low tide reveals just what an epic slog it must have been to the heavily burdened G.I.s coming ashore in the murderous fire depicted in that unforgettable opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. It was far and away the most ground that must have been covered and in the most exposed stretch of the beachhead – one of the most unforgiving battlegrounds that could have been imagined.

The vast sweep of Utah Beach is one of the most sobering sights when touring Normandy

Obstacles from the beach intended to delay invading Allied troops in the field of fire

Former defensive fortification now part of the Utah Beach memorials

And, with that, a whistle-stop tour of the Normandy beaches was concluded. There is much more to be seen and much more to report on, but for now it is to be hoped that the rest of the commemorations on all sides pass off successfully and that these site and sights continue to be visited for many generations to come.

Watercress Line goes back in time

In a fit of feeling that perhaps we were, as a family, ignoring the wonders of steam we went to the Watercress Line’s ‘War on the Line’ event a couple of years ago. It’s one of the highlights of the year for the – ahem – army of re-enactors who spend their weekends in all weathers getting themselves all dolled up as servicemen and women and scaring small children with their impromptu renditions of Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

War on the Line is an annual weekend-long festival

War on the Line is an annual weekend-long festival

The Watercress Line runs through four immaculately restored stations between Alton and Alresford in Hampshire and features a number of specialist events, from Thomas & Friends for the youngsters to real ale weekends for chaps with a fondness for sandals and facial topiary. Or maybe Inspector Morse. However, for one weekend each year the entire line is given over to the sights and sounds of the Home Front in 1939-45.

And I mean the whole line…

Now come on - you don't see that every day

Now come on – you don’t see that every day

You never know who will be on your carriage

You never know who will be on your carriage

Once you’ve accepted that the 21st Century got left behind in the car park, things soon become startlingly normal, being back in the mid-1940s. One starts to wonder whether any of the people around you own a television. Or a pair of jeans. The thing is that after going to all the trouble of getting kitted out to the enth degree of accuracy, the allure of modern dress must dwindle significantly.

For one weekend a year, the trains are about the least historic thing on view

For one weekend a year, the trains are about the least historic thing on view

The ideal spot for a bacon buttie and cup of Rosie Lee

The ideal spot for a bacon buttie and cup of Rosie Lee

On our visit the American GIs were far and away the most numerous of all the social groups sculling around the Hampshire countryside. Perhaps it’s the desire to be over-sexed and over-paid, or the popularity of Saving Private Ryan. All that can be sure is that every member of the re-enactment congregation is casting an informed eye over their companions and quick to spot the slightest faux pas.

Lunch at the NAAFI wagon

Lunch at the NAAFI wagon

Shopping for those essential little details or a whole new outfit

Shopping for those essential little details or a whole new outfit

For anyone thinking of going to the Goodwood Revival, the dedication of the visitors to the Watercress Line is a salutary lesson. Not much here came from eBay or a joke shop. In fact one does feel a touch concerned in the summer sunshine that the pervading scent of mothballs might suddenly ignite into a ten mile long fireball…

Spivs selling nylons and other black market goodies are popular

Spivs selling nylons and other black market goodies are popular

Many photo opportunities are to be had at an event like this

Many photo opportunities are to be had at an event like this

Ryan's privates need saving again, I see...

Ryan’s privates need saving again, I see…

Going to an event like this and not being in period schmutter doesn’t feel altogether odd. Everyone’s just pleased to see you, delighted if you take an interest and getting on with getting on with their weekend. The Watercress Line is an astonishing venue because it filters out pretty well everything that you might expect of modern day-to-day life over such a vast expanse of this green and pleasant land.

I don't know where you get them from but, yes, I want one.

I don’t know where you get them from but, yes, I want one.

In case you were wondering, there are trains too

In case you were wondering, there are trains too

At every station there are things to see

At every station there are things to see

It really is a fantastic day out, with not a stick-on moustache in sight. Why not pop over to the Watercress Line and book your tickets for this year’s show? You never know where it might take you…

The jitterbug club stops for tea

The jitterbug club stops for tea

SAS call in for a cheap day return

SAS call in for a cheap day return

Knackered WAAF takes time out at the end of the day

Knackered WAAF takes time out at the end of the day