30 years ago today: Bayeux and the fabled day on the Mulberry beach at Arromanches.


Previously: 30 years ago today: Exterior memories of the Palace and Park of Versailles.

Day 99 … Thursday, July 23
Paris → Bayeux. Arrive mid-day. Mild evening.

Day 100 … Friday, July 24
Bayeux. Arromanches, gas (wine) cans on the beach, etc. Sunburn. Drunkenness.

The train for Bayeux departed Paris from Gare St. Lazare. Bob had only two days remaining before peeling away to complete his journey elsewhere. After almost 10 seconds of reflection, I had decided to join Barrie in continuing from France to Ireland via the free Eurailpass sailing from either Cherbourg or Le Havre. My original plan was to resume my solo travels elsewhere, but in truth, we were having too much fun to stop.

We’d spend our last two days as a trio in Normandy.

As in 1985, the Family Home hostel was the choice for accommodations in Bayeux. In contrast with 1985’s impromptu mattress dorm in the attic, we were able to get a triple room.

In a Google street view from 2015 or 2016, the by-then defunct hostel’s sign still could be viewed on the building. The beds cost a bit more than I’d have liked, but there was a bonus in the form of a nightly communal meal for guests, which was very inexpensive and came with equally affordable wine.

We took advantage of this culinary feature on Thursday evening, though not before foraging first. At a neighborhood mom ‘n’ pop grocery store, Barrie made an epochal discovery.

Plastic 5-liter gas cans of red table wine were available at this grocery store for an obscenely cheap price, the equivalent of $10 or thereabouts. The wine wasn’t local; “Vin de Pays de l’Aude” identifies the wine as from Languedoc, or the region around Carcasonne and Montpellier — as far south from Normandy as one might go, on the Mediterranean Sea or near it.

A meat counter was spotted in the rear of the store. Barrie pointed at a sizable salami, and when the shopkeeper gestured toward the scale and asked in French how much he wanted, the reply was “un kilo, por favor.”

Note that “por favor” is “please” in Spanish, not French.

Note also that now, in addition to baguettes, cheese and tomatoes, we had 10 liters of red wine in two dusty plastic gas cans and 2.2 pounds of salami.

The shopkeeper looked as though he’d hit the lottery.

On Friday morning we awoke to clouds and mist, loaded our day packs with wine and salami, and caught a bus a few miles to Arromanches-les-Bains, situated in the geographical center of the invasion tableau on Gold beach, site of the first Mulberry artificial harbor installation.

From this point forward, the photos are presented chronologically.

I’ve previously written about my visit to the vicinity in 1985, and it applies equally to 1987.

Knowing that that the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944 comprised the biggest amphibious invasion in military history proved to be inadequate preparation for viewing the ocean from the high ground, then trading places at water’s edge to look back inland, and being overwhelmed by what it must have felt like waist-deep in salt water, having nowhere to go except forward.

Most of the invading force came from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, assigned landing beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword (from west to east). However, troops also were present from Australia and New Zealand, as well as in small numbers from occupied European countries: Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Greece, Netherlands, Norway and Poland.

There had been a great disinformation campaign on the part of the Allies, one designed to confuse the Germans as to the landing site. It worked to a significant degree, but perhaps the single biggest hindrance to an effective coastal defense stemmed from the larger strategic picture, because German wartime strength was waning.

Guns and ammo were less of an issue. Contrary to popular belief, Germany was able to keep up its war production in material terms in spite of relentless bombing, which Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe was unable to impede. War production went underground, literally and figuratively, but Allied control of the skies proved vital as the Normandy invasion unfolded.

More importantly, Germany’s two-sided war was in the process of bleeding manpower to the breaking point. By 1944, the Germans were in retreat across the entirety of the Eastern Front, where the Red Army’s seemingly limitless numbers and escalating tactical abilities gained traction in proportion with the increasing exhaustion of the Germans.

Indeed, then as now, Americans need to understand that the outcome of the Great Patriotic War – as WWII was called in the Soviet Union – hinged on horrifically costly combat in the East. Tens of millions died there. US forces bore the brunt in the Pacific, while in Europe, the Soviets punished Adolf Hitler.

Consequently, Germany was weakened, and France’s coastal defenses were only partially completed and inadequately manned. Hitler’s constant military meddling added a further level of dysfunction; the perfectly capable general Erwin Rommel was on the job, and yet the dictator insisted on moving chess pieces from Berlin.

In spite of these many advantages, Operation Overlord was far from a sure thing. The Allies aimed to shift 150,000 soldiers across an unpredictable ocean, albeit over a relatively short distance from England. Even a slight shift in the weather might have wreaked havoc.

Not only were fighting men in route on small transports. Big naval ships had to be positioned for shelling, and parachutists had to be dropped behind enemy lines. There were supplies to be landed, too, primarily by means of an improvisational device called the Mulberry, which was a floating harbor to be assembled where natural contours were lacking.

As almost always is the case in war, it came down to the heroism and tenacity of the foot soldiers. On the Allied side, casualties during the first day alone exceeded 10,000, one of whom was my old friend Barrie’s father, who received a Purple Heart. More than 4,000 of his comrades died.

June 6 ended with five contested, bumpy bridgeheads for the Allies, and yet these lines held and were expanded during the remainder of June. By the end of the month, close to 900,000 troops had poured into this continental foothold.

You know the rest of the story.

For the remainder of the day, we didn’t get far from the starting block. The mist burned off, the sun came out, and the wine was being consumed at exactly the prodigious pace you’d fully expect from the likes of us. We started the day almost alone at the historic sites. My early afternoon, the remainder of France had come out to the beach.

Yet again, as the day grew hotter, we found ourselves in the unenviable position of being horribly over-dressed for the beach scene. Wine helped with this, though it did not prevent considerable sunburn.

The scenery had become steadily more fabulous in concert with our intoxication, but it was unavoidable; we’d have to go back to Bayeux and sleep.

Don’t ask me how we found the bus stop at this stage. There were two elderly invasion veterans aboard (from Scotland, I think), and Barrie had an animated conversation with them.

At last, Bayeux. Apparently Barrie had tired of me taking photos of him, and I can’t say I blame him.

The evening concluded back at the Family Home hostel, at another communal meal. Bob and I are of the opinion that something strange happened while we were dining — some spillage or a breakage, perhaps. We’ve no idea what form this might have taken.

The following morning, Bob departed. Barrie and I were down to a liter or two of jug wine. At least half the salami remained, as well as a final tiring day.

Next: Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc and a chance meeting with Leon Bourse.