We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


LCI man, Don Kemsley, oral interview

Canadian sailor Don Kemsley’s journal is must-read material and on the 6th, Sandy included a special treat – an oral interview her father gave. After dropping off British troops at Gold Beach, Kemsley’s LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) brought American troops across the Channel. He mentions my favorite fishing village in Normandy, Port-en-Bessin, which is just east of Omaha Beach. I don’t think Don had a chance to buy Calvados from the market on a Sunday morning, but he and many other veterans made it possible for us to do so. Thanks, Don!



Weekend Wanderings: D-Day Weekend 2011

On the eve of the 67th anniversary of the landings in Normandy, I thought I would share some interesting D-Day links.

  • Patrick Elie has created D-Day: Etat de Lieux to not only commemorate D-Day itself, but also to act as a collection point for information on the ceremonies held each year. It is the most reliable site to find out which towns are holding events and when. After the events, Patrick adds photos to that year’s page to bring it to life.
  • There is a webcam in the Normandy American Cemetery. While it’s not the same as being there, it is still stunning. (0800-2030, Paris time, so 0200-1430 EST)
  • The Dead Man’s Corner museum website is one of the more modern historical websites and serves one of the better museums in Normandy. It’s also where I got to meet Bill Galbraith and Manny Barrios of I/3/506 during the 65th anniversary.
  • Mark Bando’s Trigger Time is a source of extensive information on American Airborne forces. Bando has written multiple books on the subject and leads tour as well.


The Beast of Omaha
4 May 2011, 19:21
Filed under: German Perspective, Normandy | Tags: ,

In reading Richard Hargreaves The Germans in Normandy to learn the German perspective on the Normandy invasion, I came across a passage that simply rattled me. After the bow ramps came down on the first boats landing in front of WN62 on Omaha Beach….

They jumped into the cold water up to their chests and shoulders. Some disappeared under the water for a moment, and half swimming, half wading, they began to move slowly on to the beach in front of our strongpoint. At this moment there was complete silence in the bay; not one shot was fired. We had strict orders to wait until the GIs were only about 400m from the edge of the beach and were wading in water up to their knees….

Once the Americans had firm ground under their feet, they waded in two long lines, one after the other, through the water, with the left hand firmly on the pack of the man in front. Everything was so calm, so organized, that you had the impression that they were merely carrying out an exercise.

The Americans struggled forward with their weapons and packs through the high surf of the cold sea, slowly and utterly unprotected. We were well aware that the GIs below us were being led like lambs to the slaughter.

Then the firing commenced and all hell broke loose. Heinrich Severloh, who wrote that passage above, fired thousands of rounds from a machine gun and hundreds from his rifle. While his own estimates of how many men he killed and wounded is nearly as many as the total American casualties on Omaha Beach, one can be certain that he witnessed and took part in an absolute horror.

By 1959, his story was known in the US and he was nicknamed, “The Beast of Omaha”. Terrible dreams afflicted him until his death in 2006.



Weekend Wanderings: Bataan Death March 69th Anniversary
10 April 2011, 11:30
Filed under: Leadership, Normandy, POWs, Veterans, Weekend Wanderings | Tags: , ,

One of the most tragic events for Americans in World War II unfolded 69 years ago. Approximately 75,000 Americans and Filipinos who had surrendered on Bataan were force-marched to prisoner of war camps. At least 6,000 to 11,000 never reached the camps. Another example of man’s inhumanity to man….



Goodbye, Major

As this posts, the memorial service for Major Winters is starting in Hershey, Pennsylvania. While the accolades that have been bestowed upon him reflect things we should have noticed in many more officers during World War II and many conflicts since, I think it fitting and proper that we commemorate the service and the example of Dick Winters. He was a skilled and caring leader of men. There were others like him, but he’s the one we know the best.

There is a good slideshow of photos in tribute to the Major. You can also check a report on the ceremony held in late January for Major Winters in Carentan.

There is movement to erect a monument in Normandy, using his likeness and

identified as 1st Lt. Richard Winters, E-Company, 506th PIR, 101st Airborne, but will also be representative of ALL U.S. Army junior officers of all the divisions who were responsible for leading soldiers into combat in Normandy on June 6, 1944 and will showcase all the division names and corps of those who fought in Normandy in the very early stages of D-Day. The monument will prominently feature the words Leadership 6-6-1944 and a quote from Major Winters below his likeness which will read: “Wars do not make men great, but they do bring out the greatness in good men.” The monument will also have the words inscribed: Dedicated to all U.S. Army junior officers who led the way on June 6, 1944.

I do support this, because it is dedicated to all those junior officers, without whom failure of the whole enterprise would have been certain.



Bryson’s website up!

For all those of you who’ve been searching and hitting my blog looking for Allan Bryson’s tours, there’s good news. Allan’s website is up now! I heartily recommend Allan’s tours, as well as those by the other two Battlebus alumni that I’ve had tours with Dale Booth and Paul Woodadge.

In regards to evaluations, I’d say that Dale is probably the best speaker of the three, having spent some time in sales management for Ford Motor Company. He was also Paul’s first hire, so has long experience giving tours and covers all sectors well. He also trained some of the other Battlebus guides (whom I don’t know) in how to give tours. Allan may have more depth of knowledge on the American airborne and has been working on a book on it with Paul. As to Paul, he’s probably more knowledgeable than anyone you’ll meet. He’s been giving tours the longest and provided the structure for Battlebus and the set of tours each of them gives.

I expect that in five years, each of them will have evolved their style and selection of tours, but currently they are similar. Paul has come up with a schedule he’ll use – offering the two-day American Experience Tour every Monday & Tuesday, then the Band of Brothers Tour on Wednesdays – so that it should ease the hassle of scheduling, while still allowing him to offer British and Canadian tours as well as other specific, private tours, on a more limited basis. Paul and Myriam already had extensive experience with more free-form scheduling, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Dale and Allan find some schedule that suits their rythms as well.

Melissa and I will likely be back in Normandy again in September. I think all three are terrific guides, but Dale is Melissa’s favorite, so our guests will have a tour with Dale as the guide. I might also spend a day or half a day with Paul, since he’s written a good monograph on the fight at La Fiere and can give a day-long of just that site.



Understanding Battles: Walking the ground
12 February 2011, 13:10
Filed under: Gettysburg, Normandy, Tours, Understanding Battles

The other day, I was driving out to Camp Highroad for a Boy Scout event and I smiled, because my drive was taking me through the Aldie battlefield. The Battle of Aldie was a rather smallish affair, with just two cavalry brigades involved (2000 Union and 1500 Confederate soldiers). Having been to the battlefield a few times now, it makes more sense how the charges up the Snickersville Turnpike could both be so deadly and be repeated. The twists and turns of the road, the tightness of the walls and the suddenness of the elevation changes all generated confusion and created opportunities for ambushes.

When one reads about battles without visiting them, it is very easy to misunderstand what happened and why. Many times, I’ve been out on a battlefield and looked around, feeling the light bulb inside my head flick on as the movements suddenly made sense. Until I walked the ground and saw what they saw, the actions of the various commanders and soldiers didn’t always make sense. Often, it’s about what can be seen and not seen. Sometimes, it explains why an advance was either easy or difficult.

A fine example is on the first day’s battlefield at Gettysburg. I’d been on the battlefield dozens of times from the early 1990s until 2007, when I organized a training hike for my Philmont crew. I’d never walked the Confederate approach from Chambersburg to GeneralBuford’s lines on McPherson Ridge. I’d driven it dozens of times, but since my Scouts needed some training on ground that was a little “bumpy”, we hiked from the first shot marker eastward. As we cleared Willoughby Run and began hiking up the slight incline, with light packs on our backs, I realized that the slight incline felt a whole lot steeper than “slight”. I’d only looked at it from the top of the ridge (from Union lines) and it never seemed that steep. However, carrying gear and walking up it while imagining musket and cannon fire cleared up a great deal about how Buford’s troops were able to hold the Confederates off that morning.

Similarly, when I was on Omaha Beach in Normandy, it was an eye-opener. Standing on that wide beach, with a perfect curve to it, I realized what a killing field that they landed on. Going to the extreme right of the German line, up on the heights at the east end of the beach, you can visit (if you get the right guides, like Paul, Dale and Allan) WN60 – the German resistance net up on those heights. When you look down across that vast expanse, it’s a wonder the invasion didn’t fail right there.

There is no substitute for walking the ground. Looking at maps or even sampling Google Earth’s views might give you some ideas, but nothing like the stunning effect of standing where the men who fought did. As General Buford said in the movie, it was lovely ground.



The end of an era
13 November 2010, 14:20
Filed under: Normandy, Tours | Tags: , , , , , ,

I got terrible news in Normandy. Battlebus has broken up. Paul had built the business from a one-man shop to six guides and mini-buses, but, from what I understand, he and the other guides will each become to being one-man shops starting in the spring. I toured with Dale Booth and Allan Bryson while in Normandy last month, then exchanged messages with Paul before he made the announcement on the 1st of November. While it will make it more complex for people to book tours with these gents, the good thing is that Paul will be back out giving tours on a regular basis.

I loved a number of things about Battlebus:

  1. Consistency & Competency: You know that Paul wouldn’t hire anyone unless they were good guides and they would follow the general process and format of his tours.
  2. Simplicity: It gave you access to several excellent guides through one email address, one scheduler and one process. It was also easy to remember – I’ve run into people who absolutely remember they used Battlebus, but can’t be certain who the guide was.
  3. Location: By basing out of Bayeux, they were centrally located to go to either the US or British beaches. It’s also just a fantastic area in which to stay. It made giving advice about where to stay in Normandy easy for me. “Just stay within 10k of Bayeux and everything else falls into place.”
  4. Collegiality: Since I kept in touch with them, I knew that in the off-season, these guys were studying and travelling to other sites together, further enhancing their knowledge of Normandy and the war as a whole. Battlebus was more than the sum of its parts.

I think it’s a shame that Battlebus itself has gone away, but at least they will continue to give tours as individuals. I heartily recommend all of them, though I’ve only toured with three.

Paul’s is at paul@ddayhistorian.com and his new website is http://www.ddayhistorian.com

Dale’s email is dboothholidays@sfr.fr and his website is http://daleboothnormandytours.com

Allan’s email is allan.bryson@orange.fr and his website is  http://firstnormandybattlefieldtours.com



Guide Licensing
11 October 2010, 17:05
Filed under: Gettysburg, Normandy, Tours | Tags: , , ,

Recently, the folks who run Segway tours of Washington, D.C., complained to the Washington Post about the requirement for guides to be licensed in DC. I was surprised that there was any guide licensing, but I am a strong proponent of it. The rules strike me as pretty reasonable: pass a basic exam on DC history and pay a $ 200 fee. They see it as a conspiracy to keep the tour business in the hands of a few companies, rather than as a way to ensure that guides actually know what they’re talking about.

What are the arguments of those who oppose licensing of tour guides in DC?

  1. It’s a violation of free speech to prohibit them from referring to themselves as tour guides. This is like saying that it would be a violation of my right to free speech to tell people I’m a cardiologist. Anyone could claim expertise, but when you start charging for the use of that expertise, it’s no longer about speech, but about commerce.
  2. The tour guides from Segs in the City are experts anyway. Sadly, they probably aren’t. The guide interviewed for the story claimed she’d only been wrong once recently, in referring to the “founder of the Smithsonian” as Jonathan Smithson, when his first name is actually James, though she corrected herself shortly thereafter, and “it didn’t ruin anyone’s day” that she’d been wrong. Well, she did get his name right the second time, but she was wrong in identifying him as the founder. It was his money that started it, but it was 7 years after he died that it was founded. That she can’t remember being wrong isn’t proof of the extent of her knowledge. In fact, if you’re very confident when you’re wrong, people will think you’re right. If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you know that such confidence could earn you loads of money giving tours of the Taj Mahal even if you know nothing about it. Her complete lack of concern about being wrong galls me. It also wouldn’t ruin anyone’s day if she mixed up the names of the monuments, but it would still be wrong. Bill Main (the other owner of Segs in the City) stated that the Dred Scott decision “was on the books for a long time before it was changed, too,” though it was never actually overruled and was rendered moot with the passing of the 14th Amendment a mere 11 years after being written. Interestingly, I am told this same group made the same claim in Gettysburg, and failed the guide exam miserably.
  3. Some tour guides would only work one month, so the fee and background check is excessive. This is exactly the kind of people that are better off NOT charging money for tours. You have a bunch of college kids who generally haven’t lived in DC and don’t know the area, let alone have any depth of knowledge about it. Why should they be claiming to be experts and giving tours? The trouble for the unlicensed tour companies is that the fee and background check would either discourage young people from applying for the jobs (if they have to pay it) or reduce the company’s profits (if the company pays it). If someone only works as a tour guide for a month, what expectation is there that they know anything about the city? Heck, it sounds like the guides they hire are just doing it on a lark. Do we really want people who come to our nation’s capital expecting a serious, knowledgeable tour guide to be greeted by someone who only plans on doing it for a month before they go start their “real jobs”? Or do we want tours to be given by people who are professional and serious about it?

I think giving tours is a serious business and it’s one that’s incredibly easy to fake. All you have to do is be confident, talk fast and move quickly. Why is it easy?

  1. Tourist openly admit their ignorance. The tourist is in an incredibly vulnerable position. By seeking out a tour guide, one openly admits to lacking knowledge about the area. If the tour guide is very confident, but simply inventing facts, only a knowledgeable tourist would notice.
  2. In a busy enough location, reputation is irrelevant. If tourists are constantly arriving, you don’t have to worry if some of them think your tour was useless. They’ll go away and you’ll never see them again. Also, new customers will replace them immediately. Guide books or websites might help someone find a good guide or avoid a bad one, but when there’s another sucker born every minute, who cares?

So, I think licensing of guides is important and useful. What is the major benefit of guide licensing?

Some knowledge is guaranteed. Depending on how difficult you make the exam, you guaranteeing at least some level of knowledge in every guide. Gettysburg’s exam is intensely difficult, such that people devote years to studying for it, while the DC exam is apparently easy, with 91% of those taking the 100-question exam passing it. I’ve always been in favor of technical certifications because they ensure that the holder of the certificate at least knows the basics. If you have have to pay for your license, as well as pass an exam and a background check, you’re obviously going to be committed to it. It’s not something you do on a whim for a month. It makes the guiding business a career not a summer job.

Of course, what it really means is : The public can be certain they aren’t being ripped off.

I think having guide licensing would be very advantageous in Normandy. Tourists would be assured of at least a minimum quality for their guides and history wouldn’t get mangled by people who mean well but don’t know what they’re talking about.



Normandy battlefield preservation
16 September 2010, 18:02
Filed under: Gettysburg, Normandy | Tags: , , ,

I was just posting a note to the Easy Company re-enactors about the Gettysburg casino and it morphed into a discussion of preservation and licensing of battlefield guides. As I neared the end of the post, I realized it was really something I ought to post here.

Having spent a number of years becoming familiar with American Civil War battlefield preservation and with the Gettysburg battlefield in particular, I’d been surprised when touring the Normandy battlefields for the first time that there are no French laws about battlefield preservation in Normandy. In theory, you could build whatever you want, wherever you want.

This gigantic silver-winged woman is supposed to represent peace

Having spent a number of years becoming familiar with American Civil War battlefield preservation and with the Gettysburg battlefield in particular, I’d been surprised when touring the Normandy battlefields for the first time that there are no French laws about battlefield preservation in Normandy. In theory, you could build whatever you want, wherever you want. One case in point is the 30-foot tall statue that China donated to Grandcamp-Maisy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It dominates the surrounding terrain (nothing else is over half it’s height) and especially the monument to the National Guardsmen who fought there. Of course, as we saw at Gettysburg, even having rules would likely not have prevented this well-intentioned monstrosity (though the locals may have rejected it had they seen it in advance). When talking with Paul Woodadge at the time, he felt that one of the good things about having no areas marked legally off-limits to development is that every piece of ground could be considered historically significant and worthy of protection. That is, if you mark only certain areas as protected, you lose the right to oppose development on areas not specifically protected. If I recall correctly, this very problem has occurred in Antietam, where someone put up several statues on their own land that may not fit in with typical battlefield interpretation. In Gettysburg, it’s lead to arguments over whether to allow a casino to be placed near the battlefield or even on non-protected battlefield land. Eric Wittenburg, who is an eminent civil war cavlary historian has noted that even preservation groups might end up supporting this nonsense.

Fortunately, Normandy is in the middle of nowhere from a French perspective (three hours from Paris, mon dieu!) with minimal industry and not a lot of job growth. Being so far from Paris makes it off the beaten track for any internationalists out there and without a lot of infrastructure that developers crave. The population of France is growing slowly – about half a million more people per year, I think – so there isn’t a high demand for new housing. Also, Utah and Omaha beaches are not particularly warm and delightful, even in summer (you see more French vacationers further east, near Honfleur and Le Havre). I’m guessing that if you’re a beach-lover, you end up with choices close to the beaches in Normandy if you want them.  So, there’s not a lot of pressure to put new housing or resorts in Normandy. Melissa and I love it there and hope it never changes significantly.

Having seen what can happen when you do have demarcation lines in Gettysburg – that is, some people will think that anything outside the lines is fair game – I wonder if Paul is right. I would think that identifying the battlefield in Normandy might well be an impossible task because…. the whole of Normandy was the battlefield.

That said, I know that the southern end of the causeway into Carentan is far more densely built than it was in 1944. Similarly, Easy’s assault into Carentan, as shown in the series, approached the edge of town in 1944 (open fields on either side of the road) and now proceeds through an industrial and residential section of town. Carentan is likely the most changed part of the battlefield, since it has some light industry and has grown in population over the last 65 years.

If you wander back north, visiting Angoville-au-Plain, you’ll find that the commune has around 40 residents, just as it did in 1944. The town changed hands several times and I would venture that not a foot of ground couldn’t be labelled battlefield ground. How, then, would you regulate or legislate what these people could do with their land? All of Normandy suffered dearly for being a battlefield, with many civilians killed and wounded, others homeless and all scarred by what they endured. Would it be fair to rule that they and their descendants be again bombarded, this time by regulations? Or should we work to keep the history alive, the appreciation in the hearts and words of the French people and the love of that place alive in Americans? I’m not sure what the right plan is, but I know I want to be involved in ensuring Normandy can remain tranquil and beautiful, a monument to the people and to the soldiers who fought there.




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