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


Setting out the monuments, Normandy 2014

As the touring season starts, the battlefield guides in Normandy turn to one of the hardest tasks of the year, pulling the monuments out of winter storage and setting them back in place for the touring season.

The crew starting in the wee hours of the morning at Vierville

Each year in the fall, the guides and some volunteers painstakingly remove each of the monuments from the battlefield and place them in storage for the winter. Paul Woodadge related to me on our first visit, during the 65th anniversary in 2009, “In 2003, we’d forgotten to put the Walter Mitty Leadership Memorial into storage and it got all knackered up. The artist had passed away, so the Mayor of St-Nulle-Part-Terre-sur-mer sent it to China. What came back didn’t look quite the same.”

Chinese Peace Memorial

The Walter J. Mitty Leadership Memorial

Noted author Kevin Hymel spent the first hour of our work talking at great length about the storms that ravage Normandy in the winter. If you haven’t heard him play the roles of Eisenhower, Montgomery and Group Captain Stagg in telling the story of the invasion, you really haven’t had the full Normandy experience. Someone whispered to me that Stagg actually did not have a cockney accent, but no one ever stops Kevin, because it’s simply hilarious.

The day starts early, with groups meeting each sector of the battlefield for a long day’s work. Professor John McManus told me while he sipped his coffee this morning and rubbed his sore hands, “It really is one of the great unknown tasks performed by the guides. I’ve been coming for several years now, since the physical contact with monuments really brings home just how difficult the invasion was for these young men.”

Up and down the coast, as well as inland, crews are lugging, tugging, and sometimes carrying monuments back into place. At mid-morning, Dale Booth led the team at La Fiere, ably assisted by Russ Littel and his wife Kate Deyermond, plus my wife Melisssa. As he was wiggling the bas-relief back into place, he reminded me that “many hands make for light work.” Indeed, this year seems to have drawn the largest contingent of helpers in recent memory. All the hard work does come with some unforgettable moments, such as Bob Sabasteanski had the year he got to help Major Howard drag Pegasus Bridge back into place.

Dale Booth adjusting the map at La Fiere. I tried videotaping the movement of this from storage, but they needed my help carrying it.

We finished in mid-afternoon, so I was able to sit with Joe Muccia over a glass of Calvados and pen this little note to bring you all up to date on the project. Melissa is enjoying her Pommeau and our dear friend, Tom Soah has a wee dram that he’s nursing.

I got started in the monument re-placement business back in the 1990s, when Tom Desjardin called on volunteers from the Gettysburg Discussion Group to roll those monuments out of storage every April. Following their lead in Normandy, “Le Poisson d’Avril” as they call their group, trudges out in the night in the last few hours of March, to be ready for the 1st of April.

Many thanks for reading and may you enjoy your own “poisson d’avril” today….



Top-ranking posts

Being the end of the year, I thought I’d look at some statistics and share them.

My top-ranking posts since I started this blog is dominated by one post, but the top 5 are all good posts:

Thanksgiving 1944         1,413

This got a huge number of hits due to being linked at Ace of Spades, thanks to our friends at Bring the Heat. On Thanksgiving of 1944, Eisenhower ordered that all soldiers have a turkey dinner. For airborne engineer John Carter, that provided a very humorous story that I was able to post the video of. I have some further videos of an interview with Carter and a couple of other stories. He’s quite a comedian.

Young Marine Passes         297

While the Marine Corps is made up of strong men, they also have strong hearts. A couple of times recently, they’ve made young men with terminal illnesses honorary Marines. The story of Cody Green and his honor guard, SGT Mark Dolfini, can’t help but move one to tears.

Denzel Washington at the Fisher House         236

Denzel Washington is among my favorite actors. He has great range and conveys the emotions of his characters very well. Some of his roles have been as military men and he’s gotten attached to the Fisher House. Fisher House Foundation is best known for a network of comfort homes where military and veterans’ families can stay at no cost while a loved one is receiving treatment. When Washington visited the Fisher House at Brooke Army Medical Center in 2004, his generosity launched an urban legend.

The Beast of Omaha         148

Heinrich Severloh was a German machine gunner at Omaha Beach and the horrors he helped inflict that day stayed in his dreams until his death in 2006.

The end of an era         136

For about a decade, Paul Woodadge built up a battlefield tour business in Normandy, expanding from a one-man operation, hiring several others to lead tours. Battlebus was the best tour company in Normandy and even had tours in Bastogne. Unfortunately, running a complex business and dealing with French tax and employment laws meant that Paul stopped being able to lead tours himself. While I lamented the end of an era, it meant that Paul could go back to doing what he loved. He also had time to publish Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day (Normandy Combat Chronicles) (Volume 1)



On Green Beach

In our recent trip to southern France, I did manage to squeeze in some time down at Green Beach, where most of the 36th Infantry Division came ashore. Since our stay in France was focused on two weeks in Avignon, Green Beach was quite a long drive – over two hours from our lodgings. The short trip up to the Montelimar battle square was far shorter.

36th BeachWe drove into the area Frejus, having used the A8 highway to come east from Avignon. Having spent a lot of time in rural France, enjoying the quaint and quiet villages, Frejus itself is something of a shock. We kept saying to each other how much it reminded us of going to Ocean City or the Outer Banks of North Carolina, since it was so Americanized. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say Americanized, just commercialized. The long plage in front of St. Raphael is a marvelous sandy beach and bikini-clad ladies parade past statues to the Senegalese troops, to General de Lattre de Tassigny and to Charles DeGaulle. It’s hard to argue with the people enjoying the beaches that were used in the liberation of France, since the soldiers fought exactly so that the beaches could be used this way. It’s still a little jarring to see a band playing for a crowd next to the statues of 5 soldiers who landed here.

Nonetheless, seeing Frejus Bay, you can understand how this soft sandy beach could have been a nightmare to assault. With the curve of the coastline and the rough terrain on anything that is not a sandy beach, you’d be landing troops into a kill zone. As they’d attack into Saint Raphael, they’d be exposing their backs to gun positions directly to their west. Since the remote-controlled explosive boats sent in to attempt early destruction of the obstacles were unsuccessful (radio interference likely helped scramble the signals and lead to some of these “drone” boats heading back at the fleet instead of into the beach), the Navy wisely decide to divert the planned landing of the 142nd Infantry Regiment from Red Beach and land them on Green Beach, secured hours earlier with the landings of the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 141st Infantry Regiment.

Green BeachBecause the 142nd diverted to Green Beach, where the 143rd Infantry Regiment had followed the landings of the 141st, all of the troops of the Division, other than the 1st Battalion of the 141st, ended up landing on Green Beach. So, it comes as no surprise that when it came time to commemorate the landing of the Division in France, that the monument went up on Green Beach. Of course, when we go to the parking area, I had to race to the beach first (and not just because there was a restroom down there, but that did spur me forward).

The shocker: it’s not a sandy beach. The entire landing area is covered with gallets, stones from the size of your hand to the size of your head. Needless to say, on the day that all the other beaches were swarmed with sun-worshippers, this beach had only a few dozen families. Melissa and I took off our shoes and gingerly approached the water, standing to allow the waters of the Mediterranean to wash over our feet. I raised my hands and shouted, “Lafayette, nous sommes ici!”

The map above does not at all convey what the terrain in the area is like. It’s rocky and hilly, imposing and difficult terrain, even with modern roads in place. Looking at the arrows on that map, you get no sense whatsover of how challenging the route along the coast eastward to Cannes really is. Some the materials I’ve read point out the challenge facing the 141st heading along that road. If you drive it, you can certainly understand how a few determined soldiers with machineguns and some explosives could halt a battalion-sized advance. The Germans, having been at war for half of a decade were experts at such actions. Thus, in this terrain, and later in the war in the Vosges Mountains, during the Battle of the Colmar Pocket, small groups in an army which some thought was already beaten, could inflict devastating casualties. This may help explain why, when General Truscott visited General Dahlquist’s headquarters during the battle of Montelimar, saw the terrain and the condition of the 36th Infantry Division troops and refrained from relieving Dahlquist on the spot.

As I find so often, when you walk the ground, you gain an understanding that is simply impossible to acquire from books and maps. I wish we’d had more time at Green Beach and been able to visit the drop zones, but mostly, I wish we’d been able to do so with a guide. I could relate some of what I’d read to the places, but it really takes significant study of the history and the terrain to be able to do more than scratch the surface.



One-day Normandy tour choices: Omaha Beach sector

Earlier today, someone asked me about tours in Normandy and, while they are not using one of my three favorite guides, I provided some commentary on places to see. Most guides will tailor their tour at your request and there are some places I see as better spots to visit than others. There are some sites that are basically meaningless without a guide and others in which you’re not really using the guide’s knowledge.

If you have a single day to tour the battlefield with a guide, you want to maximize your time with the tour guide, sticking to sites that are close to each other and where the guide can provide the most impact. Each guide’s knowledge and enthusiasm is different, so I’m just providing my commentary.

I would say that due to the stark images and the general silence and emptiness of the German military cemetery at La Cambe, that it is a must, especially if your guide has stories to relate while you’re there. The small museum there is very well-done. Every guide should be able to relate some of the story of the cemetery and place it in context, so it is better with a guide. You might find it odd that I place this first, but I think that you don’t get as much of both the German perspective and a reminder of the horror that is war anywhere else in Normandy.

Now, since I’m looking at all this from an American perspective, I will only talk about the American sector in this post. My experience in the British and Canadian sector is far more limited, so I can’t speak as well to that.

Pointe du Hoc is absolutely required. If you’re not read The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion by Douglas Brinkley or watched Reagan’s historic speech in 1984 (speech written by then-unheralded Peggy Noonan), you really ought to do so before you go. Reading that will give you the structure and provide an emotive basis for your visit, but nothing really can prepare you for the level of destruction visited upon the landscape by the bombardment. Going down into one of the craters will truly give you a sense of it, but you’ll also get to see how most of the fortifications survived intact, requiring the Rangers to root the Germans out the hard way. Some guides will go with you into the bunkers and continue to explain, while others will simply let you wander. I prefer those who have more stories to tell, so it might be useful to determine in advance which kind of visit to Pointe du Hoc that the guide plans on.

Of course, as an American, you must visit the American cemetery. It is incredibly moving and feels like you’re back in the US, in a good way. You’ll note that all of our boys are facing home. The American cemetery does not allow guides to conduct tours on the grounds, so you are generally given some guidelines and advice, then explore on your own. I prefer to tour that by myself rather than using the guide’s time.

The Church at Angoville au Plainis one of the more moving stories in Normandy and if at all possible, you should try to visit there with Paul Woodadge, whose book, Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day, details the experience of two American paratrooper medics caring for the wounded between enemy lines during the battle. Since this is more in the northern, airborne sector of the American battle zone, I would suggest it only be done as part of an American airborne tour rather than combined with the American cemetery or Omaha Beach. While someone who has read Paul’s book will understand what happened here, someone who has not will have no real understanding without a tour guide to explain. Similarly, having the guide present will make one who feels familiar with the story learn far more.

On Sunday, they were showing Tom Brokaw visiting the village of Graignes with three veterans of the fight there. A number of paratroopers of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment were mis-dropped by about 20 miles and gathered at the village. They held off the 17th SS Division, helping their comrades secure Carentan, allowing a link up between the landings at Utah and Omaha. It would be particularly hard to experience this without a guide, even if you read Tragedy at Graignes: The Bud Sophian Story. It is also remote from much of the other sites.

If you’re only doing a one-day tour, I would recommend you visit Omaha Beach, the American and German cemeteries and Pointe du Hoc. If you manage to study Angoville au Plain or Graignes, you might seek one of those, but likely need to skip something. If you’re seriously into paratroopers or gliders, or have a veteran or other link to Utah Beach, visit those with the guide rather than thinking you can visit everything.



Tour Guide: There’s an app for that
14 July 2011, 18:13
Filed under: Tours, Understanding Battles | Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve probably told people hundreds of times, you have to walk the ground to understand a battle. I also tell people, pull some money out of your pocket and pay for a guide. Simply walking the field helps, but nothing helps you understand as well as somebody standing there, pointing things out to you, explaining the tactics, the strategy and the details of what happened. Preferably, that guide has maps, photos and a handful of eyewitness accounts to help explain things to you.

Six months ago, Eric Wittenburg got himself a Barnes & Noble Nook, exposing some of us to the possibilities for electronics helping historians in transit or in the field and now, the Civil War Trust has just released it’s third “Battle App” covering First Manassass (aka First Battle of Bull Run). It gives someone with an iPhone or iPad an electronic guide to the battlefield.

Like its predecessors, which explore the battles of Gettysburg and Fredericksburg, the new Battle App includes video segments from top historians, period and modern imagery, and detailed topographical maps that help bring the battlefield to life. Improved onboard battle animations and customizable troop displays allow one to stand where the two armies stood and to learn how their attacks and counterattacks unfolded.  Featuring both primary source material and the commentary of respected historians, the “Bull Run Battle App” offers the convenience of a self-guided tour and the expertise of an expert-led exploration. 

Unfortunately, it’s only out for Apple products thus far. Of course, that does leave the door open for Android development. When I was last in Normandy, Dale Booth and I discussed adding some kind of tool like this for his tours. I have been toying with the idea of developing applications on tablets and especially with this kind of an application in Normandy. There would be so much more that could be done if Dale, Paul or Allan could hand each client (or even just a couple of them) a tablet that they could use during the tour to look at the various maps and photos that they currently display on laminated sheets. In some cases, we could even add videos of veterans speaking while you stand on the spot where they fought.

Now, in my mind, this is only an additional tool for understanding a battle, just as taking a book or a map into the field will help, it can never take the place of an actual guide. No matter how much information we add to any of the tools, it can never replace what you get from the guide. Try remembering how much you could learn just from your textbooks and how much you learned from your teachers. The guide is a teacher – one who takes you to where the historical events happened and then, through the use of tools, helps you understand.

I think the potential is enormous and it energizes me to continue expanding my technical skills so that I can combine my passion for learning and teaching history with those skills.



Understanding Battles: Multiple Sources
13 March 2011, 16:49
Filed under: Gettysburg, Tours, Understanding Battles

I remember when I was a teenager, going to the library and they would have various activities to keep kids busy. One time, we were sitting, listening to someone give a talk when suddenly someone burst into the room, ran to the front, shot a squirt gun at the speaker and ran out. Then, they had us recount what we thought happened. Of course, everyone saw something slightly different, remembering different details, or even inventing new ones. As more people contributed, people’s stories also changed somewhat, to meet the group consensus. It was a great lesson in understanding perspectives.

History is no different than that crime scene witness exercise. Every witness has a different story and it’s by reviewing all of the perspectives that you have an opportunity to understand what really happened.

When I was last in Normandy, I was thinking about this. Touring with Allan, Dale and Paul, especially when visiting the German cemetery at La Cambe, you definitely realize that the common perspective we have doesn’t usually include anything about the German soldier’s experience.

I had never realized that when studying the American Civil War just how blessed we are to be able to see many perspectives. When you stand on Little Round Top near General Warren’s statue, you can look out and see where the Confederates were spotted advancing toward the high ground. If you’re lucky, Tom Desjardin, who wrote Stand Firm Ye Boys from Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign will be around to tell a humorous story that varies marketly from Warren’s account of seeing the sun glint off Confederate bayonets. Reading the accounts of a variety of officers and men who were present, you can weigh what each man wrote, evaluating the accounts based on where the author was at the time, what information he’d have been privy to at the time, when the account was writing, what motives the author had (like Warren wanting to make himself look brilliant instead of stubborn and foolish) and a variety of other factors. Oh, and that’s just the primary sources….

If you read Eric Wittenburg’s or David Powell’s blogs, you get to see a lot of evaluations of sources. Recently, Eric wrote about the four cannons firing at Brinkerhoff’s Ridge at the start of Stuart’s visit to the East Cavalry Field that provides a good example of this kind of evaluation. Dave performs a similar task at Chickamauga in this post.

In much of my reading and touring of the Normandy battlefields, while we sometimes are able to discuss a variety of Allied accounts of the action, the Germans often have no voice. So, I picked up a few new books written from the German perspective. When I’m back in Normandy in the fall, I might see if any of our three intrepid guides has been able to put together a “German Highlights Tour” or maybe I’ll ask if they have a day where we could get together and discuss that, to add it to their separate repertoires.



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.




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