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

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.

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.

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.

What really happened?

In my research on Edson Raff, I read about an incident that puzzled me, even in it’s basic form. Then, I started to find other versions of the same event and realized that not everyone saw the same thing in the same way. This is one of the joys of being a historian – having the opportunity to piece multiple accounts together to determine what is most likely to have actually happened.

On the 6th of June, Raff landed with his command on Utah Beach, raced forward in an attempt to reinforce the 82nd Airborne with a small armored force. They were able to roll out from the beach, with the roads already having been cleared (not necessarily “secured”), reach the crossroads at Les Forges and look north toward Ste-Mere-Eglise, where part of the 82nd Airborne was supposed to be gathering. I’d first picked this up in Clay Blair’s Ridgway’s Paratroopers, in which Blair relates that Raff’s force was held up…

The Germans who had fled Ste. Mere-Eglise and holed up in the woods to the south of town opened fire with 88s which had been zeroed in on the road. These accurate salvoes hit and destroyed an armored reconnaissance vehicle and three Sherman tanks and inflicted numerous casualties.

I’ve been to Les Forges twice now and it doesn’t seem like that deadly an area at first glance. Route Nationale 13 (N13), which was then a nice little road, is now a highway and it slopes gently down and back up as you approach Ste. Mere-Eglise from the south. It reminds me in that sense of Route 30 in Pennsylvania, as you drive east from Chambersburg to Gettysburg. In both cases, the approach is from a slight rise, with a gentle slope down and back up again. John Buford recognized the value of such ground from the defensive side, deploying his cavalry and cannon to slow the Confederate advance on the first day, west of Gettysburg. The men of the 795th Ost Battalion (Georgian) were posted on Hill 20, south of Ste. Mere-Eglise and for an anti-tank gunner, it is lovely ground.

Being curious about the incident, I searched for more information. I checked Blair’s sources and found two that looked promising, SLA Marshall’s Night Drop and Ralph Ingersoll’s Top Secret.

Marshall is the grand historian of the American airborne and I couldn’t believe that I’d never thought to buy his book. During World War II, Marshall was assigned to the European Theater and, it seems, was assigned the airborne aspect of the Normandy operation as a historian because everyone else was too busy. He was an early proponent of oral history, but his favored technique seems to have been interviewing entire companies at once. He relates in the epilogue to Night Drop that his interviews ended up being battalion-wide and, in the case of the La Fiere causeway fight, two battalions sitting for the interview at once. Marshall was Colonel Marshall at the time and I’ve read that junior officers, like Lieutenant Dick Winters, were generally a little intimidated by him. One can just imagine being interviewed by the Colonel in front of one’s own superior officers, with as much as two battalions of men listening in. While you might get a story that the senior officers could agree upon, it might not be what actually happened.

Though both men had been writers before the war, Ralph Ingersoll was a far different animal. While Marshall comes off as a solid “company man”, Ingersoll strikes me as a maverick. While Marshall worked as a war reporter for the Detroit News, Ingersoll published the leftist daily newspaper, PM, in New York City, which accepted no advertising whatsoever. Somehow, Ingersoll ended up a Major by the time of the Normandy invasion and get himself assigned as the Executive Officer of Raff’s force. After the war, Ingersoll wrote of his adventures in a series of books, with Top Secret including his time in Normandy.

Both men seem to sometimes embellish things for a good story and other times to simply get it wrong. Nonetheless, I mention them because of the drastic contrast in their reporting of the encounter of the Raff force with the Germans (well, Georgians in German uniforms) at Les Forges.

First, let’s look at Ingersoll’s account. Raff decides to send a scout car from Les Forges toward Hill 20….

Raff beckoned him up and said, “Go down and see what you can see.” The lieutenant got in the lead scout and it crept down over the brow of the hill. The tank engines were all silent and the rubber tires of the scout car whispered on the asphalt. It went down the far slope a little and halted to look around. Raff beckoned the sergeant of the nearest or our tank crews. “Go on down after him and cover him,” he said. The tankers climbed in and started their engine. The big hunk of steel lumbered up over the brow of the hill. Then it came close to the scout car and the latter began moving again and the two vehicles dropped down into the valley. In profile, the road made a very flat “U” through the valley. When the two vehicles reached the bottom of the “U”, there were two explosions in quick succession. Standing on the brow of the hill we could see the men piling out of the tank and out of the scout car and diving into the ditch on the right. Then everything was very still. And neither vehicle made a move or sound and nothing whatever happened.

What occurred next was a comedy turned tragic. The scout car and the tank which we had sent out ahead had been fire on all right, but neither had been hit and the crash we had heard happened when the scout car backed up suddenly and rammed its own tank. Both crews thought their vehicles had been struck by enemy fire and had piled out into the ditch. The first survivor was a terrified GI from the tank who had crawled all the way up the hill in the gutter. He reported that he was the sole survivor. Ten minutes later the lieutenant from the scout car came in, having circled through the fields. Sheepishly he explained what had really happened.

Ingersoll continues, describing further action that does involve tanks actually being hit, but the stark difference between Blair’s interpretation and Ingersoll’s first-hand account is shocking. So, of course, when I got my copy of Marshall’s book, that was the first thing I looked for. Marshall’s contemporary interpretation differs slightly.

Raff said to the lieutenant leading the reconnaissance platoon, “Take your scout car up the road and see what you can see.” Then he beckoned to the sergeant of his nearest tank and said, “Go on along and cover him.” The two vehicles advanced about 300 yards along the twisting highway. then Raff heard two explosions close together and saw the tank pile up on the scout car. A few minutes later the lieutenant returned afoot. He explained that one shell had hit his car dead on and, failing to explode, had driven it back into the tank with such violence that the track had been stripped away.

Since Marshall not only has a far different result of the German fire, but also uses slightly different quotes for Raff’s words to the lieutenant and the sergeant, I assumed he had other sources for his story. I was so excited because I thought I had found an account that SLA Marshall hadn’t included in his book. I remained that excited from June to August, continuing to search for more information and thinking I’d made a grand discovery. Then, I met Kevin Hymel, who has written an article about Raff in Normandy and I related the difference between the two accounts. He told me that he believed Marshall got it right, but I wasn’t convinced.

Then, I started to write this post and in the months it has taken me to write it… everything unravelled. Marshall quotes from Ingersoll’s book directly two pages later when describing the glider landings a few hours later. So, Marshall obviously read Ingersoll’s book and could have repeated his account. In Joe Balkoski’s Utah Beach, he doesn’t mention the incident, but he does quote from Ingersoll’s book as well. So, both of them read and disregarded Ingersoll’s account. The torture for me is that I don’t know if Marshall had access to other information (interviews with other men who were there or the after-action report from the tank company) because he doesn’t use footnotes, endnotes or even a bibliography. Balkoski does quote from the AAR of Company C, 746th Tank Battalion about the entire action, so I do know where I can look next. In all likelihood, I’ll never know exactly what happened, but it sure is interesting trying to figure it out….


The other day, I was watching the “Day of Days” episode of Band of Brothers. I was struck yet again how good a job they do of demonstrating leadership.

In my years as a Scoutmaster, I was always looking for ways to make the lessons I’d learned on leadership strike home with the Scouts. Despite the fact that I am a voracious reader, I have never been able to read through any book on leadership other than the ones published by the Boy Scouts. Those spend a lot of time on the organizational roles and not so much time on how to lead. So, though I put copies of those books into Scouts’ hands when they take their Junior Leadership Training classes, I know they won’t learn a lot about how to lead from them. When I teach the classes, the Scouts have trouble absorbing best practices in leadership when it’s theoretical as well as when “role-playing” a leadership situation.

So, when Band of Brothers came out and I watched Lieutenant Dike fail in the attack on Foy, I knew there were some lessons there about leadership. So, I began using that as a visual tool for them to see good and bad leadership techniques. Watching Winters prepare Dike you see a variety of techniques from Winters to try to ensure Dike’s success, from expressing confidence to ensuring he understands and including physical reinforcement as he pats him on the back. Dike flops in a colossal manner and we see Winters torn about what to do. The Scouts are certain to experience nearly every angle of that sequence of events during their career in Scouting (except for the part about getting shot at!) Spiers demonstrates marvelous calm leadership and demonstrates personal commitment to the task. Watching all of that and discussing it turned on far more lightbulbs than I’d ever seen without that video sequence as tool.

I always encourage the Scouts at the end of that video session to start paying attention to the leaders in the war movies they watch. Which of them are effective? What techniques do they use? Will those work for them? Boys may watch war movies twenty times, memorizing lines and being able to tell you who did what at every step of the way, but without this higher focus on leadership, it’s just entertainment to them.

So, the other day, watching Lieutenant Winters and Private Hall, moments after they’ve landed, Band of Brothers instantly demonstrates why Winters really is a leader. They aren’t simply going to tell us the men respected and followed him. They are going to demonstrate Why they do. Hall is very jittery in this scene, worried that he’s lost his radio and that his Lieutenant is going to yell at him. Winters assures him that he’s a rifleman first (guess the Marines have the right idea!), but Hall remains unsettled by the fact that they’re lost. Winters then uses a time-tested military leadership technique – if someone is busy thinking themselves into worry, give them something to do! He also does it in a decidedly friendly way. He asks Hall to watch out for landmarks and, as he goes through the list of potential landmarks, he even injects humor, asking him to look for familiar trees. Right there, he’s won Hall over and when he sticks around for Brecourt Manor, it makes complete sense to us.

I drew the name for this blog from that scene. While in Normandy, our tour guide, Dale Booth told us that the confusion about John D. Hall or John D. Halls misses out on the fact that the soldier was actually a Sargeant, not a private, so my blog changes Winters’ line from “We’re not lost, Private. We’re in Normandy.”

65th anniversaries
17 July 2009, 09:18
Filed under: Books | Tags: , ,

Last year, my lovely wife asked me if I’d be interested in returning to Normandy for the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Of course, I nearly jumped out of my chair. She fell in love with Normandy on our honeymoon and wanted to go back. We are likely to go back several times, I’m sure. We even discussed the idea of moving there, though that is a rather slim possibility for now.

Bill Galbraith and Manny Barrios, with Roger Day in the background

Bill Galbraith and Manny Barrios, with Roger Day in the background

So, we went to Normandy, stayed in a self-catering Gite, toured with Battlebus and visited many sites. The highlight of the trip for me was meeting four men: Roger Day, Ian Gardner, Manny Barrios and Bill Galbraith. Manny and Bill are veterans of I Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Roger and Ian wrote a book about the 506th, Tonight We Die As Men, and the four of them were signing it at the Dead Man’s Corner Museum. I’d heard about it from Paul Woodadge, who runs the Battlebus battlefield tour company, since he would be spending most of June 6th there. Both Ian and Roger were friendly, engaging and seemed honestly interested in my own little research project on Edson Raff.

When Bill was signing my book, I told him about Melissa’s father having served two tours in Viet Nam with the Signal Corps and I let Bill know what an honor it was to meet him. Melissa says that both Bill and I got a little misty over it. As I was talking to Roger, someone thanked Manny prodigiously and Manny said, “I don’t know why you’re thanking me. These fellas wrote the book.” To have given so much, but to expect so little is one of the things that distinguishes these heroes. There’s no pounding of their chests and proclamations that they’re “the greatest”. I’ve often heard veterans say that the heroes are the ones who didn’t come home. The humility and clarity of thought is amazing. Manny, we can’t thank them, so, please, let us thank you….

I got to talking to Roger in more depth about my research and he recommended Charlie Turnbow’s book (and another on the 509th that is out of print and currently selling for about $300). He perked up when he’d heard me talking to Ian about Edson Raff, so when I got down to that end of the line, he was percolating with information and ideas. It was such a pleasure to have someone know who I was talking about and where to look for more information. I’ve now received Charlie’s book from his wife, Beverly, and have started to read it. In a way, studying these men is a way of joining a community. There are other souls out there who are interested in the same things I am, and are eager to share their knowledge. They seem, as I know I do, overjoyed when they find another who shares their compulsion. Some of the joy of life is in sharing, be it sharing bread, sharing wine, sharing labor or sharing knowledge.

On August 4th and 5th, I’ll be attending events to honor the veterans of Operation Dragoon, to be held at the Sheraton Arlington. More opportunities to be with veterans and amongst the members of this community of historians.

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