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Smallville: Fitting Memorials

On the last full day of his holiday in France Peter B Farrell visits places where fierce fighting took place after Allied troops landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944. In a town which featured in the book and the film The Longest Day he encounters visiting American veterans of the 82nd Airborne Division.

“What’s that racket?” It was just after daybreak and I had awoken to the clang and clatter of the largest market in Europe.

Hundreds of market stalls were in the process of being erected opposite the hotel in Caen. After breakfast, this time indoors, we wandered round the market. An unbelievable selection of fresh food was on offer: bread, cheese, fish, fruit and vegetables, with many stalls preparing traditional dishes. Rows and rows of chickens slowly turning on spits inside seemingly purpose-built vans, with huge platters of vegetables and rice bubbling away over gas stoves.

Kev and I were soon absorbed searching the second-hand bookstalls. Agatha Christie seemed to be popular with the French. Meanwhile Margaret and Diana compared the prices of baskets, materials and clothing.

This was to be our last full day in France and it was time to leave Caen. The car unfortunately was blocked in by vehicles double parked in a side street. After a twelve-point turn and a bit of good natured banter with a market trader, who removed his van, we left the town.

“...And no estate agents brochures,“ observed Diana. That was a first.

We intended to tour the Normandy Invasion beaches visiting some of the sites of the D-Day landings and searching the area where our local regiment fought in June 1944.

Outside Caen we made for Benouville to see the Pegasus Bridge, the scene of possibly the most successful airborne attack of the war by the British Airborne Commandos in June 1944. The current bridge replicated the original and was built in 1994. We were fortunate that day to see the cantilever bridge in operation.

At the approach to the bridge stood the Café Gondrée, the first building to be liberated by the invading Allied forces. We lingered in the café - still owned by the Gondrée family - and viewed the display of memorabilia, including many photographs of those momentous days.

A slow drive along the coast enabled us to see the famous landing beaches with remnants of the Mulberry harbours. Our local Regiment - the Green Howards - had been in action in the area and we were keen to see the monument to the Regiment at Crépon.

On 6th June 1944 on Gold Beach, what was identified as a German pillbox by air photographs of the landing zone was fired on by Company Sergeant Major Stan Hollis, the hero from our hometown. It turned out to be no more than “a bloody bus shelter.” (* See postcipt).

Later that day CSM Hollis carried out actions of such courage and bravery that he won the only Victoria Cross to be awarded on 6th June 1944. After a distinguished Army career and a number of other jobs he trained as a manager with a brewery company and ran the Albion pub in his hometown, which was renamed The Green Howard.

We managed to locate the impressive memorial at Crépon and read through the many names of the fallen who were well remembered judging by the numbers of floral tributes and red poppies.

Our destination for the night was the coastal town of St-Vaast and making good time, we stopped at Ste-Mère-Église. We bought our lunch from the local patisserie and sat in the Town Square with a group of visiting Americans who were veterans of the 82nd Airborne Division.

On 25th June 1944, men of the US Airborne Division were dropped erroneously on the town - garrisoned by Austrian troops - and many were killed or captured. One man who survived was Private Bob Steele. His parachute caught on the church roof and he hung suspended above the fighting. He survived by pretending he was dead but was later cut down and made a prisoner of war.

Bob survived the war and returned to live in the town. His memory lives on and to this day a parachute with an effigy of Bob is still suspended from the Church roof. The episode is also recorded in the film The Longest Day and - we were told by the veterans - Bob was played by the American comedian Red Buttons.

Diana soon recovered the initiative after all this wartime nostalgia and drove us to St Vaast for our last night in France. This ancient port was now more of a holiday resort for yachtsmen, many crossing the channel from the UK. We were quite content to sit outside in the sunshine while she hunted out our accommodation for the night.

“Managed to book two rooms but unfortunately, no breakfast.” Diana had found a small hotel but we would have to roam the streets until hopefully finding one of the local street Cafés that had an early opening time. To make up for it she was determined to find the best restaurant for our last dinner in France.

After two exhaustive circuits round the town Margaret and Kev bought ice creams and gave up while I accompanied Diana for a final search. A recommendation by a local led us back to where we first started. We entered into the spirit of the occasion by selecting the recommended seafood speciality. Platters of absolutely everything and anything found on the seabed except seaweed, or so it seemed to me, were washed down by two bottles of the usual.

We made our way back to the hotel; last minute packing tomorrow morning.

“...And we shall probably have time to call in at the Supermarché before we catch the ferry.“ Diana’s animated discussion with Margaret revealed a gap in the itinerary.

* As a postscript: Earlier this year, a visiting veteran of The Green Howards identified the shelter; the pockmarks of bullets fired that day are still to be seen. On the 12th June, only a few days before our visit to Gold Beach, the bus shelter was purchased for €4500 Euros (£3000) by the Regiment; it will be restored as a memorial to CSM Stan Hollis V.C.


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