By Charles Whiteing
Having made only two reservations, our flight and car hire, we flew into Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris, and headed towards Normandy in the province of Calvados. We kept off the main freeways and en route travelled through the most beautiful countryside, stopping at small villages of wartime significance. One of these was St Mere Eglise, which in summertime has a figure of an American paratrooper in his parachute hanging from the church steeple. It depicts the situation that Private John Steele found himself in after parachuting into France in the early hours of D-Day. He was released by his comrades the next day, and on his return after the war, was given honorary citizenship of the town. The incident was depicted in the film the "Longest Day", the title of which was coined by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel himself, who said that when the Allies land on the beaches of France, it will be "Ter Langste Tag."
Our journey unfolded with moi driving (left hand drive car) on the right hand side of the road with Bill as navigator. The following couple of days we toured the five landing beaches code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. This included visiting the massive bunkers and concrete emplacements of Hitler's Atlantic Wall (Atlantik Festung), and talking to veterans who were visiting the area to remember D-Day, 62 years ago. One them, an ex American paratrooper remarked that when he first visited France, he did not require a passport; a lovely wry sense of humour, albeit tainted with his memories of lost comrades. The many museums in the area are excellent and complete with original artefacts, exhibits and dioramas.
The Americancemetery above Omaha Beach (as seen in "Saving Private Ryan") is awesome with all the immaculate manicured graves. Throughout the area we encountered classic wartime vehicles driven by men in the original D-Day uniforms. In fact on entering the town of Arromanche (Gold Beach) we were held up by a convoy of American lorries and Jeeps.
This was followed by a memorable visit to the famous "Pegasus Bridge," so - named after the logo of the glider troops, who led by Major John Howard, succeeded in securing the bridge over the Caen Canal in the early hours of D-Day. The Cafe' Gondree on the opposite side of the canal was the first liberated house in France. Today its run by the daughter of the original owners, Mme Arlette Gondree who I had the pleasure of meeting. Other than being a small restaurant, it has been transformed into a small museum, visited by bemedalled glider troops veterans resplendent in their maroon blazers and berets.
We visited the German cemetery at Le Cambe, which contains the grave of the famous Panzer commander Michael Wittmann.
Moving inland from Normandy we drove into Belgium and Luxembourg to visit locations known as the Battle of the Bulge. The was Germany's last major campaign before the end of the war, and included the infamous killing of 55 captured American soldiers by the SS near the town of Malmedy where there's a memorial to the event. Although he was not involved in the incident, the SS troops belonged to a Battle Group led by Obersturmbannfuhrer Jochem Peiper who was tried as a war criminal after the war.
We stayed in the town of Stavelot, which had been badly damaged during the battle, as with its beautiful cathedral, which is still under reconstruction. As we drove into the town of La Gleize, and turned into the village square, and there with its long 88mm cannon pointing straight at you, is the last King Tiger tank of Peiper's battle group.
Travelling down towards Stuttgart we passed the famous German Grand Prix track at Hockenheim, to stay with the Schaeffer family for a couple of days. Bernd Schaeffer is the retired headmaster of Stuttgart High School, who I had met over the Internet some years ago when researching a talk on Robey Leibbrandt. Following a talk I gave some years ago on Rommel, he arranged a visit the family museum of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in neighbouring Herrlingen, and his grave in the local cemetery. We visited the spot on Erwin Rommel Singel and the roadside monument located where his staff car stopped, and he took poison after being implicated in the plot to kill Hitler on the 20 July 1944. The inscription to the event on the monument is inscribed on a Panzer tank hatch. The museum contains his uniforms, medals, his famous "Desert Fox" goggles, and the telegram from Hitler to Rommel's wife Lucie giving his condolences on his death.
We had an opportunity to visit the new Mercedes Benz museum in Stuttgart which has displays from the first models to today's modern cars including the "Pope Mobile" and the Mercedes coupe' which was a gift to Lady Di but was forced to return it, as it was seen as unpatriotic by the British establishment.
Having experienced the warmest hospitality, we bid farewell to Bernd and his family and headed towards the town of Dachau and its concentration camp. This was to say the least a disturbing experience, and Bill and I had decided to split up, and met some two hours later. The inscription over the main gate "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Freedom through Labour) could hardly be more of a misnomer. The camp is as it was, including the crematoria, gas chambers etc. A large church bell is located within the camp, and at 14h45 starts chiming for ten minutes. It serves as a chilling reminder to everyone, including the neighbouring town of Dachau of what happened there.
Our final planned destination was the Obersalzberg and Eagles Nest, the heart of the Third Reich. The entire area had been taken over by the Nazi elite, with Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Speer, and Bormann all having homes there. It was a mountain nucleus comprising barracks, guesthouses, staff quarters, a youth centre, underground tunnels and bunkers. The RAF bombed Hitler's own house, the Berghof in April 1945, and the German authorities, to prevent it becoming a nazi shrine, later removed the ruins. However, Martin Bormann had given a teahouse to Hitler as a 50th birthday present. The "Kelsteinhaus' (also known as Eagles Nest) is reached via a stone-lined 124 foot tunnel straight into the side of the mountain. From there an elegant brass-lined elevator takes visitors another 407 foot up through the heart of the mountain and into the restaurant itself within 41 seconds. The view from here of the snow-capped mountains is spectacular, and one has a strange sense of destiny standing where Hitler entertained visitors including Mussolini, and was visited by General Eisenhower after the war.
The Eagles Nest remained unscathed from Allied bombing and was saved from being blown after the war by the intervention of the District President and can be seen as an historical monument in its original form. Due to the warm weather in Europe, we were dressed in shorts, T-shirts and sandals most of the time, and it was strange to step outside into snow on the mountaintop. Driving down to the village of Berchtesgaden afterwards, we turned off the road to the site where Hitler's home, the Berghof had once stood, now only occupied by some friendly horses.
The second last day of our trip, included a visit to the Maginot Line, the First World War battlefield memorial at Verdun.
This memorable experience concluded on our arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport. In all respects we encountered no problems, and with even the French cooperating especially if you told them you were from "Afrique Sud". Accommodation was found on arrival in a village, and varied, be it a "Pension" or "Gasthaus."
We intend repeating this format with a battlefield tour to other sites in Europe, which at this stage will include Arnem and Peenemunde and we will be giving a talk to the SA Military History Society next year on our experiences.
The SA Military History Society welcomes new members and includes talks on all military history topics given by guest speakers, veterans and members alike.
If you are interested in attending a meeting, contact Charles Whiteing on (+27) 031-764-7270, 082-555-4689 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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