2nd Armored in Europe
“Back to the Bocage”
Operation Cobra Liberation Tour
to 30th July 2006
82nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion
2nd Armored Division alias - “Hell on
Wheels” struck awe into the very hearts of the Axis forces that came into
contact with it in WWII. Its
reputation in North Africa and Sicily preceded it in France and when the Germans
became aware that 2nd was again “in town” - “down town”
Normandy, there must have been a veritable shockwave that went straight to the
heart of the German high command. Carentan and the battles surrounding this feat
of arms certainly “let the wild cat loose” and the Germans were then aware
that they were in for difficult times ahead. Not only had the landings been
established, but the build up was commencing in earnest. Their old foes “Hell
on Wheels” were there on serious “business!”
The above of course is now history, but what of the
memory of those that gave their lives for our freedom today? How should such a
remarkable division be remembered? Well then, how about bringing together a
group of re-enactors such as the world has never seen in “action” before in
Normandy in France – where it all actually happened? Deep into the Bocage
region or “hedgerow country” where 2nd slug it out in 1944 and
again proved that they were a force to be respected and feared.
At the head of 2nd Armored came the 82nd
Reconnaissance Battalion in 4 combat platoons; namely A, B, C & D. The track
record of which is now firmly written in the annals of history.
The end result of some 18 months of research,
logistical planning, approaches to the French authorities, negotiations
with some 112 communes, the preparation of some 52 vehicles both from Europe and
the USA, their owners which
included some 145 men and women,
from the UK, USA, Holland, Belgian, Luxembourg, Germany and
the Czech Republic all made up the “crew”.
During the early part of 2006, the semblance of a
strategic plan came to fruition. This was only accomplished after the whole of
the convoy route was covered by car, detailed notes being taken of likely
troublesome areas and indeed the state of the roads and of course likely traffic
jam hot spots. Every commune implicated was consulted and their concerns over
the fact that we were coming (tanks as well!), had to be met and discussions
sometimes took place at odd hours, due to the fact that many of the mayors were
in small villages and were in fact part time mayors, many of which were already
hard working farmers deep in the Bocage. It is these farmer-mayors that were the
most receptive and showed such enthusiasm that sometimes it was difficult to pry
oneself away from meetings with them. They were oozing enthusiasm and wanted
their own village to show how much it appreciated the sacrifices made by this
famous armored division.
Past experience dictated that not only was it important
to get the initial planning correct, but that it was also vital to get the
publicity of the venture underway as soon as possible. The French
“civilians” however, were used to working two weeks ahead of their publicity
schedule which put a considerable strain on the French co-ordinating part of the
equation. In France some three weeks before the event was due to kick off, it
was a constant “battle” to ensure that newspapers, local press, radio
stations and indeed several television stations had not forgotten and that they
were going to attend.
In the UK, the logistical planning department was up to
its eyes in it. Vehicles were still
being prepared and most of the members of 2nd Armored were still
preparing their uniforms, equipment, spare parts and a myriad of other
prerequisites. In the USA, the 14th Armored group had been involved
for some months preparing to ship out 3 M5 Stuarts to France only to suffer the
loss of the 3rd tank on the day before it was due to be loaded for
trans-shipment. Finally, 14th shipped out 2 containers consisting of
2 M5 Stuarts and 2 rather new looking Jeeps. Having personally witnessed the e
mails flying back and forth between the shipping agents and the shipping company
at 02:00hrs in the morning on one night, I was suddenly aware that some 18
months of work was coming to fruition. Sleep was not on the agenda that night
(or many other nights for that matter)! Additional problems that ensued would
require the intervention of the American Embassy in Paris as the US State
Department was reluctant to allow the “tanks” to be shipped out!
Subsequent e mails and phone calls to the Assistant Military Attaché at
the Embassy were made by mobile phone whilst he was in Normandy planning for the
6th June. Endless problems like this were a constant factor in trying
to put together the event to satisfy criteria laid down by the French Government
and indeed complying with US regulations pertaining to armored vehicles and
arms. There was a constant stream of e mails between France, the UK and many
other countries for that matter and certainly the US end contributed
considerably to this (by what was now becoming) a “river like” flow of
This of course may be somewhat daunting to the
untrained eye, but having been through the “mill” during the past 26 years
on many occasions it was all in “a days work,” which was additionally
aggravated by the current climate pertaining to terrorism (which was a serious
factor) which needed to be addressed. Emergency procedures were drawn up and
circulated to the French authorities which they adopted without question. This
was the level of co-operation for this remarkable act of remembrance which 2nd
Armored in Europe was embarking upon.
Such was the “status” of 2nd Armored in
Europe after having had no problems with its previous large event in 2004 in
France and Belgium, the Ministry of the Interior, French Customs and indeed the
Departmental Prefects were very helpful and indeed the Regional Prefect for
Normandy was a staunch supporter who clearly lead the way by stating; “I want
nothing to go wrong with this one, see to it!” After having left this
particular meeting, I was slightly “shell shocked,” but there were provisos,
one of which was that every single commune had to agree to the proposal!
This was back in July of 2005 after having already been
in touch with most of the towns and villages before, as I knew what was coming!
Things were now quite clearly able to progress so the work now started in
Politics alas are all part and parcel of these type of
events and it was absolutely essential that I followed the rules to the letter
otherwise 2nd Armored would be having a firing squad with yours truly as the
target! These were interesting days and I was able to draw on past experiences
which helped us through some difficult political times. It was not plain sailing
by any means.
Knowing how to manoeuvre in “mine fields” was a
prerequisite, but it should be remembered that
whilst all of this was going on in France, 2nd Armored persé, was
preparing in earnest for its pending arrival in “la Belle France”.
In the UK there were many lamps burning “midnight
oil”. The Americans themselves had their own yahoo group in action on the net
and on occasions the “flak” coming from that was considerable. E
mails going back and forward, have you forgotten this or that, don’t forget we
are meeting on … at… and so it went on night and day! Some of these e mails
had hilarious contents!
The enthusiasm from the Americans was remarkable and
suffices it to say, we were all looking forward to seeing old friends and new
faces together with us all in France on what was to become a remarkable event.
If you have never seen 2nd Armored in Europe
on the road or in “action” then you have missed the ultimate in living
history! This was a difficult thing to explain to the French authorities until
they were actually able to see photographs from previous events. The Military
Command in Paris knew only full well of the potential value of this remarkable
event and gave its moral support and encouragement which undoubtedly opened
doors that would otherwise of been left firmly closed.
By the time the American participants had arrived in
the UK, the tanks from the USA were sitting on a French Military base (thanks to
the French Army) and the final
faxes were going out to the 115 communes now involved in the routing.
The evening before things were due to “kick off”, I
can remember standing at the top of Omaha beach before 2nds arrival by ferry at
Ouistreham and having some sort of “eerie experience”.
Was this nerves or something that was now part of the fabric of the area
and coming to us as vibrations from the past in one of the places on God’s
Earth that could be described as a one time “Hell on Earth,” alias “Bloody
The advance parties from various places in Europe had
already beaten us to it and were already in “occupation” in Normandy, on the
campsite stencilling their vehicles, putting tents up and all manner of last
By this time, Capt Nick Heighes and his convoy were now
at the docks being loaded ready for shipment to Ouistreham in Lower Normandy for
their fast approaching start to an exciting adventure.
An evening of discussion prevailed for us in France and
our “experience” of the day with some customs officers in my Department of
Ile et Vilaine in France was the basis of this “wine- fired” lively debate
The result of this encounter was somewhat amusing, during which I
suggested that the chief of the customs patrol (some 16 officers in all) would
be best advised (with the greatest of respect of course) to phone Paris to
verify our paperwork. He politely declined the offer and we were subsequently
wished a “have a nice day” and left to continue on our journey into
During the day whilst driving up into the beachhead
area , I had the car radio tuned into radio Manche, it became apparent that the
“battle” for publicity had paid off, during the journey every 30 minutes
there was a report on the convoy, its intended routing, number of vehicles
involved and the number of
personnel. In fact I can remember feeling embarrassed about the whole thing at
the time, but reminded myself that without the publicity, there would be no
The next day was an early start as the ferry was due to
dock at 07:30hrs.Which meant us leaving at about 06:00hrs to ensure our arrival
in time to clear customs and lead the convoy back to Omaha on the pre-authorized
route. Problems from the start, mine was a German car! Obviously nervous about
the impending arrival! Still we got there only to see the vehicles already
proceeding into the customs compound.
The Convoy had appeared from
the ferry like something from a Cinderella Pantomime and was dressed to go to
the ball! It was clear that 2nd
Armoured in Europe had arrived; there was no mistaking this convoy! Together
with its vehicles which had millions of hours of restoration bestowed upon them
– the sight was an historian’s dream! A real living convoy! As though it had
slipped through time! The entire company dressed for the part and authentic in
everyway. The visual effect was
absolutely stunning. Something never seen in Normandy since the war and unlikely
ever to be seen again. A once in a lifetime experience.
I was challenged upon entry into the compound and I
showed the paperwork from Paris, everything was ok; a few vehicles were looked
at more by interest than by the “real interest” of a customs officer.
I saw one young customs officer - man handling a 50 calibre, he had
obviously handled one or two in his military training, and it was like he was
handling an “old friend” it was clear that he knew what he was doing! He
then went off in enthusiastic pursuit of another interesting piece of armor and
was last seen headed in the direction of an impressive looking M8.
Customs officers with a smile on their faces is a rare
sight, this was one of those rare days! We were in good hands. As always the
Douanes at Ouistreham had been their usual helpful selves and the “entente
cordiale” was very much appreciated. Assembly of convoy was delayed for 45
minutes whilst one vehicle looked for fuel. Incidentally, we know who you are!
The convoy finally leaving at 09:15hrs.
The route was both a pleasant one in the early morning
and yet was very interesting to see the narrow streets as we passed through the
villages with buildings that did in places show scars from that earlier landing
in 1944. Very few people around, but on occasions people were seen to stop in
their tracks and look back at the unbelievable life like “ghost convoy” from
the past. For miles we headed in
the direction of the spires of Bayeux Cathedral which towered skywards in the
distance and yet got closer and closer until our arrival at the circular road
and then we moved away from this remarkable edifice. We had one problem en route resulting in a 10 minute
stop along the side of the road and then the eventual arrival at
Vierville-sur-Mer (after having passed Mosles where 2nd Armored had
de-watered in 1944) where the locals were awaiting our arrival with bated
breathe. All things considered our timing was surprisingly spot-on according to
our movement timings.
An encouraging start.
Camp was established and the group now went about its organization,
pitching tents, the kitchen was set up in the Château de Vierville-sur-Mer
courtyard. The first consignment of baguettes and fresh eggs arrived, which was
followed by the cut wood logs for the field kitchen.
During the afternoon, a delegation was sent to the
military base at Carpiquet to collect the two M5 tanks and the two jeeps with
the 2 low loaders that had arrived with the main party. Once security checks had
been made, all of the party were taken onto the base, I removed my padlocks from
the containers (having been there previously to accept delivery of the
containers) and then we departed in our Jeep to collect our General for the tour
who had arrived that very morning at Charles de Gaulle airport direct from the
USA and was awaiting collection at Caen railway station. It was none other than
Art Pope, alias General Patton II. This
was a “restricted” operation and the arrival of the jeep at the railway
station was viewed with some suspicion. The way having been smoothed with the
security services previously. Art’s luggage was bundled in and we drove off
doing battle with the town’s trams and taxis, using restricted lanes to
So, the arrival of the convoy was complete and so it
set about its business.
On the way back to the camp at Vierville-sur -Mer, I
had repeated phone calls from French television stations en route and was unable
to address any of their requests for information at this late stage. I had
incidentally started with all of the French television stations some 7 months
earlier! All of a sudden they were awake; they had heard reports of a large
convoy arriving at the docks in the morning! Now everybody wanted to know. I can
remember thinking to myself, “plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose!”
General Patton upon arrival did a quick change in a
stable at the Château and appeared as if by magic on the campsite which
suddenly gave the whole “back drop” a very “real” feeling.
The day sped away and before we knew it we were at the
evening briefing at 19:00hrs and the do’s and don’ts, safety procedures, how
things were going to work and who was responsible for what etc., etc., etc. The
whole thing being preceded by introductions, so that any new faces would know
who to kick “should”, things go wrong. One of the main concerns being the
current weather and the heat, together with the problems of melting tarmac and
tanks. That night the infantry went on patrol, and we could see further south an
electrical storm, some of the lightning was spectacular. The day had been a busy
one but yet the enthusiasm kept everybody up late into the night.
Thankfully we were to be blessed with rain early in the
morning which cooled the whole situation down and made the movement with the
tanks possible. I didn’t relish
the possibility of saying “sorry guys” no tanks today due to circumstances
beyond our control. Which was a
real possibility given the heat and the country roads which were not built for
heavy weight traffic. The prospect of the firing squad was ever present in my
The day started with the kitchen in the Château
courtyard where the egg & bacon with baguette ration was served to the
company; this very tasty breakfast was a favourite with a lot of people and was
a welcome start to the day. The General himself was seen to do battle with a
baguette amidst his fellow “countrymen”. Amongst some 150 people it is easy
to loose someone and that morning I hadn’t seen the First Sergeant - Iain
Saunders, he was being his usual self, darting here -darting there, nose
under the hood of this and that and generally getting people motivated, woe
betide anybody remaining in their “pit”
after time when he was about. Not
even I relished the verbal lashing that would ensue after such an offence!
First stop down the hill to Omaha beach to start the
“adventure” in the paths of many good men that had lost their lives for our
A very impressive line up of vehicles, so many spectators, most of whom,
were taking photographs.
When I stood on the beach and looked back at the convoy together with
the M5s and their “snorkels” I new that it was the first time for many years
that such a remarkable sight would had been seen on this otherwise sombre beach
- “Bloody Omaha”
The public were there, except that they didn’t appear
to be excited-more enthusiastic, possibly this is the effect that Omaha beach
has on people when they see such a realistic sight at this location!
moved off after having spent some 30 minutes at the beach side, up the hill and
across the Vierville-sur-Mer crossroad in the direction of Trevières and our
first problem for the day. Radios
didn’t work, well at least in HQ13 Jeep, no joy, what sort of a command was
this? The name “Titantic” came to mind, we were now reduced to signals with
hands and the like.
A certain scene from Kelly’s Heroes came to mind.
This was it, the convoy was in the start of the Bocage and we had our first
problem together with our first breakdown, one track down with core plug
problems and an M5! 11:31hrs convoy stopped on the roadside between Trevières
and Rubercy on the D96. 11:37hrs engines stopped. Save fuel.
Finally moved off at 12:00hrs, the M5 and the track
would have to catch up, the latter was awaiting core plugs to be brought up.
12:35hrs convoy arrived in le Molay Littry, parked up
in the town and invaded several bars etc to await the arrival of the other two
14:05hrs moved out from Le Molay Littry en route for
Neuilly-la-Forêt after having received a telephone call to say that the
vehicles that had problems were now running again and would join us en route.
A number of phone calls en route asking where we were,
had we changed the route, there were people waiting to see us and when could we
be expected to be in their village? Such is the modern cell phone! I had
contemplated throwing it into the nearest ditch or under an M5 except that from
the head of the convoy that was clearly not on the list of possibilities.
Besides which, it had suddenly become a vital means of communication.
Grey overcast skies threatening to precipitate at any
minute yet there was little traffic and we looked like a real-time convoy with a
meaningful mission! At last we were
back on the road and the vehicles that had broken down would be joining us soon.
Cell phones were being useful after all! 14:19hrs Bernescq, crowds of people
waiving at the side of the road. It was this crowd assisted by their anxious
Mayor that had been phoning constantly, I did look to see if anyone had a guilty
look on their face, but no, nothing obvious, in fact they were decidedly pleased
to see us, nothing much happens in theses “parts”. 14:26 arrived in Colombières
on the D5; we turned the corner to see some jeeps and an M5 and other vehicles.
A GI poked his head into the back
of HQ13 where I was sat with all of the papers, “The tank has hit a house!”,
Instant flashback to Kelly’s Hero’s again -
Sherman driving through a wall and then crushing a car before driving off sound
familiar?! My immediate reaction
was -its some sort of infantile joke! NO! It was true, having been prepared for
such an eventuality of a vehicle hitting a property over the past 26 years I had
never actually used the procedure on a tank and a house before! There was no
mistake now as to who was going to have to sort this one out! Fortunately the
“damage” was negligible and nobody was reported as being injured.
The convoy pulled up on the side of the road, The
Gendarmes turned up, needless to say! I grabbed the “black file” which
contained the convoy emergency log procedure. Convoy was stopped at 14:27.
Before I could reach the house on foot, the mayor of
the town turned up, he then accompanied me towards the house in question. We met
the lady of the house on the side of the street and we were invited inside. We
were offered a drink; I accepted a coffee (black) and started to go through what
had happened. Tank driver being no where in sight, obviously hiding under a
hedge somewhere or inside his tank with the hatches closed – “buttoned
up”! Apparently the lady had given the driver a bottle of local cider to calm
him down! She or at least her house was the victim of the latest “débarquement”
but was not unduly perturbed by the experience except that all agreed that we
were all fortunate in that nobody thankfully, was injured. Possibly this was an
“exciting” event in the village, which was otherwise a remote settlement and
had certainly not seen any “action” since the war.
The paperwork was started whereupon, it was agreed that
a “retreat” to the town hall would be in order as a photocopier was needed
and all manner of modern day office equipment could be “got at” if need be.
During the ensuing paperwork, I discovered that in fact the Mayor was in fact an
ex French Army Colonel and had used M5 tanks in North Africa! He knew them
inside out. He was only too aware
of the problems of moving such a vehicle on wet tarmac roads and he suggested to
the Gendarmes (who were looking over my shoulder the whole time) that everything
was in order and that we didn’t want to detain them further. In fact the
officer and the female officer were very nice and were more interested in my
experiences than making life difficult. The
driver of Delta 2 (tank in question) was summoned to produce his paperwork for
photocopying and he subsequently disappeared as quickly as he had arrived.
Possibly back to “button up”status!
The formalities were soon over and everybody shook
hands and I stepped out into the fresh air, the first sight to greet me was the
whole of the convoy stretched out on the road outside the town hall with the
whole crew in their vehicles with some mustering around their respective pieces
of armor. This was something that 2nd Armored does very well; create
visual “impact” – no pun intended! The Mayor was also seen to be stood
looking at the impressive column. I could only imagine what was going through
We may have been in the middle of Bocage country, but
here news travels fast, already villages ahead knew there was a problem and yet,
despite the delay they were alongside the road as we passed. We were
nevertheless getting through our schedule on our first day’s convoy.
Approximately 1 km from the camp at Neuilly-la-Forêt
our own HQ13 jeep was to cough and splutter and finally give up the ghost. Fuel
starvation! The rest of the convoy carried on and we were some 30 minutes later,
delivered under tow, to the camp which was rapidly appearing out of the field.
A rather large field with an incredible view across the
valley of the Vire. The locals had already set up their barbecue and drinks
stand to cater for the mass of visitors expected to come and visit the camp.
Indeed they came, amidst which we were getting things organized, fuel payments
were being made, the field kitchen
was being set up and indeed one M5
that had been brought in on low loader and was being
worked on. Finally it fired up amidst a great cheer from those nearby.
Meanwhile a very excited Mayor had arrived and was eagerly asking questions
about the tanks and the armored vehicles. This was no ordinary mayor, a producer
of local cider and Calvados! He was also passionate about the history of his
commune. It was this commune that housed the local resistance hq and was the
scene of a very secret operation. During
the night of 9th July in 1944 a John Beresford Hayes (codename
Eric), was parachuted into
a field near Fougerolles-du-Plessis some 90kms South from Neuilly-la-Forêt. He
spoke French fluently, even the local patois to perfection and was also fluent
in German, he was a first class SOE operative. The mission was called
“Operation Helmsman” and was a vital TOP SECRET mission to coordinate the
French resistance into providing diversionary tactics and intelligence to ensure
the speedy and effective launch of Operation Cobra. This then was the outline of the operation for what was to
become one of the most vital parts of the breakout in Normandy in 1944.
“Eric” was moved up with the help of the resistance group from St.
Hilaire de Harcouet and they collected details of German troop movements,
details of their positions and strength etc.
Upon the arrival of “Eric” at Neuilly-la-Forêt, he
was subsequently “interrogated” by a Colonel Runkle from G2 for hours at a
time. He was the Colonel attached to 1st Army intelligence and during his
questioning he was also visited by General Bradley himself. A subsequent visitor
was non-other than General Patton himself who spoke French fluently and wanted
to assure himself that “Eric” was indeed the person whom he declared himself
to be (remembering of course that General Patton’s “séjournement” in
France at that time at Néhou camp was ultra top secret). Such a great deal was
“riding” on this individual that G2 had to be assured that this was not a
The commune of course was occupied by the Germans
before this advent and “Eric” was being guided by the resistance group from
Saint-Hilaire-de-Harcouet gathering intelligence of German troops and their
movements on the way up to the beach head and recruiting at the same time for
the HQ to be set up in Neuilly-la-Forêt. This
was also to become a training centre and the FFI from the south of the Bocage
region were also to be implicated. This
then was the operation intended to enlighten G2 with the task that lay ahead of
them and that famous “Operation Cobra” which is now in the annals of
In trying to cut a long story short, the mission was as
you will now realise a complete success and the amazing thing is that the small
settlement that was chosen for the HQ was to become a vast storage area for
3,750 tanks for General Patton and the temporary operating air field for the US
474th Fighter group which were to fly in support of 2nd Armored
Division and its operations.
Also at the time of the German occupation the nearby
farm to our campsite were a unit of Russian Cossacks. They were known by the
Germans to be virtually uncontrollable and were frequently seen using the nearby
rail line to move back and forth on their horses whilst on patrols.
The evening was to be quite a hectic one as the convoy
was now installed on the camp, vehicles needed to be attended to (as usual),
there were ceremonies due to be held, the days ration of “baguettes” and
eggs had to be collected from nearby Isigny-sur-Mer. Such was our “lot”.
The ceremonies went off without a hitch and the Dutch
firing party were superb. Speeches were made and there were some VIPs from
Regional government there incognito. Pigeons were released from their baskets
and all enjoyed local cider and “other” refreshments. During the
“drinkies” I met a local (and there weren’t many of them who were there
during the war that were left), he would have been about 12 in 1944 and
“served” as a messenger for his father (resistance). He was “employed”
to take written messages to the resistance HQ at la ferme de BAGOT (La Mancellière),
under the strict instructions from his father that if he was stopped by a German
that he was to eat the piece of paper with the message upon it without
any delay. It wasn’t until after the war that his father explained to
him what had been going on!
This then was the “village” of Neuilly-la-Forêt
and its war time piece in the jigsaw. This
commune being in the valley of the Vire had its bridge “blown” when the
Germans left and when the Americans arrived they needed to cross the Vire,
the locals showed them the two old fords that they were able to use.
We had hoped to use them, but the banks of the Vire had
subsequently been raised by some 2.5 metres and getting down to the ford level
was not practical, besides which we had left the Brockway 666 at home! So we
settled for the new bridge which was incidentally replaced as late as 1985 and
was formerly a Bailey bridge.
After the evening remembrance ceremonies, the Mayor and
numerous village people were taken back via the 474th fighter group
memorial where another wreathe was laid. Upon arrival at the campsite, we
settled down for the night, maintenance and planning for the next mornings
“cross country” route. We went off with the Mayor in the jeep to see where
the tracks led to and then returned to the camp after having been satisfied that
all was possible. The Mayor kindly brought us 6 bottles of his own cider and the
rest is history as they say!
A reasonably quiet night was spent; those that had the
“need” went out into the country to see what was to be had in the way of
locations for photographs. The kitchen staff managed (as they did on numerous
occasions to prepare us a meal) despite all of them having numerous jobs into
the bargain. They were to be stars on the trip battling against all odds to keep
our bodies and souls together. At times, some even provided a cabaret as well,
but that’s another story.
The farm owners were superb; I think that they were
proud to think that we were in their field! The historic significance of the
site I cannot go into here as it will take another 4 pages at least, but suffice
it to say that it had connections as far back as William the Conqueror and his
brother. In the middle ages the Bishops of Bayeux had a palace there and had
their own hunting forest which is the last remaining Bishops hunting forest left
in France intact and was just up the hill from our camp.
The morning came around all too soon and with it came
the threat of rain. I could quite
happily of stayed in that field for a week, there was so much to discover in the
area and possibly a good base for future “operations”.
The jeep decided it was not going to run.
Finally giving way to having its carburettor and fuel filter forcibly
removed by expert American hands! Those same hands also managed to lose
something in the grass, and it wasn’t the jeep! However, crisis finally
overcome only to find the convoy had moved off and the lead vehicle had decided
to go in completely the wrong direction. After some 40 minutes the jeep was
running I had joined the convoy in a track and we were now on the farm track in
the right direction this time surrounded by Bocage and it started to rain. Well
it had to didn’t it? Numerous photographs were being taken and there was no
hurrying that process. The Mayor of
a nearby town kept phoning me repeatedly, when could we be expected to turn up,
were the tanks going to damage his road, what was the hold up, why weren’t we
In the end, the lead vehicle, failed to make the turn
off the bridge on the pre authorized route to take us cross country into a
village that was waiting for us, the route was changed and that was that. No
turning back with some 54 vehicles including tanks and their attached “Culin
hedge cutters” in a small lane with hedges on either side. No option, no
choice, move on!
We finally hit the N174 and proceeded directly for le Dézert
further south trying to make up some lost time as the public were out in force
expecting our arrival for a ceremony to remember Col Paddy Flint. Our arrival at
Le Dézert was at 12:05hrs, a relay
of information was going back and forth by civilian car on our progress, thanks
to the local “resistance” possibly re-enacting their role in 1944! Meanwhile
whilst we stopped on the N174 the tanks had turned back to be “lifted” to
our final destination for the day at Canisy by low loader.
The vehicles were parked up and then the troops were
formed up in the car park outside the town hall where was located the memorial
plaque to Col Paddy Flint who died in this town in July 1944 due to injuries
sustained whilst he was leading his men from the front.
General George Patton
(with whom he was a great friend)
once commented upon Col. Flint in the following manner:
"Paddy Flint is clearly nuts, but he fights well."
It was in
fact General Patton himself who decorated Col Flint on the eve of his death in
this very town. Just next to the plaque was the German PAK anti tank gun which
was a remnant of more difficult times in this remarkable town, situated just off
the N174 which was Liberty Highway and which was often subjected to German
sniper fire which is what happened to Col. Flint.
Col flint was a great believer in leading his men from
the front, although he was a Calvary trained man he was in command of the 39th
Infantry Division. It was
Col. Flint who gave the regiment its Triple-A Bar Nothing
slogan: "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime - Bar Nothing." The regiment took
great pride in the AAA-O slogan, displaying it on their helmets and
vehicles, even in combat. When questioned about the soundness of the practice,
Col. Flint confidently declared, "The enemy who sees our regiment in
combat, if they live through the battle, will know to run the next time they see
Stenciling this slogan on his soldiers' helmets was
against regulations, but it paid off in helping turn the 39th Regiment from a
lackluster unit into something of a legend.
The ceremony took
place, wreathes were laid, the volley fire forced
a gasp from the mouths of the public present, suddenly making them aware
of the realities of war and its sacrifices, for freedom is not free-as was said
in many speeches during that week! The Mayor gave his speech and we were then
ushered into the rooms above the town hall where a toast was given to the memory
of Paddy Flint and the soldiers that died in the liberation of the town. In fact
there was a photograph of Col Flint being decorated by General Patton in the
corridor; such was the belief of the commune that this episode in history would
not be forgotten. This was one of
those ceremonies that really brought home how much the villagers believed in
their duty to remember. Our time in this village was all but spent; we all filed
out and then back to our respective vehicles and to get ready to move off to our
Convoy moved off at
13:25hrs and was now on the road in the direction of
Pont-Hébert and then Hébécrevon and then onto Canisy, where upon
arrival the tanks were rolling across the road from the car park opposite the Châteaux
de Canisy being ably assisted by the Town Police. This was an excellent
manoeuvre on the tankers part which was what we were to become accustomed to,
such was their professional attitude. They then moved to one side inside the Châteaux
grounds to then let the convoy pass and take their respective position in the
convoy so that when we entered the courtyard (and some courtyard) they were in
their correct position. We arrived at 14:21hrs. Well at least we had arrived and
all was well. Well at least we were all relieved to be there. The most amazing
thing was to see the look on the faces of the members of the convoy as they
dismounted after having parked up in a straight line along the entire length of
I had of course been there before, but nothing could of
prepared the group for a sight such as this, as the real-time convoy sat there
in the courtyard of this historic Châteaux. The presence of this convoy in the courtyard of the Château
owner; M. le Comte de Kergorlay was
only made more realistic by the comment from himself that in fact General
Bradley had stayed there with his staff, for one month in the summer of 1944.
Perhaps this was re-enacting gone mad!
It was, but what a sight! There was even a vin d’honneur set out for us on tented
trestle tables ably served by the Châteaux’s staff. The people from the
village and the Press were by this time filtering into the grounds. Then came
The troops were lined up at the rear of the vehicles
facing the Châteaux and our own General Patton addressed the troops from an
elevated walkway alongside the Chateaux. As
this was going on, I glanced at Denis de Kergorlay’s face and he was staring
at the spectacle in front of him completely enthralled (he had arrived by train
from Paris especially to see this convoy, only to have to leave again in the
evening to get back to Paris). This
quite extraordinary convoy assembled in his courtyard-this was living history as
only 2nd Armored in Europe could provide!
Then General Patton now having gotten a “feel” for
his new HQ, then asked the troops if they had any questions?
What a remarkable stage, the questions were unbelievable and the answers
came right off the cuff, just like a well rehearsed script from a film, this was
re-enacting beyond my wildest dreams. This one hour in this Châteaux courtyard
made all of the work and problems suddenly disappear into insignificance. The
members of the press were like children with new toys, they had never seen
anything like it! It was evident however, that everybody was very tired. I moved
around taking “stock of the situation” There in the replica of the Grange
Cavern in Liverpool in the Châteaux’s lower floor were some of 2nds crew
asleep in the comfortable arm chairs. All was well given the fact that we had
done battle with the weather, 2nd was in relatively good shape and
the professional attitude of the group was such that everything was in its place
and in order. It was nearing time to establish camp and so we rounded everybody
up and the convoy then moved out of the courtyard and around the northern side
of the Châteaux to its farm complex where our camp was to be for the next two
The whole of the farm complex was utilised, which
included the barns for repairs, tank parking, accommodation, showers and indeed
cooking under the arches brought a whole new meaning to cuisine. This camp would
not have been out of place in a WWII photo journal. The lush grassed areas that were allocated were used to full
advantage for pitching tents and concealment against potential air attack. Some
of the contingent even had their own early morning view of the Chateaux from
their own tents. However, on this night much partying was to take place and a
certain number of bottles of calvados came our way. I say a certain number for even today I cannot still be
certain as to how many were emptied. All I can say is that it was a good 15 year
old calvados with a unique kick of its own!
The next morning was not to be an easy start as after
the night before some of us were decidedly feeling very “numb”.
After having tried to get everything ready, the convoy
finally moved out of the Chateau grounds at 10:31hrs in the direction of St.
Gilles. All things considered, this was nothing short of miraculous considering
the night before. Our main destination for the morning was Marigny where we
arrived safely. Here the whole convoy assembled in the town square and then the
wreathe laying took place at the memorial and the firing party and honor guard
performed their usual volley which the locals appreciated very much. This always
gave an air of authenticity to the proceedings and was quite impressive.
This was followed by a vin d’honneur in the town reception room where
the contents of the official speech from the commune made it very clear that
Marigny was virtually flattened due to the carpet bombing that pre-empted the
start of Operation Cobra. Needless to say our very presence there on this day
was a stark reminder to the locals of the suffering that they endured during the
war. When we finally left Marigny, we continued on our way for the destination
of Coutances and then returned back towards the direction of Quibo, where our
afternoon ceremony in memory of 2nd Armored was to take place. The
sun shone violently all day. The heat was exhausting but fortunately there were
no hold ups due to breakdowns. The convoy arrived on time and the town council
were awaiting us, we were introduced to Madame le Maire who was a staunch
supporter of military remembrance and was still in contact with relatives of
some of those mentioned on the 2nd Armored plaque on the town
memorial. The Press were already
there, the town council had set up some refreshing drinks for us and then the
tanks arrived from the opposite direction which created a remarkable sight. The
road through the village was now blocked and once again, 2nd Armored
held another small memorial service in this remarkable village. The wreathe was
laid and then the refreshments were served much to the delight of those that had
been seeking the shade of some of the buildings from the sun. The result of the
“pincer” movement on this village was quite remarkable for as members of the
town were watching the main section of the convoy arrive on their left, the M5s
arrived from the right almost at the same time, thus creating the illusion that
the village had been surrounded. After some 55 minutes, the convoy then
assembled and moved off in the direction of the Châteaux at Cansiy where we
were fortunate to have another night. However, this was not the end of the days
proceedings, there was another welcome organized for us all in the form of a
Bocage Cider tasting at the regional government office in St Lo, which had very
kindly been authorized by the President of the Conseil Regionale Monsieur
Jean-Francois LEGRAND who was also a French Senator, it was he that had
supported the aims of 2nd
Armored from the outset. This was an opportunity to visit the post war buildings
of the regional government that the locals called “Mini Versailles”.
The whole of the buildings were in white stone and although the
appearance from the outside was more traditional, the interior was pure, clean
modern functionality at its best. This building sat on the hill south of St Lo
as it was this town that suffered a considerable aerial bombardment.
The cider that was served was both refreshing and
typical of the region and was a welcome respite from the heat of the sun
outside. The site of the arrival of
the vehicle crews marching into the courtyard was impressive. We were very close
to the Château at Canisy and we needed to return to base as some wished to go
into town for the evening.
This had been a busy day, everybody had made a good
effort and it seemed that the stamina was never ending. Some dressed in A class
uniforms and then climbed aboard GMCs for the short run into town. The remainder
of us sat in the camp and prepared for the next day and oh yes, consumed the
remnants of the calvados and generally had a good time in talking about past
events and not worrying too much about what was to come. The tank crews were
undertaking maintenance again as they were usually occupied in this way at every
possible moment of “down time”.
Once again it was late to bed, some of the younger
members of the camp had “captured” some prowlers in the camp in their guise
of 17 and 18 year old girls. An interrogation ensued as to who they were, what
they were “doing” and did their parents know where they were. It transpired
that all was well, but I had my doubts, but the troopers were nevertheless given
strict instructions and left to their own devices. There have to this day been
no complaints so one must assume that the “entente cordiale” is still alive
and well. This was again another late night and so it was going on. Tomorrow was
another day and so we left the camp in the Chateau grounds to its own devices.
The next morning, the whole convoy had made a
considerable effort and it was ready to move off on time. 09:30 hrs, convoy
leading down the road way surrounding the Chateaux of Cansiy and onto the main
road passing through the town of Canisy en route for its destination of St.
Denis le Gast. Our next stop was due to be Moyon which was in the heart of the
Bocage. The roads which were bounded by high hedgerows were evident and the
column wound its way through these narrow lanes with little or no traffic
meeting it whilst en route. Upon arrival in Moyon, we were greeted by a crowd of
locals who had all turned out for our arrival. The Mayor himself was delighted to see us and during the
planning he had made it clear in no uncertain terms that he gave us his total
support and indeed had asked us how to best go about organizing our arrival. We
had purely indicated to him that in fact he had little to do except to authorize
our passage and we would do the rest. In reality, the Mayor had undertaken quite
a lot, he was determined that his commune at least would remember our passing!
Upon our arrival, drinks were laid on for us and the parking arrangements were
already in place – the village centre was filled with vehicles and then closed
off! We were at this point minus the M5 tanks as they were on their way to a
rendezvous some 5 kms from our final destination of the day at St Denis le Gast.
Our scheduled stop at Moyon soon sped by and we were then back into the country
lanes of Bocage country, driving through remote quiet areas that rarely saw any
traffic and certainly would not of seen a convoy such as ours since the war.
Our arrival at Tessy sur Vire came and went and we were
now on the main road which stretched out in front of us for mile after mile
going over hill and dale in the sure knowledge that we would very soon be back
in touch with our M5 tanks.
There were anxious moments when we could see nothing in
the distance and finally at 11:58hrs after coming over the brow of a hill some 5
kms from St Denis le Gast were the tanks, their V8 Caddilacs were already
running and as we passed them they were already running on the road and building
up speed, not that an M5 needs much of an area to build up speed! The convoy was
now complete and the M5 crews seemed to be in a busy mode as they were now back
in the “fold”. The run from hereon in was some 10 minutes not a long one,
but the sight of all of the vehicles stretching back for some 2 kms including
all of that armor was a sight to behold. Not a civilian car in sight, the
authenticity was something to be seen to be believed. When the convoy arrived,
there were very few people in the streets but within seconds of the convoy
turning left on the cross road opposite the church people were appearing from
The run for the day was thankfully without incident and
the convoy was now lining up to get onto the field that was “earmarked” for
the camp for two nights. This was
going to be an important camp for 2nd. This village was at the heart
of the struggle that took place in July 1944 between 2nd Armored (and
indeed 82nd Recon) and a number of German elements trying to flee the
area due to aerial bombardments that were earmarked as a prelude to the start of
Operation Cobra. The reality of course was that 2nd Armored and in
particular its 82nd Recon Battalions were being used as a “cutting
edge” to punch through enemy lines and became so successful that they were
often running off the maps that
were being used by GHQ for operational planning. General Bradley himself had
noticed this, but was fully aware of the value of their progress and encouraged
them further. It is easy some 65 years on to analyse these spectacular movements
during which brave men lost their lives, but we should never forget the
remarkable achievements made by these units and what they had to go through.
As a French General from Paris remarked “ We are
aware that possibly today, younger generation have lost “sight” of these
actions and 2nd Armored’s considerable efforts to bring this period
in history alive will recreate a living re-enactment that will enable younger
generations to imagine in a more concrete way what actually took place”.
So here we were; on day 5 in St. Denis le Gast, fine,
hot weather and the camp was opening to the public for the afternoon. In fact it
didn’t stop at the end of the day, they kept coming from far and wide and well
into the night! This was a nice
cross road town, in it were facilities!
One bakery, a small shop and a restaurant-bar/hotel all
in close proximity. On the crossroads itself, there was a Panzer 4 which was
knocked out in 1944 and a local civilian was shot in an unfortunate accident of
friendly fire. Not to mention actions that took place adjacent to the Hotel and
the nearby “land of the dead”. This was an area that earned its name during
the 100 years war between France and England in the middle ages
and virtually on the same spot in 1944 history repeated itself. This time
endorsing the name that would remain with the area for evermore – The Land of
At St Denis le Gast we were joined by Patric Fissot and
John Torchio who were both historians of the area in their own right. Their
intimate knowledge of the battles and skirmishes that took place was outstanding
and they took great delight in taking out parties to various areas to visit
places which are now mentioned in the annals of history. This for many was a
remarkable experience. M5 tanks were seen to park on the very spots in wartime
photographs so that a modern day equivalent photograph could be taken. This was
something that really made passers by think; this was a literal remembrance, the
like of which had never been undertaken before.
Our first night in St Denis le Gast was spent by and
large between the camp and the two bars, the latter two of course took a
hammering as due to the heat of the day, everybody had a thirst that was not
about to be quenched easily. The road side bar on the main road stayed open
until the early morning and the owner showed the eager drinkers some of the
relics which he had acquired over the years which were a welcome diversion to
the bottom of a drinking glass. The First Sergeant was seen doing his
“rounds” checking on all and sundry and indeed had one or two words of
advice for the officers as well. Nobody was precluded from his authority that
was clear. Even at this time of the morning he was still on the go and sometimes
we wondered how it was that this “stalwart” kept “his battery” charged.
He was more often than not found at the rear of the convoy dealing with
breakdowns or minor vehicular problems, this was a man that kept the very fabric
together and often was not seen near the head of the convoy at all until the end
of the day.
So 2nd Armored settled into its first night in St Denis
le Gast and finally the gates of the camp were closed for the night, the
stragglers getting back to the camp only to find that they had to sign
themselves in. This in itself was a sight to behold, as some were clearly not
capable of navigating - even with a pencil!
Dawn finally appeared and so the promise of another
fine day –or so we thought, surprises were in store! The convoy was assembled
and ready to move out at 09:29hrs, our route was to take us through La
Voltolaine, La Pompe, St Martin de Cenilly, La Pinetriere Notre Dame de Cenilly
and then on to Roncey where we were due to stop for refreshments. The car park
adjacent to the church was empty as promised by the town hall and the impressive
convoy pulled in and sought out the nearest bar which was forthwith
requisitioned as the Officers PX.
Roncey was a strange place, after having been virtually
razed to the ground after the bombing by the US Air Force in 1944 it
subsequently grew up out of the rubble to become a vibrant yet quiet village in
the heart of the Bocage. When we approached the town hall for permission to pass
through and indeed pause there, they were curious as to why we should want to
visit such an uninteresting place such as theirs? Obviously the war came into
the equation and of course the sheer devastation that took place there and it
was only until they were shown photographs of the vehicles and those of their
town in waste that they understood what we were about! Needless to say our
lunchtime visit in the middle of the week was not ideal for the locals, but as
much of the route for the tour it did mean that we would be able to move around
The local butcher had set up his barbecue on the
pavement outside his shop and was selling grilled sausages in baguettes which
was a popular fare with our group. The price of which depended on what you
looked like (or so we thought)!
The bar/café was used to capacity and time was taken
to refer to photographs of the village after the US Air force had attacked the
2,500 armored German vehicles that we were in and around the village at the time
of the attack. The result of this attack basically ensued panic within the
German ranks, The Germans then making off in every conceivable direction
southwards to avoid the onslaught that was obviously on its way. What they
hadn’t bargained for was the close proximity of 2nd Armored
Division and its Recon units who were already behind enemy lines in places.
The D38 being covered in its entirety by 2nd Armored Division
expecting action at any moment, this D38 was designated by the Germans as a main
route of escape from the “Roncey Cauldron” as the Germans had named it. The
actions undertaken both by individuals and 2nd as a whole in my view
has been understated in historical documents, what took place was a heroic
struggle to stem the flow of fleeing Axis troops which essentially was fired by
selfless actions by individuals who at times went up and beyond the call of
The D38 of course became a no go area and every
conceivable roadway, track and indeed field was therefore in use by the German
units trying to escape. Our departure from Roncey was to follow one of these
escape routes which was to bring another dimension to our now well publicised
presence in the area.
We left at 13:14hrs in the direction of Grismenil
utilising some very narrow Bocage lanes. As we approached the cross road on the
D49 we turned right which was the road of “la Landes des Morts”, “The land
of the dead”. We arrived at the memorial of the land of the dead and parked
the convoy along the side of the road; the atmosphere in this area is decidedly
eerie. We were then joined by the three M5s that then took up their respective
place in the convoy and the whole complement of troops stood in one long line in
the middle of the road adjacent to their respective vehicles. This was an
impressive sight that will never be forgotten by those that witnessed it.
The honor guard was then formed up and the 2nd
Armored wreathe was laid at the memorial which was followed by the firing of a
volley. This was a moving event that a number of locals turned out for.
Certainly we got the distinct impression that this was very much appreciated.
After this Patric Fissot had on display photographs which were taken just
after the battle in 1944.
It was distinctly very close weather and the roads were
worrying in that the slightest movement on them resulted in marks on the new
surface however, we were in the middle of the countryside and had no option but
to carry on. The convoy then finally moved off towards Les Hauts Vents this
being the area where the Americans had first seen the fleeing Axis vehicles
moving. We then carried on through Trelly where the Germans had their command
post and at the time, as elements of the US Army moved through the village,
certain German Officers were seen running “for it” across fields as the US
vehicles had passed adjacent to the roadside windows of the command post.
We then carried on around the loop of the roads behind Trelly and came
past the area where the German Commander Tychsen had been buried later on at the
side of the road. We carried on warily looking at the skies which by this time
were becoming decidedly black and somewhat menacing.
14:59hrs the heavens opened and it rained. Not only did
it start to rain, but it started to throw it down with a vengeance. Every
vehicle had its canvas off! Then came the lightening and thunder. Thunder bolts
came down vertically and struck each side of the road simultaneously around us
in the lead jeep. This was like being on the receiving end of an artillery
The water level in the jeep was rising and we were now
in a no win situation. Soaked to the skin trying to keep the paperwork off the
floor of the jeep on my boots in a canvas satchel to now avoid the increasing
lake which was now rapidly rising within the floor well of the GPW
(TITANIC and bilge pumps came to mind). The first Sergeant took the
decision to stop the convoy and pulled it off the road as driving was becoming
suicidal in the prevailing conditions. We ahead in the lead jeep got out of the
4x4 to put the canvas hood up.
We had no choice, we had to try and keep our paperwork
dry, despite the fact that we now had the appearance of drowned water rats, the
two of us burst into a paralysing bout of laughter which made our sides ache, it
seemed that the slightest remark would render us completely immobile which would
only aggravate the pain that was now evident in our sides. Possibly this was the
“pressure valves” going off but it is something I shall never forget-looking
back to see the convoy moving through “monsoon” like rain and lightning
strikes on either side of the road, oh for a camera at that precise moment.
Finally after some 20 minutes the convoy finally
arrived in St Denis le Gast ready to undertake our wreathe laying ceremonies.
All of the vehicles by this time now having the appearance of having been
through a “car wash”.
Whilst not everybody had been out with us that
afternoon, our arrival at the campsite revealed a well organized guard who had
taken the precaution of diverting some of the ensuing running water which had
been running along the surface of the entrance to the field.
There was no electricity in the town, due to the
lightning, ceremonies were imminent and with wet uniforms on, it was not going
to be a picnic, but at least it would look realistic!
The town was beginning to fill up rapidly. People were
coming from far and wide and the press were there in force. The sun was peeking
through and the nasty black clouds had gone but nobody was holding their breath!
The convoy was assembled together with the now sizeable
honor guard which due to the proximity of the camp to the ceremony location, now
involved a large part of the convoy crew members. This particular memorial
service in town was to involve the three M5s and a few of the armored vehicles
for effect; it was essentially a procession such as the village had not seen
since 1944. The most memorable aspect being that numerous members of 2nd Armored
were now wearing their spotted camouflage uniforms that were briefly issued in
1944 and then withdrawn shortly afterwards as from a distance they could be
mistaken as German camouflaged uniforms.
This very “realistic” procession was now marching;
proceeded by the three M5s in line up to the first stop at the house of Madame
Guenier. During the liberation of the town, American infantry were on foot
patrol and whilst passing her house they saw a shadow moving in the room,
thinking that it was a German sniper a trooper fired fortunately missing the
lady in question, but unfortunately falling glass from the window cut a vital
artery and Madame Guenier died some time later. At the time of the accident, the
Americans had expressed their deep sorrow and condolences, but the family and
relatives in no way held the Americans to blame for the incident.
A copy of the original funeral poster was placed on the
window of the house and a wreathe was laid by our General, the Marseilleaise was
played followed by a three shot volley fire then the Mayor addressed the commune
and the many visitors who were crowding around the ceremony area.
to us, were the living relatives of Madame Guenier who thanked us for our
efforts in her memory. A translation speech of the Mayor’s address was
delivered and then we prepared to move off for the Sgt Douglas Tanner memorial.
The by now crowd was becoming very talkative and were
most enthusiastic. What we did notice was that as soon as an official started to
speak there was a deadly hush. This is something that is not always so in France
but given an emotional subject like the liberation of St Denis le Gast then
those that were present were willing participants.
The “column” led off preceded by the members of
ONAC (the local veterans association Standard bearers) the Three M5s and then
the marching troops; such a sight as had not been seen in a long while in those
The arrival at the Calvary cross where Sergeant Tanner
was hit still showed bullet marks in the granite work alongside its base. It was
here that his Stuart tank had made a stand against the retreating German forces
- his selfless actions cost him his life; he subsequently died on the pavement
outside the nearby hotel named Hotel Saint Evremond which we had come to know
during our brief stay in this town of St Denis le Gast.
One of the M5s was parked in the position as it would
have been during the action and the honor guard was formed up facing the Calvary
memorial. The whole of this parade being surrounded by onlookers that had come
into town especially.
The wreathe laying was undertaken following which the
laying party retired. The honor guard then fired a three shot volley fire in
salute and then the Mayor addressed the assembly. This was followed by the
English translation. One could hear
the sound of cameras clicking all around. This was obviously something that was
close to the hearts of the locals and it showed!
In retrospect, after the tour, this seemed to me to be
the most memorable event of the whole tour.
One could hear the remarks from the French like; “The vehicles smell
just like I remember”, “They are and look like the real thing”, “I had
no idea there was a film unit in town”, “Look at the detail on the vehicles
and look at their uniforms its just like 1944”
The Mayor was visibly aware of the comments and
I think he was a little overcome with emotion as he darted off ahead to
the impending cider soirée that been organized
for us adjacent to the camp.
On a sadder note we were honoured with the presence of
Major Ken Dungey (retired) whose very own wife of long standing (who was French
born) passed away a few weeks before the event took place. This was a great blow
to everyone that knew her. It was largely thanks to her and her continuous
efforts that the memorials for 2nd Armored were established. She was
a driving force whom a great number of people had a great deal of respect for. I
had the privilege of knowing her albeit briefly, but she was from a rare breed
of dependable people and it was she that was so looking forward to seeing 2nd
Armored in town and finally not to have her there in person on the day was
something that I thought about a great deal. Nevertheless, I did feel that she
was there in spirit.
After the ceremony at La Calvaire, the parade proceeded
back to the campsite followed by the general public to view the wartime
encampment. Numerous people brought gifts of bottles of this and that and the
Cider evening in the adjacent hall was an opportunity to meet
some of the locals on a more relaxed basis,
Ron Swonger and his brother Lon were there as they had been at the
ceremonies that very evening, having travelled from the USA especially for
the event. Ron and Lon`s father Howard was ex 82nd Recon
Company A and it was he together with Madame Dungey that were largely
responsible for the construction of several of the 2nd Armored
memorials in the region. The evening passed away very quickly and some of the
“crew” went up the road to the roadside bars and a number were seen in the
nearby restaurant which was full to capacity.
As tomorrow was another day and French television FR3
was to spend the day with us I decided to turn in at about midnight, which was
early in comparison to other evenings!
The following morning the convoy was ready to move out
at 09:08 which was only some 8 minutes behind schedule, as we pulled out of
St Denis le Gast, it was with reluctance that I looked back to see the
convoy coming up behind. St Denis had been good and we would have some fond
memories of this commune and their hospitality. Our arrival in Gavray coincided
with the start of their Liberty Bridge week end which was something that had
become a special festival to celebrate liberation and freedom, which we happened
to be in complete “keeping” with. Some of us, who visited the town, had a
coffee with the Mayor and Conseil General who was very pleased to see us.
The convoy was obliged then to leave Gavray as time was
ticking on (as ever) and we had an appointment in the commune of Le Chefresne.
Convoy moved out at 10:14hrs and then after having disappeared from the main
road entered back into Bocage country. We were very lucky that to date we had
encountered very little problems with oncoming traffic in these lanes.
The convoy arrived at the cemetery at Le Chefresne at
10:12hrs. Upon arrival (a one time military cemetery, which happened to be one
of the temporary war time cemeteries that had its ‘compliment’ transferred
to Omaha cemetery upon completion) we were greeted by the locals. This site had
been preserved by the commune which really was something that the locals were
keen on as it was the last known temporary cemetery in existence.
Here the commune was in numbers, together with a tent, refreshments and
canapés. Finally the whole convoy was assembled and the procession on foot was
brought together and the wreathes were prepared for laying. It was at this point
that I noticed that FR3 television had turned up and were getting to grips with
their task in hand in earnest. Interviews left right and centre, asking
questions about vehicles and even filming discussion between NCOs and small
problems that were being discussed.
At the memorial (which was located on the roadside),
two wreathes were laid the first by a lady of some 92 years who had been
deported by the Germans during the war who survived her ordeal and then returned
to her native commune of Le Chefresne. One felt somewhat humbled to be in her
presence yet she was adamant that she was going to lay the wreathe as she was
not that “nimble” on her feet given her age. Our General lay the wreathe on
behalf of 2nd Armored and suddenly I became aware that the eyes of
the whole commune and indeed the French camera crew were upon us. This to Le
Chefresne was a very serious business. The reality of the whole ceremony being
highlighted by the honor guard firing their volley of three shots. There was a
“brief” eerie silence after the last shot rang out echoing across the
valley. A moving ceremony which I believe will not be forgotten for a long time
The convoy finally moved out at 12:44hrs which was a
reluctant departure as I think we would have all liked to of spent more time in
this commune and reminisce with some of the residents but time as ever was
pressing. Our subsequent route was to take us past the 13th Century
Abbey of Hambye which was something to be seen, the ruins themselves looked
impressive as we passed and crew members gasped as they saw this remarkable
edifice tucked away in the countryside as it was. Message passed to the lead
vehicle Charlie 12 was down. Back up was in attendance we would carry on.
From here we were taking the back lane into Percy and all of the problems
associated with lanes (that were in fact two way) but were actually filled by us
alone. The Harleys were sent ahead to keep the road clear and get all traffic
pulled off the road to facilitate our passage. As we came into Percy, we crossed
over the Liberty Highway and then on into more lanes towards St Sever Calvados.
As we moved along our route into deep countryside and
indeed Bocage region, people were standing at the side of the roads in the
middle of nowhere, in fact on one occasion the lead jeep was stopped by a
civilian bearing a bottle of home made calvados which we accepted with
gratitude. Timing now being important to us and the ever existing potential
problem of oncoming traffic this being something that occupied my mind a lot in
these narrow lanes that rose and dived down into valley after valley. Finally
nearing St Sever Calavdos, we were coming through the southern edge of the
Bocage region and the terrain was becoming more open. Shortly before we got to
St Sever Calvados Charlie 12 went down again near Sept-Freres, this time only to
be stuck for some hours. Although I do believe that a local farmer did oblige by
towing them into his farm yard. These country people were very obliging and
certainly appreciated 2nd Armored’s efforts very much indeed.
The convoy arrived in St Sever Calvados at 13:44hrs,
but with all of the difficulties and the unknown quantities this was a good
result for a difficult morning on the road. Upon arrival we were greeted by a
large number of locals and then the whole convoy formed up in front of the town
hall en masse. What a sight to behold. The town hall building itself having the
traces of machine gun bullets rising up one side of the granite. Refreshments
were laid on for us and with the heat of the day this was very welcome.
Time as ever was ticking on and FR3 television had come
with us on the run from Le Chefresne and we had to establish camp. The commune
had reserved a field for us a stone throw away from the town centre and so the
convoy departed to occupy this; the latest stage of the “Back to the Bocage”
tour. Unfortunately for me, there was an inordinate amount of foot work to do
and a German BMW R75 sidecar was “requisitioned” and I spent some of the
afternoon being ferried to and fro. After having received some very worrying
looks, I decided to foot it as the “firing squad” was ever present in my
The first Sergeant at this time of course was beginning
to worry about the track and its crew as he didn’t want them
walking into St Sever, as the risk of becoming dehydrated was
considerable - such was the heat.
An Mp was despatched on Harley to assess the situation and report back.
Meanwhile, the question of showers arose again, in fact
if showers weren’t forthcoming; I had the feeling that the question of the
firing squad would soon rear its ugly head yet again! So I took another hike to
the Town Hall and was sent off in the direction of the nearby football ground.
This was a
modern facility which fortunately was within commuting distance from the camp
and relatively easy to find. Time was as ever moving on and the evening wreathe
laying ceremony was due to be broadcast live by FR3 television and preparations
needed to be made.
2nd Lt Oliver took over this aspect of the
days programme and had organized
some skirmish troops to come into the town very close to the war memorial
and a jeep with General Patton arriving to inspect the troops. This coupled with
the arrival of tanks and armor into the car park in front of the Mairie was
deemed to be “exciting” footage by the camera crew. This was undertaken and
the whole thing passed without hitch with St Sever Calvados going out live on
the evening news report. The ceremony at the war memorial for 2nd
Armored Division was very well received by the locals who were out in force.
ONAC (French veterans association) were present as were the local fire brigade
that took part with their ceremonial axes. After the dramatic entry of the tanks
and armor, which sped into the car park, General Patton and the officers of 2nd
Armored who had taken part in the wreathe laying crossed the road to listen to
General Patton address the troops this time from the top of the steps of the
Town Hall. Meanwhile as the address to the troops was taking place, I was
interviewed by the reporter for FR3 who was asking numerous questions about 2nd
Armoured in Europe, its members, its aims and so it went on. The live aspect of
the broadcast wasn’t long, but the footage from the convoy during the day had
also been attached to the report and this was to give the group the publicity
for the one event that it wanted to undertake very much – the laying of a
wreathe and the fixing of a brass plaque to the memorial for 82nd
Recon at St. George de Rouelley.
However, the day was by no means over, the camp was
open to the public, many visitors came in and a constant stream meant that the
gates had to be manned constantly (as they were throughout the whole tour).
There was also a vin d’honneur at the Town Hall which was not well attended as
with the run to St. Georges de Rouelley the next day, there was a lot to do.
There was a lot of equipment on display, people were out with their vehicles
taking comparison photographs and the camp kitchen was also in the process of
providing the evening meal. The
track that went down during the day was also recovered and the crew were alive
and well and had some story to tell!
The tankers were still at it with their maintenance
they had a problem and needed to drain oil therefore containers were required to
hold the used oil, the local fire brigade or (Sapeur Pompiers) provided the
containers very quickly without any argument. Such was the cooperation that we
enjoyed; everybody did what they could to help no matter what. This was the
“entente cordiale” at its best.
Night was beginning to fall when some of us finally
managed to “skive off” into town for a glass or two.
It was good to see the guys and girls enjoying
themselves as they had had a gruelling day, which as it happened, was all in a
days work with 2nd Armoured in Europe.
What a day, what a convoy and what a team! That night
as my head hit the sack as I didn’t have a pillow! I was out like the
proverbial light, I imagine that for everybody else it was the same.
The departure of the convoy the next day was on time at
09:30hours. From the outset as soon as we “hit” the country lanes people
could be seen standing at the sides waiting for us to pass and to get their
chance to see this authentic wartime convoy on its route. As we passed through
villages people stopped, turned and stood at the side of the roads in awe of the
sight unfolding in front of their eyes. This was 2nd Armored in
Europe recreating the scene wherever it went. The run actually was without
incident and everything was now running smoothly, there were one or two
mechanical problems en route and one M8 had an ignition problem but as this was
very close to our destination, it was left in the very capable hands of the
First Sergeant. The head of the convoy arrived at destination at 11:31hrs, One
minute late! Or was it my watch??
I don’t think that things could have gone any better
except that when we arrived I was greeted by some 5 Gendarmes who were not in
the best of humour! Apparently one of the towns we had passed through had
understood that were going to stop there, but as we hadn’t, and the
Gendarmerie Nationale had organised additional manning some sort of explanation
was required. The Mayor of St
George de Rouelley defused the situation and took us all into his office for a
glass of “entente cordiale”. All was fine!
Meanwhile the convoy was installing itself on the camp
which was in an apple orchard which was a fantastic location which also meant
that the kitchen could utilise the barn adjacent to the orchard. We had also
collected a guest on the way with the convoy, non other than Peter Gray. For
those who weren’t aware of the significance of this visit, Peter was
responsible for the military vehicle movement in Europe kicking off all those
years ago. He was a pioneer in his own right and went through some difficult
times in establishing his MVCG group which eventually became the MVT.
Peter himself being an honorary member of 2nd Armored
All have their own views on the MVT which I won’t go
into here, but to each their own. Basically from Peter Gray’s efforts
virtually all of the groups in Europe can find its roots. To see Peter sat
amidst a “sea” of olive drab gave me a great deal of pleasure, it was nice
to think that 2nd Armored in Europe had the time to
give him the respect that he justly deserved.
After all it was he who had literally started it all in Europe. He being
a staunch supporter of the importance of remembrance.
So time moved on (as always) and there was the all
important ceremony set for the 82nd Recon memorial at 17:35hrs. This
ceremony turned out to be a little more popular that originally anticipated.
Most of the day hitherto was taken up with the establishment of the camp
and the crews of the respective vehicles were occupied with their own kit,
tents, bashers, weapons, fuel and a whole myriad of other things that these
crews were usually found doing whilst on camp. The question of showers arose
again and a nearby football field shower block was found and the keys suitably
requisitioned. It was not ideal but in those immortal words from “Fawlty
Towers” “it could be used in an emergency”.
Meanwhile a quick visit over the road to the restaurant
where the evening entertainment was due to be held. This was a small square off the main road set in a quadrangle
of period village buildings. Here the restaurateur had set up tables and benches
and provided a dance platform together with CD players, amps. and speakers.
Additionally, festoon lighting was already up and his speciality of paella was
already on the go! Around the corner from this square, white smoke could be seen
wafting its way around the buildings. It was one of the crew taking photographs.
I had wondered, as for one moment I had thought that something was on fire, but
no, it was the “artistic flair” of one of the crews in action!
One never knew with 2nd Armored in Europe,
all sorts of things could happen, back at Neuilly-la-Forêt a Roman Centurion
appeared! No it wasn’t a ghost, but the more “adventurous artistic flair”
of Trooper McNally in full flight. I still don’t know to this day what the
First Sergeant had to say, but a photograph of this “altercation” does
exist. One can only surmise that the Centurion was indeed “lost” and needed
direction. No doubt the First Sergeant gave him that direction as the Centurion
never appeared again!
Time moved on and the time of the ceremony approached,
Ron and Lon Swonger and Major Dungey were to be at the ceremony together with a
number of local politicians and indeed one Senator who lived in the area.
Needless to say the town folk were there in number and the crowd control was non
existent until we arrived. The location of the memorial on the main road side
meant that one lane of the road had to be closed off and a temporary traffic
light system installed for the duration of the ceremony. Already in place was a
tented drinks table and the car parking was to be alongside in the apple
orchard. At this locality during August 1944 one M8 from A command of 82nd
Recon was hit by an 88mm round. The resultant explosion killed instantly all of
the members of the crew bar one who was walking to one side of the vehicle at
the time of the action. The survivor of the M8 crew Howard Swonger had always
felt a great sense of loss after this event and had vowed that one day he would
provide a memorial in memory of those that fell at that point so that for all
time they would never be forgotten. This task was finally accomplished after
some years and both he and Madame Dungey were able to locate some remains of the
M8 in the fields adjacent to where the action had taken place.
These pieces were then placed in the base of the new memorial when it was
One can only imagine what
was going through Howard Swonger’s mind at the time when the pieces of the M8
This then was 82nd Recon’s own memorial
and this proposed ceremony was for 2nd Armored in Europe
- a must! The Mayor of the town of St George de Rouelley was a man that
was passionate about this memorial for he can remember the action as he was a
small boy at the time and it was his mother that had ventured into the fields to
give the US infantry fresh milk to drink, taking no heed for the need to “keep
her head down”. For her the most important thing on her mind was to ensure
that the “liberators” had something to drink.
Before the vin d’honneur, a salute was fired above
and across the road by the three M8s that were there to salute the crew of the
M8 involved in the fatal action at St Georges de Rouelley. The ceremony as a
whole was a moving experience and I found it hard to concentrate as the reality
of the “event in 1944” was ever present in my mind. The stories which I had
heard when researching the route and the people whom I had met all flashed
before me as I stood with the others before the memorial. I wondered at the
time, whilst looking around, what things were going through the minds of those
that were there for the very reason that they were in the town during the war.
It was difficult to take in.
had already been through some moving experiences on this tour, but somehow St
Georges de Rouelley was something extra, something more alive, and something
very real and close to the hearts of the locals. In St Georges de Rouelley I had
found a commune that was prepared to bend over backwards and the Mayor was a
forceful person whom himself had had a heart transplant some 18 months earlier,
yet he was there doing what he could for those that gave their lives for us and
despite all of our groans and moans that we had had on the tour, this was a
Mayor more than anybody else that knew the meaning of sacrifice, duty and honour.
It was being in the presence of people like this Mayor that I felt humbled, the
meeting of Madame Dungey before her untimely demise was also similar, except
that she was a person who didn’t know the meaning of “no” and its
In this town, 2nd
Armored in Europe had found soul mates. It gave me great pleasure to see 2nd
in action at this memorable event and to realise that perhaps more than any
other commune St Georges de Rouelley were prepared to stand up and remember in
their own special way.
The vin d’honneur was an opportunity for us all to
mingle with the locals and I managed a glass with the Chief of Police, possibly
we had both been humbled by the days experience and I think that really our own
personal agendas paled into insignificance alongside the importance of what the
event was all about. The French Senator that appeared “incognito” was
visibly moved by the ceremony, he left after the event in a pensive mood and
again I wondered what was going through his mind. The Mayor had a tear in his
eye and I knowingly shook the hand of a man who more than anybody else there
knew how very important the event was for the young of the commune.
“We have a problem, we need to get somebody to
hospital”, he said.
“You’re joking”, I said.
No there was no joke, Dan Knight had stepped onto a
metal tent peg in the dark and it had gone into his foot, fortunately Anthony
Ardissone one of our medics
cleaned the wound, but urgent Hospital attention was required.
Fortunately, we had some English visitors in the camp that lived nearby
and were only too pleased to give their evening to ensure that Dan was looked
after. We can never thank them enough for their support.
This was something that I was dreading, I was at least hoping to get
through the tour without any injuries. We remain to be grateful to the French
hospital concerned as they made no charge and not even the need to exchange
social security details were asked for. Thankfully Dan was returned to us in one
piece albeit with some 5 stitches in his foot.
We had to then move into the functions hall, time was
pressing and a buffet meal for the entire company was due to be delivered. In
addition there were the speeches, the T shirts to hand out and all manner of
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