[Port en Bessin, Normandy] – We’ve all heard the classic stereotype frequently attached to the French; they’re cool – even cold – detached, formal to the point of rudeness, and some might say arrogant and, of course, they don’t like foreigners. The stereotype is, like most stereotypes, largely poppycock. The next time I encounter the stereotype I’m going to remember this little stone monument marking a road hard by the River Orne in Normandy.
A few minutes after midnight on June 6, 1944 – D-Day – three Horsa gliders of the British 6th Airborne Division made what amounted to controlled crash landings about an eight iron shot from this marker. The British troops came in the night to capture two vital bridges that might have been the route for advancing German tanks to repel the entire eastern end of the “greatest seaborne invasion in history.”
One of the bridges – later known as Pegasus Bridge for the flying horse that was the 6th Airborne’s symbol – was captured by Company D of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry under the command of Major John Howard. Howard and his men, as Stephen Ambrose documented in his celebrated book on the raid, conducted their mission flawlessly and held the bridges for several hours until they linked up the next day with British troops moving up from the invasion beaches. The action at Pegasus Bridge is the stuff of military legend.
In many respects John Howard was an unlikely hero, but like so many in those times he rose amid the challenges to become a fine officer and respected leader. He was wounded twice during the Normandy campaign and came away from his experience at Pegasus Bridge with a Distinguished Service Order presented personally by Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. The citation read: “Major Howard was in com[man]d of the airborne force which landed by glider and secured the bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal near Benouville by Coup de main on 6-6-44. Throughout the planning and execution of the operation Major Howard displayed the greatest leadership, judgment, courage and coolness. His personal example and the enthusiasm which he put behind his task carried all his subordinates with him, and the operation proved a complete success.”
John Howard’s men anchored the eastern end of the Normandy beachhead by conducting one of the great and gutsy actions of World War II and obviously the French remember to this day. A visit this week to the bust of Major Howard that sits on the exact spot where his glider landed finds the base of the monument layered in fresh flowers, many placed by locals.
The 70th anniversary of the Normandy landing by American, British, Canadian, Polish and French forces in 1944 is being publicized and remembered all over France, and no place more than in the small villages and towns that stretch along the Normandy coast from Caen to Cherbourg. In Caen, a great and ancient city that was once home to William the Conquer and was severely damaged during fierce fighting after the invasion, lamp posts throughout the city feature pictures of the town’s liberation by British and Canadian troops in July 1944. The restaurants feature D-Day commemorative placemats. In the tiny villages behind Omaha Beach on the western end of the invasion zone homes and businesses display the French tricolor side-by-side with the U.S. Stars and Stripes. In fact, you see as many U.S. and British flags as French. The French postal service has created a handsome series of stamps to mark the anniversary. Films, concerts and art exhibits will continue throughout the month.
On the way back from Utah Beach today, I noticed one farm house displaying French and U.S. flags along with a crisp white banner that read simply – Merci.
Of course there is excess in the name of tourism, including the restaurant with a life-like combat ready mannequin at the front door and there are so many cheesy souvenirs for sale that I have lost count. What isn’t excessive is the remarkable sense of history in this place and what feels like a genuine determination to preserve the memory of what happened here 70 years ago. French organizers of the commemorative events say a principle goal is to make certain young people don’t forget the sacrifices made to liberate the country and hordes of French school children are visiting the important Normandy sites and often siting perfectly still for a long description of why this history is so important.
It has been a rare and special privilege to be here this week, visiting the five landing beaches, standing where Major Howard lead his men to Pegasus Bridge, imagining the great DeGaulle arriving in Bayeax and proclaiming it the provisional capital of France and, of course, walking among the more than 9,000 perfectly positioned solemn, sober and humbling white marble crosses in the American cemetery above Omaha Beach.
It was also special – and frankly a little unexpected – to discover that all these years later the Allies coming to liberate France in 1944 still lives in the villages and farms of Normandy. Along the backroads inland from Utah Beach you see dozens of small signs naming a section of road for an American GI. The French have well remembered Eisenhower with a handsome statue in Bayeax, the kind of honor that has been denied the general/president in Washington, D.C. The small resort town of Arromanches Les Bain, location of the brilliantly conceived “artifical harbor” that supplied troops in Normandy and for six months after the invasion became the busiest port in the world, has erected signs declaring “this is the Port of Winston Churchill.” Churchill conceived the far out idea to construct the harbor out of pre-cast concrete and then float it into place across the English Channel. It became one of the great innovations of the war. The town of Colleville changed its name after the war to become Colleville-Montgomery in honor of the British field marshall.
So, don’t buy the nonsense about the haughty French. They are remembering the incredible events in Normandy 70 years ago with style and grace and amazing hospitality. I raise a glass of Calvados to Major Howard and his glider-borne fighters and also to the French and their sense of history, while I quietly wish that our own sense of history could be quite so widespread, so obvious and so well understood.