A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
(Twenty-first in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)
On June 16, 1985, it transpired that six youthful travelers were inserted into speedily improvised dorm space on the toasty top floor of the Family Home hostel in Bayeux, and in spite of a rocky first meeting, they coalesced on French soil, becoming a tightly knit band of brothers.
Actually, what helped achieve harmony among these strangers more than any other single factor was the hostel manager’s grudging acknowledgment that the more mattresses were stuffed into the attic, the fewer francs each occupant would pay. We were unknown to each other, and yet bound by a shared interest in saving money.
It made good fiscal sense. Introductions were made, and we set about getting to know one another.
From the start, two of my new roommates stood out. Fred was a tall and mustachioed Floridian with a gift of gab, and his traveling partner Bruce, who hailed from Canada, was blonde, sparsely bearded, quiet and more analytical.
This is not to say Bruce wasn’t capable of being opinionated, as I learned later when I offhandedly remarked that Keith Moon of The Who was rock’s greatest drummer.
Bruce quickly became red-faced, proceeding not only to make a convincing and fully detailed case that Rush’s Neil Peart was far better as a drummer, but adding that Peart wrote challenging lyrics, and besides that, Canadians in general were key contributors to the history of rock and roll all across the board in spite of what perpetually clueless Yanks AND Brits insisted on thinking.
Canadians were not supposed to be chauvinists, were they? I didn’t think so, either, but here was an example of one. But Bruce was passionate, bright and articulate, and I learned much from him during the coming days -- while choosing my comments very carefully.
As for Fred, he was divorced, a tad embittered yet funny, incurably garrulous, and absolutely delighted to report the intimate details of an amorous conquest experienced while in Greece, where he and Bruce had struck up an acquaintance by means of their shared interest in Hellenic nude beaches, during which Fred had gotten lucky with a fellow American tourist.
She didn’t stick around, but Fred and Bruce had been traveling together ever since. They seemed temperamentally well paired, although Bruce’s eyes often rolled when Fred got rolling. The Floridian was harmless, and in truth, highly entertaining.
As for the other three other loft roommates, their names unfortunately are lost to history. For mysterious and arcane reasons, I’d decided that precious film must not be wasted on ephemeral matters like documenting images of people, as opposed to buildings, so no photos of them exist.
There was a fallback, because throughout the 1985 trip, I diligently recorded the names and addresses of new friends I met in an old-fashioned little blue book.
This blue book returned to Europe with me in 1987 -- only to fall out of my pocket somewhere in Vienna, and be lost forever.
The important point is that I was absorbed into the Bruce/Fred tandem, and we became a triumvirate for two days in Bayeux, and serendipitously, two more in Brussels.
The morning after my arrival in Bayeux, all six of us boarded a local bus for the coast.
Fred had concluded that hitchhiking in the vicinity of the D-Day historical sites was the very best way to see them, explaining that Americans would be adored in such a locale (not altogether untrue, by the way) such that we’d have our pick of passing cars.
Obviously, hitching a ride would be unlikely for so large a group. It wasn’t clear if Fred intended to explore the vicinity alone, and I kept my eyes open for bus route signs just in case.
After misty beginnings, a lovely summer’s day emerged. I was keen on the idea of walking the coastline for as much of it as possible. The area proved to be well signposted. We had maps, and there’d always be another bus, right?
My skepticism undoubtedly owed to memories of transport antics in Pecetto and Pithion.
Knowing that that the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944 comprised the biggest amphibious invasion in military history proved to be inadequate preparation for viewing the ocean from the high ground, then trading places at water’s edge to look back inland, and being overwhelmed by what it must have felt like waist-deep in salt water, having nowhere to go except forward.
Most of the invading force came from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, assigned landing beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword (from west to east). However, troops also were present from Australia and New Zealand, as well as in small numbers from occupied European countries: Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Greece, Netherlands, Norway and Poland.
There had been a great disinformation campaign on the part of the Allies, one designed to confuse the Germans as to the landing site. It worked to a significant degree, but perhaps the single biggest hindrance to an effective coastal defense stemmed from the larger strategic picture, because German wartime strength was waning.
Guns and ammo were less of an issue. Contrary to popular belief, Germany was able to keep up its war production in material terms in spite of relentless bombing, which Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe was unable to impede. War production went underground, literally and figuratively, but Allied control of the skies proved vital as the Normandy invasion unfolded.
More importantly, Germany’s two-sided war was in the process of bleeding manpower to the breaking point. By 1944, the Germans were in retreat across the entirety of the Eastern Front, where the Red Army’s seemingly limitless numbers and escalating tactical abilities gained traction in proportion with the increasing exhaustion of the Germans.
Indeed, then as now, Americans need to understand that the outcome of the Great Patriotic War – as WWII was called in the Soviet Union – hinged on horrifically costly combat in the East. Tens of millions died there. US forces bore the brunt in the Pacific, while in Europe, the Soviets punished Adolf Hitler.
Consequently, Germany was weakened, and France’s coastal defenses were only partially completed and inadequately manned. Hitler’s constant military meddling added a further level of dysfunction; the perfectly capable general Erwin Rommel was on the job, and yet the dictator insisted on moving chess pieces from Berlin.
In spite of these many advantages, Operation Overlord was far from a sure thing. The Allies aimed to shift 150,000 soldiers across an unpredictable ocean, albeit over a relatively short distance from England. Even a slight shift in the weather might have wreaked havoc.
Not only were fighting men in route on small transports. Big naval ships had to be positioned for shelling, and parachutists had to be dropped behind enemy lines. There were supplies to be landed, too, primarily by means of an improvisational device called the Mulberry, which was a floating harbor to be assembled where natural contours were lacking.
As almost always is the case in war, it came down to the heroism and tenacity of the foot soldiers. On the Allied side, casualties during the first day alone exceeded 10,000, one of whom was my old friend Barrie’s father, who received a Purple Heart. More than 4,000 of his comrades died.
June 6 ended with five contested, bumpy bridgeheads for the Allies, and yet these lines held and were expanded during the remainder of June. By the end of the month, close to 900,000 troops had poured into this continental foothold.
You know the rest of the story.
Our own beach-combing sextet held together for a little while. Looking at the satellite images today, I have little clear idea of where the bus took us. My best guess is Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, located near the Omaha Beach monument and the American cemetery.
I recall a stretch of shoreline displaying wreckage, perhaps of landing craft, although it doesn’t seem possible that we could have started as far to the east as Arromanches, where remnants of Mulberry Harbor can be viewed, and still had time to walk to Pointe du Hoc, a heavily fortified headland between Omaha and Utah beaches.
U.S. Army Rangers famously attacked Pointe du Hoc by climbing the cliffs with ladders, ropes and hooks. The site remains pockmarked with shell craters and the ruins of German defense installations.
Throughout the day, buses occasionally trundled past, and one of us would hop on and wave goodbye. By afternoon, it came down to Bruce, Fred and me, and we began looking for ways to get back to Bayeux.
After hiking inland a short way past neatly groomed fields, gnarly hedgerows and stone walls, we found a small country café at a crossing of two lanes, shaded by a copse of trees near a cluster of farmhouses. A few languid cows observed our arrival from across the narrow road.
The posted bus schedule seemed to indicate a final afternoon pickup for Bayeux. Inconveniently, we would have almost two hours to wait, which in reality would have been more than sufficient time to walk all the way home – except there was inexpensive Kanterbrau golden lager on tap.
Let’s be clear: The beer was underwhelming. Bruce immediately began comparing it unfavorably to Labatt’s, and on a subsequent trip, Barrie dubbed it “Cancerbrau.” Perhaps because we were tired and hungry from having skipped lunch, the beer went straight to our heads, and after the third round, Fred belatedly decided to test his theory and uncork his thumb.
His mangled efforts were futile and hilarious, and even the otherwise humorless café owner laughed when the American he decided to explain his hitchhiking tactics to the bored cattle.
As we waited, a group of bicyclists stopped for a drink. Surely by then I’d seen hundreds of Europeans riding bikes without thinking much about it, and it would be another 15 years before the riding bug finally bit. Still, I can remember drinking my beer at the bar following our day at the D-Day beaches, and thinking how much fun biking appeared to be.
In retrospect, renting a bicycle in Bayeux would have been the best and most practical course, but if I knew then what I know now, the entire trip would have been far different from the one I’ve described.
The bus eventually arrived, and we returned somewhat giddily to Bayeux just in time for the optional evening meal at the Family Home. It was a communal affair at a huge table, accompanied with cheap wine, and utterly delicious.
Tales were spun and schemes were hatched. The next stop would be Brussels, and we decided to travel by rail as a group -- no hitchhiking.
Little did I know that a roomy bathtub awaited.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.
The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.