As we head towards remembrance day and in my first year of official involvement in the towns activities, I wanted to write up a journey and story that I put together a number of years ago. We were going to visit Normandy and I decided to do some research and follow the footsteps of the men that left Falmouth for France in World War II.
As most of you will know, Falmouth and the surrounding areas were incredibly important in the lead up to D day. We hosted service men from around the world, who lived and trained in our area, for a number of months before they vanished overnight, many of them never to return. The Fal played host to a number of sausage camps- designed to hide their training exercises and apparatus of war, from enemy aerial observation. Mostly these were located along rural, tree lined roads, and were found all around Mawnan, Durgan and the Helford, Restronguet and Mylor, as well as other locations on the rivers Fal and Helford.
Thousands of men spent months here, initially joking with and befriending local children, sharing candy and stories from across the Atlantic. In some cases they were catching the eye of the local maids too, I’m sure. I expect it felt exciting and surreal to have these exotic men and their military toys in sleepy cornwall. For the most part, Cornwall had been a wartime safe haven for city children to be evacuated. Its hard to imagine how the locals must have felt to see trucks rolling in overnight carrying guys with funny accents in their thousands.
As time moved on and preparation became more intense, ive heard stories of the men becoming more withdrawn and serious. It is hard to imagine the fear many must have felt being so far from home and heading into the unknown. As they were preparing landing craft, trucks and machines, they each had a new wool uniform smeared with a greasy smelly solution, designed to protect them from German chemical attacks as they landed. The accounts I read before leaving, noted how heavy, stiff, smelly and uncomfortable their uniforms became, including a heavy over jacket covered in the same chemical laden paste. Each man was also given an inflation tube that sat around their waist, under their arms, with a co2 cartridge and a French phrase book.
Overnight by the end of May, the busy streets filled with men and machines, had all but emptied.
We left Falmouth ourselves, in 2015, having found out that many of these men were from The US 29th Infantry Division, drove to the euro tunnel then all the way down to Normandy. We then picked up our story where they landed in France.
The majority of the troops that embarked from the Fal and Helford areas were from the US 29th Infantry Division (the Blue and Greys) and they landed on the beach code named Omaha, which is close to the western end of the assault area. The first waves to land suffered terribly during the assault. If I remember rightly it was either at Vierville or Colleville that most of the 29th Landed. They actually had to make a road off the beach and up the Hill, which is still there today- we walked it. Its actually Depicted in the Longest Day by Robert Mitchum.
Omaha beach was beautiful; heavily raining with chubby rain drops, as it was the entire time we visited Normandy. The whole experience felt rather more authentic, due to these constant downpours. Every time one of the children dared complain of being soaked, I reminded them whose footsteps we were following.
It was calm and empty at Omaha.
I found it incredibly hard to reconcile the place I saw before me, with the images and films id seen of the same location 75 years before. I am not ashamed to say that I shed a fair few tears, whilst looking at the water and seeing flashes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (that we had watched before we left Cornwall for France) overlay the current view.
I simply couldn’t comprehend the scale of the loss, fear, noise and brutality, that beautiful beach had witnessed…
The kids and I wrote on the sand- ‘Thank you love from Falmouth, UK’ ,scooped a handful of sand to take back and sprinkle on our own beach. In some way hoping the men that died there, would feel like they’d been bought home. Silly I know, as they were in the majority American soldiers, whom had made Cornwall their home for less than a year before they left.
But regardless it felt like the right thing to do.
We paid our respects at the multinational memorials along the seafront and left to head up the hill, using the road the soldiers had to make, to take this section of France.
Some of the rangers, also ended up at the Ponte du hoc, at the northern end of Omaha, where they were forced to scale sheer cliffs to take a significant German stronghold. The site remains untouched to this day, bar some information points and memorials. It’s an overwhelming place to visit- you can very much imagine being there at the time. The craters from battleship gunfire remain, as do the half destroyed gun lookouts with bullet holes scattering the walls and ceilings. In places there are torn fabric and sounds to amplify the reality of the experience.
Whilst there, we came across people from all around the world, paying their respects and endeavouring to understand how the world ended up in a second world war. We met Americans, French, Germans, Italians and Japanese.
It got me thinking about loss.
For those visiting their German grandfathers’ graves and last known locations, the sadness was no less, than for those visiting British and Americans.
There are no winners in wars are there really?
Following on our journey ,having seen where so many of these men perished, we headed to The American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer. This was an incredible place to visit. Eiree. Desperately sad, but strangely peaceful and hopeful. These men gave their lives in the fight for freedom and all that is right in the world. They fought so that people could live peacefully no matter their religion, race or birth right. It was awe inspiring and utterly demoralising all at the same time. As far as the eye could see- endless white crosses.
We spent many hours there, searching for our 29ths. For some of the men, we learned more of their personal stories in the information centre.
Some men lay in nameless graves.
Regardless, we stopped for a minute of silence and thanks at every grave for the 29ths that we found. Paying our respects from Falmouth, Cornwall, the last place these men lived and experienced, before they gave their lives for us.
To ensure our freedoms were protected to this day.
We will, and must always remember them.
Lest we forget.