Operation Gold Beach
Five years ago, in June 2004, The Garrison was invited to Normandy to take part in the official Ver Sur Mer D-Day Landings celebrations.
This year we were lucky enough to be invited to return for the much-awaited 65th Anniversary celebrations, again held at Ver Sur Mer, a Norman village where part of the Gold Beach invasion took place.
The whole experience was fantastic and at times was emotional, hilarious, fraught, merry, sad, reflective, spontaneous and unique; here’s a report of the week.
D-Day minus 3
The Garrison members met at various points along the South Coast (well, Portsmouth Ferry Terminal and Fort Nelson). Baggage, trailers and vehicles were packed, unpacked and repacked, convoys were formed and everyone hurried to the terminal for the ongoing sea crossing. The quads, limbers and guns (two 25 pounders) plus jeeps, a tilly and support vehicles and trailers were lined up ready for the off. The ‘off’ being the next morning at 0600hrs, everyone set up temporary camp on the car park and settled down for a cool and slightly damp evening under the stars (and various tarps, covers and vehicles).
D-Day minus 2
The convoy was loaded onto the ferry without any problems and the troops settled for the crossing, most hot-footing it to the lounge for a full English. A good sailing calmed any ‘hope it’s a good sailing’ nerves and all enjoyed the crossing.
On arrival at Oiustrehem, the convoy was unloaded without mishap and all troops prepared for the convoy to Ver Sur Mer; along with many other period vehicles and supports. The Gendarmerie lined us up ready for the escort; that was when the red-tape started to wrap around us.
The French Customs officers decided that they would like to keep our guns for themselves and even had a nice storage shed for them to stay in. We were directed to surrender our guns (isn’t that another story?) and await confirmation that we could bring them into the country. Capt Jonathan put up a good fight but his hands were tied (not literally...…yet).
So, we all convoyed into France under police escort with the other troops and vehicles but felt somewhat exposed and naked without our guns. The convoy passed through many a village and was greeted with waves and cheers from the locals. On arrival at Ver Sur Mer we unloaded, set up camp and got a brew and some grub on.
A short while later, Capt Jonathan was summoned back to the port; he returned with guns and an odd looking grin on his face. He related that he had to jump through many a hoop to gain their return but also stated that he had to perform an odd ceremony involving trouser removal and ‘French’ things. During the week he was often found muttering about “…cavities …sore…etc …”; we don’t think he went to a dentist at the port though!
D-Day minus 1
This was a full on set up day; as part of the official living history camp at Ver Sur Mer the officers and men (and one brave ATS girl) set up two gun positions, a Control Post, field kitchen and tented accommodation, plus various holes for various uses; and a natty set of stone steps for the CP.
Keith, Mike and Iain decided to spend the day talking (shouting) in Irish accents while setting up cam nets for No 1 gun …. “Are ya there Paddy, Oi carn’t see yer” “Sure Oim ‘ere, I’m talkin’ aint Oi?’”
Once all was done, the troops split up and had a free afternoon wandering, sight seeing and generally poking about; the cooks spent the time foraging too. The evening meal was scoffed and few drinks quaffed; just to be sociable of course.
During the evening the group took advantage of a personal tour by the owner of a cider farm. Not only was the tour of great interest and the cider tasting very welcome but the chateau had a close link to our interests as it was also used by the occupying German forces during the war. Big thanks to Ed for organising the tour and to Alexander, the owner. A late meal finished off the day nicely.
This was the first public day for the camp. Sixty Five years ago today was the real D-Day!
Along with The Garrison displays, there was a field hospital (any volunteers for an amputation), signals (can you hear me Mother?), infantry (nice hole), military police and various REMF HQ’s. All in all it was an excellent display by all living history groups. The camp was as authentic as possible and looked very professional indeed.
Throughout the day over 5000 people visited the camp, mostly French but many Brits, Dutch and a smattering of Germans (do Germans smatter?). All visitors showed great interest in the guns and many locals commented that they were proud to have us there and were very impressed with our professionalism. There was even a 50 year old Calvados passed around by an older local!
Bdr Rodney was our ‘official’ translator, he coped admirably with all enquiries with his command of the French language, pointing and using the universal Gallic shoulder shrug …. well done Rodders!
Lieut Iain and BSM Keith made use of the Lieutenant’s WW2 English to French technical dictionary and with help from Major Mike (a fluent French speaker (he’s Canadian)) managed to shout bi-lingual fire orders to both guns; unfortunately the crews could only listen in English!
This display was much appreciated by the French visitors and a helped them understand what was going on in the gun pits.
A mock battle followed, our guns supporting an infantry attack with Lieut Tony and Gunners Andy D and Michael acting as Forward Artillery Observers. With the small arms fire in the near distance and our guns up close, the public witnessed a great battle. All the groups worked very well together and all managed to avoid trampling the ‘rare’ purple field orchid with thanks to Lt Dickie Townsley of the RAMC (a closet flower arranger). The sounds of the CP and the battle were recorded for posterity by a WW2 BBC sound unit.
During the evening, Garrison members went their separate ways and had walks around the area, a romantic meal (just the married Andy and Kay), kit cleaning and general personal admin. BSM Keith and Lieut Iain joined the RAMC to support inter-group relations and promptly finished off a lovely bottle of gin. A few Garrison troops joined later in the evening and a merry time was had bay all. Thanks to Major Graham, Major Doc and Lt Dickie for their hospitality. The evening was nicely rounded off by Lieut Iain falling into, through and beyond a latrine trench (lucky it was display only!) and finishing his display with a perfect parachute landing roll.
D-Day plus 1
Another public day, the weather was not kind but cleared well enough for the public to come along and see us in action. The event went very well with a similar format to the previous days goings-on.
We continued dodging the weather and ventured out during dry periods; luckily the cookhouse was warm and inviting (even though the cooks weren’t!).
A nice evening socialising as a group in a local restaurant and then back to camp for stories and bed.
D-Day plus 2
Another special day for The Garrison and particularly for Lieut Tony as we retraced his Fathers footsteps in the D-Day follow-on campaign.
Lieutenant Clayton-Smith was and officer with 489 Battery (our portrayal battery) and fought through Normandy sixty five years ago.
We were hosted by the Mayor of Trungy, a small village approximately 5 km inland. 489 Battery fired their guns from Trungy and we were privileged to be allowed to fire our guns from the same area. A crowd of locals filled the car park behind the guns and were amazed and delighted at the sight and sound of our group re-enacting an important period in their village history. A short reception was held in the village hall and Garrison members chatted to the Trungy residents over a cider and nibbles.
The Gunners then mounted up into our various light vehicles and led by the Trungy mayor and a local historian we travelled to more sites where our guns actually fired from post D-Day. There were still signs that the Royal Artillery and others had been through many years ago and it was a poignant and exciting reminder of why we carry out living history. It was an emotional time for our modern day Lieut Clayton-Smith and we’re lucky to have an extremely close link to ‘our’ Battery’s past and ‘our’ battle histories.
The day away from camp was rounded off with an RA convoy to find Gunners that are buried in Commonwealth War Cemeteries following death in action, another time to reflect.
Back to Ver Sur Mer and we started to strike camp and then various people went various ways and ultimately joined up for a social evening.
D-Day plus 3
The camp was finally packed away and after a bite to eat we headed off to the port. After a short wait, a hot meal and finding ourselves featured in the local newspaper (the same paper as Messr’s Obama and Brown) we mounted up and embarked for England.
The whole experience in Normandy was excellent; the Garrison members were proud to take part and there are many people to thank; here’s a few:
The organisers of Operation Gold Beach
Jonathan for his organisation, a mean feat to get us and gear across and for his sacrifices in the name of returning our guns.
Keith for holding us all together.
Nigel and Fred for the cookhouse and their efforts
Mike (Canada) for his expertise and translator duties
Paul and Nigel for their Jeeps and gear
Andy and Mike P for their Quads and gear
Ed and Don for their logistics support
All the Gunners that gave their time and great efforts to make the week the success it was.
Jonathan, Iain, Tony, Keith, Paul, Gary, Rodney, Don, Nigel, Fred, James, Matthew, Andy D, Andy, Kay, Ben and Michael.