Tuesday, November 25, 2008
More Backtracking-Nov 15
We rolled off the ferry sometime shortly after 8 am. Here is an American reaction for you. I was immediately struck by how everything was in French. And having taken only Spanish in high school several eons ago, didn't understand a word of the signage other than cities and distances. Les drove off the ferry but felt a little uncomfortable driving a right hand drive vehicle on the right side of the road. It must have been very uncomfortable, in all actuality, if he was willing to sit and let me drive. We got off to an inauspicious start, going the wrong way on the motorway. By wrong way, I mean wrong direction compass wise. This was easily rectified by exiting and turning around. Unfortunately, we had just paid a toll to get on the motorway, and then had to pay to get off, and then had to pay to get back on. All told, we did do our part in helping French road maintenance. It seemed as if there were tolls to pay every ten miles,but that perception may have been fueled by the rate at which we were traveling. The toll booths proved to be an adventure as well as a challenge, as again, for some reason, all instructions were in French. They did accept credit cards, which made it somewhat easier, but the machines are designed somewhat differently than the ones with which I am familiar. They utilised the pictogram system of instructions but this generally consisted of a picture of a card being inserted into the machine, with no indication of which side was up, or of the orientation of the magnetic strip. They did have a picture of a little arrow on the card showing to insert the card in the slot. That much I didn't need help with. Actually Les had the bulk of the toll duty, as he was sitting on the side of the car that the driver normally occupies when driving on the continent. This may be hard to believe, but he had never seen a toll booth before and was somewhat befuddled by them, especially the different options at them. Just as he was getting settled into the routine of shoving the card into the slot, murmuring at the price charged for what seemed an awfully short distance covered, and waiting for the bar to raise, the procedure changed into the toll booth dispensing a ticket which we had to insert, see earlier problems with inserting credit cards, and wait for the sum to be displayed before inserting the credit card. Later, in Belgium, we avoided these problems altogether, as we dealt with human tollbooth workers who gave us our total to be paid in Flemish. I know even less Flemish than I do French. But that was later, a couple of days later, as we were driving to Germany.
Eventually, after and hour or so of going in the right direction in France, we came to the city of Caen, a major objective in the Normandy invasion. The Normandy Invasion of June 1944 was a joint U.S./British Commonwealth operation. The most notable, or most noted maybe, part of it was Omaha Beach. But, there were 5 beaches that the Allies used, and three them were British and Canadian, these being Gold, Sword, and Juno . Their casualties, while not as extensive as those on Omaha, were still significant. Omaha had roughly 10%, Gold and Sword 2-3 %, and Juno up to 5% . But this was just the first day. The battle to break out of the beachhead actually lasted until almost the end of August and resulted in some desperately appalling casualties on both sides. The Commonwealth troops were assigned the task of capturing Caen, a city seen on both sides as a key to the success or failure of the the invasion, and as such the Germans fought for it accordingly. A quick aside here that will be discussed in more detail later. Another factor relating to the success of the liberation of Europe was the ability to supply the troops.And aside from the beachhead, the Allies had no port under their control, and Hitler saw the English Channel and its weather as an ally and felt that if he could hold out long enough, the weather and the Channel would combine to starve the would be liberators of materiel, which very nearly came to be. The Allies put paid to this with an artificial harbor. And it was over this artificial harbor, in place less than 2 weeks after the invasion, that my uncle came as a reinforcement with the 43rd Wessex Division. The division was made up of numerous regiments, armoured units, etc, but for the sake of clarity only the basic structure of the division is briefly listed here. The 43rd Wessex Division consisted of the 3 brigades, one of which was the 214 Brigade. The 214 Brigade consisted of three English county regiments, one of which was the 5th Battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, consisting of about 1000 men, one of whom was my Uncle, Lance Corporal. He had been with the DCLI since 1940, but actually did not have to be in the army at all. When hostilities broke out, he was working in the factory that made Hurricane fighters, and playing for the factory football(soccer) team. Evidently they were quite good, and Les has newspaper clippings of Waddington doing this and Waddington doing that. He was good enough to be asked to tryout for a professional team, but Leslie doesn't know what became of the trial, or if he even went.
That may be another story. For now, Les and I are in the area where his father, he has a hard time calling him Dad, as he never knew him as such, where his father first put to use the training the regiment had been doing for almost 4 years. The plan was to tour as much of the area as possible, but in reality started slowly and finished the day that way. We drove to Caen, and parked in the heart of downtown in an underground parking garage. Leslie has a surgically repaired ankle, which truth be told needs a bit more repair, and I have a right knee that once every 6 months or so, decides to lock. Today was the day. There we were, ascending a steep drive way out of the parking garage, limping along like a couple of actual veterans. We wandered around William the Conqueror's home before he set up shop in England, and then went in search of the Bureau de Tourism. European architecture can throw one for a loop, especially if you are not familiar with it or the signage. I couldn't seem to find the Bureau but I think it was subconsciously I was looking for a certain sort of building and wasn't prepared for it to be in a 400 year old hotel building that had been converted to office spaces. The fascia gave little clue to the ultra-modern chrome, plastic, and brightly lit office it contained. After finding it and perusing the brochures, all in French, I found one I recognised for a bed and breakfast that I had researched. I grabbed it and the straw it represented as on the back, next to the phone number, were the words, "Fluent English spoken". This really was a serious matter, as it seemed no one around us spoke English, and no one in our party spoke French. Here I would like to interject an observation. I have seen numerous comedy skits about Americans and British who feel that by shouting or gesticulating, they can be understood. Many of the French we encountered have obviously embraced this school of thought, and eschew even the use of paper and pencil to draw maps, or fingers to display numerical values. At this point, I want to make it clear that I don't think that just because I speak English, then the whole world should. Really, all I mean to convey is that it really was a strange feeling to be surrounded by people who looked just like me, yet I couldn't make myself understood to them or they to me.
Before heading off to find the b and b that spoke fluent English, we decided to have breakfast at a cafe that billed itself as Cafe du Tourist, or something of that ilk. I had a traditional petit de jeneur french breakfast of a cup of coffee(small and very strong-I immediately thought of my caffeine-a-holic daughters and how it would put Starbucks to shame), orange juice, a massive croissant(think two or three times the size of Burger King's only without the meat or eggs), two pieces of hard bread(I love hard bread) and jam and butter. Les got the Breakfast Anglaise, which consisted of what I got, plus two eggs, and a plate sized piece of ham, and cheese. We each got a second cup of coffee, which increased our bill by almost half again,(I suppose I was thinking of the bottomless cup of coffee in American cafes). We paid our 20 Euro bill, about 28 dollars, and prepared to go in search of some fluent English.