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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Normandy, France

It’s been more than twelve years now since I retired from teaching and two years less for Mrs. T. from the same profession. The two years difference came from her decision to go on a little longer than me to pay off the mortgage on our new house in the woods. I took on the role of “house husband” to her infinite satisfaction.  I had promised to take her to France on her retirement but that was delayed for one year as she successfully fought off a bout with ovarian cancer. The delay proved fortuitous in that our good friends Steve and Jewel could join us. It turned out Steve had taught high school French for a few years before turning to dairy farm. That allowed us more opportunities to venture further out on our own on "free" days from the tour group.

 A direct flight from the Twin Cities brought us to Paris where a quick city tour and a good night’s sleep prepared us for the trip to Normandy and the D Day invasion beaches.

I had been urged by Mrs. T's cousin Joe to be sure and sample Normandies most famous adult beverage - Calvados.  Sure enough the program included a visit to a place where the apples were converted into the famous beverage.It was all very interesting but the highlight for me was (given my perverted sense of humor) the "tasting" that followed the tour. It seems the majority of the elderly entourage had missed the part about Calvados being a rather strong applebrandy. Given the gasps and chokes that followed our group toast with the beverage, it seems the majority of people had expected to be imbibing an fruity apple cider!

Our first city stop was  Rouen which had a long and exciting history. Here the French kings had been crowned and Joan of Arc burned as a heritic by the English. Naturally, we visited the famous cathedral.

Standing in the square, looking back at the cathedral, I
recalled that the French impressionist, Claude Monet, had
spent many hours here drawing it. His studies of light and
shadow fueled much of his later work.

We had lunch in the town center, visited a market
and walked in the garden surrounding the marker to the martyrdom of St. Joan

The next morning found us approaching the famous bridge crossing over the Orne River - Pegasus. The significance of the bridge on D-Day was simple but key. Allied deception had persuaded to leave their major Panzer formations near Caen to the north. The allied landings were to the south. Holding the left flank bridges across the Orne against German counter attacks would vastly increase the probablity of success for the Allied landing.
That task was assigned to the 6th British Airborne Divison. On the night of 5/6 June 1944, a force of 181 men, led by Major John Howard, landed in six Horsa gliders to capture Pegasus Bridge, and also "Horsa Bridge", a few hundred yards to the east, over the Orne River.

It was given the permanent name of Pegasus Bridge in honour of the operation. This name derives from the shoulder emblem worn by the attacking British, which is the flying horse Pegasus.

The events around Pegasus Bridge are depicted in the movie The Longest Day. The role of Major Howard was played by Richard Todd, who actually participated in the real Allied defence of Pegasus Bridge, having been the 7th Parachute Battalion's Intelligence Officer on D-Day.

The original bridge was replaced in the 1990's. During our visit to France every day except one was sunny and warm. Our D Day visit, though, was dark and somber. The weather that day was actually perfect, setting the mood, as we visited the places where thousands died to liberate Europe from the Nazis.

The soldiers killed in these actions are mostly buried in the cemetery at nearby Ranville. There is a commemorative plaque that was installed by the family Gondrée, whose house near Pegasus Bridge was the first to be liberated during D-Day. It still exists and nowadays contains a café and a small museum shop that sells Pegasus Bridge related material. The lady who runs this café was a small child living in the home when it was liberated. Yes, we stopped in for some postcards.