Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

Sep 18, 2016

By Janet Rogers

Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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About the Author

Janet Rogers

Janet Rogers is a freelance writer. She is a keen cyclist, swimmer and traveller and likes to write about her trips. She lives on the south coast of England.

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