Pegasus and Hillman

October 4, 2011 at 9:39 pm 3 comments

After our roadside picnic, Mom and I got back into our Corsa and continued on towards Ranville and the Pegasus Bridge Memorial and Museum. We had a day and a half to see the D-Day Beaches, which wasn’t nearly enough time to see absolutely everything. Almost every town has its own memorial, and many towns have small museums, too, to tell the stories of their own occupations and liberations. So instead of trying to see everything, I decided that we would see a few things from each of the British, Canadian, and American sectors. Since we’re Americans, and since the American sectors are the most built up, I decided that we’d spend most of our second day at different American sites. That left our first half-day to split between the British and Canadian areas. Since we were coming from the east, we started with the British and Pegasus Bridge.

Pegasus Bridge
Pegasus Bridge is still a working bridge, but it isn’t the same structure that bridged the Caen Canal in 1944. The new bridge was built in 1994 and the old bridge (pictured above) was saved and is now part of the Pegasus Memorial Museum.

In American history classes, we always focused on the beach landings when we discussed D-Day. They were the bloodiest parts, best suited for Hollywood movies and to capture the short attention spans of 8th-graders in Mr. Broccolo’s history class. Before our trip, I didn’t have much concept of the events that occurred in the hours just before the beach landings, including the taking of Pegasus Bridge.

In order to cut off German counterattacks and the arrival of relief troops, the Allied Forces isolated the Normandy beaches by destroying most of the bridges across the Caen Canal and River Orne. Of course, they didn’t want to box in their own troops either, so they sent British air troops in gliders (that is, aircrafts without engines that were dropped from other aircrafts to secretly land in enemy territory) to take and defend Pegasus Bridge until the troops that stormed Sword Beach could reach them. It’s a fantastic story, and one that the small museum told wonderfully well.

This cannon is located just outside the museum with the flags of the Allied Nations.

Poppy Wreaths
One thing I learned from this visit was that the British share the Canadian fascination with red poppies as memorial flowers. I had to explain to to my mom. I think that the average American has probably heard “In Flanders Field” before, but we don’t have the same strong association for red poppies that Canadians and, apparently, the British do.

After Pegasus and Hillman, the next stop on my list was the Site Fortifié Hillman. Unfortunately, I only had the road (rue du Suffolk) and the closest town (Colleville-Montgomery), and the vague reference in my notebook: “can go in many remaining defensive positions.” We drove to the town, but I wasn’t even sure what we were looking for, so I was about to give up when I saw a tiny sign that said “Site Hillman” with an arrow. We had stumbled onto rue du Suffolk after all.

We found the parking lot and wandered onto an open, grassy area, where a group of British schoolchildren were being lectured about not littering while they had their lunch. One of the teachers was desperately trying to get someone to eat the last apple. I almost volunteered to take it.

So my mom and I just kind of wandered around some ruin-ish things, and then we stumbled upon this:
Bunker 1

The stairs were narrow, but there weren’t any signs or ropes indicating that we shouldn’t walk down them, so we did. I touched the walls, read the plaque, and we poked our heads around some corners. We found something that may or may not have been a huge water tank, and then we found a portal that we could put our heads through.

Head through a portal
Photo op!

I thought that it was pretty cool, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking at. The tiny area seemed more like a cement version of a WWI trench than anything that I’d seen associated with WWII in the movies. I had expected a gun battery somewhere, but I didn’t see anywhere that could have housed a huge gun, and besides, what would huge guns have done underground. Regardless of the confusion, I thought the experience had been really neat. Mom agreed, and we were just heading up the stairs when a cheerful French guy appeared and asked us if we would like to see inside.

My mom replied and said that we’d already been inside, and that it was very interesting. He asked again if we wanted to see inside, and my mom said again that we already had, and then he said, “No, you haven’t been inside, because I have to unlock it.” And he motioned for us to follow him.

He ducked down one of the small “hallways” off the main “trench” area and pulled open a heavy door, entered an alarm code, and fiddled with several locks. Okay, I guess we hadn’t seen the inside yet. Another couple who had been wandering around followed us inside and the cheerful guy, a volunteer with the local historical society that was working on keeping up and restoring the bunker, gave us an impromptu tour.

It turns out that the Site Fortifié Hillman was a German bunker. It had been built during the occupation, obviously, and it was an extensive underground, fortified site of German operations. It contained living and working quarters for the commander of operations in the region, as well as his staff.

Inside the Bunker 1
Inside the Bunker 2
I was really interested in the desk in this second photo. It was the station for getting messages in and out of the bunker during the war. Telegrams, maybe? I’m not sure of the right terminology, but it was really neat.

Our guide spoke quite fast and he used a lot of vocabulary that I didn’t get in Mme Bourg’s high school French classes, like “generator” and “commander” and “forces,” so Mom had to catch me up a few times. I did understand a decent amount, though, and I was able to ask a question or two in French and thank him for showing us around. So when we emerged, we somehow started with the woman in the other couple, and she was pretty shocked that she thought we were American. Somehow, between my mom’s good French, my stumbly French, and us speaking to each other in English occasionally, she thought that we were German. Still haven’t figured that one out, but we all laughed about it. She was Parisian, but had married a Londoner and had lived in London for years. They were biking the D-Day area because her husband really wanted to, and she was just along for the ride.

I didn’t ask our Parisian-Londoner friend for her name (I’m terrible with getting names when I talk to people), but I did snap a photo of her as she pedaled away.

Bunker 2
Hard to imagine this country as a war zone on such a beautiful day, isn’t it?

I really enjoyed our random tour of the bunker, and I’m glad that we were in the right place at the right time! The guide told us that the restoration of the bunker had only begun in the past couple of decades, because the occupation had been such an awful experience for the townspeople. After it was over, no one wanted to preserve a place associated with so many bad memories. They used the area as a junkyard and it had to be “rediscovered” before it could become a historical site. A group of veterans, like our guide (not of WWII, he was younger than that), had taken interest in the site, for the sake of history, but it hadn’t really taken off like some of the other more popular tourist sites because they didn’t have any funding. Who wants to fund the place where the Nazis worked, right? But at the same time, it still has historical value, and I’m glad that a group of locals took enough interest in it to preserve it so that my mom and I could wander into it. Very interesting.


Entry filed under: D-Day, Europe, France, Normandy, Photos.

Morning in Rouen O Canada

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Christina @ Food.Fitness.Fun.  |  October 4, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    1. Portal!
    2. “Did you go inside” sounds familiar lol. Glad you went in the real inside this time 😉

    • 2. Mel  |  October 4, 2011 at 11:29 pm

      Hahaha. I did not see any monkeys, though.

  • 3. Anne Coffman  |  October 5, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Guess that it’s pretty clear to those reading as to who was in charge of this trip! I really enjoyed just following along, and letting ma fille make all the trip-planning decisions and arrangements!

    The other thing about the bunker that I found fascinating was the story of how certain British and German WWII veterans have recently visited there and have “made peace” with each other. I remember that our tour guide almost started crying while telling us this story, and so did I!


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