|The Magical History Tour (Part II)|
|By Tony Conboy III|
If I had to label one portion as the surprise of the tour, it would be the British contribution to the tour, our visit to Pegasus Bridge and its new museum. The story about what took place on the small bridge under the moonlight just hours before beginning of D-Day in 1944 has the plot of a made for television movie. The story is now the subject of a recent Stephen Ambrose book.
A team of British soldiers in three gliders, under the command of Major John Howard, stealthily glided in and came to rest within a stones throw of the German troops defending the bridge. After an intense firefight, British troops took the bridge and held it so that the Allied forces of the D-Day invasion could break out of Normandy.
Getting out and walking in on and around the bridge today, I could feel the history. Although the original bridge has been replaced, its replacement looks virtually the same as the original. A British Centaur tank today sits next to the bridge as a reminder of the raid that took place. The tank was part of the Royal Marines armored support group that supported the D-Day landings. It was later disabled and abandoned near Hermanville.
On the other side of the bridge still stands a lone gun emplacement. Near the gun is a walkway that leads to plaques that mark the exact locations where the British gliders came to rest. It is amazing to see in person how close to the bridge the gliders ended up resting.
Museum Memorial Pegasus
Located within yards of the current bridge is the newly opened memorial museum. Dedicated to the troops of the British 6th Airborne Division who conducted the raid, the museum contains authentic objects and documents as well as artillery and armor and one of the most unique items in any museum: the original steel Pegasus Bridge.
The museum grounds also contain a number of military vehicles and weapons including a British M3A1 halftrack; a British 40mm gun, a 25-pound field gun and a 5.5-inch gun.
Inside, the museum covers a wide range of subjects by displaying authentic objects, photographs and texts of letters. Some of the more unique items include one of the miniature dummy parachutists that were dropped during early hours of D-Day to confuse the Germans; medical and surgical instruments used at the time by the British medical service; a 1944 radio set and telephone; a silk escape map that was sewed into the uniform of raid participants; and, actual pieces of the gliders used in the attack on the bridge including a portion of a wing complete with D-Day invasion strips and British roundel.
The D-Day museum at Arromanches highlights the impact of Project Mulberry the creation of the artificial harbor that was necessary to support the vessels loading and unloading equipment.
From the parking lot of the museum, which is located directly on the beach, what remains of the artificial harbor can be seen. The Allies constructed the large U-
shaped harbor to provide a breakwater for the ships. Considering it has been over 50 years, much more of the harbor still remains than one would expect, an estimated 25-30%. Large portions are still in the water, while some over a hundred foot long, have washed ashore and are still visible. When originally built, each of the cashions, which were portions of the artificial harbor, were 200 feet long and 60 feet deep.
The museum is modern and quite large and boasts a small theater where a 15-minute video in various languages including English is aired. The museum collection includes various photos and artifacts from the harbor as well as a wide collection of general World War II related artifacts. It was one of the only museums where you could actually see an Mk-6 naval mine, a 1000-pound bomb and unique artifacts from the French resistance.
An easy half of a day could be spent the Arromaches, spending a good two to three hours in the museum and the rest of the time in the town. Within a short walk of the museum are the towns small shops and restaurants. Also, make the short walk to the nearby hilltop. Here youll find a French tank that serves as a memorial and youll have a great view of the remains of the harbor and the town.
Ardennes Poteau 44 Museum
On a small country road, a short ride from Bastogne, Belgium, we visited what many on the tour considered the best museum the Poteau 44 Museum. It wasnt the most well known museum we visited; nor was it the biggest museum or the most impressive architecturally, in fact the appearance of the building was unremarkable, but the building itself and the land it sat upon was filled with history.
It was originally built as a farmhouse in 1870 and now is owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Jacqueline and Rob De Ruyter. It is a labor of love for the couple, both of which are keenly interested in military history, especially the battles that took place in and around Poteau in the Ardennes Forest area of Belgium.
The site of the museum, on a lonely stretch of road a few miles from St. Vith, is definitely off the typical tourists beaten path. Maybe that is why the area is literally teaming with the remains of the battles that took place during the winter of 1944. For five days during December of 1944, German and American troops and tanks fought battles in and around Poteau, with a particularly devastating German ambush of American forces being fought on land that is today owned by the De Ruyters.
When you go into the woods on and around our property you can find something from the war everyday, said Jacqueline De Ruyter. Most of the time it is shrapnel, but last year we uncovered 10 live hand grenades.
The hand grenades were uncovered by the De Ruyters while riding in the museums prized possession, a preserved American WW II halftrack. They also own a German halftrack as well. Rides in the halftrack are included on Alpventures tours, when weather permits.
According to Jacqueline, each weekend the relic hunters come from city to scour the nearby fields for war items that are yet to be discovered. Some of the finds pieces of shrapnel, helmets, weapons - are actually purchased by the De Ruyters and are displayed in the museum. Inside the museum youll find an impressive collection of authentic weapons, uniforms and vehicles from both German and American forces.
La Roche Guyon Castle
Known by many as the castle on the cliff, castle La Roche Guyon, built in the 12th Century, was the World War II headquarters of famed German field marshal Rommel and his staff.
It is situated on the banks of the Seine in the town of La Roche Guyon, between Giverny and Vétheuil. Entering the castle and looking out of a second floor window at the magnificent view of the town and the river, it was easy to see why Rommel chose the site as his headquarters. In addition to the view, the castle was nearly a fortress with a portion of the castle being built into the side of the cliff, a keep that towered over the cliff and an underground maze of tunnels providing safety against air and artillery attack. You are able to walk throughout the castle and can attempt to climb what remains of the keep, if you are in good enough shape. The underground tunnels, built into the chalk mountains, are also fascinating experience.
The castle was definitely worth the visit. In addition, the town of La Roche Guyon, with its narrow streets, is a small picturesque French town that is a great place to grab something to eat. Finally, because the town and castle are not on typical tour stops, we werent competing with hundreds of other visitors from other tour buses. We were virtually the only tourists in the town and castle the day we visited.
D-Day Museum at Bayeux
Described as the biggest and most complete D-Day museum, the town of Bayeuxs D-Day Museum featured the biggest collection of pristine German and American weapons, uniforms, armor and artillery pieces of any French museum we visited. Almost every type of weapon was displayed in nearly mint condition including even rare German land mines, flamethrowers, mortars, machine guns and Panzerfausts. The Panzerfaust was the feared German tank killer similar in appearance to rocket propelled grenades used today by many of the worlds armies.
Other interesting artifacts included a collection of German psychological warfare leaflets that were distributed among the American lines urging US forces to surrender.
One particular leaflet detailed the futility of fighting against Hitlers forces stating that the average American soldier in the European theater would be dead in 64 days, an NCO (non commissioned officer) would live only 59 days; a platoon leaders 51 days and a company commander only 48 days.
Another German psychological warfare leaflet displayed was prophetic. It attempted to convince the American forces that they shouldnt be battling the Germans, but that the true enemy of the Americans was the Russians. An eerie forecast of the Cold War that unfortunately was very accurate.
The museum also had an aviation collection, but not mint condition flyable examples, only basically portions of shot down German aircraft and an almost intact yet mangled British Spitfire. Displayed in a recreation of its crash scene is the Spitfire MK IX piloted by F/O H.W. Kramer of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Kramer and his Spitfire were shot down by anti-aircraft fire Northeast of Lisieux on July 30, 1944 and the aircraft was recovered in 1987.
American spirit honored in Bastogne area
Although it was over 50 years ago, the people of Bastogne, Belgium remember the contributions of the American soldiers during the dark days of 1944. Each of the three nights we stayed in Bastogne, when we ventured out on foot from our hotel past the towns square, we walked past a bust of famed American General Anthony McAauliffe and an American tank that is a monument to the liberation of the town. In addition to McAuliffes prominent location in the town square, you couldnt look 100 yards within any direction and not see some reference to his famous response to a German surrender ultimatum.
Nuts, the beginning of McAuliffes colorful response to the 1944 German surrender demand, was seen in English on signs, bumper stickers, t-shirts and even restaurants. What was even more impressive about the monuments and museums to Americans in the area is that many of them were funded by private donations from the Belgium people, a true sign of thanks for the sacrifices made in the area in 1944 and 1945.
The tank and bust of McAuliffe are located in the heart of the city, in the middle of the town square, which is surrounded by restaurants, shops and hotels. The particular tank on display, which points in the direction in which Pattons Army arrived, is named Barracuda. A German shell hit and disabled it on 12/30/44 near Hubermont.
Adjacent to the tank and bust is an extensive two-story visitors complex that has information on the many historical sites in the area as well as general tourist information.
Bastogne Historical Center and American Memorial
Located a short ride from the center of town, a visit to the Bastogne Historical Center and American Memorial could almost be a day-long event. The Historical Center is a first class museum with extensive holdings as well as a slide show and a 15-minute video presentation; both are available in many languages including English. The
slide show is not your fathers slide show, but an amphitheater style room with elevated seats encircling a 12-foot the screen. The slide show and video detail the events in Bastogne area that saw American forces become encircled and nearly defeated, only to be rescued by Pattons troops.
The Historical Center makes extensive use of dioramas depicting various German and American scenes using authentic equipment, materials, weapons and uniforms. A Nazi forces battle scene looks almost lifelike, complete with personnel, an amphibian Volkswagon 166 vehicle, a Light Armored Personnel Carrier and military motorcycle with sidecar. Interesting items in the Center include portions of a B-17 cockpit that was shot down over Bastogne during the battle as well as an assortment of American and German guns, uniforms and other weapons.
Outside of the Historical Center is the American Memorial. It is a huge stone tribute in the shape of a five pointed star with a circular viewing deck on its top that gives you a 360-degree view of the nearby countryside. To reach the top of the monument, which is 101 feet long and nearly 40 feet high, you must climb 60 stairs. The trip is worth it! Each of the points of the star include relief maps of the country side detailing locations of battles and events that took place in the area in 1944.
The monuments details the units that fought in the area, the states represented, engraved maps and a crypt.
National Museum of Military History
Luxemborgs contribution to the tour was impressive. The National Museum of Military History, located in a converted beer brewery in Diekirch, Luxemborg, claims to be the largest WW II museum in the world.
All of the items in the museum were found after the war in the nearby areas or were donated by veterans who fought in the area. They are displayed independently or as part of lifesize dioramas, the largest diorama depicting American forces crossing the Sauer River during the winter liberation of Diekirch.
An interesting feature of the museum is the large number of great personal stories behind many of the pieces displayed. The museum has compiled personal
statements from both American and Germans regarding their personal experiences of fighting in the area as well as the story behind the item they donated to the museum.
Finally, the museum is working hard to keep its title as the worlds largest WW II museum by opening an addition in 2002. The new portion of the museum is being built to house some of the museums biggest pieces, which include tanks and a collection of specialty military trucks and other armored vehicles.
Pattons Final Resting Place
Unlike most American Generals, you wont find General George S. Pattons grave at Arlington, but instead because of his request to be buried with his men, Patton is buried at the American Cemetery in Luxembourg. Located just outside of the capital at Luxembourg City, 5,076 American soldiers are buried along with Patton in the 50.5 acres of the cemetery.
My eight-day trip was very memorable, one where I learned many tidbits about the war but more importantly, I learned and actually felt the sacrifices made by American soldiers over 50 years ago. Any trip than can elicit those kinds of emotions is a success, and one that I would highly recommend.
Tony Conboy III is a freelance travel journalist who often provides military travel articles to the About.com U.S. Military Site.