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The Longest Day

The Longest Day

 
     
Mar 2018

Words Matthew Holt, pics Matthew Holt, Fiona McIntosh

Matthew Holt revisits the scene of one of the most famous events in military history, the D-Day landings of June 1944 – and accepts the gruelling challenge of a 70km commemorative run. 

Those who made it to the sea wall were driven relentlessly on by their commanding officers, Norman Cota and Charles ‘Hatchet Face’ Canham (who beforehand had told his men two-thirds of them would die), till they’d cleared the German defenders from the bluff and secured the beachhead.

Darkness gave way to a squally dawn and brooding sky. Facing a 70km cross-country run along the Normandy coast, I felt a pang of angst in my bowels. Then again, 73 years earlier, I’d have been facing far worse.

Fiona and I had rashly signed up for the D-Day Challenge, a 44 mile (70 km) run to commemorate the Allied landings on 6th June, 1944, precipitating Europe’s liberation from Nazi Germany in the Second World War. 

Through the wheat fields above Omaha Beach.

Originally the brainchild of army-surgeon Lt-Col Mike McErlain – who died of a heart attack while running it in 2013 – the event has been resuscitated by David Fox-Pitt, a Scottish adventurer with an officer’s bearing and gung-ho glint.

At the previous day’s briefing, we found his command centre in a state of flux. With the weather forecast predicting an incoming tempest, there were even suggestions to shorten the route. This was just like the real thing, with storms forcing the Allies to postpone D-Day from 5th to 6th June, despite concern that news of the invasion would leak. Fortunately, some concerted web-trawling procured a more propitious forecast and we decided to proceed.

Mission back on, David jabbed with his trekking pole at a large map, duct-taped to the wall. Our objective was to set off from Pointe du Hoc and hug the coast, traversing four of the five Allied landing beaches (respectively codenamed Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword), before cutting inland up the Caen Canal to Pegasus Bridge. “Keep the sea on your left and you should be alright,” advised David, “but we’ll issue radios just in case.”

While the Allied Supreme Commander, “Ike” Eisenhower, mobilised 126 000 troops for his invasion, our event was less heavily manned, with a mere dozen of us planning to complete the entire route. And whereas the Allied soldiers were supported by a range of specially-designed floating and flame-throwing tanks known as “Donald Ducks” and “Hobart’s Funnies”, we had a car carrying provisions to meet us at pre-agreed spots. “We’ve got cheese and port,” announced David. “Does anybody want anything else?” He looked quite bemused when someone suggested energy bars and gels. 

On 'Bloody' Omaha Beach.

The next morning, pre-dawn, we headed to Pointe du Hoc, a rocky promontory which in 1944 housed a formidable German gun battery. The task of neutralising it on D-Day was assigned to 225 US Army Rangers, who landed on the small beach below and scaled the 30m-high cliffs using grappling irons, ladders and knives. Successfully seizing the battery, they then spent two days fighting off German counter attacks, out of ammunition, using captured weapons and losing over half their men in the process. Just to rub salt into their wounds, when a relief force finally arrived, it mistook them for Germans and shot four more of them dead.

Our arrival was less daunting, however, and we drove up to the battery unopposed. Before starting out, we were addressed by the granddaughter of the confrontational American WW2 general, George Patton, who believed himself a reincarnation of a Roman warrior. As we shivered in the breeze, Helen Patton read out the prayer composed by an army chaplain on Patton’s command, requesting God to hold off the rain while the Americans crushed the Nazis. She diplomatically ignored his famous pre-D-Day address, considered one of the most stirring motivational speeches ever, if also one of the filthiest.

Then, at 06h40, somewhat after the designated H-Hour, we tentatively set off along the cliff top, with a stiff south-westerly helpfully blowing from our rear. Our first wave was eight-strong, comprising those who’d rashly claimed to be runners; while our reinforcements consisted of four hikers, led by David, who were planning to march the entire route. It was the German commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel who predicted D-Day would prove to be “the longest day” - though ironically, having sneaked home to attend his wife’s birthday, he spent it frantically driving across France to man the barricades.

On the cliffs after Omaha.

An hour later, we dropped down onto Omaha Beach. On our right, grassy dunes reared up to a bluff from where German guns had commanded the bay. On our left, the incoming tide lapped at the base of a stainless steel memorial to the American soldiers who had the misfortune to land here.

Dispatched 16km offshore in small landing crafts, they endured an hour’s journey through heavy seas, which had most of them retching and sank 27 of the 29 tanks dispatched on inflatables. Beaching on a sandbar, they then had to wade through chest-deep water, raked by machine gun fire, sheltering behind anti-landing obstacles. Those who made it to the sea wall were driven relentlessly on by their commanding officers, Norman Cota and Charles “Hatchet Face” Canham (who beforehand had told his men two-thirds of them would die), till they’d cleared the German defenders from the bluff and secured the beachhead. If it sounds like a Boy’s Own adventure, watch the opening scenes of ”Saving Private Ryan”. I would have turned around and swum back across the Channel for England.

Climbing up from Omaha, we were confronted with chest-high stinging nettles, slippery mud-chutes and minefields of cowpats. Lacking Bangalore torpedoes to clear them, we relied instead on a couple of trekking poles, plus the indefatigable Max Carnegie, a 21-year-old Scot training for the Royal Marines. Seemingly impervious to cold, mud and nettle-rash – in a T-shirt and shorts – he assisted each of us through the barbed wire fences, before dashing back up front. We were all quite shocked when he later pulled out with a fractured foot.

Jogging into Arromanches.

Notwithstanding meticulous planning, the Allied soldiers were told to expect confusion on the day – and we encountered much the same. At the first two planned rendezvous spots, our support vehicle was nowhere to be seen and our radios elicited only crackles. Fittingly, it was at Port-en-Bessin, where the Allies landed a fuel pipeline from England, that we finally encountered our catering corps, though it still seemed quite early for stilton and port.

Well before Arromanches, we could see the famous Mulberry Harbour, with heavy waves slapping against the concrete breakwaters positioned offshore. Prefabricated and towed over from England, construction of the floating harbour started on D-Day afternoon and was completed within a week, allowing some 2 ½ million troops to be landed over the next three months. There was a memorial service being held in town and the streets were crowded with uniformed soldiers and war buffs in ill-fitting khaki costumes. The few actual veterans were easy to spot: bedecked in medals, frail but erect, with glinting, rheumy eyes.

Another unwelcome climb took us over to Juno Beach, where we padded along the drying sand, with the tide in retreat. We were appreciating first-hand the scale of the Normandy landings and ruing Field Marshal Montgomery’s decision to expand the area of attack from three to five beaches. 

By the time we reached the promenade running from Lion-sur-Mer towards Ouistreham, the sun was shining and the wind had dropped, tempting out holiday-makers. It was hard to imagine the beach pinging with bullets and erupting with shells, the only clues being the monuments dotted intermittently along the front. By now, historical curiosity had given way to sore feet and I just inspected those directly obstructing my path, but one which did was a bronze statue of a soldier in a swirling kilt, playing the bagpipes. 

Past a tank nearing Sword Beach.

On D-Day, British commandos landed on Sword Beach, led by the dashing, if dangerously eccentric Lord Lovat, who favoured a deer-stalking rifle, was nicknamed “Mad Bastard” and ordered his personal bagpiper, Bill Millin, to march up and down the beach piping the troops ashore, under enemy fire. Captured German snipers said they hadn’t targeted Millin because they presumed he’d gone mad.

At Ouistreham, Fiona and I turned inland on a towpath beside the Caen Canal. It was now a hobble, not a run, but we were cheered by the sight of several runners on the opposite bank, who’d taken a wrong turn, plus a Meccano-like bridge ahead. 

Our finishing line, Pegasus Bridge, was where D-Day kicked-off, when six wooden gliders containing 168 men from Sixth Airborne Division deliberately crash-landed here at 00h16. Tasked with seizing and holding two small, but essential, bridges, they quickly over-powered the unprepared German guards, but then faced increasingly determined counter attacks from tanks, gunboats and scuba divers.  In the early afternoon, to the wail of Millin’s bagpipes, they were gratefully relieved by Lord Lovat’s commandos, who – ignoring warnings – brazenly marched across the bridge in their green berets, losing a dozen men shot through the head.

Being piped over the the finishing line at Pegasus Bridge.

At 7.30pm, making an easy target for any snipers, Fiona and I limped across Pegasus Bridge, serenaded by our own piper, Max’s father, Jocelyn. Though we weren’t the first in, we’d made it – and that was what counted on D-Day. There was a small café on the canal bank, which in 1944 was owned by Georges and Theresa Gondrée, who supplied coffee and schnapps to the occupying soldiers and information on German troop movements to the French Resistance. On becoming the first French family to be liberated on D-Day, they promptly dug up 98 champagne bottles they’d hidden in their garden and, while the fighting was still going on, served it to the Allied soldiers (who sensibly ignored warnings that local drinks might be poisoned). Now run by the Gondrée’s daughter and a pilgrimage site for D-Day enthusiasts, I hobbled into the bar, half-hoping to be kissed by a pretty French barmaid and offered free champagne. After a lengthy wait, a grumpy battle-axe served me expensive beers in plastic cups, with Gallic disdain.

Before catching the ferry back to Portsmouth, we took a taxi out to Tilly-sur-Seulles, 40km inland, amidst gently swaying wheat fields. Though the D-Day landings had succeeded, the going thereafter got far harder, as the Germans committed more experienced troops to the front. Whereas the Allies suffered some 10 000 casualties on D-Day itself, this rose to 220 000 in the next three months. It was only in May 1945 that Germany finally surrendered.

The British war cemetery at Tilly-sur-Seulles.

Alighting at the British war cemetery at Tilly, we were confronted by over 1 200 almost-identical, white marble headstones in neat, orderly rows. With the taxi meter clicking expensively over, we stumbled through the graves with an increasing sense of panic, till we eventually found one belonging to Private Les Jones. Having been evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, my great-uncle Les fought in North Africa and Sicily, snatching a few moments between campaigns to marry great-auntie Barbara and conceive cousin Leslie. Just over a month after he’d landed at Gold Beach on D-Day, she received a long handwritten letter from him, requesting cigarettes and a comb, plus a typed War Office note informing her of his death. He’d been killed on 7th July, aged 29, never having seen his son. It put my sore knee and blisters into perspective.

Do It

• The D-Day 44 Challenge takes place on 6th June and is organised by WildFox Events. www.wildfoxevents.co.uk. 
• The focal point for the event is Pegasus Bridge near Ouistreham. You can get here by ferry from Portsmouth (England) or by train/ bus from Paris.

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