03.00hrs, Thursday 6th June 2019. With just about 2 and bit hours sleep each it is time to get up and drink as much strong coffee as we can manage before we head in to Ouistreham once more to park up and unload the Jeep. The major roads will be closing at 06.00 and as we don’t know the local area back roads, we cannot be late. On top of that, we have no idea if the car park will be full of other vehicles thinking the same thing…
On the way to Ouistreham we were trying to figure out where to be for the anniversary celebrations. I wanted to see the Veterans on the Beaches but did not know where I would be able to watch it from. I did not know if we would be able to get on to the beaches in the first place, would I be able to with my wheelchair? Would it be a ticket only event due to the significance of the anniversary? I had no idea of where to go, or what to expect due to the added security, this was something I had stupidly overlooked.
We were travelling down the ‘motorway’ and probably due to lack of sleep, I turned off on to the slip road earlier than I should have done. Not a drama, the SatNav altered the route and we cracked on. In just a few miles we were approaching a built up area, we crossed the roundabout and were confronted with a bridge…PEGASUS BRIDGE! This was an unexpected stroke of luck, we crossed the bridge and carried on our journey to the car park. I sincerely hoped that there is space for us or we would be buggered. Our leaving early had paid off, the car park was all but empty save for the trailer and car that had been there for our last visit so we quickly unloaded the Jeep, put up the Union Flag, The Rifles flag and this time the flag of ABF The Soldiers Charity of which I am an ambassador. With me in the Jeep, my wheelchair strapped in and the car and trailer parked in bays, we sat briefly still not knowing where to be for the celebrations.
I looked at my watch, 05.50 Wherever we were going to go we had to move, NOW. So stupid that I had not researched where I should go to spend the anniversary. I was really angry with myself but then that all changed, “Bloomy” and I were originally Light Infantry. In 2007 The Rifles was formed by the amalgamation of the Light Infantry(LI), The Royal Green Jackets (RGJ), The Devon and Dorsets (D&D) and the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire regiment (RGBW). It was the men of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Ox and Bucks) that assaulted and took Pegasus Bridge 75 years ago to the day, where the bloody hell else would we go! So I made the decision, “We are going to Pegasus Bridge,!”
We arrived to see the Police on our left having officially closed the main road. Nothing would be travelling on the ‘motorways’ from now and until such time that the Prime Ministers and such like had finished using them. The exclusion zone was also live and as such, Pegasus Bridge was also out of bounds to traffic who did not have a pass. So the first task was to have a photo, in MY Jeep. ON Pegasus Bridge, ON the 6th of June.
The Pegasus Bridge that was taken in WW2 was dismantled and moved just down the road a little to be preserved at the museum but this is an exact replica. It was just after this photo was taken that we parked up and the lads got me out and in to my chair, then I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, strange. I promised I would get a picture of me with the Jeep and the flag of ABF The Soldiers Charity to send back to them so we did that next and fired up the gas burner for a brew, kind if a celebratory brew as we had accomplished what I had set out to do.
I really can’t say much about the day there. There was so much going on, so many people that we spoke to either in English or muddlethrough or sign language. People were wanting to have their pictures taken while standing next to my Jeep but why would they want to do that? It was a special day, a MONUMENTAL day so if you have taken the time to get to Normandy to pay respects and celebrate the sacrifice of so many brave souls and then have taken the time to come to us and ask if it is OK to have a photo then there is only one place that those people should be for the photograph…together sitting IN the Jeep. They can have pictures sitting as the driver and as passenger and in the back, we can take the pictures. I cannot describe the smiles on peoples faces when we did this for them, for me it was a simple gesture but for them it seemed to really mean something. I was so pleased that we could share the Jeep with those people, and had it not had the problems with the gears then Simon and “Bloomy” both said they would have happily taken people for a drive.
Later in the day as the celebrations continued with Pipe bands and re-enactors dressed in their uniforms walking around the place, we took a trip down the road and crossed Pegasus Bridge. There it was again, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. What is that? There are small monuments which show where three gliders of Major Howard’s men landed to take the bridge. Major Howard’s glider landed 47 yards from the bridge, 47 YARDS. The other two gliders that are marked were just a few yards away from his which was probably the key to the bridge being taken, no real warnings and no distance to cover before the objective. There were six gliders in all. As I read the plaques on the stone marker monuments I looked around and started to think about what it must have been like on the day. If they did not succeed in their mission it would be even more devastating to the landing troops on the beaches. Take this bridge and stop reinforcements getting to the beaches.
We had finished reading the various plaques and returned to the bridge and just as we got there a moment of almost complete silence. Then sustained applause as a Veteran of the Bridge, proudly wearing his LI beret and hard earned medals was pushed in his wheelchair across Pegasus Bridge by his Daughter. Those hairs again stood up but this time it was more, my eyes welled up. “Don’t do it, don’t do it!” I kept saying in my head, I joined the applause and manoeuvred my chair just to catch a glimpse of this man. This elderly Gentleman who would have seen so much violence in his younger days. I could not help but wonder what he must have been feeling. Looking in his eyes I could not see an emotion. Inside what was going through his mind? Was he now numb to it? Did he relive it every day? I wanted so much to roll up to him and ask if I could have the honour of shaking his hand but I couldn’t. Just the thought of what he had seen, again caused me to well up. I changed the thinking to my medals and beret that I had actually taken with me but did not know if it was appropriate to wear. This was not my campaign, my Dad wasn’t even born when these men were fighting, is it disrespectful to wear them? Should I be wearing them as a sign of respect to those Brothers in arms from all those years ago? It didn’t matter now as I had chosen to leave them in the car, but somehow it did matter. For those few minutes of thinking I had seemingly got control of the emotion I had been unsuccessfully fighting but it was not enough for me to approach the elderly Gentleman, something I will doubtless regret for the rest of my life.
We left the bridge and headed to the museum a short distance away. The thought of what the Gentleman I had just seen, had witnessed again went round in my head. When we got to the museum there were some Gentlemen selling postcards and the like from tables on the grass, Simon helped me up on to the grass so I could look and whilst looking at the postcards of the pictures of the beach landings, of troops, of bombed out streets I again welled up. I spent a bloody fortune on those cards, looking through every pile while I got my shit together. I had considered that visiting Normandy would be a little moving but this was hitting me harder than I could have ever anticipated and certainly more than I feel it should.
The museum was amazing. So informative, it told you the story, highlighted the importance of the mission and did a tremendous job of honouring the men who carried out the mission. I had to read every information board, had to see every exhibit, had to spend the time to learn about the Horsa gliders and what they were made of.
Whilst reading the exhibit boards there was a commotion outside, and then a humming, we all rushed outside to see many Dakota aircraft flying overhead, just like they would have been doing all those years ago, now the hairs were really stood to attention.
It was such a full on day. We decided to take the Jeep for a drive, there would be other WW2 vehicles kicking about so lets go and see what people are up to. I have no idea how many miles we travelled, where we went or even where we were going but everywhere we drove we bibbed at and waved at by those on the road. Cars, articulated lorries, other WW2 vehicles it was amazing. The atmosphere was incredible and this was just the anniversary celebrations. Imagine what it would have been like 75 years ago! Holy shit!!!
After a long day we headed back to the car park. There was a lot I wanted to see over the next couple of days so we would need to get some sleep tonight. We hitched up the trailer to the car, took the antennae off and put the Jeep back on the trailer. The gears had been bloody awful today but today was the anniversary of D Day and the Jeep had done all it was asked of for the day, which was just as well because as soon as we got it on the trailer it dumped gearbox oil all over the trailer bed! Simon and “Bloomy” looked at me, “If it had fallen in to a pile of nuts and bolts it wouldn’t matter” I said, “It has done what I bought it for, D Day”.
We got back to the apartment and again we were locked out. “Bloomy” as you can imagine, as was for the rest of us, NOT IMPRESSED. We just wanted a cuppa, a shower and bed. He went to the caretaker again who to be honest was not happy about seeing “Bloomy” and said “How do I know you have paid?” Now I can see his point here but the hotel take your card details when you book so they will get their money. I checked the on line banking app and it was saying that it was pending. If we can get him to let us in then I will see the reception in the morning. The caretaker told “Bloomy” that he was not dressed and had been in bed so what did he want him to do. Needless to say “Bloomy” told him exactly what he needed to do or he was going to sleep in his room. In the time it took to say Merci, the door was open!
It had been an incredible day. Would I have liked to have spent it on the beach with the Veterans? Well, Yes would be the answer but I would have liked to have been at both British beaches, and the cemetery at Bayeaux, and whilst there I would like to be at Pegasus Bridge so I made the choice to be at the Bridge and I was happy to have done so. Tomorrow we would be using the Galaxy and leaving the Jeep on the trailer. We will be able to cover more ground and see more places, the Jeep had earned its rest. 76 Years old it is, and although it will have been rebuilt many times I would imaging since it was retired from service, I think I can forgive it for being tired.