Friday, February 22, 2008

Researching Family History

We leave Giverny and head for Lower Normandy. I got lost several times with the ring road around Caen being the biggest problem. (The Michelin directions were not clear on which exit to take.) We stopped for lunch in Bayeux. Leaving there, we passed the British Cemetery. A unique feature of the British Cemetery is that each headstone contains a personal statement or quote about the soldier buried there, making it a very personal and moving experience. Across the street from the cemetery is the Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie. The Sherman tank parked out front is reportedly Patton’s personal tank. We arrived at La Ducrie, our 500 year old castle B&B destination in the little town of l’Hommet d’Arthenay in the early afternoon.

While my wife took a nap, I drove the local roads around nearby Le Dezert with maps and aerial photographs in hand to locate the site where my uncle Philip was killed in WW II. He landed on the beach as part of the 743rd Tank Battalion. They were a secret weapon called the "double drive tank". It could float and propel itself to shore. A canvas “hull” was inflated with an air compressor to support 80 tons of tank. They landed 10 minutes ahead of the main landing and probably would have sunk in the heavy seas if not for the personal initiative of their LST driver. He realized that the seas were too big for the flimsy canvas “hulls” and, contrary to his orders, took his vessel all the way in and landed the tanks directly on the beach. You can see an example of these tanks near Bayeux. They are from the ill fated 741st Tank Battalion. These tanks launched while in the open sea and foundered in the heavy seas.

Uncle Philip survived D Day and fought in Normandy until July 9, 1944 when most of his company was wiped out in a German ambush.

This area of Normandy has not changed very much in the last 60 years. The local roads in 1944 were still the same in 2004. The hedgerows, or bocage, is still very thick with the only concession to present day being that they now use mechanical trimmers to keep it from growing out over the roadway. (Its essentially a bush hog used in the vertical) I had aerial photographs from 1944 and 1996 and I could match the shapes of fields between the two photographs. At times it is like driving through a tunnel and you can understand why this feature was such a problem to the soldiers. The road is lower than the field and the hedgerow extends more than 20 feet high. It is impossible to see through the thick undergrowth. As best as I can tell, I get within one field of the spot where his tank was hit. (As it was raining and I didn’t know the owners, I didn’t want to go wandering across a cow pasture). His company lost 60% of their tanks that day when they were ambushed by an SS Panzer unit.

Normandy is full of stories. Our host at the B&B related the story a 93 year old local woman told at ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary. The castle, La Ducrie, was used by the local tax collector in the 1600s and a secret chamber had been carved into the floor in what is now the La Salle de Monnaie to hold the taxes. The Germans had raped and killed her two sisters-in-law and she had crawled into the secret compartment to hide. She remained there for three days until she heard American voices.

Dinner that evening was in a nearby town of St. Fromond. Of course no one spoke English but we were able to muddle through OK. The one surprise was an appetizer that had andouille sausage in it. We found out later that, unlike Louisiana andouille, the French version is made from intestines and stomachs. It was scratched of our menu list from then on.

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