Story and photos byAdrian Wolff
In October 2015, I was one of the 33 ex-IDF officers (I am still working as a tour guide) participating in the Israel Commission of Military History 8-day tour at World War I and II sites at Normandy, Bastogne (Ardennes - Battle of the Bulge) and Verdun. Our guide Col. (Res.) Benny Michelsohn, head of the society, has an encyclopedic knowledge of both military and historical topics. A well-organized, professional tour is much more efficient than searching for the best museums and locations by oneself.
Women made up one-third of the participants. The tour also included cultural sites - Bayeux tapestry, Abbey at Mt. Saint Michel, a Champagne producer, Loire Valley Chateaux, Reims Cathedral.
The tour was very entertaining. Each morning one participant delivered a humorous summary of the previous day's events in our in-bus Radio France Libre broadcast. We traveled long distances, allowing the participants to tell amazing stories from their life experiences.
Adrian Wolff in the Omaha US Military Cemetery. Top: Arromanches beach
The Battle of Normandy was the greatest amphibious invasion in history, deciding the fate of Nazi-occupied Europe. I was unprepared to absorb the expanse of the German defenses in a geographic location where they never expected the Allies to invade. No matter how many books I have read, TV documentaries and movies viewed about World War I and II, there is no substitute for the emotional experience of being at the actual sites in Normandy, Eastern France and Belgium.
The Germans expected the Allies to invade at the narrowest gap in the English Channel at Calais, where they constructed the most formidable defenses. The Allies did not oblige. The Allied invasion Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944 was of mammoth proportions. Over 6,500 naval vessels supported by 13,000 aircraft, crossed 200 kms from the English coast to Normandy, France, with its unpredictable weather, even in summer, landing 156,000 soldiers on D-Day at a cost of 9,000 casualties in the first 24 hours.
A Verdun artillery bunker
We took an early morning ELAL flight to Paris, and then travelled northwards to St. Omer, visiting Le Coupole, the location of the German V2 rocket launching pad, hidden inside a hill with an impregnable inverted saucer-shaped dome. Hitler was under the impression that the missiles and bombs would lower the morale of the civilians, forcing the British Government to surrender. (We all know Churchill's reply). Our bus drove towards Calais, where a line of freight trucks a few kilometers long awaited security checks before entering the Channel to England. Also present at the side of the road were clusters of immigrants and French Gendarmerie (police) playing hide and seek.
Next stop was at Cap Gris Nez, site of a huge artillery gun which fired shells that landed in England. What a monster sitting on the railway track! The weapon was housed in a cupola, under many tons of reinforced concrete, with the barrel protruding outwards.
Dieppe is the scene of a military fiasco, a trial operation to capture Dieppe, a port city, by landing 6,000 troops including Canadians on August 19, 1942. The expression 'mind the gap' applies here as the unfortunate invading regiments did not have any equipment to venture from the beach to the promenade three meters above the sea-wall. Only 2,210, of whom 236 were uninjured, returned to England. The lesson of Dieppe was that any future invasion must be made over open beaches using specialized vessels to land on the beach to allow both infantry and tanks to move inland, and not against a fortified port area.
German artillery battery facing seawards at Longues sur Mere
The Normandy fortifications, constructed with the use of slave prisoners, were penetrated in less than 24-hours, leading to the liberation of France and the defeat of Germany. On the eve of the invasion, all Allied aircraft had hastily painted two blacks stripes on their wings to identify the D-Day planes. The Allied Navies were unmolested so that they could discharge their reinforcements and military materiel during the invasion.
Pegasus Bridge at Benouville today
Pegasus Bridge Memorial at Benouville outside Caen gave us first-hand exposure to the first D-Day operation. The British 6th Airborne Division destroyed five bridges over the River Dives, preventing German armored counter attacks.
Simultaneously, American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were landing above Utah Beach, the westernmost of the beaches.
Arromanches, a pretty village at the base of a valley, surrounded by chalk cliffs, is the site of Gold Beach. An artificial harbor named 'Mulberry', hastily constructed between June 7 and 18, allowed troop reinforcements and mechanical equipment to land. The Germans destroyed the harbor at Cherbourg before American troops arrived on June 20. The local museum is well presented.
'The battle belonged that morning to the thin, wet line of khaki that dragged itself ashore on the Channel Coast of France': General Omar Bradley, US 1st Army Commander.
Omaha Beach is an American epic of heroism and bravery, the most heavily defended of all the beaches, the most difficult of the assaults, which claimed the most casualties. US Infantry soldiers landed fully exposed. General Bradley writes: “Of the 16 dozers that had been sent ashore that morning, only 6 reached Omaha Beach. Three of these were immediately knocked out by enemy artillery fire.” The US Military Cemetery at Omaha has 9,387 graves, 149 of them with a Star of David. It was very moving to stand at this silent site. We recited Kaddish next to one Jewish grave.
There was a change in tempo and scenery as we visited the famous thousand-year old Bayeux Tapestry. This tapestry originates from the 11th century and is embroidered wool on a 70 meters by 50 cms tall cloth. The story shows the events leading up to William of Normandy’s attempt to invade England in 1066 and defeat the Saxon Harold, Earl of Wessex, in the Battle at Hastings.
An overnight stay near Mount St. Michel included a climb to the top of the Abbey to inspect the various churches constructed at different levels.
Paris is so beautiful in autumn as the tree-lined boulevards are a mass of leaves in various autumnal colors. We visited Napoleon's Tomb and Musee de l'Armee Invalides. An optional day followed - some participants had a 'Paris walking-shopping-coffee-day' and the others, a tour of the UNESCO Loire Valley famous chateaux at Chambord and Chenoneau.
A fun stop at a champagne house in Reims included a tour of the facilities … and tasting. The cathedral at Reims is grand.
The site of the 1916 Battle at Verdun was silent as we stood alone with our thoughts at the vast military cemetery. A central memorial dominates the cemetery at Fort Douaumont in the shape of an artillery shell with a large cross above it. The enormous loss of life at Verdun was typical of the style of World War 1 warfare on the 'Western Front'. This slaughter affected French military and political thought for decades, including the unhurried French attitude to arm and oppose Hitler.
The Maginot Line, 720 kms of concrete fortifications, tank obstacles, artillery casemates and machine gun posts from Belgium to the Swiss border, is named after the French Minister of Defense, Andre Maginot. It was constructed in the 1930s to repel a potential assault by the German Army in the east. This Line could not hold the German Blitzkreig. The French military leadership held too many meetings, without granting local independence to react quickly to the situation on the ground. Millions of French francs were spent on these static artillery bunkers, depriving the means for development and expansion of new military techniques and equipment, namely the air force and tank corps. Our guide at this site A2 Fermont was a young German performing his 12 month National Service.
The picturesque Belgian town of Bouillon
We stopped in the very picturesque Belgian town of Bouillon, which has a large castle commanding a view over the valley and river Le Semois below. One of its native kings was Godfrey de Bouillon, who in 1099, was the only successful Crusader leader to conquer Jerusalem from the Muslims.
Bastogne in Belgium is the site of the German 5th Panzer Army offensive in the winter of 1944, and their last strong reaction to the Allied advances. The under-strength 101st American Airborne Division forces did not expect a German advance in the Ardennes Forest. The winter was unusually cold and the US forces at Bastogne could not be resupplied, resulting in insufficient stocks of cold-weather clothing, ammunition, food and medical supplies. Their position was aggravated by the lack of real-time intelligence and cloudy skies which hindered aerial reconnaissance. On December 22, German General von Luttwitz demanded that the American forces surrender. US Brigadier General McAuliffe's famous reply was just one word - 'NUTS'. Relief came on December 27 when the 1st US Army broke through the German lines. The Germans failed to capture the crossroad at Bastogne or to cross the Meuse River in this area. After bitter combat in winter conditions, the German army was defeated, retreating to the Rhine.
Michelson invites the top speakers to weekly lectures, monthly seminars and field trips, and personally leads trips abroad. For details of the Israel Commission of Military History email firstname.lastname@example.org