In light of our driving experience in Le Mans yesterday — we ran the Challenger up and down the Mulsanne straight, for heaven’s sake — it’s no surprise we find the A28 highway leaving the area dull and uninspiring. Perhaps it is for the best; our main stop today certainly calls for a measure of gravity and restraint.
We’re headed west toward the port city of Caen. We’ll be departing from there back to England later in the afternoon, but our midday stop is Omaha beach, one of the famous D-Day landing beaches of World War II.
Chrysler, along with other American auto manufacturers, built the engines that powered the Allied Sherman tanks that landed on the beaches of Normandy, but that’s not really why we’re making the detour. When we looked at the map during the planning stages of this expedition and saw how close we were going to be when we left from Caen to Portsmouth — it was a no brainer. All of us on the trip wanted to visit for a different, non-auto related reasons. Editor MacKenzie is a bit of a history buff, photographer Vance’s grandfather landed here as a soldier in the U.S. Army, videographer Lin considers Spielberg’s “Band of Brothers” some of the best World War II cinema ever produced. And, of course, everyone wants to get a sense of what this historic place is all about and pay their respects.
As we connect with the N158 toward Bayeux, I struggle to find a connection with our destination and find it disturbing that my only reference points are the bits I recall from high school history or what I’ve seen on TV or in the movies. So I go with the latter and open up a discussion on the best WWII movie hoping to stir up more memories — cinematic or otherwise. MacKenzie reckons it is “The Longest Day.” The peanut gallery suggestion is the Spielberg bomb “1941.” My choice is his intensely graphic redemption “Saving Private Ryan.” I first saw it in the movie theatre and watch it again every time it airs during Memorial Day or July 4th. Missed it this year, but that 20-minute beach landing sequence will never leave me — and must rank as one of the most intense combat reenactments of all time.
Just off the freeway, the Bayeux area looks like any of the hundreds of suburbs we’ve cruised through on our blitz through Europe. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t sparkling new Euro-strip malls, signs for brightly lit McDonalds, and least of all a strange hardware store painted blue with a giant cartoon Sherman tank and the name “MICHIGAN” emblazoned on the side. We stop to snap a picture with brows furrowed and follow signs towards Arromanches.
Arromanches played an important role during the war, serving as a makeshift port soon after the Allies secured the beaches of Normandy. British vessels sank cassions, massive concrete barriers, into the deeper waters just off the beach — which acted as temporary docks for the large Allied cargo ships. Temporary is not quite accurate; though Arrowmanche is now just a quiet beach (and one far less visited by WWII tourists) the old, wave-beaten cassions are still visible — small reminders of what it took to win the war.
We follow signs that say Normandie 1944 Overlord L’Assault down the coast toward Omaha beach. Overlord was the Allied codename for the actual mission, a massively complicated plan that required cooperation of all the Allied forces. We creep a few minutes down a road, blocked by RVs filled with Italian and French tourists, and I start to recognize the French countryside from those movies; open fields and gently rolling hills, dotted with cows and farmhouses on the horizon. The stone walls and brick buildings in the small towns we cruise through look eerily familiar. As we turn at an intersection and head toward Omaha beach, I look down a side road and half expect to see a turning turret and hear the clatter of tank treads. Even the weather is playing a role in this reenactment. A mass of low, fast moving clouds head out to the calm seas and steel grey skies in the distance. Weren’t these the same conditions the Allies hoped for those fateful days over 64 years ago?
Omaha Beach serves as the border between the small seaside village of Saint Laurent and the English Channel. It’s a roughly four-mile strip of smooth, tan colored sand that is bigger and smaller than I imagined. Spielberg created an Omaha beach far larger compared with the one laid out in;front of me — but perhaps it appears that way because blood and bullets aren’t flying all around. Start to consider how many casualties U.S. forces incurred here and the beach shrinks dramatically; it just doesn’t seem possible that 2000 U.S. soldiers could be wounded or killed in a space so small, in such a short amount of time.
Omaha is also quieter than expected. Except for a modern, sail-inspired sculpture celebrating the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landing, there are only a few educational placards noting this place’s historic significance. It’s a good a thing, too — a place like this doesn’t need any bold or brash memorial — just some benches for quiet reflection.
We lunch on onion soup, fresh Normandie oysters, and honey-roasted cod at the Cafe L’Omaha, before returning to the Challenger. She’s attracted a crowd again, this time a busload of French tourists from the parking lot next door, but we can’t stay and chit chat. We’ve got a ferry to catch in Caen.
We’re seasoned European travelers by now; nothing fazes us. Still, our customs inspection at the Brittany Ferry port comes as quite a shock after all the European friendliness we’ve experienced so far. At first it seems the blue uniformed agents are curious about our car when they wave us down, pull us out of the line, and let everyone else pull aboard. But no, we stick out in this crowd of cars, so we’re getting — or forced to give, rather — the full Monty.
Passports are scrutinized, trunks popped, suitcases and Pelican cases emptied out onto the street. We’re told to stand together a few paces behind the cars, as a gun-toting agent climbs into the backseat. Another lifts up the trunk lining to examine what’s below. When he brushes against the battery, I half hope he examines the positive and negative terminal with moist finger tips. They are curt — borderline rude — but we’re relaxed. It’s all very amusing — especially to MacKenzie who blithely remarks, “Look, we’d have to be pretty dumb to try to smuggling anything in a car that looks like this…”
The agent agrees, “Yez, you would be pretty stew-pid.”
One broken electric shaver case later, we’re sent on our way, to line up in a parking lot and begin the boarding procedure. The ferry, the Mont St. Michel of the Brittany Ferry line, is a massive, awkward looking girl. An enormous stack of cabins sits atop a tiny looking hull — as though they lopped off the entire top section of cruise ship and dropped it on a dingy. It’s a top-heavy looking affair — lined with row upon row of windows — but the surrounding waters look calm, and we’re too exhausted to drive the 400 or so miles back up the coast to catch the Eurotunnel.
Boarding is similar to the train. We stage in selected lanes and drive on board in an orderly procession. Instead of parking in a long narrow passageway, we stop and kill the engines in what appears to be a large room — like a parking garage. Uniformed ferry personnel check our spacing — and our Challenger with low whistles — before slipping us a card to remind us where we parked. We offload and head upstairs to check out the ship.
The Mont St. Michel has 10 decks, four which are garage space for passenger cars, motorcycles, and commercial vehicles. There is a surprising amount to do aboard the ship, everything from ping pong to duty free shopping to arcade games. There are even full cabins available at an extra charge (for the overnight passage back to Caen) and even a cinema aboard the ship showing current releases like “Iron Man” and the latest “Indiana Jones” sequel for six pounds. Sitting in a small, dark, shuddering and swaying room for hours seems like a recipe for sea sickness, however.
We’re a bone weary crew at this point — having spent over a week in close, albeit high-speed, confinement across five countries. The six-hour ferry ride is a welcome break. Some catch up on sleep in the reclining seats near the front of the boat. Others catch up on phone calls via the on-board wireless service. I choose to pound photographer Vance into submission for challenging my skills at ping pong, before settling down to blog about the days events. Dinner that night is at the ferry’s fancy Les Romantiques buffet, where they serve us massive legs of lamb and all the desserts we can eat.
When we pull off into Portsmouth a couple of hours later, we’re refreshed and ready to hit the wrong side of the road. Tomorrow we meet up with a British Mopar club before preparing for our trip’s coup de grace. Stay tuned.
Photography by Brian Vance – click on any photo for a larger image
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