We got the kids up early so that we could try to beat the rush of the crowds that we heard overwhelm Mont Saint Michel.
For those of you who don’t know what Mont Saint Michel, here is a very brief history. It is an island off the north shore of France that was only accessible twice a day when the tides are low enough that people could walk over on the sand (now there is a bridge). It started as a monestary, but like a lot of religious places in France, it was taken over my the military during the 100 years war. During the war, due to its enormity, height, and protection by the sea, it was never defeated. As such, it is a symbol of strength for France.
We got a bit distracted on the way out of the house, well I did and I pulled the kids into some YouTube videos (here is a link to a good one that we watched) about D-Day and real soldier accounts and footage from the boats and the fields. So our departure time was a bit delayed. We put on an audiobook that was supposed to be a “children’s version” of D-Day history, but it was complicated enough for Deb and I to follow along, so the kids tuned out.
On arrival at Mont Saint Michel and it was obvious for miles away that this was a pretty monumental structure rising from the ocean. It towers above everything around it. We jumped in line for the bus, which was pretty long even at that point of the day. There were horse carriages that you could take over but we were glad we didn’t opt for this as we passed them in the bus eventually. The walk over would have put us off of our busy schedule so we hopped on the bus and saw the poor suckers that were out on the horse carriages as we sped past them.
One piece of advice that we got was to go to the top right away and then work down to the bottom as most of the people arrive and walk up to the top, all the while getting pillaged by the tourist shops along the way, which we had no interest in. There was a couple of people coming down from a non descript staircase, and we turned up it after getting confirmation that it was the staircase right to the top.
The views of the surrounding area was very nice, and the cathedral at the top of the mount was very large. It was pretty cheap to go in for a tour and kids were free, so it was worth it for Wilson and I to go in.
Lulu wanted to stay out and play headbands with Deb. So, they played something like 18 rounds as Wilson and I were gone for 1.5h. It took a little longer than expected, but overall it was quite impressive inside and looked very “Game of Throne”-ish.
We finished the power tour of Cathedral Saint Michel and headed down and hopped on a bus as we wanted to get to Juno Beach. We stopped along the way at a roadside farm that had a barbeque set up with homemade sausages and grilled lamb. Not on Yelp, but it was amazing.
Back in the car and we got to Juno Beach and headed into the museum. We started off our self tour with a panoramic video that put our minds into the events of the day that the Canadians, English, and Americans stormed different parts of the northern shore of France on June 6th, 1944.
We entered the museum that took us back to the 1940s, and there were some interesting facts and a big map of Canada that you had some puzzling to figure out some clues (the kids got an activity book that they had to work through for a prize at the end).
We then went through the main exhibit of the museum that had all of the original soldier outfits, hats, flight helmets and masks, replicas of planes, log books, letters, medals and so much more in it.
Here are some interesting things we learned:
- One very interesting fact was that Dieppe was a war that preceeded D-Day. It was a massive failure and many allied forces were killed. It was the lessons that were learned there of what went wrong that they were able to mount the attacks of D-Day so successfully.
- D-Day was known as Operation Overlord and was the efforts of the Allies (British, Americans, Canadians) to take back France and push Germany back towards Russia.
- D-Day was originally set to be June 5th, 1944 but bad weather prevented the air assault before the boats landed on the beach, and the sea was rough for the crossing
- The Axis (Italy, Nazi Germany, and Japan) had set up the majority of their forces, artillery, and beach structures on the northeastern shore of France at Castilles, assuming that the attack would come from there (they knew it was coming, but didn’t know where or when). This is the place where it is the shortest distance between England and France across the English Channel. This meant that Normandy was less protected as the Axis put all of their eggs in one basket.
- On the opposing shore of Castilles, they had a fake army that was led by General Patton, whom the Axis feared. This included fake planes and tanks (that were made from rubber by movie companies) and fake barracks and tents for the soldiers to sleep in. General Patton would go around giving propaganda speeches saying how well prepared their troops are and that the size of their army was 2 million (or so) strong. In fact, he was the only one there.
- The air squadron with bombers and paratroopers were to precede the land attack by 5 hours so that they could go in and clean out the beaches of any army presence that there may have been. There was a 5 hour window that the meteorologists said that this was going to be feasible before the weather turned again. Many paratroopers never made it to the site as they were dropped, sometimes 10km, away off target from where they were supposed to be dropped. Bad day for the navigator in the planes I guess.
- There were over 5000 boats that head off from England, and they followed a very specific path that was laid out by minesweepers that went ahead of them and then they put down lit buoys just under the surface of the water, one red and one white, so that the boats could safely follow a path in. Supposedly you couldn’t see the water for all of the boats in the harbour on the England side.
- A strike by ships with long range (in those days) missles started things off.
- When the soldiers landed on the boats at low tide so they could see all of the hidden beach structures that would have sunk their boats, which sound like they weren’t made very robustly, they jumped off into waist deep water. They were supposed to carry 48lbs of gear, but it ended up to be 60lbs of gear. Then they had their clothing and jackets that were designed to protect them against a chemical attack by the Germans as well. Waterlogged and heavy.
- For Juno Beach, 50% of soldiers died on the beach. That was the average. It was much higher for the first boats that arrived as they had a full army to battle against. Survival rates went up as the different waves of boats landed. It was estimated that in the end, 65% of soldiers were either dead or wounded after storming the beach.
- Paper was recycled for ammunition, and metal was recycled for weapons and machines to go off to war. The first recycling efforts!
We left Great Grandpa Bruce a message in the book of thanks, and we shared the experience from afar with Grandma Jane and Grandpa Bill, as Grandma’s dad was a bomber in a Lancaster Bomber who flew during World War II. She wasn’t sure if he was involved with the D-Day attacks, but nonetheless, he served our great nation and is a hero that helped to protect freedom for all Canadians.
It was a grey and windy day, and it was low tide when we arrived, so you could imagine what the soldiers saw when they landed. I was expecting big cliffs, as I had heard about soldiers “trying to reach the beach wall”. It was, in fact, a lot like some of the beaches that we visited in PEI last summer.
Soft orange sand, with nice reedy grass growing out of the sand dunes where the high tide mark was. We stood at the waters edge and looked up and could only imagine carrying 60lbs of equipment in a wet uniform and having bullets flying past your head and saying “Thank God that one wasn’t for me”, and mortar blasts happening all around you.
The worst part was that there were several accounts in videos online and at the museum that soldiers just had to forge on. They were instructed not to stop and just get to the beach wall.
So, you are running up with your platoon that you have trained for over a year with in simulation battles, sometimes with real bullets so you knew what it sounded like, and you see someone get shot, or blown up, and they are screaming and begging for your assistance. And you have to keep on running in the wet sand and tell them “Help is on the way”, when you full well know that it isn’t.
The area was closing up and the wind was getting colder, so we headed off to a cemetery where a lot, but not all, Canadians were buried who found on D-Day and in the time thereafter. I wanted to see it personally, but I wanted to impress upon the kids that these were kids that went to war. And that there were many of them.
We had to get home for 8pm as Wilson was having his first Skype video call with his class which he really enjoyed and the kids in his class were happy to see him and hear all about his adventures thus far.
I have included as many pictures as I could here so that we will always remember, and to show you all something that you might not ever get to see. However, if you ever have the chance, I highly recommending that you make your way to this site to pay your respect as Canadians who fought for our freedom.