D-Day 75 Years On. Remembering Heroes.

Five years ago I published this post. Much has happened since then and for various reasons, not least the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, I have decided to re-post it in a slightly edited form. I do hope that you enjoy it and spare a moment to remember those who gave so much for freedom.

When Harley and I visited Normandy earlier this year we were privileged to be able to visit some of the famous D-Day beaches and contemplate the events of 70 years ago when the liberation of Europe from Nazi dictatorship began. Much is said about the actual landings on the beaches, but I mentioned then about the contribution that airborne troops also made to the operation. Sometimes I feel that this vital contribution is not given the full focus that it deserves, because without it the whole operation would not have been the success that it was. I am not decrying what happened on the beaches, merely drawing attention to the oft forgotten massive contribution by the airborne operation

In the hours leading up to D-Day itself, 6th June 1944, 13,000 allied airborne troops either parachuted into occupied Normandy or arrived by glider under cover of darkness. They had set out from fifteen airfields across southern England and crossed over the English Channel in a massive stream of 220 aircraft that was described as being nine aircraft wide and five hours long! Soldiers from all of the allied nations were involved, but the majority were British and American. Let me tell you a little about one of those American soldiers.

Daniel L. Reiling was a classic Mid-Western American kid, he didn’t have the easiest of starts in life, he never knew his father and at times life was a little tough. Determined to get on in life he joined the U.S Army as a career soldier. He progressed well through the ranks and married a good-looking girl from Chicago, named Florine, whose father owned restaurants and whose mother came from Britain. By the time that the war in Europe was raging Daniel was a Sergeant in the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. Soon he found himself and his men crossing the Atlantic to Britain on a troop-ship which constantly zig-zagged to dodge the deadly threat of Nazi U-boats. On arrival in the U.K. the troops were posted to various locations for more training and preparations. Some lucky ones managed to get leave, which Daniel did and took the opportunity to visit his wife’s family, though by all accounts the poor chap was suffering from influenza and spent a fair bit of his leave in bed being looked after by his wife’s uncle, my Grandfather William. You see now that there is a big family connection here!

Following his leave, Daniel returned to his unit and began the final preparations for the Liberation of Europe. His regiment was allocated to two airbases, RAF Membury and RAF Greenham Common. Unfortunately, we have not been able to ascertain yet exactly which one Daniel’s platoon was at. On the evening of 5th June 1944 the various airfields involved swung into action. At Greenham Common, General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, dropped in to encourage the troops. IMG_0343Men and equipment were prepared and loaded onto the C-47 transport aircraft which at the assigned time taxied to the runways and began to take off. Sergeant Daniel L. Reiling and his men would have been dressed in full combat kit armed with a variety of weapons, they sat in total darkness inside the noisy vibrating fuselage of the C-47 as it took off and turned South towards Normandy.IMG_0342Once over the French coast the pilots took the aircraft down to the jumping altitude of 500 feet  The green jump light came on at 00:48 and Daniel threw himself out into the Normandy night, landing in a field near to Saint Martin de Varreville and set about making life difficult for the occupying German force.

By 06:30 St Martin had been captured and shortly after the German garrison at Mésières was taken as well. Five days later the town of Carentan was liberated after fierce fighting that included a bayonet charge. The 502nd then moved to assist in the capture of Cherbourg before stepping down for regrouping and rest, before rejoining the war and fighting their way across Europe, finally capturing Hitler’s private residence and many senior Nazis at Berchtesgaden in May 1945.

By the end of the conflict Daniel had been promoted to Master Sergeant and shortly after was promoted to Sergeant Major, one of the youngest in the Army. Later he was to see action in Korea and became an officer, finally rising to the rank of Major.

During WWII and the Korean War, Daniel was in a total of 13 major campaigns. In all that fighting he was wounded in the leg during the Ardennes offensive near Bastogne, but never received the Purple Heart. He won two Bronze and one Silver Star plus several other wartime decorations. Sadly, he died young in January 1969. I guess you could say he lived a full life, a real American hero, a John Wayne kind of guy. In our family we are all incredibly proud of him; none more so than my cousins, Peter and Marianne.

Over the last few weeks I have been able to visit the remains of both RAF Membury and Greenham Common. There’s not much left at either place to recall events of 70 years ago. There is however, another old base about 60 miles away from Dookes H.Q. that also played a prominent role in that airborne assault, RAF Upottery, here there is still quite a lot to see. Last evening I took the opportunity to make a pilgrimage with Harley and my little brother Greg to the old airfield and remember the events that unfolded on that fateful night.

It was a super evening to be on a motorcycle and riding through the beautiful Devon countryside I pondered if it was like this all those years ago?

The old airbase was quiet and still and much has reverted to farmland, though the runways, control tower and a few other buildings remain. P1010774Just by luck we met the local farmer who gave us permission to go on the site. It was with some awe that I turned Harley onto the main runway, the strip of concrete and tarmac from which 81 C-47’s took off, this was hallowed ground indeed! It seemed fitting that an American motorcycle was visiting the place where so many young American soldiers took off, some never to return.

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In some places the grass is beginning to win.

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After spending some time soaking up the atmosphere, we decided to leave the ghosts of the past to enjoy the sunset. As we rode off the airfield we were aware of other people who were gathering to pay their respects as well. DSCF3394

Stopping to chat with one guy he observed that we have much to be thankful for, we have indeed; like a super ride home west into a crimsoning sky on a growling Harley Davidson! I’d like to think that those young paratroopers would have approved!

Dookes

 

The battle patch of the 502nd, I think that this will look good on my leathers!

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Dedicated to all those who came by air in 1944.

And in loving memory of Greg, Paul and Florrine.

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Freedom by Riding

I sat struggling to start this post, not for want of what to write, but actually deciding what to leave out, such has been the emotional roller coaster of the last 36 hours and our little trip to Brittany.

So I suppose the beginning is a good place to kick off . . . 

The night ferry from Plymouth to France was the usual fare offered by Brittany Ferries, yes it was the MV Amorique again; not my favourite ship by a long way,  but hey, better than a six hundred mile motorway thrash via the Channel Tunnel!

We were rudely roused at  6am by the ship’s awful “wake up” music, it’s a sort of electric version of Breton folk music, I sure some people love it, not me. On the bright side, breakfast was served in our cabin shortly afterwards, travelling in Posh Class has it’s benefits! 

I couldn’t resist popping up on deck to stand in the grey dawn and watch the French coast grew nearer, reflecting on how my Grandfather must have felt exactly 100 years ago watching the same landmass appear on the horizon. 

 

Of course the big difference was that he was going to war, I was just riding a motorbike. . . 

Once off the ferry and through passport control we were free to ride; well we first had to deal with the usual bunch of inept Brit car drivers panicking about driving on the “wrong” side of the road and mixing it with the French locals trying to get to work. The weather was a bit subdued and to be honest kind of related my mood.

Cutting across Brittany we rode onto the Crozon Peninsular crossing wonderful Pont De Térénez.

Regular blogonaughts will know of my love of brilliant bridges and this little beauty is right up there! At just over 500metres long it’s not the longest cable stayed bridge in the world, but with it’s curve and location it’s got to be one of the sexiest! The photo is bit dark, but you’ll get the idea! 

  

It was only another few miles to our first destination, the cemetery at Lanvéoc, but in those scant miles the sun came out and the day cheered up immensely. 

We parked up outside the cemetery gates and I tentatively walked inside. The place is typical of a French village graveyard, they are always immaculate and absolutely crammed full of stone memorials, headstones and family vaults; we had come to remember the young men who had died in the skies above us 71 years ago and initially I couldn’t see any sign of their headstones.

An elderly lady was tending one of the graves, I nervously approached her and asked if she knew where the airmen lay. Without hesitation she stopped what she was doing and took me across the cemetery to where the graves were clearly visible against the perimeter wall. We stood together and she looked at the poppy wreath that I was carrying.  Madame went on to explain that the local community took pride in maintaining the graves and remembering the young men lying there. I thanked her for that and said that I was sure that the families of the men appreciated their work. “Êtes vous famille, monsieur?  “Are you family?” I explained that no, we weren’t, just a couple of guys who wanted to say “Thank you.”  

 “Vous êtes deux hommes très spéciaux, il est bon ce que vous faites.” “You are two special men, what you do is good.” I felt humble and muttered an embarrassed thanks, congratulations was not what we had come for however well intended, but on reflection I realise how much it means to those people in the village and in a way we were also honouring them and their devotion. Madame left us and we stood in reflection of the young men buried at our feet, yes, we had a small chat with them as well, laid our wreath and walked back to the bikes.

Free. Free to ride because of young men like them. I put my helmet on and fired up the engine, sat and said a quiet prayer of thanks before kicking in first gear; freedom is a wonderful thing it means you can shed a tear whenever you need to.

We hit the road, the sun was warm and now the day seemed much brighter. The road to Châteaulin seemed to fly by, well actually it really did as we were not hanging about! The appearance of a Motorcycle Gendarme did cause a moment of concern, but he seemed to be enjoying the day as much as us and sped off. Time for a coffee break, so one American legend met up with another! 

 
Suitably caffeine fuelled, we set off to Carhaix, a pleasant little town slap bang in the middle of Brittany and a regular stopover of mine. The N164 road certainly gave me chance to really get the feel of what my new steed can deliver when it comes to touring; miles and miles of effortless road munching, this bike is superb and soooooo comfy!

There’s an old friend of mine in Carhaix, apologies if you’ve seen her before, but here’s another photo of her! 

 
More fun in the sun followed as we turned North back towards the ferry port, this really was a brief trip, but time enough to enjoy the run over Roc Trévezel, the highest point in Brittany, via the ‘bike friendly D764. Some people think that the TV transmitter mast spoils the hill, but I kinda like it! 

 
Time then for a quick bit of shopping in Morlaix, well this is France, so cheese and fine wine featured heavily. Then things went a bit sort of “pear-shaped.” If you see me in a supermarket queue, always go to another one, because I’m cursed . . .tills break, people faint, loose their wallets, forget their card codes, that sort of thing and it happened again.

We got out of the car park at 14:00hrs, last check in for the ferry 14:15hrs and we were 18 miles away with a small town in the way as well! Lets just say that after a “spirited” run we made it with one minute to spare! That new bike of mine doesn’t half go well when she needs to!

I stood at the stern of the ship watching the French coast recede into the horizon and reflected on our visit.

Land clouds mark the French coast disappearing.

Land clouds mark the French coast disappearing.


Yes it was a bit of a dash and we weren’t there very long, but we achieved all that I had hoped and more. In retrospect, meeting that French lady was almost preordained and you know, I didn’t see where see disappeared to; perhaps, just perhaps, Angels come in many different forms.

Another thing that made this little trip so special was my travelling companion, known in these pages as “Vifferman.” He’s my oldest friend, we go back over fifty years and first met before we could each walk. Some people would say that we are to each other the brother that we never had, but it’s not like that at all.
No. We are the brothers that choose to be brothers. Sure we have our ups and downs, mostly always my fault, but then I am the annoying younger one. . .by all of seven weeks, but our bond is so strong it can be a bit scary! Anyway, “Viff” gets it, he knows why I had to do the trip and certainly feels as strongly as me about doing what we did, but I do have to publicly say, “Thanks mate, your support means the world to me!”

This morning I wandered in glorious sunshine around the garden here at Dookes H.Q. and found this little gem brightly standing out against the green of the kitchen garden hedge. Narcissus poeticus, Old Pheasant Eye Narcissus one of the last narcissi of the season to flower and certainly one of the most fragrant.

Narcissus poeticus.

Narcissus poeticus.

Nothing special really; except that is was my Grandfather’s favourite flower.

Thanks for riding along with me on this real roller coaster of emotion!

Catch you all soon.

Dookes