by Larry Smith
NORMANDY, France - As we eased along the peaceful wooded lanes in Alan Wilson’s powerful green Bentley, it was hard to believe that one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War lay just around the corner.
There are memorials and museums all over the rolling Norman countryside, but driving up to Mont Ormel we passed a sign identifying "Le Couloir de la Mort” - the corridor of death. This was where the Allied forces that had landed on D-Day, 77 days before, decisively ended the Normandy campaign in August 1944.
“The German army was hemmed in all along this road and suffered terrible casualties trying to escape the Allied pincer movement,” Wilson told me in his best schoolmaster voice. “Artillery and air strikes caused tremendous damage during the retreat and some 40,000 Germans were captured. The stink of death hung over the valley for months."
Since he began coming to Normandy several years ago, following open heart surgery in Nassau by Dr Duane Sands, Wilson has had a lot of time on his hands to bone up on war history and explore the countryside. He now spends several months of the year here, returning to Nassau for the winter.
“I'm fascinated by the history and I love the people,” he said. “The life is so relaxing I can get a lot of reading in, and you don’t even have to lock your door in our village. There’s fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and beautiful bread - not to mention the wine.”
Originally from Yorkshire, Wilson met and married Bahamian Sharon Cadman (former headmistress at St Andrew’s School) in the early 1970s while at Westminster College, a Methodist teacher training institute in Oxford. He taught at Queen’s College in Nassau for a few years before leaving to work in the automotive trade.
As an ardent petrolhead, Wilson has driven in several European rally championships - once finishing 19th in a field of over 100 competitors. “My father was an aircraft mechanic during the war, working on Rolls Royce Merlin engines, so I learned a lot from him. I’m still fascinated by motor cars and engines even at the age of 64,” he told me.
Wilson keeps his well-polished 1990 Bentley and a noisy 1937 vintage Austin 7 at his home - a renovated 250-year-old cider pressoir - in the village of Frenes in southern Normandy. We used the more comfortable limousine to tour the battlefields during our recent visit - just before last week's 70th anniversary of the largest seaborne invasion in history.
Mont Ormel - overlooking the corridor of death - was the scene of the final epic battle of the Normandy campaign. In the summer of 1944, the pastoral lanes and fields south of the town of Falaise saw the bloodiest fighting of the western front, with more than 13,000 dead. The victory paved the way for the liberation of Paris a few days later.
It was the climax of a massive invasion that had begun at dawn on June 6 across a 60-mile stretch of French coastline opposite the English naval town of Portsmouth. As best-selling author Stephen Ambrose described the event:
“The largest armada ever assembled, nearly 6,000 ships, lay off the Normandy coast. As the big guns from the warships pounded the beaches, landing craft moved toward the coastline, carrying the first of the 127,000 soldiers who would cross the beaches that day. Overhead, the largest air force ever assembled, some 5,000 planes of all types, provided cover. It was a truly awesome display.”
Due to a range of mishaps, the Americans had the hardest time of all at Omaha Beach. We visited the war cemetery atop the bluff overlooking the beach as major preparations were underway for US President Barack Obama’s visit last week to commemorate the sacrifice of the 10,000 troops buried there.
“Our commitment to liberty, to equality, to freedom, to the inherent dignity of every human being – that claim is written in blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity,” Obama told a large audience that included many veterans now in their 90s. "it was here, on these shores, that the tide was turned in that common struggle for freedom."
While we were at nearby Arromanches, where British engineers built a remarkable artificial harbour within a couple of weeks after D-Day to receive the huge quantities of supplies needed to support the invasion army, French President Francois Hollande showed up accompanied by a bevy of TV cameras.
His visit was part of a campaign to designate France’s D-Day beaches a World Heritage site, alongside other World War Two sites like Hiroshima and Auschwitz. It is something which local officials have been lobbying for since 2006. The Normandy battlefields are an important source of tourism income and would benefit even more from gaining UNESCO status.
Last Friday, during the official 70th anniversary ceremonies, Britain’s Prince Charles visited the war cemetery at Ranville, near Caen, which saw the first combat action of the invasion. Ranville was also the first stop on our personal battlefield tour.
Seventy years ago, 300 British airborne troops landed in three gliders well before dawn on D-Day to capture a critical bridge over the Caen canal. The operation was a complete success, enabling the allies to prevent German tank divisions rolling up the beachheads from the east.
Now known as Pegasus Bridge, the Ranville operation is commemorated by a splendid museum that displays one of the gliders, among many other fascinating wartime artefacts.
Just as interesting is the historic Gondree Cafe near the bridge, which remains almost exactly as it was in 1944, when it became the first building in occupied France to be liberated. Stuffed with memorabilia, the cafe is still operated by the daughter of the wartime proprietor who welcomed the British troops.
In the Ranville cemetery, where some 2500 Allied and German troops are buried, we paid special attention to two particular tombstones. One marked the spot where Lt Den Brotheridge was laid to rest after becoming the first soldier killed in action on D-Day, during the landing at Pegasus Bridge.
The second was a more recent burial. Flight Lieutenant Henry Lacey Smith was one of the first pilots to go into action on D-Day but his Spitfire was forced to crash land in the river near Pegasus Bridge. Smith had been listed as missing for almost 70 years - until his remains were discovered by chance in 2010.
From Ranville we drove to the series of well-preserved German bunkers that still overlook Omaha Beach - where the Americans suffered heavy casualties on D-Day. Most of these German gun emplacements were scrapped after the war, but a few survive as tourist attractions.
The bunkers were part of Hitler's Atlantic Wall - a defensive system that stretched all the way from the Spanish border to Scandinavia. In Normandy the defences included a string of reinforced concrete pillboxes housing machine guns, antitank guns and light artillery; as well as mines and antitank obstacles planted on the beaches and just off shore.
The D-Day invasion was immortalised in the 1962 film, the Longest Day, which featured an all-star cast and was shot in many of the actual locations, including the Pegasus Bridge. Based on Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 book, that movie took a magnanimous view of the war, in keeping with the contemporary need to rebuff Soviet communism.
In contrast, the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan is notable for its graphic and realistic portrayal of war. In fact, the sequence depicting the Omaha landings is considered by many to be the best battle scene of all time. This film told the story of the daring rescue of the last surviving brother in his family.
It is loosely based on the story of Fritz Niland, who took part in the D-Day landings and who was brought home from the war after three of his brothers appeared to have been killed (although it later turned out one had actually been captured). The other two Niland brothers are buried in the American cemetery at Omaha Beach.
As we drove through picturesque villages with battlefield names that once were on everyone’s lips, Alan Wilson’s attention was easily drawn to the small convoys of historic military vehicles that seemed to be everywhere. The jeeps, sidecar motorbikes, howitzers and halftracks lovingly preserved by hobbyists dressed in period uniforms travelled here from all over Europe.
Anything with an engine will attract Wilson’s attention. He was particularly intrigued by the corroded tanks and aircraft engines recovered from the seabed off the invasion beaches that are on display at the family-run Museum of Normandy Wrecks in the little coastal town of Port-en-Bessin.
It was that intense mechanical interest which led Wilson to become a rally driver in 1984. This is a form of auto racing that takes place on public or private roads with modified or specially-built road-legal cars. The Monte Carlo Rally, which began in 1911, is probably the best known event of this kind.
“I competed in various parts of the European rally racing championships for eight seasons,” Wilson said proudly. "I stopped in 1993 for insurance reasons - they rated me as a smoker to compensate for taking part in rallies, making my premiums very costly."
So these days Wilson contents himself with tooling around the Norman countryside in his classic Bentley limo, seeking out Second World War history sites.
“Around here you can’t avoid it,” he said. "The invasion looms so large in the life of the people, at all times of the year. I’ve been to most of the sites and museums and read a lot of books, but there’s always something more to find out."