The Merville Battery – Normandy, France

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Whilst the American Airborne operations on D-Day were concentrated around the Cotentin Peninsula and commemorated at the Airborne Museum and D-Day Experience museums, the British Airborne landings were on the eastern flank of the landings and are featured in two museums, Memorial Pegasus, which I covered in an earlier post and the Merville Battery.

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In 1942, the Organisation Todt commenced construction of the Merville Gun Battery as part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall fortifications. Situated near the port town of Ouistreham on the eastern end of the Normandy coastline, the battery’s location was of strategic importance overseeing the estuary of the Orne and Caen canals as well as controlling maritime access to Caen. For Allied invasion planners looking at Normandy as a landing option, it also provided vital eastern flank protection and a pivot point for further advance.

Construction of the casemates at the Merville Battery.

Construction of the casemates at the Merville Battery.

By May 1944, the last two 1.8m thick, steel-reinforced casemates were completed and despite several air raids, the structures remained intact causing some consternation for the D-Day invasion planners who believed that the casemates housed 150mm guns capable of bombarding the beaches on which the British and Canadian 3rd Division were to land. In fact, the guns were first world war vintage Czech 100mm howitzers but with a range of over 8km they still posed a considerable threat to any invading force.

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May 1944 bomb damage assessment photograph of the Merville Battery.

It was vital that the Merville Battery be neutralised before the seaborne invasion and the task was given to the 9th (Essex) Parachute Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway. In addition to the battalion, the operation would include sappers from the 591st (Antrim) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers and medics from No. 3 Section 224th (Parachute) Field Ambulance, taking the assault force to a strength of  650 men.

The battery, manned by 130 men of the 1716 Artillery Regiment, consisted of four artillery casemates along with command and personnel bunkers, a magazine, 20mm anti-aircraft gun platform, fifteen weapon pits each holding around 4 or 5 machine guns plus various outbuilding and shelters all in an enclosed area 640 by 460m. This was surrounded by two, 4.6m thick by 1.5m high, barbed-wire obstacles and a 91m deep minefield. A yet to be completed, 365m long, 4.5m wide by 3m deep anti-tank ditch also faced the casemates on the coastal side completing a formidable defensive position.

To prepare for the assault, a full-size mock-up was built by the Royal Engineers at Walbury Hill in Berkshire and the paras carried out nine practice assaults including four at night in preparation for the assault. Around 50 paras of A Company and some sappers were also retrained as Glider troops whose role was to crash land inside the perimeter, in three Horsa gliders to deliver a ‘coup-de-main’ during the final phase of the attack.

The plan was for the battalion to be divided into two groups with the first, smaller group jumping at 00:20 with the pathfinders to prepare the RV and also carry out reconnaissance on the battery. A bombing mission by Lancaster bombers was scheduled for just prior to the arrival of the paras and Otway wanted to know the extent of the damage before launching his assault. The main body, comprising B and C Companies would be the main assault force with B Company breaching the wire and clearing a path through the minefield which C Company along with the sappers would funnel through before splitting into four groups each tasked with destroying a casemate. This was timed to coincide with the three gliders landing inside the perimeter delivering the additional troops drawn from A Company and sappers carrying flamethrowers and explosive charges. The remainder of A Company, which jumped with the main force, had been tasked with securing and holding the firm base used as the launch pad for the ground assault. Then, if all else failed HMS Arethusa was standing by to pound the battery with her 6inch guns at 05:50.

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Members of the 9th (Essex) Parachute Battalion prior to em-planing for Merville Battery.

The advance party departed RAF Harwell at 23:10 and dropped on time at 00:20. Very little resistance was met on the DZ, but unfortunately many of the signal emitting Eureka Beacons were damaged during the drop and unable to be operated. The battery reconnaissance party set off for Merville whilst the pathfinder group marked the DZ only to be bombed by the Lancasters who had strayed off course and missed the target. Luckily nobody was injured and the DZ party attempted to guide the main body in using Aldis lamps.

By 00:45, 32 Dakotas carrying around 540 paratroopers were approaching the DZ, but the pilots were confronted by a huge dust cloud caused by the wayward bombing raid, causing them to make their run-ins at different altitudes to those planned. The despatching problem was compounded by an increase in flak which caused the pilots to take evasive action throwing the paras around in the back and weighed down by their equipment it was difficult for them to stand up and move into position to exit the aircraft. This resulted in most of the battalion missing the DZ completely, many bogged down by the weight of their equipment, drowning in the surrounding fields which had been flooded by the Germans.

When Otway finally reached the RV, it was nearly 02:00 and he was dismayed to find that there was hardly anybody there. Only 150 men of the original force finally arrived. It was less than 25% of those who had set out and they did not have any of the equipment needed for the assault, only side-arms, one Vickers machine gun and twenty Bangalore Torpedoes. At 02:50 Otway could wait no longer and set out for the objective, reaching the designated ‘firm base’ area, about 450m from the battery, at 04:20.

The original reconnaissance group, under the command of Major Allen Parry was given the task of forming the assault party and divided his group into four, in a rough imitation of the original plan. They would make two large gaps in the wire and send two of the assault groups through each. A pathway through the minefield was painstakingly cleared by one of the Company Sergeant Major’s and an officer who had crawled up to the wire, in order to listen and observe German movements.  Otway waited to launch the attack as the glider borne force arrived, but things went wrong again. One of the three gliders broke its tow rope just after take-off, the second landed several miles east of the battery and the third was hit by flak, overshot the target and crashed in an orchard some distance from the perimeter.

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Otway knew that he would have to make do with the force that was in place and at 04:30 the assault went in. A diversion attack was staged at the main gate, whilst the Bangalore Torpedoes were used to blow gaps in the wire and the paras stormed into the Battery. After about 20 minutes of fierce hand to hand fighting the defenders surrendered and the paras entered the casemates. Without the explosives needed to disable the guns the paras did what they could to make the guns in-effective, dropping No.82 (Gammon bomb) grenades down the barrels and throwing away the breech blocks. Only 75 paras were still on their feet, 22 Germans had been taken prisoner and the position was now being bombarded by German artillery. At 05:00 Otway and his surviving paras left the battery and after a short break at the designated RV point, the Calvary Cross about 850m to the south-east, continued to their secondary objective, the village of La Plein where they linked up with elements of the 1st Commando Brigade later in the day.

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German troops of the 736th Grenadier Regiment quickly re-occupied the Battery after the paras left and two of the guns were able to be brought back into action, bringing accurate fire onto SWORD beach. On 7 June, the battery was assaulted by 4 and 5 Troops of No.3 Commando who suffered heavy losses in the action that followed.

Whilst the effectiveness of the Battery had been diminished, the British never succeeded in completely neutralising it and the Battery remained under German control until they began their withdrawal in mid-August.

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The Merville Battery Museum is situated in the original casemates of the battle and opened on 5 June 1983 as way of preserving the memory of the exploits of the men of the 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. The museum extends over five hectares with an education trail explaining how the Battery worked and the attack of 6 June 1944.

At the entrance, which is the site of the diversionary attack, there is a Memorial to the 9th Parachute Battalion and small gift shop. Visitors are then free to explore the area following the information boards and diagrams to gain an idea of what happened. The four casemates each feature different displays relating to aspects of the battle and there are also artillery pieces, memorials and the Douglas C-47, serial number 43-15073 ‘SNAFU’ which dropped American paratroopers of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment on the Cotentin Peninsula during D-Day.

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Casemate No. 1 replicates the events at the Battery on D-Day with a very intense sound and light show occurring every 20 minutes. The show commences with the bombing raid conducted by 109 Lancaster bombers at 00:30, followed by the German artillery being fired  at the canal locks at Ouistreham and the Parachute Regiment attack. Casemate No. 2 is a memorial to the 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment featuring various objects, photos and stories of the men who took part in the attack. Casemate No.3 shows objects related to the Glider Pilot Regiment, No.3 Commando, 45 Royal Marine Commando and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion who acted as a protection force on the left flank during the operation. Casemate No. 4 is dedicated to the Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourg and British units which finally drove the Germans out of Merville in August 1945.

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German Navy Kriegsmarine uniforms on display in casemate No.1. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Casemate No.2 is dedicated to the men of the 9th Parachute Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. Photo: Julian Tennant

A trip to the Merville Battery can easily be combined with a visit to the nearby Pegasus Bridge museum, stopping at various marker points along the way. Major & Mrs Holt’s D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches guide gives an excellent overview of the points of interest in the area and I spent the best part of a day examining this area. As a airborne insignia and militaria collector, I must admit that whilst I particularly enjoyed the Pegasus Bridge museum,  the Merville Battery really helped to convey an understanding of the battle, particularly from the defender’s perspective via the ‘sound and light’ show in Casemate No.1. I think it made me think about bomb scarred defences on the cliff tops at Pointe du Hoc very differently than I would have, when I visited that site the following day.

Musée de la Batterie de Merville
Place du 9ème Bataillon
14810 Merville-Franceville
France

Website: http://www.batterie-merville.com
Phone: +33 (0)2 3191 4753

Open: Every day from 10:00 until 19:00. Last entry at 17:30

 

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The Airborne Museum – Sainte-Mère-Église, Normandy, France

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Private John Marvin Steele, second from right, who along with John Ray, Philip Lynch and Vernon Francisco comprised F Company, 505 PIR’s 60mm mortar squad, just before D-Day at camp Quorn, Leicestershire, England. John was the only one of the four to survive the war.

In the early hours of 6 June 1944, Private John Marvin Steele, an American paratrooper from F Company, 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division jumps over Sainte-Mère-Église village on the Cotentin Peninsula, Normandy as part of Mission BOSTON. His unit’s objective is to capture the village, a crucial communications crossroad behind UTAH Beach and block German approaches from the west and southwest.

Unfortunately for Steele, a house in the village is on fire after being hit by a stray bomb and the usually quiet town square is filled with German troops who are trying to extinguish the blaze. The flames illuminate the square and many of the paratroopers are killed as they descend. John Steele is hit in the foot and his canopy catches on the village church’s bell tower. He tries to free himself but drops his knife and is left dangling helplessly for a couple of hours. Eventually, two German soldiers climb up to cut him down and take him to an aid station. Three days later Steele escapes and crosses back into Allied lines. He goes on to jump in Holland, participating in the liberation of Nijmegen and later the Battle of the Bulge. John Steele survived the war and returned to Sainte-Mère-Église several times to commemorate the landings before finally succumbing to throat cancer in 1969. His D-Day experience, hanging from the chapel bell tower has been immortalised in the movie “The Longest Day”.

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Sainte-Mère-Église church continues to feature a dangling US para in remembrance of the events of the early morning of 6 June 1944. Photos: Julian Tennant

Sainte-Mère-Église was captured by the 3rd Battalion of the 505th at 04:30, not too long after Steele was taken to the aid station and the village became the first town in France to be liberated by the Allies on D-Day. The German counter-attacks involving infantry and armour began at 09:30 and after eight hours of fighting only sixteen of the forty-two paratroopers holding village were still alive. But the American paras held their ground and on 7 June tanks from UTAH Beach finally arrived. The beachhead was secure and the link-up between air and ground forces had been achieved.

There are several points of interest commemorating the battle in the town along with a few militaria dealers. Many of the local shopkeepers also recognise the historical importance of the event and some include small displays of their own, so it is worth setting some time aside just to relax and explore. I would recommend buying a copy of Major & Mrs Holt’s D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches battlefield guide and using their walking tour as a way of exploring the area.

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Waiting for a haircut in Sainte-Mère-Église. Photo: Julian Tennant

However, the start point of any visit to Sainte-Mère-Église should be the Airborne Museum, which is located metres away from the church and is actually on the site of the house fire of that fateful night of 5-6 June 1944.

Opened in 1964, the original museum building was designed by architect François Carpentier to reflect the shape of an open parachute canopy. Since its inauguration the museum has had several additions and currently consists of three exhibition buildings. The original museum building is referred to as the WACO building. Its centerpiece is an original Waco CG-4A glider surrounded by various uniform, weapons and equipment displays.

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Patches of the American units involved in the D-Day Landings on the 6th of June 1944. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Photo of Jack Schlegel from the 508th PIR. Note the British parachutist qualification on his right forearm sleeve. Photo: Julian Tennant

The second gallery is referred to as the C-47 building and features the Douglas C-47 Skytrain ‘Argonia, which was flown by Lt. Col. Charles H. Young, CO, of the 439th Troop Carrier Group during Operation NEPTUNE. The aircraft was also used for the drop during Operation MARKET GARDEN, but in this display, it is used as the focal point for a scene that is loosely based on General Eisenhower’s visit to the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division just before they departed for the Normandy.

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Centerpiece of the C-47 Building is a reconstruction of a scene showeing General Dwight D. Eisenhower visiting paratroopers of the 502nd PIR, 101st Abn Div at Greenham Common airfield on 5 June 1944. Photo: Julian Tennant

The newest exhibition building, named Operation NEPTUNE was opened to the public for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and uses several life-sized diorama displays combined with sound and lighting effects to give the visitor an impression of the paratrooper’s D-Day experience.

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Panorama view of the displays in the “Operation NEPTUNE” building

In May 2018 the museum introduced the HistoPad, an augmented reality tablet device that allows visitors to manipulate a series of 3D virtual relics and artifacts, see inside of aircraft, virtually operate and manipulate full 360-degree views of equipment, compare scenes today to how they appeared in 1944, view unpublished photographs and extracts of archival films. It is provided free to all visitors over six years old who are not part of a group tour. You can view one of the museum’s HistoPad promotional videos below or visit the creator’s website to see more pictures and details of the Airborne Museum’s HistoPad experience.

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Using the HistoPad in the Waco Building. Photo courtesy the Airborne Museum.

In addition to the exhibition spaces, the Airborne Museum also has conference rooms for hire and gift shop. The shop, is definitely no match for Paratrooper shop at the D-Day Experience and Dead Man’s Corner Museum in Saint-Côme-du-Mont, but it does offer some interesting books and DVD’s along with the usual reproduction souvenirs aimed at the (non-collector) tourist.

At the time of writing (June 2020) the Airborne Museum has just reopened to the public, so visiting is possible, however there are new visitor requirements to take into account the COVID-19 pandemic. The current restrictions are outlined here.

The Airborne Museum
14 rue Eisenhower
50480 Sainte-Mère-Eglise
France

Website: www.airborne-museum.org/en/
Email: infos@airborne-museum.org
Phone: +33 (0)2 3341 4135

Open: Every day. From May to August, the museum is open from 10:00 until 19:00. October thru March the museum is open from 10:00 until 18:00. April to September, the museum is open from 09:30 until 19:00.  Note. Last ticket sales are one hour before closing and check their website for updated COVID-19 visiting restrictions

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every Sunday and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to set aside time to go through my archives and collection in order to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

The D-Day Experience – Saint-Côme-du-Mont, Normandy, France

Lt. Col. Robert Wolverton

5 June 1944. Lt. Col. Robert Lee “Bull” Wolverton, CO 3/506 PIR, checking his gear before boarding the C-47 “Dakota”, 8Y-S, “Stoy Hora” of the 98th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group at an airfield in Exeter, England. Original US Army press release photograph colourised by Johnny Sirlande.

On the evening of 5 June 1944, Lt. Col. Robert Lee “Bull” Wolverton, Commanding Officer of the 3rd  Battalion, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division,  gathered his men in an orchard adjacent to what is now Exeter airport, and said:

“Men, I am not a religious man and I don’t know your feelings in this matter, but I am going to ask you to pray with me for the success of the mission before us. And while we pray, let us get on our knees and not look down but up with faces raised to the sky so that we can see God and ask his blessing in what we are about to do.

“God almighty, in a few short hours we will be in battle with the enemy. We do not join battle afraid. We do not ask favors or indulgence but ask that, if You will, use us as Your instrument for the right and an aid in returning peace to the world.

“We do not know or seek what our fate will be. We ask only this, that if die we must, that we die as men would die, without complaining, without pleading and safe in the feeling that we have done our best for what we believed was right.

“Oh Lord, protect our loved ones and be near us in the fire ahead and with us now as we pray to you.”

Then, his ‘stick’ of 15 paratroopers boarded a C-47 “Dakota”, nicknamed “Stoy Hora” for the flight to France. The invasion of Normandy had begun. But, within hours of that famous speech, Wolverton (aged 30) was dead. His feet had not even touched French soil. He was killed by ground fire around 00:30 hrs and left suspended by his parachute in an apple tree just north of Saint-Côme-du-Mont.

Stoy Hora C-47 Dakota at Exeter Airfield 05 June 1944

Paratroopers of the 506th PIR prepare for their flight aboard the C-47, 8Y-S ‘Stoy Hora’ at Exeter airfield. 05 June 1944. Of the 15 paratroopers in the ‘stick’ that flew in this aircraft, 5 were killed in action on D-Day, 8 were captured and 2 were missing in action.  Photo colourised by Paul Reynolds

In 2015, Dead Man’s Corner Museum curators Emmanuel Allain and Michel De Trez, opened the next section of their museum in a large hangar just behind the original Dead Man’s Corner building. Previously called the D-Day Paratrooper Historical Center, the now renamed D-Day Experience encompasses both museums. Co-curator, Belgian collector, historian and owner of D-Day Publishing, Michel De Trez is well known in the collecting fraternity. He is the author of several collector reference books on WW2 US airborne equipment, assisting Steven Spielberg with Saving Private Ryan and the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. This second exhibition space reflects those interests and looks at the campaign from the perspective of the US paratroopers.

Upon entering the museum, visitors are briefed by a 3D hologram of Lt. Col. Wolverton at an airfield in Exeter on the day before the invasion. They then board the “Stoy Hora”, a C-47 Dakota of the 98th Troop Carrier Squadron, 440th Troop Carrier Group for the ‘flight’ across the English Channel to Drop Zone D, south of Vierville on the Cotentin (Cherbourg) Peninsula.

Pilot of the IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group

Pilot of the IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group just before departing England. Photo: Julian Tennant

The seven minute ‘flight’ in the “Stoy Hora” is a great introduction to the exhibition space. Whilst, I am more of an ‘old-school’ kind of guy, more interested in examining original artifacts, the ride was a nice entry point which definitely appealed to the missus and the other visitors on board the simulator with us, particularly those with kids. The idea was born out of the Band of Brothers when Spielberg had transformed a real C-47 into a studio-space for the making of the series. The result is a high-tech simulator with 3D window screens, sound and amplified movements as the aircraft departs England for the bumpy ride, avoiding flak as it crosses into France to deposit its passengers into the exhibition space.

Unfortunately in real life, Lt. Colonel Wolverton did not survive his jump, he was killed by ground fire and left suspended by his parachute in an apple tree just north of Saint-Côme-du-Mont.  The exhibition, however continues in his voice. He describes the men, their training, fears and (as all paratroopers would know, sense of immortality, giving a very human and somewhat sobering perspective to the exhibits.

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The white scarf and armband identify this paratrooper as a member of the 3rd Battalion 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. Photo: Julian Tennant

Pfc. Jack N. "Hawkeye" Womer. HQ Co. 506 PIR. 101 Abn Div.

Pfc. Jack N. “Hawkeye” Womer. HQ Co. 506 PIR. 101 Abn Div. A member of the ‘Filthy 13’, Jack landed in a swamp near St-Come-du-Mont and after extracting himself would end up fighting with the 501st PIR at Hell’s Corner. Photo: Julian Tennant.

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Pathfinder of the 82nd Airborne Division. These men jumped in to mark the DZ northwest of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, one hour after the 101st drop. At the time there were around 300 qualified pathfinders and according to the caption, the Pathfinder camo suit that this individual is wearing is the only original of its type left in the world. Photo: Julian Tennant

The layout of the museum is superb, captions are bilingual (French/English), making it easy to navigate with good contextualisation of the content. For decades prior to the opening of Dead Man’s Corner Museum and the D-Day Experience, Michel de Trez had been travelling to the USA, interviewing and cultivating relationships with US Airborne veterans. This long-term engagement with the subjects of the museum has resulted in exhibits that are both unique and personal. Visitors can view objects and also discover the identities of the soldiers that used them. Unsurprisingly there are several items attributed to Dick Winters and his ‘Band of Brothers’ of  Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, but also several other unique pieces such as a leather jacket worn by General Eisenhower, items from Pfc. Jack N. “Hawkeye” Womer, one of the legendary “Filthy 13” and a jacket worn by 1st Lt. Wallace C. Strobel who featured in the famous pre-invasion press photo talking to Ike just prior to boarding the aircraft.

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Leather jacket worn by General Eisenhower whilst a 4 star General from 1943 until December 1944. Note the rank insignia detail. Photo courtesy of the D-Day Experience management team.

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Pathfinders of the 101st Airborne Division. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Waco CG-4A Glider pilot. Photo: Julian Tennant

Lt James C. Cox. 1st Pl, C Co. 326th Airborne Engineer Bn.

Detail of the jacket belonging to Lt James C. Cox. 1st Pl, C Co. 326th Airborne Engineer Bn. His parachutist badge features both the ‘invasion arrowhead’ and combat jump star. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Parachute badge with rigger’s “R” worn by Staff Sgt. Russell F. Weishing leader of the parachute maintenance & rigger section of the 1st Platoon, C Company, 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion. Photo: Julian Tennant

The selection of exhibit material supported by good informative (and at times blunt) explanations makes this a really engaging museum for collectors. If your interest is airborne militaria, I suggest setting aside at least half a day to visit both exhibitions on the site. If you have a car, the museum’s Historical Trail map  outlines a 40km circuit featuring 13 key sites in the battle for Carentan and takes about 3 hours to cover. When combined with the time spent at the museum, this is a good one day itinerary for the area. But, regardless, if you are planning to visit Normandy, the D-Day Experience should be high on your agenda, it is, in my opinion, the outstanding museum that I visited on my trip, surpassing even the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Eglise, which was another ‘must see’ and will be covered in the near future.

D-Day Experience
2 Vierge de l’Amont
50500 Carentan les Marais
France

Website: www.dday-experience.com/en/
Email: contact@dday-experience.com
Phone: +33 (0)2 3323 6195

Open: Every day. From October to March, the museum is open from 10h00 till 18h00 (the ticket office closes at 17h00). From April to September, the museum is open from 9h30 till 19h00.

 

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every weekend and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

 

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D-Day Experience Historical Trail map covering 13 key sites related to the fight to secure Carentan. It can be downloaded from the museum website, see the main body text above for the link.

Dead Man’s Corner Museum – Saint-Côme-du-Mont, Normandy, France

As the anniversary of the D-Day landings nears and with COVID-19 travel restrictions still in place here in Australia, I decided to dive into my archive of pictures from a trip that I made to the battlefields around Normandy back in 2015. So, this week I’m sharing some photos from the Dead Man’s Corner Museum at Saint-Côme-du-Mont.

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Dead Man’s Corner Museum. The two B&W photographs show the knocked out M5 Stuart tank commanded by Lt. Walter T. Anderson whose body was slumped over the turret for several days during the fighting.

 

Situated at a strategic intersection on the route to Carentan, Dead Man’s Corner Museum takes its name from the name given to the crossroads after the first US tank to reach this point was knocked out by a Panzerfaust fired by 19 year-old German paratrooper, Bruno Hinz in the early morning of  7 June 1944. Hinz’s Panzerfaust hit the rear side of the turret killing all four crew members immediately. The crew commander, Lt. Walter T. Anderson, who was standing upright in the hatch fell forward and was left slumped over the turret where he remained for several days until his body could be recovered. The Germans had previously removed all the road signs to confuse any advancing troops and so the intersection was referred to as “the corner with the dead man on the tank” but was soon shortened to “dead man’s corner”. Lt Anderson who served with the 80th Tank Battalion, is buried in the St Laurent cemetery.

Overlooking the intersection is the building which has remained little changed since 1944 and is now the home to the  Dead Man’s Corner Museum. At the time of the invasion it was used as the Regimental Command Post and first aid station for the paras of the German Fallschirmjäger Regiment 6 commanded by Major Friederich-August von der Heydte.

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Major Friederich-August “The Baron” von der Heydte, commanding officer of the 6th  Fallschirmjäger Regiment during the battle for Normandy. Von der Heydte initially joined the army but after being promoted to Hauptmann, in May 1940, he transferred to the Luftwaffe, joining the 3rd Fallschirmjäger Regiment  as one of its company commanders. He commanded the 1st battalion of the 3rd Fallschirmjäger Regiment during the Battle of Crete in May 1941 and his battalion was the first to enter Canea, for which he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. He went on to serve in Russia, North Africa and Italy before being given command of the newly formed 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment of the 2nd Fallschirmjäger Division in January 1944. Interestingly, he is not wearing his Luftwaffe parachutist badge in this picture.

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“Green Devils” in Normandy, June 1944. The average age of the German paratrooper in Fallschirmjäger Regiment 6 at the time of D-Day was seventeen and a half years old.

The museum, which is co-located with the excellent D-Day Experience (the subject of next week’s post) concentrates on the German paras as seen through the eyes of Major von der Heydte. Upon entering the museum, the visitor is thrown into his chaotic command post exactly as it would have appeared on the morning of the 6th of June 1944. Co-curator, Emmanuel Allain explained that when setting up the museum they spoke to the grandson of the Marie family who owned the house and had lived there in 1944. With his help they recreated the rooms as they were at the time, including details such as the family portraits, damaged painting, grandfather clock and other specific furniture.

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Dead Man’s Corner Museum exhibit displaying Major von der Heydte, commanding officer of Fallschirmjäger Regiment 6 and members of his command group, in the room that he used as his command post during the fighting around Saint-Côme-du-Mont. Photo: Julian Tennant

The Marie family left the house at noon when the kitchen (the second room display) was commandeered as a first aid post to supplement the main aid station downstairs in the basement and the rooms are a faithful reproduction of what they looked like at that time. The attention to detail is such that many of the faces of the mannequins on display were modeled on participants who were present at the time. To say it is an impressive setup would be an understatement, as an airborne collector who has had a fascination with the German paras since I was a boy, I was overwhelmed by the number of Fallschirmjäger artifacts on display. Upstairs the exhibits include even more German para uniforms, helmets, insignia and equipment but also some of the other German units plus several American objects, many of which have been donated by veterans of the battle.

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Fallschirmjäger weapons including a rare Fallschirmjäger-Gewehr 42 (FG 42) assault rifle and paratrooper issue gravity knives. The Fallschirmjäger-Gewehr 42 was captured by Sgt. Louis A. Frey, a scout for the regimental S-2 section of the 2nd Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, who jumped on Saint-Côme-du-Mont on the 6th of June 1944. Photo: Julian Tennant

Returning downstairs and adjoining the museum, is Paratrooper, a shop almost as large as the museum itself which sells both authentic and reproduction militaria. The shop is really impressive, although I must admit that I found some of the prices for the original pieces to be more expensive than what collectors would usually expect to pay. Fortunately, I did not find any insignia that I ‘had to have’ for my collection as I had already picked up some quite rare badges in Paris a few days before, but I was tempted.

The shop at the Dead Mans Corner Museum is as large as the museu

The ‘Paratrooper’ shop. Photo: Julian Tennant

The shop at the Dead Mans Corner Museum is as large as the museu

Reproduction German caps for sale in the ‘Paratrooper’ shop at the Dead Man’s Corner Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

Dead Man’s Corner, was the first of the museums that I visited during my trip to Normandy and already I felt that my expectations had been exceeded… and that was before I had even walked the 50 meters to the next building, the D-Day Experience for the American perspective. But that is the subject of my next post.

Luftwaffe Para Badge CE JUNCKER-7-Edit

Luftwaffe Paratroop badge in my collection. This example was made by the C.E. Juncker company. Instituted on 5 November 1936, the recipient needed to undertake the parachute course, completing the 6 training jumps to qualify for the award. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

Dead Man’s Corner
3 Vierge de l’Amont
50500 Carentan les Marais
France

Website: www.dday-experience.com/en/discover-d-day-experience/dead-mans-corner-museum/
Email: contact@dday-experience.com
Phone: +33 (0)2 3323 6195

Open: Every day. From October to March, the museum is open from 10h00 till 18h00 (the ticket office closes at 17h00). From April to September, the museum is open from 9h30 till 19h00. Note, the museum is temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Please check the website for updates.

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every Sunday and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Siem Reap Cambodia Part 2 – The War Museum of Cambodia

Cambodia: Angkor Wat. Parade Police guard1992

Cambodian Police Honour Guard line the causeway to Angkor Wat Temple, 1993. Collection: Julian Tennant

In addition to the excellent Cambodia Landmine Museum, which I covered in last week’s post, there is another military museum close to Siem Reap town and the Angkor Temples.

Formerly known as the Siem Reap War Museum, the War Museum of Cambodia is located near National Highway 6 between Siem Reap and the international airport. It dates back to 2001 and was built in ‘partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence. The museum’s stated purpose is to keep the memory of the civil war in the history of Cambodia alive and to preserve the unique collection for posterity. However, at the time it was widely believed to be little more than a business opportunity for local powerbrokers to dip into the pockets of the lucrative tourist market who were flocking to the nearby Angkor temples. There may well have been merit in this scuttlebutt as for many years the museum was little more than a collection of deteriorating rusted old vehicles and weapons with little attempt to preserve or contextualise their history.

Siem Reap War Museum

Tail of a Chinese made Shenyang J-6 copy of the Soviet MiG-19 (Farmer) fighter aircraft featuring the distinctive three-turret Angkor symbol used by the Khmer Rouge. A Soviet Mil Mi-8 helicopter can be seen in the background. Photo: Julian Tennant

In recent years, under the leadership of a new management team, things have begun to change and whilst many of the objects on display are still left exposed to the elements or without solid contextual information, attempts have been made to provide a better overview of the three decades of war represented in the museum. Parts of the museum are being rebuilt and the first of these, the ‘Landmine House’ which is a huge improvement opened to the public in 2018.

After paying the US$5 entry fee visitors are free to explore (and play with) most of the objects in the museum. Guides are available to accompany visitors and whilst they are described as ‘free’, tips are expected for their service. In the early days of the museum many of the guides had first-hand experience of the war, fighting for one side or the other but most have been replaced with younger guides. This new cadre have better English language skills and could be useful for tourist visitors who only require a cursory understanding of the conflict and the exhibits but could lack the depth of knowledge that somebody with a deeper interest in military affairs could be looking for in a ‘guided tour’.  If time permits, an option is to use a guide to get their perspective and then spend time by yourself examining the objects in more depth.

Being largely outdoors and exposed to the elements, many exhibits are in very poor condition, rusting and in various states of disrepair. Textile items are particularly vulnerable when left outdoors in a tropical climate such as Cambodia and unsurprisingly there are few uniforms, flags or insignia on display. Most of the exhibits consist of vehicles, weapons, ordnance and some equipment.

Siem Reap War Museum

A pile of deteriorating Soviet era ShM-41mu Gas Masks rotting in an unprotected display area at the War Museum Cambodia. Photo: Julian Tennant

Siem Reap War Museum

A tourist hams it up for the camera with a couple of rusted WW2 era Soviet PPSh-41 Submachine Guns. Photo: Julian Tennant

If you choose not to use a guide and explore the grounds by yourself, signposts and captions accompany most of the items, identifying the object and in some instances,  who used them, or where they were recovered from. All the information is in English and there does seem to be a lack of descriptive information in Khmer, which to my mind once again suggests that this may be less about preserving the knowledge and history for future generations, but a venture that is aimed directly at the tourist market. Maybe I am being overly cynical about the museum’s intended function, but for a museum that is run ‘in partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence, until recently there did not appear to be much investment in actually preserving or presenting the exhibits in line with the museum’s stated aims. For many years the museum did look like a rusting junkyard that was being used as a cash-cow to line the pockets of some local military or government officials.

But thankfully the museum is undergoing some changes, with the aforementioned ‘Landmine House’ display being a good start, so hopefully this is the first of many improvements. And whilst I think that Aki Ra’s Cambodia Landmine Museum provides a better understanding of Cambodia’s recent past, the War Museum of Cambodia is also worth visiting to see the range of vehicles and weapons used during the conflict.

The museum is quite easy to reach being in Siem Reap town enroute to the airport. If you have time, I would suggest hiring a car and driver (for about US$50 per day) and heading out to the Cambodia Landmine Museum in the morning, possibly after visiting the nearby Banteay Srei Temple, (which is best early in the morning or late afternoon and much less crowded than other temples), then returning to Siem Reap for lunch. Then, after refreshing and avoiding the worst of the midday heat, the driver can take you to the War Museum of Cambodia for a couple of hours before returning to your hotel or heading out to Angkor Wat to watch the sun go down.

A Cambodian (L) and two Vietnamese soldiers converse outside the Angkor Wat temple in Angkor, Siam Reap, Cambodia, in 1982. Photo by Vietnam News Agency

A Cambodian (L) and two Vietnamese soldiers converse outside the Bayon temple in Angkor, Siam Reap, Cambodia, in 1982. Photo: Vietnam News Agency

War Museum Cambodia
Kaksekam Village
Sra Nge Commune
Siem Reap
Cambodia

Website: www.warmuseumcambodia.com
Email: info@warmuseumcambodia.com
Phone: +855 (0)97 457 8666
MRT: Silom

Open: 08:00 – 17:30 daily (Temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions)

Admission: US$5 foreigners and US$1 for Cambodians.

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If you like what you see here, please FOLLOW this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right.  I try to post NEW content every Sunday and knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Siem Reap Cambodia Part 1 – The Cambodia Landmine Museum

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Army buddy and fellow militaria collector, Trevor ‘Spud’ Couch looking for a cold beer whilst visiting Angkor Wat in the late 1990’s. Photo: Julian Tennant

For most tourists visiting Cambodia, the ruined temples of Angkor near Siem Reap are the main, if not only, reason to visit the Kingdom. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, Angkor attracted 2.2 million visitors in 2019 and plays a vital part in the Cambodian economy where the tourism sector accounts for 12 percent of Cambodia’s GDP.

At its peak between the 10th and 13th centuries, the Khmer Empire which stretched across much of South East Asia, used Angkor as its capital before finally going into decline after it was sacked by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1431. In 1863 Cambodia was placed under French protection and then became part of French Indochina in 1887. In 1953 the Kingdom gained independence from the French but by the latter half of the 1960’s it was becoming increasingly embroiled in the Vietnam War. Then, in April 1975, after a seven-year struggle, the communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh. During the three and a half years that followed at least 1.5 million Cambodians died during the genocidal reign of the Pol Pot regime. Repeated incursions into Vietnam by Khmer Rouge forces tested the patience of the Vietnamese and in December 1978 a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge regime from power within weeks. However, the subsequent Vietnamese occupation caused a civil war that would last until the end of 1997 when the remaining Khmer Rouge finally accepted a government amnesty and laid down their arms.

Khmer Rouge soldiers march at Angkor Wat. — Documentation Center of Cambodia

Khmer Rouge at Angkor Wat. Photo: Collection of the Documentation Center of Cambodia

cambodia mine warning plastic core circa 1999-01

A corrugated plastic core Unexploded Ordnance warning sign from Japanese Demining Action (JDA) which I bought at the Cambodian Landmine Museum in 2000. JDA had a small team undertaking EOD work near the Thai border at the time. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

After nearly three decades of conflict, Cambodia has been left as one of the poorest countries in Asia with the scars of its recent history still visible. For visitors to Siem Reap, there are a couple of military museums in the area that provide a welcome break from scrambling over the temple ruins.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum is located 25km north of Siem Reap, near the Banteay Srey Temple complex and whilst it is further away from the town, it is worth visiting. The museum was started by Aki Ra, a former child soldier who was taken from his family by the Khmer Rouge when he was just five and who fought for various factions, including the Khmer Rouge and the opposing Vietnamese army before UNTAC arrived in 1993.  He then went on to help them with their EOD activities and then, when he finally returned to his village, he used this experience to defuse and clear the mines in his community using homemade tools.

Whilst clearing the ordnance, Aki Ra often encountered orphaned, wounded or abandoned children which he took into his care. To help pay for their upkeep, he displayed some of the mines which he had diffused at his home near the ticket booth for Angkor Wat Park and charged tourists a dollar to view them. I recall visiting this, the original, Landmine Museum around 1999 and listening to Aki Ra tell his story. It was a very humbling experience.

In 2006, the local authorities ordered it closed supposedly on safety grounds, however Siem Reap expatriates told me that the real reason was because local authorities felt that Aki Ra’s museum was attracting more tourists (and money) than the Siem Reap War Museum which had been started in 2001 as a ‘partnership’ with the Ministry of National Defence. This may well be little more than idle gossip, but given the high level of corruption that permeates Cambodian officialdom, this would not surprise me in the least and during one of my early visits to the Siem Reap War Museum, one of the guides did offer to sell me some of the exhibits that I expressed an interest in. Behaviour that I found strange for a museum supposedly existing to preserve the history of the conflict for future generations of Cambodians, so who knows… but I digress.

cambodia landmine museum -07

Vietnamese made fragmentation grenade/mine and anti-personnel mine on display at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

 

With the help of Canadian filmmaker, Richard Fitoussi, a charity the Cambodian Landmine Museum Relief  Fund was started.  Donors raised funds to buy a block of land and build a new museum which opened at its current location in 2007. In addition to the museum, the land also housed a Relief Centre for children including a small school. In 2008, with the help of the charity, Aki Ra established a formal de-mining NGO, Cambodian Self Help Demining, which is a separate NGO and apart from the Museum. They clear un-exploded ordnance throughout Cambodia, generally at sites deemed to be a low priority by the larger de-mining agencies, but where the presence of the UXO’s pose a real threat to the farmers who are attempting to work the surrounding land.

The Cambodia Landmine Museum gives visitors a good overview of the problems caused by this un-exploded ordnance and also some insights into Cambodia’s recent conflict. After paying the entrance fee, visitors are provided with a headset and audio player which provides some additional contextual information for the exhibits on display.

Exhibits include a variety defused ordnance, weapons, uniform items plus equipment such as de-mining tools and also artwork created by the children from the Relief Centre. There is also a small shop selling souvenirs including books, t-shirts and DVD’s.

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1990’s period uniforms and weapons on display at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Photo: Julian Tennant

As previously mentioned, the museum is some distance away from Siem Reap town and the best option to visit is to either grab a tuk-tuk, which will take around 30 minutes and cost about US$20 for a round trip, or hire a local driver and car for the day, which should cost up to US$50. This second option allows you to also visit the nearby Banteay Srei Temple which is much less crowded than the other temples closer to Siem Reap.  You can then return to Siem Reap at your leisure and have the driver take you to visit the War Museum Cambodia  (which will be the subject of next week’s post) after lunch.

cambodia de-mining patches-01

Various EOD team patches from Cambodia in my collection. Top row left to right: Mines Advisory Group circa 1999, Cambodian Mine Action Centre, Mines Advisory Group type 2. Bottom row left to right: US Special Forces UXO Detachment Cambodia (2002), Cambodia Mine Action Centre variant, Australian Mine Clearance Training Team patch circa 1994. Collection: Julian Tennant

 

The Cambodia Landmine Museum
67 Phumi Khna
Siem Reap Province
Cambodia

Website:  https://www.cambodialandminemuseum.org/
Email: bill@wmorse.com
Phone: +855 (0) 15 674 163

Open: 07:30 – 17:30 daily (Temporarily closed due to COVID-19 restrictions)

Admission: US$5
Free for children under 12 and all Cambodian citizens

 

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Help preserve the Musée Somme 1916

5AIF Montauban Road Picardi Dec 1916

Unidentified diggers of the 5th Division AIF having a smoke and resting by the side of the Montauban road, near Mametz approximately 7km east of Albert, while enroute to the trenches. December 1916. Photograph: Herbert Frederick Baldwin. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: E00019

 

ANZAC Day, the 25th of April, is a day where Aussies and Kiwis remember the sacrifices made during times of war. Dawn service commemorations are held around the country and at memorials across the globe. This year, lock-downs due to the COVID-19 pandemic have had a huge impact on the way 2020’s commemorations and also on the places we visit to remember. Memorials, museums and local businesses have been forced to close their doors to the public and for some, who rely on the patronage of tourists making the pilgrimage to the sites where their forebears fought, the impact may be fatal.

This morning, whilst checking Facebook I stumbled across a cry for help from the non-profit Musée Somme 1916 in the French town of Albert, approximately 7km southwest of Pozieres, in the Somme region. Albert would be familiar to thousands of Australians who have made the pilgrimage to the battlefields of the Western Front and many may have visited the museum which is located in the tunnels under the Basilica of Note-Dame de Brebieres.

The Basilica was home to the famous leaning Golden Virgin statue of Mary and the infant Jesus which was hit by a German shell in 1915 and knocked to a near horizontal position. A number of legends developed among the thousands of soldiers who passed through Albert around the ‘Leaning Virgin’ including the myth that whichever side caused the statue to fall, would lose the war. It was eventually knocked down and destroyed by allied shells in April 1918 after the Germans recaptured the town during their Spring Offensive. After the war, the Basilica was faithfully rebuilt according to its original design, complete with a replica of the statue.

1916 Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebieres

1916 postcard of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebieres, France. The postcard is folded in half and opens up to twice the size of a regular postcard, with text ‘Guerre 1914-1916’, and featuring black and white photographs on the front, with the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebieres in Albert, France on the right, and on the left a photograph of the Basilica showing the destruction done to the building after 15 months of bombardment. The postcard was sent by No. 171 Private Philip George Pittaway of the 27th Battalion AIF to his sister back in Australia a few months after arriving in France. George Pittaway enlisted in South Australia on 14 January 1915 and served in Egypt and Gallipoli for three months before being sent to France in March 1916. He was killed in action on 5 November 1916 in France during the 27th Battalion’s attack on German positions in Flers, and has no known grave. State Library of South Australia Artifact Number: PRG 1675/6/4/R

 

The Musée Somme 1916’s entry, which is on the side of the Basilica, takes visitors down into tunnels that were first built in the 13th century, before being converted to an air raid shelter in 1938 and then finally the current museum in 1992. Its tunnels and dozen alcoves stretch for 250m and provide visitors with an overview of what life was like for soldiers during the July 1916 offensive. The photographs of the museum that you see here were taken during a pilgrimage that I made to the battlefields of the Somme in 2015. The trip was a humbling and moving experience, made even more poignant by places such as the Musée Somme 1916 which contextualise the sacrifices that were made by all sides during that terrible period in history. If you are able, I encourage you to give the museum whatever support you can, to help preserve the history for future generations.

The museum’s crowd funding page can be found here and you can find them on Facebook here.

Lest We Forget!

 

Musée Somme 1916
Rue Anicet Godin
80300 Albert
France

Phone: +33 (0)3 22751617
Email: musee@somme1916.org
Website: www.musee-somme-1916.eu

Open:                                                                                                                                                         The Musée Somme 1916 is usually open everyday 09:00 until 18:00 (last entry at 17:30). However due to the COVID-19 pandemic it is temporarily closed until further notice.

Entry Fees:
Adults –  7.00 €
Children 6 to 18 years old –  4.00 €
Children  under 6 years old –  Free
Veterans –  5.00 €
Disabled –  6.00 €
Adult groups (10 pax or more) –  6.00 €
Guided tour (25 pax maximum) –  50.00 €

 

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Memorial Pegasus – The Pegasus Bridge Museum, Normandy

On the night of 5 June 1944, six Airspeed AS 51 Horsa gliders carrying 181 men from the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and 249 Field Company (Airborne) Royal Engineers departed RAF Tarrant in Dorset. Under the command of Major John Howard, their mission, code-named Operation DEADSTICK was to capture two road bridges near Normandy across the River Orne and the Caen Canal. This was the first action of D-Day in the British sector and would allow the allied troops landing on Sword Beach to exit and advance east of the Orne.

One of the six gliders went astray and landed a dozen kilometers from the objective, but the other five landed within meters of their objectives. The bridge over the Orne was guarded by only two German sentries and was captured without firing a shot. The more heavily guarded Bénouville bridge over the Caen Canal was taken after a short but intense firefight. Both bridges had been captured within 10 minutes. Reinforced by soldiers from the 7th Battalion Parachute Regiment during the night, Major Howard’s men held the bridge despite repeated counterattacks until they were joined in the early hours of the afternoon of 6 June, by the commandos of the 1st Special Service Brigade, who had landed at dawn at Sword Beach.

Imperial War Museum Video – Operation Deadstick The Airborne Assault on Pegasus Bridge

Shortly after the engagement, on the 26 of June 1944, the Caen Canal bridge was renamed Pegasus Bridge as a tribute to the British airborne troops involved in the action. In 1974 the Airborne Forces Museum was opened on the west bank of the canal, opposite the glider landing site and close to the original Bénouville bridge but closed in 1997. A campaign started for a new museum and on 4 June 2000 Memorial Pegasus was opened by HRH Prince Charles, Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment.

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Weapons, including a ‘Liberator’ pistol and other objects relating to the clandestine operations undertaken by the French Resistance and SOE operatives. Photo: Julian Tennant

Spread over three acres, the museum grounds contain the original Pegasus Bridge, which was purchased from the French authorities for just one Franc in 1999, along with a full size replica of a Horsa glider.  The main exhibition building features a very interesting selection of artifacts related to the British 6th Airborne Division and the D-Day landings. There are guided tours of the museum conducted in both French and English which last for about an hour and a half. These are worth doing in addition to taking your time to browse the exhibits. Visitors can also scan the QR code panels to get information about the exhibits in ten languages, French, English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Danish and Czech.

6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment unofficial badge.

Unofficial beret badge worn by Sergeant Jeremy H. Barkway (3rd Kings Hussars) 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. On D-Day, Barkway commanded a “Tetrach” light reconnaissance tank which had been transported by a Hamilcar glider. He subsequently saw actions in the Ardennes and on the Rhine crossing. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Unusual one-piece, printed, Airborne and Pegasus patch on display at Memorial Pegasus. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Battledress jacket and beret of Lieutenant John Hughes of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Beret belonging to bagpiper Bill Millin who landed at Sword Beach with the 1st Special Service Brigade on D-Day. Millin subsequently led the brigade, commanded by Brigadier The Lord Lovat, up to the town of Benouville where they linked up with the Airborne troops at Pegasus Bridge. Photo: Julian Tennant

Memorial Pegasus
Avenue du Major Howard
14860 Ranville
France

Phone: +33 2 31781944
Email: info@memorial-pegasus.org
Website: https://musee.memorial-pegasus.com/en/

Open:                                                                                                                                                         The Memorial Pegasus is open everyday from 1st February to 15th December. A visit, with guide, lasts about 1h15.
1st February to 31st March from 10.00 to 17.00
1st April to 30th September from 9.30 to 18.30
1st October to 15th December from 10.00 to 17.00

Entry Fees:
Adults –  8.00 €
Children/Students –  5.00 €

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

Dropping into the Cu Chi Tunnels

In January 1966, the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), which had been attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) after arriving in Vietnam the previous year, participated in  Operation CRIMP. This was an operation involving over 8000 allied troops and is described in detail in Bob Breen’s book, First to Fight and in Blue Lanyard Red Banner by Lex McAulay, whose customised Australian Army lighter that he carried during the operation was featured in a previous post. CRIMP was the battalion’s first major foray into an area which has become synonymous with the famous Củ Chi Tunnels and the pioneering ‘tunnel rat’ work carried out by its sappers.

For 1RAR, the objective of this operation, which involved over allied 8000 troops, was a series of underground bunkers believed to be in the Ho Bo Woods area of Củ Chi district. Intelligence indicated that these bunkers housed the headquarters for the Communist committee that controlled all Viet Cong activity in the Capital Military District and a large complex of tunnels was subsequently uncovered by the battalion. For the first time, engineers of 3 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers (3 Fd Tp RAE), under the command of Captain Alexander (Sandy) MacGregor breached the network recovering large quantities of  weapons, food, equipment and documents.

Sandy MacGregor recounts the experiences of the sappers from 3 Fd Tp as they entered the tunnels for the first time in his book, No Need for Heroes.

We had three tasks. The first was to investigate the tunnels as fully as possible to discover what they were being used for. The second was to try and map the tunnel system so that we could work out its extent, and if need be, dig down to a soldier who might be trapped. The third, once we discovered what a treasure trove the tunnels were, was to recover everything we could – weapons, equipment and paper – all of which was invaluable for the intelligence boys.

Op CRIMP tunnel rat demo

Photograph by Captain Alex ‘Sandy’ MacGregor, OC of 3 Field Troop, who developed the ‘tunnel rat’ concept first used during Operation CRIMP. Here, soldiers are demonstrating a “Tunnel Exploration Kit”, which was developed as a result of the developments made by MacGregor’s soldiers. Note the ear plug in the soldier’s right ear, the throat microphone and the switch in his mouth used to operate the torch strapped to his forehead. He is armed with a Smith & Wesson 38 calibre revolver equipped with a silencer and pinpoint-light sight. Photograph: Alexander Hugh ‘Sandy’ MacGregor. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: P01595.021

It was not an easy mission to accomplish as this was a departure from the American policy of sealing and destroying any tunnels found. Captain MacGregor had previously recognised the inadequacies of the American approach and had begun training his engineers to enter and clear tunnels. The 3 Fd Tp sappers had built a mock tunnel at their base, experimented and developed clearance techniques but they were still entering somewhat untested territory when they commenced the operation. The “Tunnel Rats” as they would come to known, had their work cut out for them. As soon as 1RAR hit the LZ they came under fire from snipers hidden in underground firing positions, trenches and tunnels. Bob Breen describes the situation in First to Fight,

There were snipers and small groups of Viet Cong everywhere – in and behind trees, popping up from spider holes and tunnel entrances at ground level, and scrambling away after firing quick bursts. The area was seeded with numerous booby traps. Diggers (Australian soldiers) noticed the ominous wires and saw shells and bunches of grenades dangling from trees and clumps of bamboo.

In an ambush on the first day of the operation, a Viet Cong firing position was discovered inside an anthill. When the sappers blew the anthill, a tunnel was discovered leading away from the position. Clearance teams from 3 Fd Tp began entering the network but breaching and securing the tunnels was no easy task.

We blew smoke into the tunnel and I divided the men into smaller sub-units of twos and threes and sent them off to investigate Once we’d blown smoke, then tear gas, then fresh air down the tunnels, I sent a couple of men down to investigate. The entrance was so narrow it was hard to imagine it was intended for people at all. There was a straight drop then it doubled back up, like the U-bend under a sink. The tunnel turned again to go along under the surface and became a little wider, but there still wasn’t room enough to turn around. It was terrifying down there, armed only with a bayonet to probe for booby traps and a pistol to defend yourself.

Once you’d negotiated the tight entrance and the U-bend, you had to crawl along tiny passages, rubbing your shoulders on each side of the tunnel, on all fours, with no way of turning around if you got into trouble. Often, you’d find larger ‘rooms’, sections of tunnel that were big enough to crouch or kneel in, but you weren’t to know that when you first set out. The further the men went, the more complex the tunnel system was revealed to be. There were drops, twists and turns, corners around which the whole North Vietnamese Army could be waiting, for all they knew. The men burrowed away, ever further, ever deeper, until they discovered a hidden danger in the operation. Some of them began passing out in the tunnels due to lack of air. But, despite the fact that there was no room to turn they were all dragged back to the surface, usually after we’d blasted more fresh air down to them.

A Sapper of 3 Field Troop emerges from a Viet Cong (VC) tunnel by way of a trapdoor in the ground ...

A Sapper of 3 Field Troop emerges from a Viet Cong (VC) tunnel by way of a trapdoor in the ground during Operation Crimp in the Ho Bo Woods with troops of 1 Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). The trapdoor of concrete is covered with earth and grass and saplings are grown in it so that it carefully blends in with the rest of the vegetation, and is virtually impossible to detect. Photo: Peter Kelly. Australian War Memorial Collection Accession Number: KEL/66/0021/VN

Unfortunately, one of the sappers, Corporal Bob Bowtell, succumbed to the lack of air in one of the antechambers and had died of asphyxiation by the time his body could be brought back to the surface. The operation took its toll on many of the sappers as George Wilson recalls in Gary McKay’s book,  Bullets, Beans & Bandages,

Those long periods spent underground, often in total darkness, where at times the only ‘light’ was the luminous face of your watch, were my most vivid memories of Viet Nam… Our troop casualty rate was particularly high on that operation with only 12 out of 35 men remaining until the end… of the operation.

During the six days that 3 Fd Tp spent on Operation CRIMP, the sappers had investigated tunnels for 700m in one direction and another 500m across that line, recovering truckloads of documents and equipment, including photographs of the Viet Cong’s foreign advisors. On the final day of the operation, the sappers found a trapdoor which led to a third level in the system, but before they could investigate it further the Americans decided to end the operation and pull out. The tunnels that had been discovered were lined with explosives and tear gas crystals in an attempt to either destroy or make them uninhabitable. Later, long after the end of the war Sandy MacGregor finally learned what lay beyond that final trapdoor. It led to the military headquarters of the Viet Cong’s Southern Command.

They had been that close.

However, Operation CRIMP had uncovered a massive amount of equipment and intelligence information and as a result, American units throughout Vietnam received orders to clear tunnels before destroying them. The tunnel system breached by 3 Fd Tp was later discovered to consist of over 200 kilometers of tunnels in multiple levels, and included living, working and storage areas, forming part of the much larger Củ Chi tunnel complex. For his contribution, Sandy MacGregor was awarded the Military Cross by the Australian government and the Bronze Star by the Americans. He recounts his experiences developing the ‘Tunnel Rats’ concept and service in Vietnam in an interview that was recorded for the Life on the Line podcast series, which is worth listening to.

Viet Cong haversack : Sapper P M Cachia, 3 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers

Viet Cong locally made canvas haversack captured by Sapper Peter Cachia of 3 Fd Tp RAE during Operation CRIMP. It consists of a central compartment made from light brown canvas with fold-in weather flaps. This compartment is closed by a large external flap secured by tying together lengths of synthetic cord. The flap has a large external pocket of green canvas with a plastic button closure. The straps are of light brown canvas 60 mm wide tapering to 12 mm wide. The narrow end of each strap is passed through a loop of synthetic cord sewn to the bottom of the haversack and knotted. This is how the length of the straps can be adjusted. Lengths of synthetic cord have been machine sewn to the both the straps and the haversack along the joins as a means of reinforcement. The haversack, which originally contained an aluminium lighter and a large quantity of documents and other printed matter. The printed matter was taken by army intelligence for analysis, and Cachia was allowed to keep the haversack and lighter. Australian War Memorial Collection Accession Number: REL43475

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The district of Củ Chi lies approximately 60 kilometers northwest of Saigon bordering an area known as the Iron Triangle, the heartland of the Viet Cong guerrillas operating in the region. The tunnel system took advantage of the hard, red, soil which was suitable for digging and did not become waterlogged during the monsoon season.  It was first developed by the Viet Minh in their fight against the French and in 1947 only 47 kilometers of tunnels existed, but with the formation of the Viet Cong the system expanded. By the end of 1963 it was estimated that around 400km of arterial tunnels, trenches, connecting tunnels and bunkers existed in an area that covered 300 square kilometers. The Củ Chi Tunnel complex was big enough to conceal an entire regiment, some estimates put the figure at 5000 troops, enroute to its area of operations and proved to be an ongoing problem for the allied forces. Later, they were used as a staging area for the attack on Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive and their utility was only somewhat restricted after a heavy bombing campaign by B-52’s in 1970.

During the course of the war it is estimated that at least 45,000 Vietnamese died defending the tunnels and after 1975, the Vietnamese government preserved sections of the tunnels and included them in a network of war memorial parks around the country. Today, visiting the Củ Chi tunnels are rated as one of the top five tourist destination activities in Vietnam, with some estimates placing the number of visitors as high as 1000 tourists per day.

There are two different tunnel display sites, Bến Đình and Bến Dược. The tunnels at Bến Dược are smaller attracting fewer visitors than the Bến Đình site which is closer to Ho Chi Minh City and is more popular with the multitude of tour groups offering the Củ Chi ‘experience’. Both tunnel sites offer a somewhat sanitised experience, allowing visitors to crawl around a ‘tourist friendly’ modified section of tunnel, check out displays depicting life for the occupants, boobytraps, weapons, equipment and be subjected to the usual pro-communist version of events. Personally, I think that the visitor parks are somewhat over-rated in terms of education or real historical value, but for a visitor with an interest in the military history of Vietnam they are worth visiting, just to check them out.

It is quite easy to reach the tunnels and there are lots of half-day or full day tours that include the Củ Chi Tunnels on their itineraries. Trip Advisor list several on their website which will give you an idea of what you can expect, however I think that it is best to visit them independently instead of an organised group tour. This can be done by bus or private taxi/driver, which is easily arranged and allows more flexibility with stops and timings.

Some of the organised full-day tours include a visit to the Cao Đài Holy See at Tây Ninh, approximately 96km northwest of HCMC as part of their package tour. Visiting this site is actually the main reason why I have made return visits to the tunnels at Củ Chi as its proximity makes for a good day trip and is worthy of consideration if you are organising your own visit.

The Cao Đài is a Vietnamese religious sect that was founded by a French colonial bureaucrat named Ngô Văn Chiêu and based on a series of messages he received during seances in the early 1920’s. Its doctrine is a fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and occultism which deified an unusual mix of figures including Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen. Officially recognised as a religion in 1926, it adopted a clerical organisation structure similar to Roman Catholicism, established its headquarters at Tây Ninh.

In the years following its establishment, the Cao Đài became increasingly active in politics and at its peak, during the French period, had a militia of around 20,000 troops under its command. The French Indochina wars form a large part of my interest in Vietnam and the sect was a major player in the south during the French era.

cao dai illustrated london news 9 june 1951

An article about the Cao Dai from a 1951 edition of the Illustrated London News which talks about the support of their militia in battling the Viet Minh alongside the French.

 

In 1933, the Cao Đài commenced construction of its main cathedral, the Holy See, which is described in Graham Greene’s book, The Quiet American as “a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolour.”

Completed in 1955, the temple is a rococo extravaganza that mixes the architectural idiosyncrasies of a French church, Chinese pagoda, Madam Tussaud’s and the Tiger Balm Gardens in Hong Kong. Prayer services are held four times per day, when uniformed priests and laity enter the building to perform their rituals. Visitors are free to enter the balcony section of the temple during these prayers and it is a very colourful spectacle to watch the priests and dignitaries carry out their observances. The best time to visit is just before the midday prayers (held every day except during Tet) and then head on to the tunnels as the second stage of a full day trip.

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An usher takes a nap during the midday prayer service at the Cao Đài Holy See in Tây Ninh. The yellow, blue and red stripes on his armband are the colours of the Cao Đài. Photo: Julian Tennant

In the next few weeks I’ll take a closer look at the Cao Đài’s political and military activities as I begin a series of posts devoted to some of the French Indochina period insignia that I have in my collection.

A selection of items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter which has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this time. Collection: Julian Tennant

Items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter in the middle of the picture has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges. It was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this period. The Viet Cong badge attached to the lighter was found in one of the tunnels when he was participating in Operation CRIMP in January 1966. Collection: Julian Tennant

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The Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum – HCMC, Vietnam

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Entry to the Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum and statue commemorating the communist People’s Liberation Forces Victory of April 30 1975. Photo: Julian Tennant

The Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum (Bảo tàng Chiến dịch Hồ Chí Minh) is a military museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, that recounts the final months of the Vietnam War, culminating in the communist’s  victory over the South Vietnamese in April 1975.

The North Vietnamese 1975 Spring Offensive was initially envisioned as a two-stage strategy that would take two years to complete. However, an early victory at Phouc Long (Route 14) on 6 January caused the communists to speed up their offensive. The People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) then launched “Campaign 275”, also known as the Central Highlands Campaign, which climaxed in March with the capture of  Buon Ma Thuot cutting South Vietnam in two. Surprised by the rapid collapse of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces, the communists then turned their attention north, commencing the Hue-Danang Campaign, securing the isolated coastal regions by April 3.

Refugees during the last days of the Vietnam War

Refugees clogging the roads as they flee towards Saigon during the last days of the Vietnam War. Photo: Hiroji Kubota

Most of the South Vietnamese army  had been routed, but with the communist forces closing in on Saigon, the ARVN made a spirited last stand at the Battle of Xuan Loc, 60km northeast of the capital. Xuan Loc, a vital logistical hub for the South Vietnamese, sat at the intersection of Route 1 and Route 20. They believed that if they could hold there, the situation could be stabilised,  their units re-grouped and the country saved from defeat. However, despite the heroic efforts of the ARVN’s 18th Infantry Division, Xuan Loc fell and by 21 April the road to Saigon was open.  The PAVN victory at Xuan Loc, allowed the communist forces to encircle Saigon, moving 100,000 troops into positions around the city by April 27.

ARVN Newport Bridge 1975

An ARVN Soldier hangs on to his wounded comrade as they both stay flat on the pavement of the Newport Bridge during a Communist attack on April 28, 1975. Photo: Hugh Van Es Bettmann/Corbis

Despite fierce resistance from troops of the 12th ARVN Airborne Battalion at the Newport Bridge (Cầu Tân Cảng) and from the 81st Ranger Group at Tan Son Nhut, the situation for the South Vietnamese Government had became untenable. At 10:24, on 30 April, South Vietnam’s President Minh announced an unconditional surrender to his troops. Shortly after, at 10:30 after hearing Minh’s orders, the paratroopers at the Newport Bridge stood down allowing the PAVN to cross and at 11:30 PAVN forces entered Tan Son Nhut Air Base after the Rangers also laid down their arms. Around noon, PAVN tanks crashed through the gates of the Independence Palace. Later that afternoon, President Minh publicly announced that the South Vietnamese Government had been dissolved at all levels. The Vietnam War was over.

War of Vietnam. Saigon's fall. Taken of the presid

PAVN armour entering the grounds of the Independence Palace, in Saigon on April 30, 1975. Photograph: Francoise De Mulder

The Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum commemorates this successful 1975 offensive by the communists and was established in July 1987. It is housed in a two-story building (that once was the former Republic of Vietnam’s National Defence College) in District 1 close to the Vietnam History Museum and a few blocks away from the famous Notre Dame Cathedral.

The museum is divided into outdoor and indoor display areas, with the outdoor area displaying vehicles, artillery pieces and aircraft related to the campaign including the F5E fighter flown by Nguyen Thanh Trung when he defected from the South Vietnamese Air Force and bombed the Presidential Palace on 8th of April 1975. It also features T54 tank No. 848 of the 203rd Brigade, which was one of the tanks that entered the grounds of the Palace on the 30th of April. Other outdoor exhibits include an M113 APC captured in January during the Phuoc Long Campaign and then subsequently used by the 7th Division for the remainder of the conflict, plus the usual assortment of artillery pieces, wrecked ARVN aircraft and equipment.

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T54 tank No. 848 of the 203rd Brigade, which was used to enter the grounds of the Presidential Palace on the 30th of April. Photo: Julian Tennant

Entering the museum building brings visitors into the Ho Chi Minh Campaign rooms. Here, visitors are shown a large ‘mud map’ model giving an overview of the offensive plus other exhibits relating to the final stages of the war such as the official Ho Chi Minh Campaign diary. This is followed by rooms detailing each stage of the offensive, beginning with the Battle for Phuoc Loc (Route 14) and followed by the Tay Nguyen Campaign ( Campaign 275) and the battle for the Central Highlands which resulted in the destruction of ARVN forces in the II Corps zone. The focus then shifts to the Hue-Danang Campaign which isolated then defeated the South Vietnamese troops in I Corps.

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The Ho Chi Minh Campaign exhibition room. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Chinese Type 63 (renamed the H12 by the Vietnamese) 107mm rocket launcher that was used in the attack on Ban Me Thuot on 10 March 1975. Photo: Julian Tennant

The second floor has two main rooms. The first deals with the South Vietnamese high command and ARVN forces including insignia, medals, records and documentation captured from the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. Other exhibits related to the campaign and activities of the Viet Cong local forces are also shown in the upstairs areas whilst the final room is dedicated to the Ho Chi Minh Campaign Headquarters and leadership group. This includes some unusual collections including several sets of spectacles used by various communist leaders and an old extendable car aerial which is described as the “Swagger-stick of General Tran Van Tra”.

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Captured ARVN officer’s personal files. Photo: Julian Tennant

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Captured Air Force F-5 Vietnam novelty patch and an unconfirmed (by me) black panther patch. I think it may be a 1st ARVN Division Strike Company (also known as Hac Bao, Black Panthers) patch variation, but am not 100% certain of this identification. Photo: Julian Tennant

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People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) cameraman with a Bolex H 16 SBM 16mm movie camera. Photo: Julian Tennant

Overall, the museum is well laid out with an interesting selection of exhibits that are accompanied by English language descriptions. However, the victors write the history books and as can be expected, the museum gives a very warped perspective that reflects the communist rhetoric. This is evident in both the language used, with the usual “imperialist puppet troop” type descriptions and also how the artifacts appear. The ARVN and South Vietnamese exhibits always seem to be broken (such as the scrap metal wrecks outside), run-down or looking rather aged and disheveled when compared to the PAVN artifacts which are kept fresh and look almost new. The museum is definitely worth visiting because of the material being displayed, but don’t rely on it giving an accurate representation of the conflict from an even remotely unbiased perspective.

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Officer of the Vietnam People’s Ground Forces (Lục quân Nhân dân Việt Nam) on duty at the museum. His insignia identifies him as a Senior Lieutenant (Đại úy) from the Corps of Engineers. Photo: Julian Tennant

Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum (Bảo tàng Chiến dịch Hồ Chí Minh)
2 Le Duan Street
District 1
Ho Chi Minh City 70000, Vietnam

Phone: +84 (0)336 578 946

Website (Vietnamese language): Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum

Open: Monday – Friday 07:30 – 11:00 and 13:30 – 16:30
Note that the museum is frequently closed without notice.

Entrance Fee: Free

 

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages