Candes Saint-Martin, my favourite spot in La Touraine.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Meeting a War legend

Over the years we spent several vacations in Normandy. In the early days we mainly visited the Basse Normandie and the beaches where the Allied troops landed on D-Day, June 6th 1944, to liberate Western Europe from Nazi rule. Our first stay goes way back to 1984, when we stayed at the Lion d’Or hotel in Bayeux.

We returned to the region in 1992. As usual, we travelled in June. Our hotel was located in Bénouville, the first French village to be liberated in the early hours of June 6th in 1944. A gliderborne unit of the British 6th Airborne Division, commanded by Major John Howard had landed in the nearby fields.

‘Their mission was to seize the bridges over the Caen Canal in Bénouville and the Orne River in Ranville, to prevent their destruction and to hold them until relieved. The successful taking of the bridges played an important role in limiting the effectiveness of an enemy counter-attack in the days and weeks following the invasion (source: Wikipedia)’.

1992: Pegasus Bridge in Bénouville, Normandy.
I still have the picture postcard, but am not allowed to scan it
as the editorial rights belong to the Gondrée family.

Later the bridge over the Caen canal became known as the Pegasus Bridge, referring to the shoulder patch of the 6th Airborne depicting the mythical figure of Pegasus. Almost as famous as the Bridge is the first French house that was liberated on D-Day: the Café Gondrée, the local bar. Even today the bar still exists and is visited by tourists and war veterans.

We stayed at a hotel called ‘Le Manoir d’Hastings’ at a stone’s throw from the Pegasus Bridge. And this is where we met one of the legendary men of D-Day: the above mentioned MajorJohn Howard. One morning, when we arrived at the reception desk to hand in our key the girl behind the desk was talking to an elderly white-haired gentleman who wore a military beret with the Pegasus emblem on it. When I heard her calling the man Mr. Howard, I got out the postcard that I had prepared to send to my parents. As my father was a war veteran too, I thought it would be nice to have the card signed by Major Howard.

Timidly I approached the gentleman and asked him whether he would mind signing the card. He looked surprised. For a while I thought he was going to refuse. But then he smiled with glistening eyes. “Of course, I will sign your card” he beamed. With a firm hand, in spite of his great age (he was 82 at the time), he put his signature on the back of the picture postcard. I thanked him and wished him a pleasant stay.

Major Howard died in May 1999, 5 years after we had met him and almost 55 years after the heroic assault on the bridges. After my father passed away in 1997, my mother gave me the postcard as a souvenir. I still keep it at page 96 of the nineth edition of the famous novel  'The Longest Day' by Cornelius Ryan, after which the classic film with the same title was made starring a.o. John Wayne and Van Johsson. Why page 96? Because that's were Major Howard's exploits and those of his troops are described!



Thib said...

That's a great story.
I often go in this area, as my mother lives in Normandy. It's always very impressive...
I remember a few years ago, soon after the movie "Save Ryan" was released, I took my 3 young kids to Omaha Beach, at low tide... They suddenly realised that this was not only a movie, and they were really impressed.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story. Mjr. Howard will be remembered forever. It's always quite stirring to meet someone who dared to fight during WWII. We have an eldery gentleman near us who fought in the French resistance.

ladybird said...

Thib, Nice to read you. I agree, the beaches in Normandy are very impressive. I always have shivers running down my spine when I try to imagine the circumstances in which these soldiers had to fight.

Dedene, I feel exactly the same. It's a pity that the real heros don't like to talk about what they've been through.