TONY BANNER took his Dodge WC to Normandy and puts Coulsdon on the map

Jack
 
 
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Well I’ve been back quite a while now but the memories remain strong. Eighteen months of planning all done. What a trip, the weather was yuck most of the time and it is one of those trips you can laugh about now, but at the time, oh boy! My links with Gold Beach and the Commune of Ver-Sur-Mer go back to the sixtieth anniversary. Two friends, Geoff and Pam, own a gite in the village where we had arranged a very successful event in 2004 and we had been invited back this time. In the background had been a lot of planning, official permissions, vehicle servicing and preparations, packing and pacing. Now finally on Wednesday 3rd June there was nothing left but to turn key and start. I met up with Phil Webb and Ron, my travelling companions, at Coulsdon in Surrey at about 1100. The idea was that Phil with his Y Service Bedford QLR and me with my Dodge towing Phils’s airborne trailer would travel down to the docks together. Last minute sorting out completed we set off to Portsmouth to meet everyone else involved with the camp and boarded the ferry at 0700 on Thursday morning. We met various other people on the way down so quite a convoy arrived at the port. The Garrison and a lot of other military vehicles were already there so we started a party. The whole of the embarkation area looked much as it must have done sixty-five years ago, military vehicles of all types and people in uniform.  We decided a few hours kip wouldn’t go amiss, so got my camp bed out and jumped on, to be greeted with a loud ripping noise as the canvas gave way. The air went blue, much to everyone else’s amusement. Well if you want sympathy, phone the Samaritans. So after a rather miserable night, during which I came close to hating Jonathan Catton of the Garrison and his apparent ability to sleep on the head of a pin, we prepared to board the ferry. Phil’s battery in the QL promptly lost all its electrons! A jump pack was produced and away we went. With four hundred and forty eight vehicles to load the dock staff were not impressed.

I did not know at the time that an electrical Gremlin had stowed away in the battery! Fortunately a cabin had been booked so after a shower and some sleep, my humour level was half restored. We landed at Ouistreham where and the chief customs officer wouldn’t let the Garrison land their guns! Our liaison officers on the French side went into overdrive and managed to get the matters referred for the personal attention of the Minister of Defence in Paris, and he signed off for the guns to land.The first good thing was that the Gendarmerie lent us two of their guys on motorbikes. They had volunteered for duty over the week to escort the vehicles, and did a superb job. We bowled along through the villages, very tight at times; and got to the seafront at Ver-Sur-Mer. The people were out to greet us and we go t established on the site. My concern at that point was personal. What was I going to kip on that night?  Phil suggested one of the group, Barry, might have a spare bed; fortunately he is a very nice bloke so I wandered happily over to his stores pitch. ‘Ah’ said Barry ‘Phil did ask me about spare bed and I said I had one, then he phoned and said he’d got one so I didn’t bother to bring it’. Such things can really test a friendship! Friday was spent setting up camp, and me getting a replacement bed! I found a blow-up mattress in Courseulles. That evening it started to rain heavily. Pam said not to worry it might rain that night but would be dry afterwards ‘It’s always like that round here’was her bold statement. Saturday dawned dryish, the Hampshire re-enactors had gone for a bimble and I’d been volunteered to pick them up at Asnelles.

 

I found them gathered round a veteran, Mr Evans; who despite his minders best efforts was enjoying himself and I was privileged to see his French Liberation medal and Citizen d’Honeur award which he said quite pointedly meant more to him than any British award. The official opening time of the camp was 1000 though people were turning up much earlier and the place was heaving all day. A lot of visitors had their own military vehicles so the road outside was a display all on it’s own. On Saturday night we had arranged a to give a ride in a K2 for a veteran but the guy was too ill, so the mayor’s mother, Nan, and her grandkids got invited to come down on the beach instead. At this point John and Ian suggested we have an armoured escort and the Dingo came too. Just as we pulled up on the beach the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight came overhead, it doesn’t get much better than that!  Sunday was wet and miserable but it didn’t stop the visitors; though numbers were down on the previous day. Phil, Lee, Ron and I went down to the local restaurant, the Sexton. After a superb dinner, as we were leaving; the hosts called us back and started toasting us on our way in Calvados, Fortunately it was only a few minutes back to camp, but uphill. On arrival I heard that another truck, an ex Swiss GMC radio body had started suddenly playing up, with, you’ve guessed it, what sounded like an electrical problem! A group think in and the answer was found to be a loose wire from coil to distributor, so we had a few beers to celebrate. Taking a somewhat diversionary path back up the camp by this time, another group was trying to sort out a Bialladin pressure lamp. I have a penchant for the mixture of alchemy and arson that is pressure lamps, and also had the spares with me. So a further few beers to celebrate the bringing of light, and a somewhat tired and confused person made it to bed. Monday was the trip to Tilly-sur-Seulles, a village outside Bayeux. It had been fought over from June 8th until the Germans had finally been cleared on the 18th. During this the village had been totally destroyed.  The civilian population lost about one in ten from a total of about six-undred and seventy. We had our Gendarmes as escort, and on the way stopped at Jerusalem Farm. This is a sixteenth century chateau. As we went in someone said to me ‘this place could tell stories about the war’, my reply was ‘what war?’ Sharpe and his riflemen could have just as easily come through the arch. They also sell the best Calvados in Normandy, it is eight-years-old and you can only buy it from the farm. On the edge of the farm is the smallest CWGC cemetery in Normandy. The farm had been a casualty clearing station and after the war all the bodies were being collected for burial in the cemetery at Bayeux. The farmer and local people kicked up, they didn’t want their people moved. They had died for the village, been buried by the village and were part of it for all time.

There was a photo of the entrance to Tilly-Sur-Seulles taken at the time of a soldier mine sweeping at the entrance of the village. Stephan, the local historian; who had arranged the trip, really wanted to have this recreated. Ron and Lee had brought mine sweepers, so did the sweeping followed by the Hampshires down the hill into the village. The vehicles then followed on. At the top of the hill the first person waiting was an old lady, she was in tears as we passed. The fate of the village is the story of the French civilians at the time. They had been drawn into a conflict not of their choosing, as both sides fought to control the crossroads at the centre of the village. The weather was following its dreary pattern and on returning to camp we were faced with the joys of packing up.

There really ought to be a magic button marked ‘End of Event’, one press, everything packs up and zaps you back home. As it doesn’t yet exist, the manual work had to be done. Due to unforeseen circumstances and early return to UK was required so on Monday we set off to Ouistreham to catch the night ferry. The return journey from Portsmouth along the linear road work that is the A3 was enough to make me lose the will to live. Hill starts in a Dodge involve leaning across the transmission tunnel, under the bulkhead to the hand brake, which does not have a spring return and must be pushed fully off if one is not to be accompanied by the smell of burning brake shoes. After an eternity Coulsdon was reached, just a couple of miles to home base. Then just outside Coulsdon South railway station, sudden stop! A loose ignition wire! Everyone got home; no one was hurt and the French were delighted with the event. I’d made new friends and renewed old friendships; plus there is an invitation to Tilly this year, so I’ll count it as a success.