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NL75 - A Personal Journey

Medway - 23 Jul 19 General

Mark Heane, one of our members travelled to Normandy for the commemorations of 75th anniversary of D-Day. This is a short summary of his trip out.

Saturday at 2230 hrs, I departed Chatham maritime Marina, bound for Oustreham in France, on Fidelio, my 29 foot Seamaster yacht. A good friend, David McMillan, a very experienced seaman and sail training ship instructor joined me as crew.

We sailed through the night, crossing the channel traffic separation scheme around daybreak and arrived at Calais around 1300 local time. Unfortunately, the swing bridge times for departure meant that we left at 1100 the following day. This delay caused us to reschedule our existing intention of stopping at Dieppe or Fecamp, and we continued on a straight 30 hour sail to Oustreham, arriving around 1800 hrs at the Marina.

On arrival, we rafted four deep, as the RNVR and RNSA contingent was around twenty or so yachts – many being quite impressive, including Pegasus from The Royal Yacht Squadron flying a white ensign.

One of the latest Dartmouth sail training craft was also present.

We berthed alongside two yachts of RAF origin that were part of a forces charity named ‘Turn to Starboard’. This group provides sailing trips to servicemen affected by PTSD, and helps them regain confidence and self reliance, as well as learning and experiencing new skills abilities. Most impressive, and a very worthy cause.

Fortunately, soon after arrival, we were refreshed with attendance at a Pimms reception in a decked out marquee. This was followed by a walk into the pretty harbour town, for a long overdue meal, although our sea legs together with hastily consumed Pimms made the journey a little wobbly!

The following day, Wednesday, saw us walk to the nearby Pegasus Bridge, the scene of vicious fighting by glider borne troops at the commencement of the D Day invasion. Heavy rained persisted intermittently, and prevented a parachute drop re-enactment taking place. We were, however, treated to a spitfire overflow, including a strafing run at the bridge, followed by several flypasts of Dakota transport aircraft from the period. The event was very themed, with a large number of period costumed vintage motorcycle riders and jeeps, and many others in period uniform.

On D Day itself, the two of us visited the massive five storey tower block size war bunker in the town centre, that formed part of the German Atlantic Wall defence system. The bunker, now a museum, is in a state of preservation that is almost as if it were still occupied. From the top gun tower, that housed one of the notorious 88mm anti aircraft/anti tank guns; we looked out at the beach and tried to imagine what it would have been like for the defenders. Just think of coming on watch at dawn, and looking out to a horizon full of thousands of ships forming an invasion! There were several flypasts of fighters and transport planes during the day, and there was a true sense of occasion.

After lunch, we visited the beach memorial, and imagined running out of the sea, through the sand, against enemy fire. I recalled saying to David as we approached the channel leading to the lock at the port “ at least we don’t have to jump out here and wade through the water whilst being shot at”!

We hired electric scooters and proceeded down the beach road, until we were stopped by several armed police, as we were told that the world leaders etc were nearby. This cordon was also enforced by the presence of French warship just offshore. During the night, we were blown around at the mooring by elements of storm Miguel, with severe gusts of wind that damaged many trees in the vicinity.

During the next day, I attended to some boat repairs, and changed a fuel filter that was the suspected source of some intermittent erratic engine running earlier. The evening saw us change into blazers and ties for a formal Dinner with the Mayor of the town, held in an impressive medieval barn. This was a most agreeable end to a challenging trip and most enjoyable week of respectful events, and our thoughts were never far from those who gave. A personal highlight was shaking the hand of a Chelsea Pensioner in full regalia, who had been part of the platoon storming the museum bunker!

Waiting for storm Miguel to subside, we finally left the Marina on Saturday afternoon, refuelled, and set off on our return. Missing the storm meant that we decided on a direct run to Eastbourne, 95 miles away, and that we would leave the yacht there, as I had to return to work Monday. We arrived midday on Sunday, after a 19 hour sail across a very wide section of the channel, with very busy shipping lanes, having sailed around 325 miles.

The trip was a delight and a privilege, celebrating a momentous anniversary, in good company and being part of a very special celebration of a pivotal moment in twentieth century history.

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