Sweeping through Normandy to Omaha Beach

Anyone who has explored the beautiful back roads of Normandy will understand why Hitler’s tanks struggled there.

The roads and lanes of this historic area of north-west France are generally pencil-thin; more suited to bicycles than anything else; and bordered by tall, dense and tangled hedgerows.  

As you pass through towns, the roads can sometimes be so narrow it feels almost possible to reach out and touch the buildings on either side.

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Partly shaped by modern warfare, some of Normandy seem monotonously flat, with huge swathes of agricultural and grazing land, broken by church steeples rising above towns and villages.

As the centenary of the end of World War I approaches, we’ve reflected on our sweep through Normandy’s beaches, bunkers and cemeteries.

It was a stunning Spring day and the fields of yellow rapeseed, apple orchards and dairying land were a far cry from the region’s past military role.

Driving from Paris, we stopped first at Armien to check out the city’s famous cathedral, sitting on a ridge overlooking the mighty River Somme.

Built between 1220 and about 1270, the Gothic cathedral is said to be the 19th largest church in the world – and the biggest of its kind in France.

Armien was fought over during both the First and Second World Wars, suffering considerable damage and being occupied several times by both sides.

The 1918 Battle of Amiens was the opening phase of the Hundred Days Offensive which led directly to the Armistice with Germany that ended the war.

Armien was also heavily bombed by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

From Armien, we pushed through the Normandy countryside to the historic cities of Caen and Rouen, before hitting the famous sands of Omaha Beach.

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Caen has a popular museum dedicated to the World War II D-Day landings, while Rouen boasts prominent quays on the river Seine, an historic city centre, and magnificent gothic cathedral.

Much of the city area south of the cathedral also has its own World War II story – flattened by Allied bombing raids and completely rebuilt.

We wandered through the city centre which was occupied by the English during the Hundred Years War and where the French heroine, Joan of Arc was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431.

At Omaha Beach, we visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial (main photo) high on a clifffront facing the British channel.

This is quite a remarkable memorial, featuring the big areas of white crosses so common along the Normandy beaches.

From here, we swung along the shores, heading for the Opal Coast and the channel ferry port of Calais toboard a hovercraft for Britain.

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Incredible story of the white stallions

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria is well known internationally, but only recently did we realise the incredible story behind the Lipizzaner horses.

Travelling in Slovenia, we visited the Lipizzaner Stud at Lipica, said to be the world’s oldest continuously operating facility of its type with a foundation date of 1580.

slovenia-305986__340Apparently, the Lipizzaner’s ancestors can be traced to 800AD – a cross between local Karst breeds beloved by the Romans for chariot racing and Berber horses from Spain.

As we watched these magnificent animals running in the paddocks at Lipica, we were told that the stud and its horses had, in fact, been evacuated in 1796, 1805 and 1809, when it was threatened by Napoleon’s armies

In World War I, the Lipizzaners were moved to a site near Vienna – and during the Second World War the Nazis took them to Germany and then on to a Wehrmacht-controlled stud farm near Hostau in Czechslovakia

From there, the story becomes almost unbelievable.

As the war wound to a close, American troops, apparently with the knowledge of the surrendering Germans, undertook an astonishing mission to secure the horses ahead of the advancing Soviet forces.

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According to some accounts, 350 horses – about 100 of the best Arabs in Europe, top thoroughbred racehorses and trotters, hundreds of Russian Cossack horses, and some 250 Lipizzaners – were rounded up by the Americans and moved 130 miles along roads to Mannsbach in central Germany.

This exercise, apparently named ‘Operation Cowboy’ later became the basis of a Disney movie ‘Miracle of the White Stallions’.

Later, a number of Lipizzaners were transported to the Austrian State Stud at Piber for use in the Spanish Riding Schooll.

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Eventually, about 11 horses were given back to Yugoslavia and the stud at Lipica, on the Karst Plateau, began the task of rebuilding its stock.

The breeding farm was renovated; a riding and training school opened; and in the 1960’s the legendary home of the Lipizzaners was opened to visitors.

Lipizzaner foals are always born dark colored, and gradually, with each change of coat, go lighter, until by the age of 4-10 years, they are pure white.

However about one in 200 remain brown or black.

Featured attractions Lipica Slovenia

Where eagles dare

The first thing you notice about the Kehlsteinhaus, or ‘Eagle’s Nest’ is the approach road that climbs 800 metres up the side of a mountain, without the need for hairpin bends.

An engineering marvel, the road contains five tunnels in its 6.5 kilometres. It was built in 1937, as part of the Eagle’s Nest – a 50th birthday present for Adolf Hitler.

The Kehlsteinhaus is situated on a ridge atop a 1,834 metre mountain above the town of Berchtesgaden, in south-eastern Germany.

It is one of the busiest tourist attractions in Bavaria and, each year, it is visited by huge numbers of people from around the globe.

The location of the Eagle’s Nest – high in the Alps – is regarded as one of the most striking and picturesque in Germany.

Hall of the mountain king


The intention was that the Eagle’s Nest would be a diplomatic reception house and quiet mountain retreat for Hitler, but he paid only a handful of visits to the summit.

The Nazi leader apparently had both a fear of heights and was concerned that the elevator to the summit might be hit by lightning.

We arrived the day after a snowstorm, amid a lot of low cloud.

Entrance to the mountain tunnel

To reach the Kehisteinhaus, you first need to catch a bus from Obersalzberg on the mountain’s lower reaches, then walk through a 126 metre tunnel into the mountain.

The Eagle’s Nest Tunnel

Finally, you catch a remarkable elevator that rises about 124 metres to the peak.

The interior of the elevator is made of polished brass and circular Venetian mirrors to look bigger than it is, as Hitler, apparently, had claustrophobia.


Photographs are banned in the elevator, but can be taken as it arrives and the doors open.

These days, the Eagle’s Nest is a restaurant and beer house, but one particular item of interest is a grand fireplace made of expensive reddish Carrara marble.


A sign says the fireplace was a birthday gift to Hitler from Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini.

It is damaged at one end, allegedly by Allied soldiers who are blamed for chipping off pieces of the marble for mementos.

Although the beer was good and the Kehisteinhaus has great historical significance, we were particularly impressed with the Document Centre, which is located further down the mountain near where Hitler had his alpine mansion.


Information at the centre showed that, although bombing the Eagle’s Nest itself was not a high priority for the Allies, the presence of Hitler and many of his senior officials made the Berchestgaden a key target – and the residents suffered severely.

In the last weeks of the war, in particular, there was a massive bombing attack on the Berghof and Obersalzberg.

Note: the writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines

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Deaths and diamonds

Australia is quietly remembering a series of events that the country hopes never to repeat.

It’s 76 years since the Australian mainland, airspace, offshore islands and coastal shipping were attacked at least 97 times during World War II.

I know it’s not the most cheerful subject for a travel reviewer to tackle. But, as usual, there’s a story behind the headlines – and this one is fascinating.

So here goes, (with apologies to military historians) ……

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Remains of Customs House, Darwin – Wikimedia

Between February 1942 and November the following year, Australia and its shipping was the target of bombs, shells, torpedoes and bullets  from Japanese aircraft and submarines.

Aircraft flew 64 raids on the city of Darwin alone – and 33 attacks on other Northern Australian targets, including the towns of Broome, Townsville and Port Hedland.

In all, it’s said that the air attacks killed about 900 people; destroyed civilian and military facilities; and cost 77 aircraft and several ships.

The diamonds

And now for the story behind the story: in one incident, a Douglas DC-3 airliner operated by KNILM (KLM) and carrying eight passengers was shot down over Western Australia.

The plane, which was headed for the coastal town of Broome, crash landed on a beach at Carnot Bay, but was subsequently strafed and then bombed the following day.

Four passengers died.

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Broome

The fate of part of the plane’s cargo – a package of extremely valuable diamonds – has become somewhat of an Aussie mystery.

I remember my late father’s explanation that the diamonds – destined for Australia’s Commonwealth Bank – were “nicked by fortune hunters who swarmed over the wreckage”.

Apparently, the downed plane did attract a strange cast of visitors in the aftermath of its crash – and more than £20,000 worth of diamonds were later handed in to authorities. In May 1943, three men were tried in the Supreme Court of Western Australia for theft of the diamonds.[5] All were acquitted – and no one else has ever been tried for the loss of the diamonds.

During the air campaign over Northern Australia, the Japanese lost about 131 aircraft.

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Darwin Post Office – Wikimedia

Submarine attacks

It’s also heading for 76 years since Japanese submarines attacked Sydney harbour and the city of Newcastle, on Australia’s east coast, as part of a wider blitz of shipping in Australian waters.

Two midget submarines penetrated Sydney harbour defences and sank the depot ship, HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 seamen.

On the night of June 8, 1942, a submarine bombarded the eastern suburbs of Sydney and another fired shells into the coastal industrial city of Newcastle.

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The guns at Newcastle’s Fort Scratchley returned fire.

See our review of this historically significant fort – and the night it sprang into action.

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Reliving an historic night

Fort Scratchley, located at Newcastle, on Australia’s east coast, is the country’s only coastal fortification to have fired on an enemy naval vessel.

It occurred  more than 75 years ago, when a Japanese submarine shelled the city of Newcastle just after 2am on June 8 1942.

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On our tour of the fort and its myriad of tunnels and guns, we heard how the Japanese submarine I-21 rained about 26 shells and eight star shells onto Newcastle.

The submarine targeted key industrial plants such as the State dockyards and BHP steelworks – as well as Fort Scratchley itself.

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Luckily, no one was killed in the shelling, but the six inch guns at the fort fired two salvoes at the Japanese submarine before it disappeared.

It was the first time Fort Scratchily had fired in anger since it was established in 1882, in the aftermath the Crimean War, at Flagstaff Hill on the site of Australia’s first coal mine.

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But since then, the fort – which is now a fascinating museum – has fired its big guns in salute on many special occasions such as ANZAC Day and the occasional arrival in the port of HMAS Newcastle, the frigate named after the coastal city.

A special ceremonial cannon is fired at exactly 1pm each weekday, except Tuesdays.

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Fort Scratchley is a concrete record of the evolution of late 19th and early 20th century coastal defence strategy.

Today, the fort’s Historical Society preserves the military heritage, providing exhibitions and guided tours of the site and its amazing tunnels.

One of the most spectacular vantage points along Australia’s east coast, Fort Scratchley is open each day (except Tuesday) from 10am to 4pm.

Fort Scratchley is at Newcastle, about 104 miles of 167 kilometres north of Sydney.

Main photo of Fort Scratchley by Adam.J.W.C. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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12 remarkable monuments

It’s not a cheery subject, but travellers encounter all types of memorials – many of them quite moving.

Ranging from grand structures to stark, simple and sometimes disturbing statements, memorials cover many subjects.

Some are subtle. Others are deliberately in-your-face.

All give cause for reflection.

Here are 12 of the most remarkable monuments that we’ve seen.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum, New York City, USA

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This is a tribute to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as people killed in the World Trade Centre bombing in February 1993.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany.

Located near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, this memorial can leave you feeling disoriented and uneasy. But, you won’t forget it.

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The Cenotaph, London UK.

Situated in the Whitehall area of central London, this was originally a temporary structure that became permanent after an outpouring of national sentiment in 1920.

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Neue Wache, Berlin, Germany.

This striking memorial for the victims of war and tyranny is incredibly powerful in its simplicity – a room empty except for a mother holding a child under an open roof, exposed to the elements.

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World War II Valor in the Pacific, Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.

This memorial includes the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, lost in the Pearl Harbour attack.

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American cemetery, Normandy, France.

Like much of this area of France, the sea of white crosses certainly gives cause to reflect.

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The Australian War Memorial

Located at Canberra, Australia’s national capital, this is an acclaimed and intricate memorial.

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Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial and Museum, Oranienburg, Germany.

This was one of the biggest concentration camps operated between 1936 and 1945. A visit to the site is a moving experience indeed.

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Topography of Terror, Berlin, Germany

Few words seem to be spoken as people move around this huge display, in the former headquarters of the SS. Not for the faint hearted.

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Soldiers and Sailor’s Monument, New York City, USA

An imposing structure in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, this one commemorates Union Army members who served in the American Civil War.

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Monument Against War and Fascism, Vienna, Austria.

Simple yet memorable, this stands on the spot where several hundred people were buried alive in a World War II bombing raid.

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The Anne Frank Centre, Berlin, Germany.

Located in Berlin’s Mitte district, this memorial also serves a dual purpose as an educational centre. Fittingly, it is somewhat hidden in an unremarkable building – signifying Anne’s life in hiding from the Nazis.

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This is far from a complete list of prominent memorials worldwide.

For example, we have not seen the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial at Budapest; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington; Arlington cemetery in Virginia; or the Motherland Calls memorial at Volograd, Russia.

However those we have visited each left their mark in different ways. We recommend a visit to them all.

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