Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Three Dams in Germany

I’m sure many people will remember the film ‘The Dambusters’ (made in the 1950s) about the daring raid of RAF 617 Squadron in May 1943 on three dams in the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany.

Destroying a dam can’t be achieved by conventional bombing (since the main strength of the dam is at the base), but Barnes Wallis, an English engineer, invented a different type of bomb – the ‘bouncing’ bomb.

This bomb, shaped like an oil drum, was released from the plane at low altitude, and bounced across the water, similar to a pebble skimming the surface. When it reached the wall of the dam, it sank and then exploded, causing the base of the dam wall to be breached.

617 Squadron was formed in early 1943 for the specific task of destroying the dams, and the crew practised low-level flying over water, particularly over the Derwent dam in Derbyshire. This shows a Lancaster bomber flying over the dam to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Dambusters in 1993.

I first visited the Mohne Dam about 15 years ago, and then returned in 2003, on the 60th anniversary of the raid. It was a weird experience, standing on the dam at 12.28am, the exact time when the first Lancaster flew at very low level (only 60 feet) above the reservoir towards the dam. The aircraft took it in turns to drop their bomb (each plane could only carry one bomb) , and the 5th one finally breached the dam wall, causing a torrent of water to cascade down the valley, destroying everything in its path. The section of the dam that was later repaired is visible as the darker area in the middle of the dam in this photo.

The Mohne Dam after the raid

We also visited the Eder dam, which was breached by another section of the squadron. The area where the sluice gates are missing shows where the dam was destroyed and later rebuilt. The Eder is surrounded by hills, and the pilots had to climb very steeply after releasing the bomb so as to avoid crashing into the hillsides.

The third dam attacked that same night was the Sorpe Dam, which had a different construction, and was attacked by flying along its crest. It was damaged by not destroyed.

Nineteen bombers took part in the raid, eight did not return. Six were shot down either on the outward or return flights, or over the target; two crashed after hitting power cables while low-flying over Germany. In all, 53 of the 133 crew members were killed.

At Woodhall Spa, in Lincolnshire, not far from the Scampton RAF base where 617 Squadron was based, a memorial was erected in memory of the Dambusters.


Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - the Somme

At 7.30am on July 1st, 1916, there was an eerie silence along a fourteen mile stretch of the Western Front near the River Somme in Northern France. During the previous 7 days, there had been heavy artillery Allied bombardment, intended to destroy the enemy front trenches. At 7.20am, ten huge mines were exploded, including this one Hawthorn Ridge, a German front line fortification, where Royal Engineer tunnellers planted 40,000 pounds of explosive. This photo was taken from about half a mile away.

Two major errors led to the carnage which followed at zero hour when the infantry advance began. The artillery bombardment had not penetrated the dug-outs some 30-40 feet below ground where the Germans waited, and the silence after the mine explosions alerted them to the fact that the attack was imminent. As a result, when the infantry went ‘over the top’, the German machine guns swept no man's land and artillery fire fell on the British trenches.

By the end of that first day, there were nearly 60,000 casualties, 20,000 of whom were killed outright. Survivors crawled back along no man’s land to reach their own trenches, and total chaos reigned. At first the generals thought it was a temporary set-back, only to realise it was the greatest defeat ever suffered by the British army.

The Somme battles continued for several more months, finally ending on November 14th, 1916. By that time, it was estimated that, for an eventual advance of about six miles, the British army had suffered about 400,000 casualties. The combined losses of the British, French and Germans came to over 1,300,000.

Today the Somme battlefield has reverted to the peaceful French countryside, and it is not easy to imagine the sheer hell it must have been in 1916.

Here’s Hawthorn Ridge, where that enormous mine exploded.

A few miles away is the Lochnager Crater, where 60,000lbs of explosives were detonated at 7.20am on July1st. The explosion thrust earth and rocks to rise about 4,000 feet in the air, and it was reported that it was heard and felt even in London. The crater is 300 feet across and 90 feet deep. Look for the two people at the top of the path leading from the bottom of the crater (in the upper middle part of this photo), and you’ll get an idea of the size.

The gravestones here mark the trench held by the Devonshire Regiment on July 1st. They suffered heavy losses when they advanced from this front line trench and later that day the survivors buried their comrades here, and marked it with a wooden cross, saying, “The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still.”

Near the village of Beaumont Hamel, you can still see the remains of the trenches. This photo shows the front line trenches, and the people in the photo are walking across what would have been No Man’s Land towards the German front line (under the trees in the distance)

At Thiepval, there is a memorial to the missing of the Somme, which contains the names of over 73,000 soldiers killed on this area between 1915 and 1917 who have no known graves.

On a personal note, less than two years after the battle of the Somme, my great-uncle was killed in this area of Northern France, on March 21st 1918, when the Germans launched their spring offensive against the British. His grave is in a small war cemetery just outside the village of Templeux-le- Guerard. He died just six months before his twenty-first birthday.As far as we know, my daughter and I were the first members of his family to visit his grave (in 2009).

Monday, 21 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - River Rhine

I first saw the Rhine when I was 15 when I was with a school group, travelling to a town in Westphalia on an exchange visit. As our train left Cologne Station, it crossed a wide bridge over the river, which runs over 800 miles from the Swiss Alps through Germany and the Netherlands to the North Sea near Rotterdam.
 
Since then I have seen the Rhine countless times, including at Arnhem, where British paratroopers struggled, but failed, to capture the bridge...
Arnhem - 'A Bridge Too Far'
 
...and at Remagen where American forces captured the important railway bridge which was destroyed by the German forces 10 days later, but not before the Allies had been able to establish a bridgehead on the east side of the river (the arrows on the photo show the bridge towers on the east)
.
 
 
The part of the Rhine with which I’m most familiar is the Rhine gorge, between Koblenz and Rudesheim, where the river flows between wooded hillsides, often with vineyard terraces, and in some places between steep cliffs.
 
Small villages nestle at the foot of the hills, and above many of them are the Rhine castles, built by kings, barons and bishops during the Middle Ages. This castle is known as Mouse Castle (officially Thurnberg Castle) built by the Elector of Trier in the 14th century to protect his newly acquired territory. At the same time, one his rivals, the Count of Katzenelnbogen built a castle on an adjoining hillside, which of course became known as Cat Castle.

And here’s something you don’t see every day – a church attached to a bar. Evidently it was once a monastery, but now you have to go through the bar to reach the church, and the priest serves in the bar when not attending to his other duties!

 
One of the most famous sights along the Rhine is the Lorelei, a steep cliff that juts out into the river. Legend has it that a siren sat on top, and lured sailors to their deaths on the rocks below.
 
The Rhine is a working river, and at any time of day or night, you can see the long barges sailing up or down stream, laden with many different cargoes. There are also many cruise ships, both large and small.
 
To end with another R, Rudesheim, at the southern end of the Rhine gorge, is a popular tourist town, especially the Drosselgasse, a narrow lane in the centre of the old town, famed for its bars and restaurants, most with their own live 'bierhaus' bands.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Quick trip to (and in) Paris

This is cheating slightly, but the only place beginning with Q that I’ve visited was in Canada, and I’m trying to stay in Europe for these posts.

So we’ll take a quick trip to some places in Paris and start with my favourite, Notre Dame Cathedral. There’s a slightly spooky story attached to this. When I was about fifteen (before I ever visited Paris), I had a dream that I was walking along a street in Paris, with three or four storey buildings either side. When the buildings ended on my left, I turned and saw the huge façade of Notre Dame in front of me. That’s all that I remember from the dream but for some reason it stuck in my mind.

My first visit to Paris was about four years later. I was with a friend who had lived in Paris for about a year (during her gap year), and we were due to meet with some friends of hers at a café near Notre Dame. We caught the metro to Ile de la Cite, and when we came out into a narrow street, she said, ‘Come on, it’s this way.’ I knew immediately that Notre Dame was the other way although I had no map and we couldn’t see any part of the cathedral from where we were. Afterwards my friend said I was so insistent that she had to follow me! You’ve guessed it, of course. We turned into the street that I’d dreamt about and came out in front of Notre Dame. One of those strange experiences that I can’t explain.

Whenever I go to the Musee d’Orsay, which was originally a train station, I can’t help but remember this photo of an ‘Oops’ moment. This happened at the Garde l’Ouest, not the Gare D’Orsay, but the stations are somewhat similar, architecturally.

Since 1986, the Musee d’Orsay has housed what is now the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art in the world. It is a huge gallery, on four floors, but I always make a bee-line to the galleries with the paintings of Monet and Van Gogh.


I first saw all the Impressionist paintings when they were housed in the Jeu de Paume, which was originally a court for playing the ‘palm’ game, a precursor of tennis but played without racquets. The game started to be played with racquets from the 1600’s.

The Jeu de Palme is at the edge of the Tuileries Gardens, near the Place de la Concorde, and was used during World War II to store Nazi plundered art treasures from French Jewish families. Some of this art found its way into Goring’s and Hitler’s collections, but the so-called ‘degenerate art’ (modern art) was sold to other art collectors in Europe to raise funds for the Reich. The museum’s curator, Rose Valland, kept a secret list of items that were sold, and after the war a lot of these works were returned to their rightful owners. George Clooney’s recent movie, The Monuments Men, is based partly on Rose Valland’s work.

My last stop in this quick tour of Paris is Montmartre. I love the narrow streets that wind up to the top of the Martyrs’ Mount, where the Sacre Coeur basilica looks out over the city, and from where you get a fabulous view.

Near to Sacre Coeur is the Place du Tertre, a haven for artists who charge tourists exorbitant prices to make quick sketches or caricatures of them. Although it’s pleasant to sit at one of the tables in the square, you’ll probably pay double the usual price there for a glass of  wine or a cup of coffee!

All around this area are ‘living statues’ – people dressed in white, silver, or gold robes, who stay motionless for hours. We’d passed one statue several times. He was in gold from head to toe, even his face was painted gold, and he didn’t move a fraction – until I happened to slip on some wet cobblestones and went crashing to the ground. The 'statue' immediately leapt off his plinth and rushed to help me up. So that was the first (and only) time I was ‘picked up’ by a statue! Sadly, neither I or my daughter had the presence of mind to take a photo of him, but he looked something like this.
 
And finally, because no trip to Paris would be complete for me without this, here is my favourite café - Le Depart, in the Place Saint Michel - a perfect place to sit in the evening and people watch!

Friday, 18 April 2014

A - Z Blogging Challenge - Provence

Today I’ll take you on a tour of Provence, in the south of France.

We stayed at Aix-en-Provence, originally a spa town, Aquae Sextiae, founded by the Romans. It has a labyrinth of small alleyways, squares and fountains – it’s known as the City of a Thousand Fountains- as well as a wide boulevard, the Cours Mirabeau, which is lined with plane trees, and also with shops and cafes.

On our first day, we had a drive out to Montagne Saint Victoire, famous because of its appearance in many of the paintings by Paul Cezanne, who was born and lived in Aix.

Day Two was a trip through the Camargue region, the wide delta of the River Rhone, now a National Park, and famous for its white horses, black bulls and pink flamingos. We didn't see any horses, and only saw the flamingos from a distance, but we did see the bulls.

From here we continued to Arles, one of my favourite Provencal cities. The first stop was at the huge Roman amphitheatre, which can seat over 20,000 spectators, who flocked to chariot  races in Romans, and nowadays to concerts and plays, as well as the bull-fighting festivals in April and September.

After this, it was a time for a long cold drink – and where better than in the square overlooked by Van Gogh’s Café Terrace de Nuit. Van Gogh lived in Arles for about two years and produced over 200 paintings during that time.

On our third day we headed into the Luberon Mountains, stopping at some of the small villages which cling to the hillsides.

Roussillon is situated on the world’s biggest vein of ochre rock. The cliffs all around ranged from gold to deep orange, and the houses in the small village all have ochre walls of varying shades.

Gordes, perched high on a rocky outcrop, has a castle built in the 12th century. From its terrace, there is a wonderful view of the valleys below and the Vaucluse mountains in the distance.

Our last day in Provence included a visit to the awesome Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct built in the 1st century, the highest and one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts. It originally carried over 44 million gallons of water each day to the fountains, public baths, and homes in the city of Nimes.

Our final visit of the tour was to the city of Avignon. I’ve stayed here several times, notably once during the annual Avignon Festival in July, when there are shows, plays, concerts etc in various venues, plus ‘fringe’ events – or you can sit at a café in the main square all day and you’ll be entertained by a variety of street theatre performers.

The Papal Palace in Avignon dates from the 14th century when seven successive Popes were based there instead of in Rome.


Equally famous, because of the folk song Sur le pont d’Avignon, is the bridge, although now only four of the original 13th century 22 arches remain. The rest were either swept away in a catastrophic flood in 1669, or gradually collapsed.

I’ll finish this short tour of Provence with some photos of typical Provencal scenery – sunflowers, lavender, and vineyards.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Oberammergau

Oberammergau would probably have remained an obscure Bavarian village if it hadn’t been for an event in the 17th century. In 1633, the inhabitants of the village vowed that if God spared them from the effects of the bubonic plague ravaging the neighbouring area, they would produce a play thereafter for all time depicting the life and death of Jesus. The death rate in the village dropped from 20 a month in March 1633, to only one death in July. Believing that their prayers had been answered, the villagers performed their first play in 1634, but when this became too expensive, they decided to perform it every 10 years, in years that ended in zero. Now the village is packed with tourists every 10 years, and many visit in the intervening years too.

Since its first performance the play has been performed in the open air. Originally, this was in the parish churchyard, but the fame of the play travelled fast, and people flocked to Oberammergau from the surrounding towns and villages. When the churchyard became too small to contain all the visitors, a new venue was found in a nearby field, and a temporary stage was constructed. In 1890 a purpose-built theatre was constructed. The stage is still in the open-air, but the seating area, with room for 4,000 spectators, is covered. That was perhaps as well because on my visit to Oberammergau, it started to rain during the first half. We were kept dry, but the performers on the stage gradually became more and more bedraggled. Fortunately, by the end (almost 5 hours later, and including a short break for lunch), the sun came out.
 
Only natives of Oberammergau are allowed to perform, and almost half the population of the town take part in the play, about 2,000 in total. One result of this is that almost every shop in the town has photos of the owner taking part in the play, with large signs saying ‘I played Judas in 1990’ etc. On one occasion, we were chatting to the proprietor of one of the hotels in the town, and he proudly announced that he had played Jesus in 1950 and1960, while his father played Pilate and his son played Judas.
 
The village is also famous for its woodcarvings, and for the Lüftlmalerei, or frescoes, of traditional Bavarian themes, fairy tales, or religious scenes on many homes and buildings.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A-Z Blogging Challenge - Normandy

This will be a whistle-stop tour of some of the places I’ve visited in Normandy, in the north of France, during my several visits to the area.

Caen, now capital of the Basse-Normandie region, was William the Conqueror’s city, and the castle he built there has been restored following the damage it suffered during World War II. It now contains the Museum of Normandy and the Museum of Fine Arts. The Abbaye des Hommes was the final resting place of William the Conqueror but his grave was destroyed by the Calvinists in the 16th century.

Not far from Caen is the town of Bayeux. Its main claim to fame (and the reason for most tourist visits) is the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066. Tapestry is the wrong word, as it is actually an embroidered cloth, 22feet long (68m) and 1.6 wide (0.5m). French legend says that Odo, bishop of Bayeux (and Duke William’s half-brother), commissioned the tapestry and that it was created by William’s wife, Mathilde, and her maid-servants. However, various other theories exist, and many historians now think it was designed and created by Anglo-Saxon embroiderers in England.

Moving forward in history brings us to Rouen, the capital of Haute-Normandie, at one time the capital of Anglo-Norman dynasty. Edward IV, king of England in the 15th century, was born in Rouen in 1442. Eleven years earlier, Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake in the city.






Rouen’s Cathedral is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture, and several famous people are buried here, including Rollo, the Viking founder of the principality that became known as Normandy. There is also a tomb that contains the heart of Richard the Lionheart (the rest of him is buried at Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon).
 
In the 20th century, the Normandy landings in June 1944, led to the liberation of Normandy from the Germans, and two months later, to the liberation of France, and within a year, the defeat of Germany.There are still many reminders of the battles which took place in the summer of 1944. At Arromanches, you can still see the remains of the ‘Mulberry’ (artificial) harbours,built by the Allies to facilitate the unloading of cargo during the invasion of Normandy. Prefabricated in Britain, they were towed across the English Channel. Arromanches also has a museum dedicated to the invasion.
Remains of Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches

Further west the coast was the area designated as ‘Omaha Beach’, one of the five sectors of the invasion, where American troops attacked to secure a beachhead linking two of the other sectors (Gold and Utah). The defences were unexpectedly strong and the American forces sustained heavy losses during the landing and the fighting that followed. The Normandy American Cemetery was created on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, and contains the remains of nearly 10,000 American service personnel, most of whom were killed during the Normandy invasion. The names of a further 1,500 of the missing are shown on the walls surrounding the garden near the main memorial. The cemetery was shown at the beginning of Spielberg’s movie, Saving Private Ryan.