“That’s a big ass bunker!” To be frank, I am not sure if this utterance was blurted out by one of us at any point. But gawking at the Grand Bunker, this cliche line can’t help but pop into your head. Looking somewhat like a stout 5 storeys apartment building without windows, this whitewashed block of solid concrete has successfully withstood the ravages of war and time.
Various freshly painted war machines guard the impressive bunker, lending it an air of authenticity. “Let’s check these out before going in. And don’t dally too much; we only have about 50 minutes of parking left.”
Obviously, before going in the bunker, the first thing we did was climb into the LCVP (which obviously had a “don’t climb on the vehicle” sign) that sprawls in front of the bunker entrance. Remembering the opening sequences of Saving Private Ryan when the American soldiers were being shot at like fish in a barrel, we tried to find some cover from would be machine-gun fire. We quickly concluded that other than the bodies of fallen comrades (yikes!), the only other possible cover would have been to cram yourself in the scant shelter of the craft’s sides. And if you will check the photo of the LCVP included below, you’ll notice that space is not sufficient to cover an undernourished teenager, let alone an adult in full battle gear. As you reach that conclusion, your respect for the people involved in this titanic struggle increases, as does your fascination: “How were they able to pull it off?”
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings during the Second World War. Perhaps for that reason, everywhere we went, the war and its artefacts seemed to be vividly remembered. Or perhaps the locals realised there is good money to be made from open-mouthed tourists like us. Either way, it’s impossible to drive more than an hour on a Normandy country road without encountering a sign pointing you towards a memorial site, an allied cemetery, a bunker, a museum or some gun battery. Even if we haven’t covered more than 300 kilometres in a whole day, never straying more than 30-40 km away from the coast, there were enough exciting sites to keep an interested tourist busy for days on end. In Normandy, it seems, the second war is a very lucrative business.
We started the morning at an Ibis Hotel in Rouen, enjoying a typical French breakfast that was not included in the price of our room. You can’t break your fast in France without croissants – or you could, but it would be a pity to skip this freshly baked, melt-in-your-mouth pastry – as you shouldn’t skip sampling the selection of French cheeses. Be warned, if you are not a cheese aficionado, some of them will leave a funky, rancid taste in your mouth. As if the taste wouldn’t be enough, the smell of some cheeses can be quite overpowering, as one of my friends offhandedly remarked when he joined the rest of us for breakfast “Which one of you forgot to take a shower this morning?”
Since Rouen itself is a bit off the beaten track when it comes to WW2 sites, Caen would be a much better base of operations in the area. Besides being close to a good number of sites, it hosts one of the best, albeit a tad expensive at 19.80E, modern Second World War museums in this part of Europe. More about that museum in a future article.
Hint: After breakfast we got up in my car and drove away to the first destination. At this point it’s worth mentioning the best way to see all the sites that will be mentioned in the article is by car. There probably are buses or trains that can take you from Caen, for example, to various places but you will waste too much time on them. And even if you find them hassle free, you still won’t be able to see too many things in a day, unless you are getting some sort of tour. If you’re coming from France or the UK, driving your own car shouldn’t be a problem; just remember to take one or two alcohol testers, as it’s mandatory to have them in the car in France. Otherwise I suggest car renting. I usually use this site for my renting needs, as it allows you to quickly compare many companies and offers.
The Batterie de Merville, part of the German Wall of the Atlantic, was one of the first items on the list. Not only on our sightseeing list but on the list of objectives that had to be captured on D-Day. That’s because it was believed (falsely) that the artillery stationed here can threaten the British Sword beach.
The first thing that strikes you on arrival besides the well-marked road and very orderly car park is the stark, plain concrete wall embossed with the words Batterie de Merville. Whoever picked this design was quite inspired, as the bared concrete lends the place an air of studied grimness that works quite well for a site where human lives were lost. Add that grimness to the chill morning air and sharp coastal winds and you’d be as grateful as we were to enter the warm, welcoming ticket office that doubled as a souvenir shop.
For the admittance price of 8 euros, you get to see plenty of interesting things. Right after the entrance and visible from the main road, a majestic Dakota transport aircraft shows you just how far we’ve got in terms of flying machines in the last 75 years. Imagining being aboard this rickety contraption while being shot by flak fire is enough to make any man a bit queasy.
As you make steady progress along the museum path, you’ll notice the casemates which would have housed the heavy artillery. Nowadays they host dioramas, memorabilia and mini-theatres instead of canons. The items displayed herein are not numerous, but the ones that are there usually had a story behind them, like the knife carried by one paratrooper for the duration of the campaign in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. I find that attaching a small personal story to such items makes them much more interesting than a simple, unremarkable museum piece.
One of our goals was to spend as little time in the car as possible and to have time to visit various sites. As such we always picked the closest attraction that we could visit. Let me assure you, that’s a piece of cake. In Normandy, a cursory search for relevant WW2 sites on Google Maps renders more red dots on your screen than there are on the face of a teenager undergoing puberty.
The Pegasus Bridge was one of these close-by sites. At 7 kilometres and 10 minutes driving away from the Merville Batteries, it can’t get more convenient than that. Like the Merville Batteries, it was one of the important targets to be hit on the night of the 5th of June 1944. And hit it they did, quite successfully too, given they only had two casualties. One of the poor men drowned in a pond and the other had the dubious achievement of being the first allied soldier to be killed by enemy fire on D-Day.
As this location didn’t seem to require too much time to visit, we just dropped the car on a nearby street and emerged again in the windy, gloomy morning. The nearby museum that hosts among various pieces the original bridge — the current bridge is a replacement from 1994 — comes highly recommended. I sincerely wish we knew that when we were there since we decided to skip this museum and go for lunch instead.
For the regular tourist — meaning someone whose speciality is not bridge-building — the new bridge looks and works pretty much like the old one, despite being some 4 meters longer. A war-era canon still guards one of the approaches to the bridge while on the other side of the water, chic cafes and a huge souvenir shop are waiting for tourists. After the mandatory walk along the bridge and a quick visit to the well-stocked souvenir shop, we decided it’s probably a good idea not to become hangry and went in search of sustenance. Which was probably for the best, as it allowed the cloud cover to melt away while we attacked some greasy and rather bland KFC chicken.
The Grand Bunker is even closer to the Pegasus Bridge than the Merville Batteries were. Or it would have been hadn’t we had to drive away to find a fast-food restaurant. If you are planning a visit to the area remember all 3 sites can be visited in just one day, even by bike or on foot.
The bunker is found in the gorgeous city of Ouistreham, tucked away a couple of streets away from the water-front. Plenty of affordable parking spaces await you in the area. After dropping the car, we hastily made our way to the bunker, leaving beach-frolicking for another time. Since we still had plenty of things to see, I only paid for 1 hour of parking.
In terms of content and presentation, I’d rank Le Grand Bunker right there in my top three next to the museum of the American cemetery at Omaha Beach and the Caen war museum. But even more than those places, the Grand Bunker has the advantage that it’s, well, the real deal. Not only that, but the admission price was more than fair, at 7.50 Euros.
Inside the Bunker, on each floor, various rooms of this war-ecosystem are perfectly recreated: the armoury, the sickbay, the radio room, etc. To top it all off (literally), on the last floor of the Bunker, there is an observation deck complete with a large range-finding scope. The scope would have been used to get distances to incoming ships for accurate cannon fire. From this deck, iron rungs embedded in the concrete wall led the way to the roof, where an artillery piece would have been housed.