Walking Our War Graves: Normandy - The halfway point

Our intrepid Walking Our War Graves: Normandy participant and Commonwealth War Graves staff member Alec Malloy gives us an update on his progress at the halfway stage.

Walking Our War Graves: Normandy

The story so far…

Alec MalloyImage: Alec, our roving reporter for this year's Walking Our War Graves: Normandy challenge.

Since the start of May, I’ve been out rambling the highways and byways of Berkshire as I tackle the Walking Our War Graves: Normandy virtual challenge.

My main goal is to raise money for the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation. 

The CWGF team do incredible work promoting the work of Commonwealth War Graves as well as keeping alive the stories and memories of those who fell in the World Wars.

Not only that but there’s a family connection to the Normandy Campaign. My Grandfather was one of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers to come ashore in the days after D-Day. 

A terrible, awful shot, Grandad was no marksman, so was assigned as runner. He was tasked with relaying messages between HQ and the front when other means of communication weren’t working.

It was a difficult, dangerous job and as Second World War history enthusiasts know, Normandy was one deadly place in June 1944. 

Grandad was lucky enough to survive the war. He was also in Arnhem later in the war. I don’t think he was involved in Operation Market Garden, so he must 
have been there during later operations. 

Sadly, many of Grandad’s comrades who fought in the Battle of Normandy never made it home. By the end of the campaign in August 1944, over 20,000 Commonwealth servicemen had been killed.

Walking Our War Graves: Normandy gave me the opportunity to pay tribute to these men, but also put myself in Grandad’s shoes when he was there, at the Battle of Normandy, some 80 years ago.

Making up the distance 

The Copper Horse Windsor on a Sunny Day

Image: Windsor Great Park's famous copper horse. The Great Park has its own connection with the Second World War

Where I live in the south of England means I have plenty of the beautiful Berkshire countryside to roam around in.

Ok, a lot of my Walking Our War Graves distance has indeed been covered in the area round my home. While there are some nice green spots here and there, the area isn’t necessarily the most picturesque location.

For some of my longer walks, I was determined to get out into the green lanes and open rolling ground east Berkshire offers in abundance.

Not only are these paths and footways a feast for the eyes, with all the lush greenery of late spring and early summer out in all its verdant goodness, but some of the countryside bears a resemblance to Normandy.

When the Allies forces got off the beaches and secured their landing zones, inland Normand awaited. 

The ancient countryside, known as the “bocage”, is still a patchwork of small fields, thick hedgerows, and sunken roads. Studded with towns and villages, Normandy also boasted bumpy hilly ground and marshy areas too. 

Lots to contend with from an Allied perspective! Imagine having to sneak down a sunken road, flanked on both sides by a twisted thicket. Fire could come from anywhere! 

What’s more, each of the small, individual fields of the bocage could be turned into killing zones by simply placing a machine gun in one corner. 

Luckily, I didn’t have any Wehrmacht machine gunners firing on my position as I wended my way through Berkshire’s green and pleasant country lanes.

A country lane thick with greenery and plant lifeImage: A Berkshire country lane. Not quite the Normandy bocage, but close.

But the claustrophobic nature of some paths, wreathed by plant life, did make me wonder how easily ambushes could be set up and how the visibility of the bocage must have been very limited indeed.

Still, the Berkshire bocage as I’ve come to call it has (so far) been a far less deadly place than Normandy circa the summer of 1944.

One of my walks took me to Windsor Great Park. A mix of wide-open fields, high ground, and woodland groves, it’s one of Berkshire’s beauty spots. Windsor Great Park also has a Second World War connection.

During the war, the park was host to a factory dispersal site. Wellington bombers were built at a site within the park. Windsor Great Park also housed troops encamped on Smith’s Lawn while the deer park provided arable land for food.

Windsor Great Park was even hit some 200 times by bombs during the war, including several V-2 bombings.

One of the central attractions of Windsor Great Park is the Copper Horse. The statue of King George III stands at the end of the Long Walk atop a hill, a 2.4-mile long drive leading to Windsor Castle.

On a clear day, you can see Windsor Castle, of course, but much further afield to Slough, Heathrow and even the City of London.

This rammed home the importance of capturing and holding high ground in wartime. You can see pretty much everything from all sides – a huge advantage for anyone at the top. 

Several clashes for important hills were fought during the Normandy Campaign. And when you’re as unfit as me, getting to the top of a hill can be hard enough without carrying your kit up it while someone shooting at you.

Virtual stops in Normandy

Ranville War Cemetery

Image: Ranville War Cemetery, the starting point of this year's Walking Our War Graves: Normandy virtual walk

In case you are unaware, Walking Our War Graves: Normandy is a virtual challenge.

That means for each kilometre I cover in real life, on the ground rambling around Berkshire, I am also covering the same distance on a virtual route through Normandy. Simple!

Along the way, I’ve been hitting virtual milestones that tell the story of the Battle of Normandy through Commonwealth War Graves war cemeteries and memorials.

So far, my virtual trek across Normandy has taken me from Ranville War Cemetery, where some of the earliest casualties of the Normandy Invasion are buried, to Hermanville War Cemetery, Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, Ryes War Cemetery, Bayeux War Cemetery and Tilly-sur-Seulles War Cemetery.

Each of these sites is connected to the story of the Normandy Campaign. Those closest to the Normandy landing beaches show the cost in human life it took to pull off the greatest amphibious assault in history. 

I’m looking forward to reading more stories of those commemorated within as my walk progresses.

The road goes ever on…

At the time of writing, I am currently sitting 24th on the leaders' table with 54.1km under my belt, or should that be walking boots? Anyway, so far, so good!

A sign post pointing out a rambling route next to a thick green hedgerow.Image: More country lane rambles await!

I’m about halfway through with no signs of stopping now. I have some more ideas for some interesting and challenging routes with some connection to the Second World War.

The south of England was an absolute hotbed of frenzied military activity for pretty much the whole Second World War.

The troops embarked for Normandy at ports along the south coast, including Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Southampton, for instance, with staging grounds, camps, and depots littering the countryside from Cornwall to Kent.

Meanwhile, a bit closer to home in south Buckinghamshire, RAF sites were everywhere, including the headquarters of the Photo Reconnaissance Unit. Their spies in the sky snapped massively important intelligence photos from specially designed aircraft. 

At D-Day, it’s said every platoon leader had accurate maps showing enemy force displacement – all thanks to the PRU pilots and photo interpreters.

With 45 or kilometres still to cover, there’s a lot of walking left to do! The question is which routes to take next. White Waltham Airfield, aka RAF White Waltham, is close to our Maidenhead head office. Perhaps it’s time to take a stroll and take in the planes?

The beauty of where I live is the variety in countryside and places to go. I really am spoiled for choice.

Join me for my next update at the end of the month when (fingers crossed) I will have crossed the virtual finish line.

Support the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation today

If you’d like to support Alec on his Walking Our War Graves: Normandy virtual walk, visit his Enthuse page to donate.

All funds raised will go towards supporting the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation. 

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