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In the Footsteps of Heroes

A journey to explore Saltby's role in World War II

 

In July 2018 a small group of Saltby residents travelled to Normandy to visit sites associated with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the American 82nd Airbourne, the paratroop unit that took off in Dakota transport aircraft on the night of 5 June to fly across to Normandy in support of the greatest seabourne invasion in history.

 

Plenty of book work and internet research before hand had prepared us for our visit factually, but nothing could prepare us for the emotional impact of seing where the young men who took off from Saltby fought and lost their lives in the cause of freedom.

 

You can see footage taken just before D Day as they prepared at Saltby. In military terms this is called "bombing up", the process of picking up amunition and supplies before heading off to battle.

Our trip first took us to Saint Maire Eglise, the famous town South of Cherbourg which was first to be liberated on D Day. Men from the 508th were mixed up here with men from a number of other units of the 82nd and 101st US Airbourne.

 

The museum was outstanding, with many items relating directly to the 508th - strange to look at a piece of uniform, a weapon or simple piece of domestic kit like a knife and fork and know that it had taken off with one of the men from Saltby.

 

One particularly touching item was a case containing two parts of a torn dollar bill. This bank note was divided in three by three squad leaders from H Company of the 508th - most probably at their base camp in Nottingham just before they took off from Saltby. Each man retained his portion with the plan of reuiniting the bill after the battle. Sadly only two parts remain as one of the three, Bill Farmer, was killed on D Day. The two remaining parts were reunited in 1983 at a veteran's convention in Oregon.

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Interestingly, one of the exhibits is this C47 Dakota, painted in the colours of one of the planes of the 314th Troop Carrier Group of the US Air Force based at Satby

From here we drove the short distance to La Fiere, now a tranquil spot overlooking a trout filled river spanned by a stone bridge, but on 6 June 1944 perhaps the hottestly contested stretch of ground off the main invasion beaches.

 

Here men of the 508th and other American paratroop units fought off a number of strong German counter attacks, the bridge and associated causeway being vital for the Allies to break out from the coast and for the Germans to attack in force the landing Armies of the Americans, British and Canadians.

 

At one point the Paratroops had to sprint 600m along an exposed causeway, under heavy German fire - a feat commemorated in a number of touching memorials on the shallow rise overlooking the river and bridge.

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The torn Dollar bill shared between three friends before they left for D Day.

Only two returned.

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The Church at Saint Maire eglise, made famouse in the film about D Day, "The Longest Day" where a paratrooper gets hung up on the bell tower - a real event commemorated by a dummy parachutist even today.

The bridge at La Fiere where members of the 508th and other units fought a desprate action to secure the river crossing - a battle now referred to as "The Bloodiest Small Unit Struggle in the Experience of American Arms”.

 

See more info here.

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The "Iron Mike" memorial at La Fiere

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Two of the memorials. at La Fiere. Above, the plaque commemorating the 336 men of the 508th who lost their lives in the D Day landings - men who's last moments of peace and safety were at Saltby.

 

Left a memorial to all of the units involved in the fight to keep hold of La Fiere.

From La Fiere we travelled to explore other areas further up the coast toward Bayeux, including the Canadian and British areas and sites, including the Merville Battery and Pegasus Bridge.

 

In all, our three days exploring the D Day batlefields was an informative and thought provoking experience.

 

Two of our party were younger than the men who flew from Saltby and subsequently fought and died in Normandy and for the rest of us it was sobering to think that we have seen so much life that 336 of the 508th never got to experience.

 

There is no doubt that next time we see the flags flying at the memorial on the airfield we'll remember the young men of the 508th who gave their lives in the cause of freedom and we felt humbled to have "walked in the footsteps of heroes".