Ryder Notes: D-Day
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The ferry to Le Mans had changed. Instead of the usual trip to Le Havre, the route now went to Cherbourg, a good deal further west but equidistant from Le Mans. We thought no more about it, got on for the overnight crossing, spent too long in the bar, and were spat out onto French soil at an extremely uncivilised hour in the morning. Now this was 1984 and I was riding a Suzuki XN85 on long-term loan from the British importer—usually a sign they couldn’t sell any. The bike was a dud, like every other Japanese turbo, with the possible exception of the Kawasaki. All of them were answers in search of a question. The XN looked great, felt underpowered and drank fuel, which is why not many miles after I left Cherbourg I found myself looking for a fuel station.
It felt as familiar as the roofline of the stands on Le Mans’ front straight leading up to the Dunlop bridge. But I knew for sure I’d never been in this place before in my life.
The westerly reaches of the A13 are not well-blessed with service stations, so after what seemed like far too long on reserve I took the next exit and rolled into what looked like a typical small town. It was dark, not even a cafe was open, so I lit a cigarette (one of the vices I waved goodbye to years ago) and settled down to wait. A couple of ciggies later, dawn started to break, revealing a roofline that seemed familiar, a squat church with a short, rectangular tower topped by a pyramidal roof, looking over a small tree-lined square. It felt as familiar as the roofline of the stands on Le Mans’ front straight leading up to the Dunlop bridge. But I knew for sure I’d never been in this place before in my life.

At this point I actually noticed the cafe I was sitting outside. It was called the Cafe de 6 Juin 1944—D-Day. Ok, I’m in Normandy and the invasion beaches were all in the bay between Caen and Le Havre, so that’s not really a surprise, every town in the area must have a similarly named establishment. It got a little lighter, I saw the church more clearly and suddenly John Wayne as Lt Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment is yelling “Get those boys down!” in my ear. I am in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. I smoked my last remaining cigarette.

Most men my age in the UK can probably recite the script of The Longest Day, Darryl F Zanuck’s 1962 epic film of the events of D-Day. The scenes in Sainte-Mere-Eglise show American paratroops dropped away from their planned landing zone and suffering horrible losses as they descend, lethally illuminated by fires, on the small town. Many were hung up on trees and buildings, most famously John Steele (Red Buttons in the film) who dangled from the church tower for 45 minutes before being taken prisoner. He’d survived by playing dead, and later escaped to rejoin his comrades. Today a dummy paratrooper hangs from the church tower to commemorate his ordeal.

The Longest Day is one of those films that every actor you’ve ever heard of appears in some time, including a young Sean Connery. However, Richard Burton’s five minutes towards the end of the film as a badly wounded RAF pilot is unforgettable: “Don’t worry, Yank…” More recently, I learned something else that moved me profoundly. The Irish actor Richard Todd plays an officer of the glider-born troops who were the first to land on D-Day. Todd parachuted in a little later and actually met the man he played at Pegasus Bridge. The Parachute Regiment beret he wears in the film is the one that Todd wore on D-Day and in the subsequent fighting in Europe.

The cafe must have opened as must the local gas station, but I don’t remember anything about them. Under a kilometer after i rejoined the A13, a neon-lit 24/7 service station appeared. I am profoundly grateful I didn’t know it was there.
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