A very rushed start to the rally this year. Some personal business... as well as some last minute key cutting (just in case!) meant that we were only just in time to arrive pass scrutineering (involving weighing the car this year...2700Kg!!) and decorate the car before being ushered forward to the start line.
We were grateful for the presence of some previous rally members who have other things planned this year, as well as Catherineís god son Andrew Somers. As we actually crossed the start line, a great crowd of people were waving and cheering... it was fab, thanks for a great send off folks.
30 seconds later, the work started in earnest. Catherine was calling out distances, junction types and directions, looking for landmarks for a photo challenge and reading the rule book... to make sure we didnít miss out on any potential point scoring (unlike last year!!). All this with one eye thanks to a bit of an eye infection.
I on the other hand calmly carried out her orders without error or misunderstanding... thatís my story and Iím sticking to it!
First stop was H4H HQ in Tidworth where teas, coffees, pasties and cakes were on the go as well as the chance to wander round THE most inspirational office I have ever seen. Every wall is covered with pictures of people who have been helped, volunteers and celebrities involved in the H4H family.
Before long we were back on the road heading generally South towards Portsmouth and the next checkpoint at Southwick Hose, the Defence Police College (Military & RAF Police) but what was the allied invasion HQ where Eisenhower, Churchill and the other commanders made the decision to go on the small with the invasion on the 6th of June 1944 during a very small weather window. We were treated to a fabulous presentation using the actual D-Day wall map frozen in time to the start of the landings.
Final stop for Day 1 was the dock at Portsmouth and a visit from a very nice Dominos Delivery team, with a pizza for each vehicle... must have been hell with all those boxes on the back of the scooter! Before long we were loaded onto the boat and in our cabin for the overnight journey.
Day 2 dawns with some very polite alarm music that you CANíT switch off in the cabin, a swift shower then down to the vehicles and suddenly we are in France. Just outside Caen (where we docked) is Pegasus Bridge Museum, containing the original bridge fought for in the very early hours of D-Day in an effort to ensure good communication links across the canals in the area.
Some years ago the local authorities put in place pans to replace the original bridge with a lovely modern concrete structure; however, the populace were not happy with this and fought successfully for a replica of the original to be built. The original was left nearby and after a little while the funds for a museum were made available.
The rest of the day is spent touring the coast of Normandy visiting some of the key beaches and battle sites while ultimately ending up at campsite one and a well deserved barbecue.
Our last day in Normandy was filled by visiting the remaining beaches and battle sites further West of Caen, including Omaha beach, the HUGE American cemetery and St Mere Eglise, a key town in the area sat at a cross roads important to the allied advance.
The 82nd & 101st US Airborne Infantry were dropped on targets in this area but their drops were disrupted by anti-aircraft fire and bad weather. One stick of airborne dropped into the centre of St Mere Eglise, some landing in the square in the laps of German forces, who killed them. One lucky man is Private John Steel, whose chute was caught on one of the decorative stone protrusions on the church tower. He hung there for two hours pretending to be dead before being captured by the Germans and taken prisoner. He survived the war and to this day, a model of Private John Steel still hangs from the church tower in the town.
We took a detour from the road book in the afternoon to go and see Pont Du Hoc, the location of an artillery battery that was recognised as a threat to the D-Day beaches further East. On the morning of D-Day, US Rangers landed on the beaches below the battery and climbed the cliffs to attack the battery. The Germans were dug in well and the Rangers took many casualties, only to discover the guns had been moved further back and were safe from their attack. As part of the assault, Pont Du Hoc came under sustained naval gun fire turning the ground into a moonscape of craters and mud. This landscape remains to this day.
The first of the long days with a 300 mile trip to cover. Some long motorway sections brought the rally to the area of Ypres and the Somme, otherwise known as ďThe Bloody Fields of FlandersĒ. The route zig zagged across the countryside along narrow roads and byways past literally hundreds of small cemeteries tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Each is built to the same basic shape and layout but varies in size but the common theme is each is immaculate.
There are many small memorials in the area to individual Regiments and Battalions and the last major stop of the day was at Lochnagar Crater. This crater is the result of an effort by the Royal Engineers to undermine the German trenches, create a massive underground bomb and detonate it. A whole series of such mines were created along the front, all of which were detonated at the same time. With a diameter of approximately 300ft (91 metres) and a depth of 70ft (21 metres) it remains the largest crater ever made by man in anger.
The last event of the day was a visit en-masse to the Menin Gate in Ypres, where the local fire brigade have since the creation of the gate (a monument to the men who were lost and never found, as opposed to those who were recovered and buried) at 8pm carried out a ceremony of remembrance, the same as that carried out on remembrance Sunday. A moving ceremony and a group of the children taking part in the rally were privileged enough o get the opportunity to lay a wreath as part of the ceremony.
Who knows... ultimately Arnhem and a fabulous campsite... but what tricks and turnings will the devious Dick Dastardly and Mutley (Keith & Tim Price Bowen) have in store?!
The story continues... in the morning!