MonthJuly 2013

Vimy Ridge

On the way back to London from Normandy, we stopped by the Canadian Memorial in Vimy Ridge.  The Battle of Vimy Ridge occurred in April 1917, and it was a major military success for Canada during the First World War. It was also the first time that the four Canadian divisions in Europe fought together during the war.

On the highest point of the ridge stands the memorial. On the base of the memorial, the names of the Canadian soldiers who were missing/presumed dead are inscribed.

One of the strategic purposes of this area (so called Hill 145) was that it served as a vantage point.

One of the strategies during World War I was the use of trenches to defend against enemy attack. Some of the trench networks have been preserved.

The tour guide explained that the trench networks are not perfectly straight because if an enemy force were to attack the trench, neither side could have perfect line of sight through the entire trench line.  At the same time, the height of the trench in the rear is slightly lower so that artillery shells may glide over, rather than bouncing off the trench wall and landing in the trench.

Looking out of the trench, one can see the so-called “No man’s land“. Neither side could freely move here without danger of getting fired upon. This area was once littered with mines, barbed wire, and corpses among other things. Repeated artillery bombardment and mine detonations created large craters in the terrain, which are still visible today. An electric fence still blocks the way into the no man’s land since there are still live mines here today.

The Canadian divisions transported personell and supplies through an underground tunnel, which a part of is also preserved. During the war, it was also way darker than shown in the picture and also infested by critters like rats. It was also quite common for some soldiers to sleep here.

For reference, this is what the battlefield looked like at the time (courtesy of Wikipedia).  It is pretty hard to see the resemblance between the historical pictures and what it looks like today.  Part of the reason is also that only a portion of the battlefield was preserved and the rest of it was redeveloped.

In Social Studies class in high school, I had learned about this place and its significance to Canada. I had seen a lot of World War II sites during my time in Europe, but this is one of the few times where I see a site related to World War I.

Link to the Vimy Ridge photo album

Normandy Part II

Our tour lasted a whole day and we got to see a lot of the sights attributed to America’s part during the Battle of Normandy. There were other tours that took visitors to the British and Canadian beaches as well, but we didn’t have time for those.

Sainte-Mère-Église

Quite a lot of fighting happened in this town during the Battle of Normandy. As a tribute to the paratroopers, there is now a model of a hanging paratrooper on the side of the church.

This place was also featured as a mission in the Call of Duty Series and here too I could see a lot of resemblance.

Museum of the Airborne

This museum is dedicated to the paratroopers during the Battle of Normandy. The biggest exhibit there was the C-47, the plane that the paratroopers flew in before they dropped.

The museum is situated just outside the church in the city centre.

La Fière

The guide explained that at the time, during the Battle of Normandy, the water level was much higher and the bridge was the only way across the river. The American paratroopers withstood fierce German counterattacks before they finally defended the bridge successfully.

As always, there is a monument of some sort.

Utah Beach

This was probably one of the beaches with the lightest amount of fighting, relatively as opposed to Omaha beach.  The bunkers here are also gone just like at Omaha.

Here’s a pretty artistic shot of a Flak 88 and the horizon.

Angoville-au-Plain

This church was a field hospital during the Battle of Normandy. The guide said the church was built around 425 AD, but other sources say its from the 12th century.

In the church, there are still some scars from the fighting. In particular, there is a patched up hole from where a mortar shell once dropped. It seems it was stuck in the ceiling and never exploded.

Some of the church pews still have blood stains on them.

Driving Back to London

On the way back to London, we stopped at the Canadian World War I memorial at Vimy Ridge. After that, we drove back to France. At the border, the British border guard gave us such a hard time. She kept asking questions like, “why are you travelling?”, “where are you getting the money for this trip?”, “what do you do for a living?”, etc. I didn’t think we looked that suspicious.

When we first drove to France, Edward drove for most of it, but on the way back, I wanted to try driving in London just to see what it felt like. Every moment of the drive was quite stressful for me.

The weird part was that because the lanes are narrower, the driver almost always naturally leans to the left side of the lane and the left side mirror is over the lane divider.  Through construction sites, we’d drive past the orange traffic cones and if those were a tad bit taller, the mirror would have hit them.  We both ran up the curb a few times during the drive too. Luckily, we returned the car in one piece and without and scratches or dents.

Links to photo albums:

Normandy Part I

After one day in London, we rented a car to drive to Normandy.  We departed from Central London, just outside the congestion zone.  That was probably the busiest part of London we had to drive on.  Neither of us had ever driven on the left side before.  The lanes are at least a foot narrower than in Vancouver.  Bikers and motorcyclists constantly ride between other cars and cut in front of us on both sides.  Street sides are always on the side of buildings and not clearly laid out.  Traffic signs are different too.  Drivers are a lot more aggressive when asserting themselves on the road.  That’s what we had to deal with as people who drive without this stress in North America.  Still, we made it to our destination (unlike the last time I tried to go to Normandy).

We took the Euro Tunnel crossing into France.  It is an underground train that cars can board that takes commuters across the English Channel.  It only took about 20 minutes and it departed from Folkestone to Calais.

The drive into Normany is quite nice too. We were a bit sad that the car’s (Volkswagen Golf TDI) top speed was only 180 km/h though (we tested that).

Our hotel was in Caen, and in the next morning we drove to Bayeux to meet the tour group. Our tour guide was a native from Normandy who used to serve in the French military. He knew quite a lot of the history behind the Battle of Normandy, so he was a really great guide.

When I got out of the car, I could immediately feel my allergies acting up.  Within a few minutes, my nose was extremely plugged and my eyes were itchy.  Worst of all, I left my medicine at the hotel.  My allergies stayed with me for the entire day.  It was the worst allergic reaction I’ve had in recent memory.

Longues-sur-Mer Battery

The first stop were the gun batteries at Longues-sur-Mer. It was part of Germany’s Atlantic Wall coastal fortifications.

The line of batteries were just situated on a large grass field.  There wasn’t really anything else in the area other than other bunkers that were part of the fortification.

Omaha Beach

I was surprised to see that the bunkers at Omaha Beach had all been taken away. Apparently the locals disposed of them since they didn’t want to keep such structures from their foes to stay.

The guide explained that the attack on D-Day began while the beach was at high tide, which meant the soldiers had to wade through more water than they would have during low tide. This meant the soldiers were slower and had a greater danger of drowning. Because of this, the American forces that invaded took heavy casualties. The guide also mentioned that a huge factor that caused the Germans to lose the battle was that they were running out of ammunition after killing so many attackers.  The water ran red for days.

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Many soldiers who died during the Battle of Normandy are buried here. The fallen soldiers’ next of kin were given a choice as to whether the burial would take place in the US, or overseas.

The site was quite large. It probably took about 10-15 minutes to walk from one side to the other.

Pointe du Hoc

During the battle, the soldiers had to scale these cliffs just to get to the enemy and they did this while getting shot at.

I remember playing Call of Duty 2 a long time ago and there was a mission about this very battle. The bunker here was modeled pretty much the same too.

Before the battle began, the air force and navy heavily bombarded this area and so there are many craters here. After so many years, grass has grown over them.

The Hedgerows

The guide explained that while the Allies were gathering intelligence for their invasion planning, local French people had told the Allies that there’d be lots of hedgerows to watch out for. It never occurred to the Allies that the hedgerows in France were significantly taller than the hedgerows that they were used to and so they thought the soldiers could see over them. Nope, they’re way taller than a standing person.

When the paratroopers landed in the night, a lot of them couldn’t find each other. The Germans used this to their advantage and set many traps in and around the hedgerows.

To Be Continued…

Since this post is already getting quite long, I’ll be continuing the rest of the Normandy trip in a second post.

Links to photo albums:

London

On our way to the airport from Kiev, we managed to get a Taxi driver that was the safest driver we’d seen there.  He drove slower than the speed limit, his car had suspensions and seatbelts.  Safest I’ve ever felt in a car while in Kiev.  The flight was good too, with no crying babies on board.  After arriving in London and dropping off our stuff, the first destination was the British Museum.

British Museum

I had been here before, but I thought this would be a good place for Edward to visit, since I was showing him around a little bit.

Here’s some pictures of some ancient stuff.

Later that night, we walked around the Tower Bridge and along the river and got some good night time photos.

Night Time along the Thames

I recall doing a similar walk along the Thames when I came to London two years before.  At night, the Tower Bridge is all lit up.

There is also St. Paul’s Cathedral from afar.

Everything is definitely much prettier when actually being there and with my point and shoot camera, it’s definitely hard to capture it all in photos.

English Breakfast

Definitely one of the most delicious breakfasts I’ve ever had. Back bacon is now one of my favourite foods. I also now have a greater appreciation for pan fried tomatoes.

If I recall correctly, the place is called Kiko’s Cafe and I highly recommend this place for anybody going to London.

Old Books

Our tourist map recommended an old second hand book store called Skoob Books. There, we found all sorts of old school books dating back to the early 20th century. I was able to pick up a 1928 edition of the Wealth of Nations for nine pounds. Edward managed to pick up an old anthology of George Orwell’s works for cheap too. Upon looking at my photo albums, it seems I got too carried away to take pictures of any of the old books.

In a different used book store, the books were so old that the owner put a lock on the door and would let customers in only when they rang the bell.  The books there were hundreds of years old and each book sold for at least hundreds of pounds if not thousands.

Princess Diana Loves Italian Food

For dinner, we ate at apparently one of Princess Diana’s favourite restaurants. And of course, this recommendation was very good.

I also highly recommend this place and it is called Da Mario.

Walking Tour

I did the walking tour last time I came to London, but I thought it’d be a good idea to do it again since Edward had never been to London before.  I didn’t really take much pictures here as I had taken so many the first time around.

Pub Grub

For lunch, we ate at a pub called The Lord Moon of the Mall with another person from Vancouver whom we met on the walking tour. I had previously been there before, and it was good last time, so I couldn’t really go wrong.

I think I was spoiled by the English breakfast and the pasta though because I didn’t think this place was as good as I remember.

HMS Belfast

Visiting the Belfast was one of the new things I did in London.  The HMS Belfast is a light naval cruiser that is now a museum and is parked on the Thames River. From the outside, the ship didn’t look that big to me, but it still took quite a while to see it all.

I even got to go inside the gun battery and inside there was a “simulation” of the batteries firing and it was very loud. I don’t know what I expected.

The tour takes the tourist to different rooms in the ship such as the sick bay, mess hall, chapel, among other places. As an engineer, the most interesting area for me to look at was the engine room. It’s amazing to see exactly what mechanisms can generate so much power to drive the ship.

Lots of ammo.

On the ship deck.

It just so happened that an airplane flew over as we were looking at the anti-aircraft gun.

A Comfortable Place to Travel

The biggest differences between travelling in Kiev and London is that in London, we can actually talk to people. We can read all the signs. It’s not sketchy at all. While this made travelling here super comfortable, it took away the excitement that being in a little bit of danger gave.  Even then, we still thought it was fun and we rather have done this than not at all.

Links to photo albums:

AK-47 Shooting Tour

The day after touring Chernobyl was our opportunity to shoot the legendary AK-47, an M16, and other military grade guns.

We almost missed our ride to the gun range too.  We originally thought the tour was supposed to depart from the hostel, but it turned out the departure point was some 12 km away.

We could either take a taxi and be unsure of whether the taxi would be legit, or take the metro and have to watch out for pick pockets.  Metro it was.  It only costed us 2 UAH (equivalent of about 25 cents) per way.  That made it the cheapest metro I’ve ever been on.

Our instructions were to meet him at a gas station by the metro station (which sounded super weird to me).  We arrived at the gas station, but didn’t see the guy and wondered where the guy could be.  For a bit I thought we weren’t going to make it to the gun tour.

Lisova Gas Station

We figured we’d ask the gas station attendant to borrow his phone.  He didn’t speak English.  It was only after a bit of charades were we able to call the hostel.  At least the attendant being super helpful.  We joked that the two Chinese guys asking him for help in the middle of nowhere (see below) in Kiev was the most interesting part of his day.  We tried to tip him, but he politely declined.

lisova

The tour driver eventually arrives late and knocks on the window to signal us.  The driver came in his own car and it was just a four seater.  Looks like we’re the only ones going on the gun tour (sounds legit right?).  He asked me if we were going to the shooting tour and so I said yes and off we went.  Luckily he asked first, which showed that he was here for this purpose, which supported that the tour was legit and we weren’t going to get robbed or anything.

This guy’s car didn’t have seat belts.  And because he was late, he drove way past the speed limit, and swerved through everyone.  Despite that, I still felt quite self as he had really good control of his car.  At least his car had suspensions unlike the Chernobyl tour van.  Ten minutes later, we arrived at the gun range.

We fired a pistol to start off with first.  Then it was what we came for.  The AK-47.

The tour originally advertised firing an AK in automatic mode as well as shooting a Dragunov sniper, but instead of doing that we fired the AK in semiautomatic mode and shot a Mosin Nagant and a shotgun with a red dot sight.  The kickback on these guns were way more than I expected. It felt like the whole gun flew back two inches. And I learned I’m not a very good shot.  I also learned that the shotgun doesn’t have a lot of recoil and that it doesn’t take much effort to ready the next shot, unlike loading the next bullet on the bolt action rifle.

Between each clip, the guy at the gun range would ask us to go down range to retrieve our targets.  I thought it was so weird that he’d make us do that.  Each time I walked down, I made sure there was no one shooting.  Luckily, they do care about safety and all was well.

Shooting these types of guns is something I’ve always wanted to do, but never could since these military grade weapons are common in Vancouver.  It was definitely super fun and exciting.

On the way back, the tour guide drove at the same ridiculous speeds, and along the way he honked down a bus.  We all got out of the car and he gave us each a USSR army canteen as a gift.  Then he says, “you get off here and take this bus.  It will take you back to the same metro station”.

It happened so suddenly, we had no idea what had just happened.  He paid for our bus fare and he was gone.  Being tourists, we had no idea how their bus system worked.  We couldn’t even read the name of the metro station because it was all in Cyrillic.  He could have screwed us over easily.

ukraine bus

The bus was yellow and was the oldest piece of junk I’ve ever ridden in.  But it got us back to the metro station and that’s all we cared about.  If it had broken down, we would have been so screwed.  After this experience, I wondered to myself why I did all those things despite such sketchiness.  Still, all went well and now we have a good story to tell.

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