On the night of 5th June 1944, a unit of the British 6th Airborne Division took off from Dorset in gliders to capture Pegasus Bride over the Orne River just north of Caen. The attackers poured out of their gliders surprising the German defenders and took the bridge within 10 minutes. This was the beginning what is now famously known as D-Day and the eventual liberation of Europe seventy years ago. The events were also narrated as a film in The Longest Day.
Seventy years later, members of MAABC accepted an invitation from Caen Rowing Club to join them in a friendly regatta and a historic row up to the Pegasus Bridge and museum. The weekend proved to be an entertaining and at times poignant event to celebrate rowing, friendship and peaceful times between two rowing clubs.
The weekend began with several members taking alternative secret routes to Caen. Similar to the allied landings we variously arrived by boat, plane, train and car. Dick Pryce Jones led the home guard driving the trailer – a big thanks to Captain Mannering! General Keith Mahony planned in detail the advance landing party and spent many hours with our allied friends, Monsieur Alain and his club, to ensure a successful operation.
The battalion was billeted in various accommodations in the historic town of Caen. An immediate recce for provisions was made by the quartermaster and his team which focussed on the Irish Bar, where it was obvious that rationing had been lifted, giving the thirsty troops time to build up strength for the tough times ahead. There was intense discussion around race planning and tactics and sleep was ignored as the enormity of the task of racing our Caen rowers began to dawn on the fresh faced boys and girls.
We arrived at the Rowing Club on a glorious September Saturday and quickly realised that the equipment had been sabotaged by, er, ourselves by failing to load the correct riggers in for the mens coxed four. Clearly the pressure of the event had got to the boys. Never mind, our Caen allies came to the rescue and loaned them a pink ladies boat, which all agreed rather suited them.
Several races were held outside the Caen rowing club, with MAABC finally clinching a victory overall. The most notable race was the men’s double, with Quartermaster Kev McEvoy and Sapper John Ferrario representing MAABC and who fought manfully across the course to lose by either six inches or 50 cm whatever euro measuring regulations apply.
With the racing concluded, the now exhausted but triumphant forces prepared for the evening celebrations, hosted by our generous Caen hosts. A wonderful evening feast was preceded by speeches and an exchange of gifts – thank you so much to Caen for the bespoke rowing oar and the ties. A toast was held to both clubs and to our united history. A special mention went to Noel Durkin, who could not attend due to club duties, and we looked on his photograph resplendent in the club room. We presented Caen RC with a painting of our clubhouse by Christina Greenhalgh plus various commemorative beers which gave a nod to the historic nature of our visit. The meal was finished by an enthusiastic appreciation of a 30 year Calvados, a famous product of the region.
Sunday morning saw, perhaps appropriately, a break in the weather – similar to events 70 years ago where weather played a vital role in decision making. We joined our friends from Caen in an 8km row up to the Pegasus Bridge. Members of both clubs met at the museum there, where the original bridge resides. We watched a very interesting film and the museum also holds some fascinating artefacts relating to this chapter in history. The cafe Gondree at the bridge was the first French house to be liberated by D-Day.
We returned to the rowing club in thoughtful mood, but so appreciative to our Caen friends to have had the opportunity to arrive at Pegasus Bridge by rowing boat – history seemed extraordinarily close by. The wonderful weekend concluded with an excellent lunch and more drinks, before wishing our friends, allies and the bond between us Adieu until we can reciprocate to our friends – we hope in the not too distant future.
The troops began the long trek back to blighty, appropriately with one member having to travel under special arrangements due to hostile forces appropriating special documentation.