Big Battlefield Bike Ride 2011

David King, who took part in the Exeter to Twickenham Bike Ride 2010, is taking part along with 249 other cyclists, some able bodied some veterans from both Afghanistan and Iraq, in the Big Battlefields Bike Ride which will take him from Portsmouth to Paris.  As in 2010, throughout the ride David will be carrying the baton and its message with him.

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Nil Satis Nisi Optimum “nothing but the best is good enough”

Day 1: Sunday 5th June. Exeter- Pompey; 9 miles

Cycled the 3 ish miles from home to the Train station with my kit for 11:43 and jumped on the train to Pompey. I got the registration at Southwick Park just in time to register and catch the last half of a very emotional introduction speech by Bryn Parry OBE one of the founders of H4H’s. Did you know that for every service person who is killed there are at least 5 who are seriously injured? Most of who have lost at least 2 limbs.  After a huge meal of pasta, (with various sauces), and some photos it was then a 5 mile cycle to the Ferry port at Portsmouth. Already friendships were being made and there was much mickey taking as we whizzed on our way. The atmosphere was fantastic and there was real buzz all around.  After arrival at the Port it was all aboard the “Normandy Spirit” for the overnight crossing to La Harve, as we waited to board the ferry we were able to watch the coverage of the ride on the big screens in the departure areas on the Sky and BBC news channels.

Day 2: Monday 6TH June (The 67th anniversary of the D. Day landings):

La Harve-Bateux; 56 miles with a few inclines.

After a complimentary full English breckie (because there weren’t enough cabins for every one) and about 3 hours kip it was all aboard coaches for the 2 and a half hour trip to St Mere Eglise where we would begin the days ride.  St Mere Eglise is a few miles in land form the coast and was the first town to be liberated in the early hours of D. Day by US airborne troops. The town was abuzz with many US veterans who took part in the “drop” to liberate the town. After a wreath laying ceremony in front of the church we were given a packed lunch, re-united with our bikes and it was time to begin the ride for real.  The 21 mile ride out of the town was relaxed and took us to the German Cemetery at La Cambe where there are 21,222 German soldiers buried. 207 of these bodies remain unidentified.  After the laying of a wreath it was off along the beautiful undulating coast line to Pointe du Hoc where, on D. Day the 2nd US Rangers assaulted the German guns that over looked the landing beaches. These guns were able to direct fire onto the beaches and were a primary objective if the landings were to succeed. They were located at the top of a sheer cliff face and when the guns were secured many of the Rangers had been killed or injured. It was then back in the saddle and onto the US National Cemetery which overlooks OMAHA beach. There are over 9,800 graves in the Cemetery and it was featured in the opening and closing scenes of the film “Saving Private Ryan”.  There was a very poignant wreath laying ceremony involving some of the wounded US service men who were completing the ride. This was followed by meeting several ex-service men who had taken part in the landings back in 1944. The end of day one was now in sight and after 10 miles or so we arrived at our hotel for the night.

Day 3: Tuesday 7th June; Bayeux-Caen, 45 miles

Left the hotel at about 7.30 before a steady, gentle ride to the coastal town of Arromanches in the heart of GOLD beach where the British troops landed in 1944.  We were given an informative talk from one of the battlefield guides who were accompanying us for the week. Bryn Parry’s uncle, uncle John gave us a captivating talk about his memories of being a battlefield casualty replacement in the days following the landings.  We were piped into the town by our resident Pipe Major “Scottie” where we were told more about the Mulberry harbour which was constructed in the UK prior to D.Day and towed across the Channel to make a deep water harbour off of Arromanches in the days following the invasion enabling the Allies to get their vehicles and troops shore directly from the ships.  Next was a very moving ceremony on the sea front to remember those who had fallen at the time as well as the recent news of the death of another soldier in Afghanistan……  Following lunch it was off to Pegasus Bridge which was captured in a British glider borne infantry operation in the early hours of D.Day.  On route we stopped at Crepon where CSM Stan Hollis of the “Green Howards” was awarded the VC for capturing 4 150mm guns in their concrete casements. (This was the only VC awarded on D.Day).  At Pegasus Bridge we were treated to a very moving account of the assault on the bridge by Madame Gondree who at 72 still owns and runs a cafe as her parents had done in 1944. She was 4 years old at the time.  Her cafe is situated directly next to the bridge and she remembers clearly “the men with black faces” coming into the basement, giving her and her sister chocolate and telling them that they had been liberated.  Madame Gondree has made the cafe into a memorial for the men who liberated the bridge and every year the soldiers who are still alive meet there.  She told us of how her father spoke fluent German, a fact the Germans were not aware of. Her father would invite the senior Officers into the back room of the cafe and get them drunk. He would gather intelligence in this way which he passed directly to the Allies.  To listen to the accounts from veterans’ of the event was very moving to say the least. Training for the mission was carried out in Exeter across the river Exe at the point where the “Swing Bridge” on the A379 Dawlish Rd now stands.  There is a plaque next to the swing bridge which can be seen from the University rowing club car park and is in memory of those who took part in the attack and capture of Pegasus bridges.  After listening to the various accounts it was on to the hotel and preparation for the hilly ride that awaited us in the morning.

Day 4: Wednesday 8th June; Caen-Lisieux, 78 hilly miles

This was potentially our hardest day in the saddle and as such it was off at 7.00.  The first stop was at the Canadian Cemetery before a climb to the top of Falaise. Following that it was up the biggest hill of the day to “The MACE” or “Hill 262” where lunch awaited us. This is the sight of the Polish Memorial and we were told of how the Poles had held the Germans as they tried to break out of the “Falaise gap”. Both sides were low on supplies and in many cases this resulted in them fighting each other “hand to hand.”  The Padre, who was conducting all the ceremonies on the bike ride, spoke about “The Baton” which I was carrying and I had the honour of reading the Eulogy at the Wreath laying service.  After the ceremony I handed the Baton to the US team of wounded servicemen who carried the Baton for the remainder of the ride to Paris. The first to strap it to his bike was Major Yancy Bear who had lost a leg. On route I had the pleasure of meeting Jim who was an ex-Naval sonar rating. We cycled some of the route together as well as with others and Jim who is now an undertaker by trade would pass his business card to any cyclist who appeared to be struggling in an attempt to drum up some business on the way. He would also tell the struggling rider what size coffin they would need! Jim carried a hip-flask of “Pussars rum” which he would only let fellow ex-Naval types drink.  This was one of the last “battlefield” stops of the trip as by now in 1944 the allies were in full advance with little to stop them before Paris. For us it was back in the saddle for a steady ride to Lisieux and our hotels.

Day 5: Thursday 9th June; Lisieux-Evreux, 57 miles

Another early start today but an easier ride was promised. After a drinks stop it was on to the airfield at Bernay.  Here we were treated to talks from Anne Ponsonby who had served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Tania Szabo whose mother had been in the French Resistance and had been awarded the George Cross. She had been captured by the Germans and tortured by the SS before being sent to a forced labour camp where she died before the war ended.  Uncle John told us of how he had been wounded in Belgium and how he had been evacuated back to the UK. This was followed by 4 extremely moving and at times humorous accounts from 4 of the injured service men who were completing the ride, (2 Brits, 2 US). The explained how they received their injuries and their evacuations. Each guy who spoke had lost at least 1 leg!  When these accounts were given the audience was in total silence and there was not a dry eye in the house.  Very, very brave men…………………..  After lunch it was on with the St Georges outfit and off to Evreux. As we cycled on our way the mood of the riders was good and this was raised even higher by the occasional stop at various drinking establishments.  One particular cafe owner was somewhat confused to have St George, 2 Leprechauns and a couple of “118, I’ve got your number” blokes in his place ordering drinks!

Day 6: Friday 10th June; Evreux-Paris, 70 miles.

Another early start as we had to be in Paris by 2:30pm.  Off at 6:45, and I was a bit concerned as when I went to collect my bike from the garage I found that there were only 6 bikes left. This meant that 240 plus cyclists had left before we had.  I was cycling with the Padre and a guy called Berni, who was in the Rifles and had lost his right leg below the knee. All went well for the first 400 meters before I had my first, (and last) puncture of the ride.  We hit the first drinks stop after about 18 miles before heading off again. We left the Padre at the stop and pressed on. We had a great ride to lunch averaging about 20 mph getting to the lunch stop just before midday. After a break it was then on into Paris arriving at the Eiffel Tower at about 2. For those who had family meeting them there was lots of hugging all round.  Some of the older blokes saw this as an excuse for a bit of a free for all to hug as many of the younger female riders we, sorry I mean “they” could!  From there it was onto the Arc de Triomphe for a ceremony before cycling down the Champs Elysees back to the Eiffel Tower for the official end of the ride and the news that in just under 4 years and with the help of the British public Help for Heroes had raised more than one hundred million pounds!  Cycling down the Champs Elysees back to the Tower as a group with the local Police stopping the traffic listening to music being blasted out of one of the support vehicles is an experience I will never forget.

 

It was then off to the hotel where we handed over our bikes, showered and met in the bar before leaving for the end of ride meal. After that it was either back to the hotel or off to sample the French night life……Me? Bed

Saturday was a free day with us doing a bit if sightseeing before getting the Euro Star at 4. It was then a case of cycling the 3 miles from St Pancras to Paddington, before the train back to Exeter.  The ride was a fabulous experience and one I will never forget. In total we rode 322 miles, (that’s according to my bike computer) and were saw many fabulous sights.  I have nothing but the highest respect for those guys who completed the distance on “Hand bikes” They were awesome and showed great character throughout.  Their support crews from “Battle Back” and “Operation Comfort” did a great job in helping the cyclists and should have a big slap on the back for their efforts.  I have always wanted to do a Battle Fields tour and there is no better way than doing one on a bike. I would thoroughly recommend it.  I would like to pass on my sincerest thanks Katy and my family for supporting my effort, Pauline for the “hills”, the generous people who sponsored me and to Guinness.  If you ever get a chance to take part in this event when it is repeated in a couple of year’s time, then do it, you won’t regret it.

David King