ROAD TRIP to SAINT-NAZAIRE, MARCH 2013
At the 'Monument du Commando', March 28th, in beautiful sunshine. Left to right, David Tait (whose uncle, Lieutenant Morgan Jenkins, of 6/2 Commando, was killed during the raid), Mrs Joan House (who has only recently discovered that her father, Stoker Petty Officer Reginald Hodder RN, of HMS Campbeltown, long believed to have been lost without trace, has actually been interred for all these long years without her knowing, along with his comrades in the war-cemetery at La Baule/Escoublac), and Peter Lush, dedicated and knowledgeable Saint-Nazaire tour guide shortly (we hope) to join the committee of the St. Nazaire Society.
Morgan Jenkins, 6 Troop
And so, for the full story of a trip that only covered three full days, but seemed, from its content, to last a week.
Much as we like living 'up north', it does have the significant disadvantage of being very far away from Europe - especially if one is travelling by car, as we were. In the end we just made it in time for the gathering at La Baule/Escoublac war cemetery on Wednesday afternoon, after a full nine hours in the car plus an overnight ferry trip from Portsmouth to Le Havre (it had seemed like a good idea when we planned it....). The only really stressful bit was complying with French motoring laws which have now been expanded to include breathalysers. AND you can't use a sat-nav capable of picking up speed-traps (800 euro fine, so I'm told). What on earth will they go for next? On-board defibrillators ....!
To elaborate on 'just making it in time', we were to have picked up David and Janet Tait in town by 2.30 before going on to the cemetery- sedately - but didn't make it until near the 3.00pm deadline, necessitating a mad drive through Saint-Nazaire whose psychological effect on the Taits might possibly be judged by their decision to return to town with somebody else!
As ever the cemetery was beautifully cared for and bathed in sunshine, and the highlight of that particular visit was Mrs House's first ever sight of her father's grave. If you ever wonder about the value of history and research, well, here it is, proving that even after all this time lives can still be changed by fresh information.
Having always stayed in Saint-Nazaire, we thought it worth trying La Baule this year, especially given its magnificent beach and quiet lanes lined with old-style villas. We chose the Hotel Lutetia (http://www.lutetia-labaule.com/) a short stroll from the beach, and can recommend it highly - and not just for the fact the friendly staff will deliver a full breakfast to one's room. Well worth a look, but a full 25-minute drive from the centre of Saint-Nazaire, although much of this is along a beautiful 7km-long boulevard.
La Baule, looking towards Pornichet
At six o'clock there was a gathering at the Brasserie le Ponton, within the U-Boat Pens, for drinks, prior to the party splitting up for a main meal. Most attended the St Nazaire Society dinner, while we 'Celts' strolled off to a nearby creperie, decked with Breton flags and Celtic symbols, where a great time was had by all. The gathering at Le Ponton was the first real opportunity for all-comers to meet, including our Breton chums, Hubert Chemereau's beautiful (Irish dancing) daughter Gwenn, German historian Lutz Pietschker and French author Jean-Charles Stasi.
Thursday morning began at 10.00 with a Breton tribute at the Old Mole, where so many of the MLs fell victim to German fire during the raid. Much flag-waving, and several speeches, including one of my own, all with the theme of 'encouraging' the local powers-that-be to do something about adding explanatory signs to the various portions of the battle-area, not least the Mole. The structure proved all but impregnable back in 1942 yet, today, there is no indication whatever of the sacrifices made there. Not nearly good enough...
Self at the Old Mole, with just enough light to show off one's best features. The vessel shown is following the path taken by HMS Campbeltown on her last charge towards the Normandie dock. The coloured flag in view represents all the Celtic nations.
As ever, 11.00 meant gathering at the Monument du Commando for the main parade. Sadly, this year, only two of the veterans were able to make it, General Corran Purdon having had to cry off at the last minute due to ill-health. This year Dr Bill 'Tiger' Watson and Stephen Barney (HMS Atherstone) were joined in the wreath-laying party by Mrs House.
On past occasions the Vin d'Honneur at the Town Hall, which always follows the parade, marked the end of the official ceremonies; however, this year it was followed by a special showing of the Micky Burn feature-documentary 'Turned Towards the Sun', at the Salle Jacques Tati. Preceded by a press-conference, and followed by a Q & A session during both of which I stood in for the director, who wasn't able to make the trip, this transpired to be a marvellously warm occasion - very much a case of being amongst friends. The film was very well received indeed, which may go some way at least towards assuaging Micky's ghost's insistence that we all do more to get his story out there (but, I suspect, not for long!)
For those wishing to explore the content of Micky's life more fully, see this page -
To consider that we were all there a full 71 years after the event, it should come as no surprise, given its success and meaning, that these visits will go on for some time yet.
See you all at the 72nd?