Friday, August 31, 2012

In The Tracks Of Joachim Peiper

The German offensive that became The Battle Of The Bulge jumped off on an 80-mile front on December 16, 1944, in the Ardennes Forest on the German-Belgian border.  Hitler's idea was to seize the port of Antwerp and split the Allied armies in half (British to the north, Americans to the south).  The Wehrmacht generals considered this a fantasy, but they were hopeful they could reach the Meuse River on a line that ran from Huy to Liege.  This might create enough mischief to delay or derail the Allied spring offensive.

The sharp part of the German spear was Task Force (Joachim) Peiper, on the north end of the line.  He had the heaviest concentration of armor and truck-mounted infantry, built around his own SS Division. Peiper was to bypass fighting and make for the Meuse as fast as he could.  Units to his south would try to encircle Allied units while also pushing on to support his left.  Appallingly cold, overcast, wet weather hampered both sides.  Allied tactical air could not fly for the first few days.  Narrow and muddy secondary roads and farm lanes slowed the Germans, especially Peiper's tanks.

Battle of the Bulge: this map shows the deepest penetration of German units, although the bulk of them did not get much past Bastogne on the south and Trois Ponts (Peiper's Task Force) on the north.

Joachim Peiper was a committed Nazi with a superb combat record on the Eastern Front, where "civilized warfare" was not practiced--least of all by S.S. Divisions like the one he commanded and brought west to form the nucleus of his task force.

Ridge at the hamlet of Lanzerath.  A small U.S. Army unit held this ridge for 12 hours against German units who were to punch a hole for Peiper's armored column.  He had to run the GI's off the ridge himself, and was already behind schedule before he got going.  Even having read a biography of Peiper before following his route, with detailed maps, I got lost several times.  Some of the roads he took were farm lanes.  Crazy routing for armored columns, but the topography of the Ardennes dictated much of it.    

Crossroads of Bullingen.  Peiper had to turn west here (in the direction the picture was taken) to avoid heavy fighting in the twin villages of Rocherath-Krinkelt just to the north.  The Allies contested these villages for two days before reforming a defensive line on Elsenborn Ridge.  This gave Peiper a narrower road network and less maneuvering room on his right flank than the plan called for.  Also, these roads were not ideal for his heavy King Tiger tanks.  He refueled in Bullingen from a captured Allied dump.  The Germans could not get their meager supplies of fuel forward fast enough, so the plan called for refueling from captured supplies.  But, even though Peiper "leapfrogged" his units, refueling downtime and inadequate supply further slowed his advance.

The main drag in the village of Stavelot.  Peiper's troops had already committed the Malmedy Massacre of over 100 GI's who surrendered, a few miles south of Malmedy, by the time they reached here.  For good measure, they massacred about 50 Belgian civilians in Stavelot.  Peiper was now fully two days behind schedule.  No satisfactory explanation for the Malmedy Massacre was ever made.  One theory is that it was "more efficient" to shoot the prisoners than to further slow the advance by getting them to the rear over farm lanes needed for Peiper's tanks and trucks.  Yes,  that Stavelot and that Malmedy--from the corners of the same names on the "Old" Spa-Francorchamps road racing course.

Trois Ponts: the beginning of the end for Peiper.  Stavelot is about 3 miles to the right (east), via the road under the railroad overpass.  Peiper's preferred route was to turn left (toward the photographer) and cross the Ambleve and Salm Rivers, which are just out of frame, on a main highway with good bridges.  Allied engineers had blown them.  So he had to turn right (north, and then west), on a smaller road, still looking for a place to cross, to get back to his best line of advance.

For good measure, Peiper's troops gratuitously executed a few more Belgian civilians in Trois Ponts.

Village of La Gleize: end of the line for Peiper.  This is a few miles west of Trois Ponts.  His tanks were almost out of fuel.  A pick-up American armored force blocked his way west, at the village of Stoumont, where there was a significant fire-fight.  American infantry had re-occupied Stavelot behind him.  Peiper's men blew up their remaining tanks and trucks and tried to infiltrate back to German lines.  A surprising number of them made it, including Peiper.  After the war he was tried for the Malmeday Massacre and spent some time in prison, but it was not proved that he ordered or knew about it.

This is one of the few surviving King Tigers in the world.  It is La Gleize's War Memorial, and it has a funny back-story.  The wife of the inn-keeper in La Gleize thought the town needed a memorial.  She saw an American armor recovery team working on this King Tiger.  "I'd like that for La Gleize," she said.  "No way," they replied.  "Give you a bottle of cognac for it."  "It's yours, lady."

The other part of the War Memorial in La Gleize.  'Nuff said.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rouen Les Essarts

Pilote tries to keep the names of the great old tracks alive (not that I'm the only one, or that you can't find out plenty about them with a Google search).  The dozens of airport courses that went under in the States in the late 1950's don't require mourning.  Or some of the purpose-built ones, like Bridgehampton and Marlboro Raceway.  Or, for that matter, some of the boring ones in Europe like Reims.  But the Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, Old Spa, and the Nurburgring (to name four), deserve to live in memory.  So does Riverside, in California.

Rouen-Les-Essarts is another course that bit the dust, after Jo Schessler's fatal crash in the Six Freres in 1968 French Grand Prix.  Like Spa and the Nurburgring, Rouen continued to be used by slower cars for a few years until it was closed for good in 1973.  It is a few miles southwest of the city, and immediately southwest of the town of Les Essarts.  The Automobile Club of Normandy managed to wrest control of the French Grand Prix from Reims a few times in the 1950's and 1960's.  Rouen was much more challenging than Reims, although not as fast.

After Rouen, the race moved to several other locations (Clermont-Ferrand was one).  For many years now, there hasn't been a French Grand Prix.  No course measures up to current F-1 safety and amenities standards.  Also, I suspect, the French got tired of Bernie Ecclestone holding them up for the outrageous sanctioning fee.  France is not as car-nutty as the UK, Italy, Germany, and the States.  And France has Le Mans.  Who needs "just another Grand Prix" when you have the most famous sports car race in the world?

Rouen was 4.1 miles long and,  basically, a fast downhill run toward the Seine River and then another fast uphill run.  The blue segment that connected the downhill and uphill runs was flat, fast, and straight.

The "fast" course (red and blue) was used for Grands Prix.  The red-only course was used for a few years after the freeway (A-13 Autoroute) went through.  The green segment was used 1951-54, before big time racing came to Rouen.

Jacky Ickx (Ferrari 312) leads Pedro Rodriguez (BRM) into Six Freres, 1968 French Grand Prix.  Ickx won.  The start-finish line is about where the Esso sign is.  No, Pilote doesn't know why Six Freres is only four bends.

Starting into Six Freres today.  This is the equivalent of a State Highway.  (As you can see, the Dragon's "stay in your own lane" problem has been solved.)  The uphill leg is the equivalent of a County Road.  Trees and scrub have overtaken Rouen.  The old pits were bulldozed and are now a lumber yard where harvested trees await their trip to a sawmill.  There are no historical markers telling you that a great road circuit was once here.  You have to know where the course is to find it.  Fortunately I understood this before leaving the States.  There is one small directional sign in the town pointing toward "Rouen Les Essarts."  Your next clue is when you realize that you are in Six Freres.

Stewart Lewis-Evans, Vanwall, first lefthander in the Six Freres, 1957 French Grand Prix.  The embankment finished Rouen as a Formula 1 course: if a car went up it, big trouble, with the potential for more if it came back down into the course.  Which was exactly what happened in the 1968 Grand Prix.

Juan Fangio, Maserati 250-F, in Nouveau Monde, which transitioned from asphalt to cobblestones and back.  French Grand Prix, 1957.  Note that you begin braking before you enter the last of the Six Freres, without being able to see Noveau Monde.  So you're (initially) accelerating, then braking for an unseen apex, in a right-left-right transition.   Bring your A-game.

Dan Gurney in Nouveau Monde, 1962.  He gave Porsche its only GP victory.  The Type 718, based on the 4-cylinder Spyder, was too slow.  This car, the Type 771 8-cylinder, was faster, but not as fast as the revolutionary monocoque Lotus 25.

Our rental Citroen, exactly where Gurney's Porsche was 48 years before.  The hillside was a natural grandstand.

Nouveau Monde, showing a bit of both the downhill and uphill runs.  This picture shows a sedan race run the "wrong" way.

Same view (slightly lower vantage point) 50+ years later.

If you want to see more of Rouen-Les-Essarts, here's a link to the first of two videos of the 1962 Grand Prix (Gurney's win).  It runs 15 minutes and covers the first part of the race.  The video showing second half of the race (also 15 minutes) can be selected on the YouTube page after this one finishes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Touring Reims And Rouen

Reims ("Rhahm") was the site of Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, from September 1944 to the end of World War Two.  It was also the traditional site of coronations of French Kings.  After World War Two, it was usually the site of the French Grand Prix.

Rouen ("Rou-ahn") did not figure in World War Two.  It (and the surrounding countryside) was militarily contested for 300 years as the Plantagenet, Capet, and Valois ruling classes tried to sort out what was "English" and what was "French."  It was the site of the French Grand Prix after World War Two, when the race was not run in Reims.

Reims is is in the flat, sunny, fertile Champagne country of France.  Rouen is in the Seine River Valley.  Guess which one has the better road-racing course.

SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, Reims.  Eisenhower ran World War Two from here from September 1944 to the German surrender in April, 1945.  Before the war it was a trade school.  Today it is a museum that captures the ambience of Ike's headquarters.  The conference room in which the Werhmacht surrendered is restored to its appearance at the time of the surrender.

Reims Cathedral near sunset.  Site of the coronation of French Kings for 800 years.  High Gothic (imagine yourself inside with the sun coming through those Rose windows), and also French Totalitarian.  As Louis XIV said, "Le Etat Cest Moi:" The State Is Me.  And "Apres moi, le deluge:" After Me, The Flood.  True that.  But nobody, then or later, accused Louie of a fragile ego or restraint in using his power.

Equestrian statue of Joan of Arc outside Reims Cathedral.  After she raised the siege of Orleans, she persuaded Charles VII that he should be crowned quickly at the Cathedral.  Their forces ran a hostile gauntlet to bring it off.  She then moved on to besiege Paris, so he could take his throne there.  Then Charles decided to try to cut a deal with English forces remaining in Normandy in exchange for their recognizing him as King of France.  This was not what Joan had in mind: she wanted the Brits out of France, period.  She became a diplomatic liability and was sold out.  Literally: pro-Charles forces kidnapped her and sold her to the Brits.  She was imprisoned in Rouen by pro-Brit Frenchmen and tried for heresy.  The Pope, to whom she appealed, was not taking her calls.  Revolutionaries are among the first victims of their own revolutions.  Plus, she was a girl.

Marche (market square) where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1430.  Her scaffolding was at the street corner in the distance.  The triangular structure to the left is a modern church/market/below-ground parking garage.  There is an excellent restaurant, La Toque d' Or ("The Gold Hat")  just out of frame to the right.  As French cities go, Rouen seemed dirty and crowded.

My dinner at La Toque d' Or.  "White fish in red sauce" does not begin to describe it, although French menus are usually under-written in just that way.  Restaurants sell their food on the plate, not on the menu.  Order what sounds good and let them surprise you.  You can find a bad meal in France, but you have to look for it: try expensively decorated restaurants with a limited selection of entrees, that shout at you from the street-scape.  My then-girlfriend's comment on this cafe before we went in was " least the prices are reasonable..."  We had one of our best meals here, in a city that neither of us particularly enjoyed.  We also had fine lunches in small towns that were just "en-route."  Lunch and dinner are part of the day: take your time to enjoy them.  The rule of thumb is: if the place looks OK, it probably is.  And don't worry about pushing your own boundaries.  A menu selection may sound unusual, or worse,  but the French don't know how to do un-delicious.

Chateau Gaillard, a few miles south of Rouen, viewed from the Seine Valley.  Richard I of England, son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine,  was losing campaigns against Philip II of France, so he agreed to a truce.  "Just one thing," Philip said: "don't fortify that promontory south of Rouen."  Richard said OK--and promptly built the most impregnable fortress on the river.  Philip took it by siege in 1204.  One more prelude to the Hundred Years War, which was really a Three Hundred Years War with intermissions.

The Seine, from Chateau Gaillard.  The chalk cliffs in this view are the same geological formation as the White Cliffs of Dover on the other side of the English Channel.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Targa Newfoundland

Watched it on Speed TV last weekend.  I stop surfing when the Targa Newfoundland comes on screen.

It's insane, of course.  1500 miles over secondary roads with zig-zags through residential blocks of small towns.  Ferrari Enzos, and Porsche 911 GT-3's, and 500 horsepower "pro touring" American muscle cars.  (You can run a Miata or a Mini too, if that's what ya brung.)  Jumping culverts and other hazards on roads engineered for passive safety at 30-50 m.p.h.  Guard rails, instead of keeping you out of the ditch, are strategically placed to finish the job.  The guy driving the Enzo flew it into a salt-water bay.  He and his co-driver got out before the car sank.  (They hired a construction crane to winch it out.  Wonder if that was in the racing budget?  If you can afford to put an Enzo on steroids, do you need a racing budget?)

But I love the Targa Newfoundland.  Real, streetable, cars, racing on real roads.  Culvert jumps, where-is-it? apexes, and gravel in the road are part of the job.  You can't drive 10/10's.  Even for a Senna or a Schumacher, 9/10's would be a ton.  Unrestricted speeds over public roads are a completely different animal from circuit courses.  On the Dragon, those of us who like to run hard must keep a margin in hand for two-way traffic.  At low speeds.  Targa Newfoundlanders don't have to worry about two-way traffic.  Two-mile straights are not unusual.  And they can run as hard as their route notes and good sense let them.

In other words, road racing.  It's so dangerous that "legitimate" road races like the Mille Miglia and Targa Florio disappeared long ago.  (The next to go, as I've blogged, were the long "true" road circuits like the Nurburgring and Spa-Francorchamps.)   The Targa Newfoundland is a throwback.  The only comparable event is a World Rally Championship meet when it runs on pavement.

A driver who can run competitively and finish the Targa Newfoundland is more impressive to me than a pro who can win on a modern conventional circuit.  If the Targa Newfoundland were golf, it would be St. Andrews.  If it were football, it would be overtime in a wet blizzard on a muddy field.  Insert own simile here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Touring Chinon And Fontrevaud

The "family reunion" of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons Richard, John, and Geoffrey in The Lion In Winter is imagined by the playwright to have taken place at Christmas in the castle at Chinon.  In fact, no such meeting occurred.  But it might as well have.  The movie is one of those "imagination and metaphor are truer than facts" experiences.

And, in fact, Henry, Eleanor, and their sons spent considerable time at Chinon, sometimes together.
When Henry's sons became disenchated enough with his succession plans to revolt, Eleanor supported them.  She tried to flee to Philip II's court in Paris (as her son Geoffrey had done) but was intercepted by some of Henry's vassals.  Henry put her under house arrest in various locations and degrees of strictness in England from 1173 to his death in 1189.  It's this period of their lives that's depicted in the film.

Henry died at Chinon.  He was buried at Fontrevaud because he died in July and it was impossible to send his corpse to England while his enemies controlled large parts of Normandy.  Eleanor outlived Henry by 17 years.  She remained active in high-stakes politics.  She had endowed and expanded Fontrevaud Abbey in her own middle age.  She visited often and spent her final years there.  Medieval nobility displayed their piety; it was useful political symbolism.  But abbeys and monasteries also provided the only semi-privacy available to them.  So retreat to an abbey could be a kind of vacation.  Eleanor asked to be buried at Fontrevaud, and was.

Chinon and Fontrevaud are just above "TOURAINE" on this map.

Chinon was an ancient fortress on the River Vienne, gradually expanded and improved over the centuries.  It was an occasional royal residence for 300 years.  It commanded both the river and the approaches to Blois, Orleans, and Paris to the north and Poitiers and other major towns to the south. 

A garrison behind high walls on a high hill could hold out for a looonng time before the invention of gunpowder.

The plaque on the wall commemorates the meeting of (the future) King Charles VII of France and Joan of Arc, 250+ years after Henry and Eleanor used the place.  Charles had been run out of Paris and was holed up at Chinon.  Joan arrived with the news that God had commanded her to lead his armies in battle to assert his claim to the throne.  This news was a bit hot to handle, so he sent her on to Poitiers for her theological "examination."  Weeks later she was back, "certified," so to speak, with the news that it was time to fight, and led the army that raised the siege of Orleans.

The Abbey at Fontrevaud.

Kitchen at Fontrevaud.  If you have a lot of people to feed, you need a lot of bread.  Each of the lower chimneys is for an oven or  a broiler.  The smaller chimneys are to cool the cooks.

The church at Fontrevaud Abbey.  The interior is minimalist compared to lay churches and cathedrals.

The effigy tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II in the church at Fontrevaud.  They were moved inside the church long after their deaths.  Eleanor was originally buried in the Nuns' graveyard and Henry was buried in the regular cemetery.  Later these effigy tombs were created.  It was unusual for a woman's effigy tomb to display her with a book, symbolizing learning.  Women were usually portrayed as pious.  You can imagine some interesting conversations here over the past 700 years or so.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Touring Normandy

After "doing" Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, we moved on to Normandy by way of Le Mans.

Henry II was christened in the Le Mans Cathedral and it was one of his favorite towns.  The "Old Town" of Le Mans has been restored to pedestrian-only Medieval/Renaissance appearance, but I will spare you another cathedral picture.  This is the office of the organizers of the 24-hour race, where you can buy shirts and hats and books.  We ran out of time, so I did not get to the course or its racing car museum. 

The movie theater in Bayeaux: another example of the "non-mall society."  French and Belgian towns are compact.  You use your car to get between towns, then park the car and walk.

The Tourism Office in Bayeaux.  Architectural contrasts with the States struck me.  Europeans tend not to tear down and rebuild, but to re-purpose.  No idea what this little stone building used to be--maybe a train stop?--but instead of turning it into a parking lot, Bayeaux renovated it and installed plate glass windows.  Works for me!

D-Day: Omaha Beach looking toward Pointe du Hoc.

Display on the wall of the memorial pavilion at the American Cemetery in Colleville.   Every bit as complicated as it looks, and well has it been said that your battle plan becomes obsolete when the first shots are fired.

American Cemetery in Colleville.  The memorial pavilion is in the background.  I have been reading about D-Day since I was a teenager and have seen so many many anniversary observations on TV that I became jaded.  My visit to Omaha Beach left me speechless and contemplative.

Pegasus Bridge, over a canal, east of Caen.  Rommel's reinforcements for the Germans defending the beach-heads would have to cross this bridge (among other routes).  It was taken and held by British paratroops, for several days at great cost, before the link-up with beach-head troops.  The modern bridge is a replacement, but is identical to the one fought over in 1944.

The Pegasus Bridge Cafe.  It was there, then, and is run by the daughter of the then-owners today.  When we visited, half a dozen British paratroop veterans of the First Gulf War and their wives were there too.  The bridge is an iconic site for the British Army.

Caen Cathedral viewed from the old Norman fortifications of Caen.  Henry II slept here too.   In medieval times,  in winter, it was not uncommon for people to wait as long as a month for favorable winds and weather when trying to cross the English Channel.  The D-Day Plan called for General Montgomery to take Caen quickly and use it as his break-out base for armored thrusts south and east.  The Germans stopped him cold.  Caen was flattened by Allied air-raids and tank and artillery fire from both sides.  Civilian casualties were huge.  Everything seen here other than the Cathedral has been built since World War Two.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Touring Poitiers: Henry & Eleanor And Other Stuff

Poitiers ("Pohwatiyea") is Pilote's favorite city in France.  Here's a photo essay:

...and his father, Henry II: England and half of what became France.

"France" and "England" would have made no sense to Medieval Europeans living in a feudal system.  When William the Conqueror of Normandy successfully invaded England in 1066, it became "his."  He, in turn, owed (at least) nominal fealty to the King of France.  But it was sometimes joked over the next 400 years that the King of France ruled Paris and not much else.

When Louis VII of France married Eleanor of Aquitaine, he acquired most of what is now southwestern France.  Although she had roots and and ties and castles in Bordeaux, her capital was Poitiers (very center of the map above).  He divorced her.  Big mistake.  She quickly married Henry of Anjou, a direct descendant of William the Conquerer and soon-to-be King Henry II of England.  Eleanor was a very liberated woman for her time: a true mover and shaker in a man's world.  The story of Eleanor and Henry and their sons is the political history of England and France from 1150 to 1250.  There is an excellent film about them, The Lion In Winter.  The heart of Eleanor's turf was Gascony and Poitou, although she and Henry traveled constantly, sometimes together and sometimes holding court separately.  She ruled England as his Regent when he was in France, which was most of the time.  Later he put her under house arrest (that's a preview of coming attractions.)

South wall, Salle des Pas Perdus, Maubergeonne Palace, Poitiers.  It is the only original wall still standing; the other three sides are now enclosed by the 19th century Palace of Justice (regional courts and offices, still in business use today).  Maubergeonne was built by Eleanor's grandfather, but considerably expanded and upgraded by her.

Maubergeonne Tower.  It is said to be Eleanor's living quarters when she was in Poitiers.  If you've seen the film The Lion In Winter you can imagine the happy family times here.  ;-)
Salle des Pas Perdus ("Hall of Lost Footsteps"), Maubergeonne Palace.  Said to be the largest clear-span room in Europe when it was constructed c. 1150's.  The point of it was to impress Henry's vassals and rivals.

Notre Dame La Grande.  When Henry & Eleanor  married here in 1152, they instantly became Europe's Power Couple.
One of the oldest churches in France, Notre Dame La Grande is first mentioned in the 900's although religious structures
on the site probably go back further.  It was rebuilt in the 1050's and several times since.  A major restoration was
 completed in the 1990's.  Al fresco coffee from where this photo was snapped is about as good as it gets.

The square in front of the Hotel de Ville (city hall) in Poitiers.

Just your average Foi Gras truck.

Market Saturday, Poitiers.  This shot shows about 10% of the market square, next to Notre Dame La Grande.  You can find American-style supermarkets with frozen food in France, but they are smaller.  Most French people shop and eat fresh.  The variety is amazing.  It's more efficient than it sounds: you walk to work and pick up the non-perishables and staples, along with your morning coffee and croissant.  You get serious about the good stuff on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  The stands are run by local growers or, in the case of meats and seafood, franchisees of larger commercial operations.

Cathedral St. Pierre.  Endowed by Henry and Eleanor in 1162, it took over a century to complete.

Joan of Arc stained-glass window in the Cathedral St. Pierre.  This is a modern artifact, installed in the 1800's.  Joan was "examined" by clerics in Poitiers to determine if she was the real deal (that is, her Revelations).  They decided she  was.  Before
she was burned at the stake in Rouen, she was again "examined" by clerics who decided "not so much..."  There is no
exact parallel to Joan in America.  She is part Paul Revere, part John Adams, and part George Washington.  Sort of.

Baptistere St. John, reputed to be the oldest Christian building in France.  The center part was built over a natural spring, on the site of pagan religious ceremonies, around 360 C.E.  It is just down the hill from St. Pierre.

Espace Mendes-France, a Socialist think-tank named after the ditto Premier.  It is across the street from the Baptistere and adjacent to St. Pierre.  French Socialists are not liberal Democrats--they are socialists.  Juxtapositions like these are one of the many things Pilote loves about France.

Site of one of the Battles of Poitiers, in a valley northwest of town, in 732 C.E.  This was where Charles Martel stopped the Saracens cold: the high-water mark of the Muslim invasion of Europe.  (They ruled Spain for centuries.)  The Saracens were tired from forced marches, their cavalry was not handled well, and they obliged Charles by charging straight up the valley.  There were several later battles of Poitiers as Henry's descendants battled Louis VII's for control of "France" and Hugenots battled Catholics for control of what by then really was France.