The history of our region
Normandy is named for the Viking “Northmen” who conquered and settled the region in the Ninth Century, bringing with them appearance, customs,
independence and language that often differed sharply from those of “France”.
Hibou Blanc is in the Val de Saire, the North-eastern tip of the Cotentin (or Cherbourg Peninsula). Our “Departement” is Manche, part of Lower Normandy.
The area is a magnet for history buffs. Even William the Conqueror’s boat, the “Mora”, was built up the road at Barfleur – and very many of his warriors
were recruited locally, Anneville en Saire provided several.
For many years after the 1066 invasion England was ruled out of Lower Normandy, with
Barfleur being the usual setting off point – more often than not to somewhere in Chichester Harbour. It was on one of these “shuttle” crossings, in 1120,
that the drunken skipper of the “White Ship” tried to cut a corner and ran on the rocks. Except for a butcher’s boy who swam ashore, everyone was drowned,
including the King’s heir and much of the nobility.
Down the road from Hibou Blanc is the hamlet of Morsaline, where King Edward III landed in 1337 with an advance party to establish the Base Camp where he
trained his army for the start of the Hundred Years War and the beginning of Anglo Norman dominance over France. It was in the nearby parish church of
Quettehou – a Viking name - that his 14 year old son, the famous Black Prince, was knighted.
Morsaline was back in the news in 1692 when the French Navy, battered to a stand-still, but not defeated, by an Anglo-Dutch fleet at the Battle of Barfleur,
put into Morsaline Bay – planning to beach their ships as the tide fell, so that the Brits might not pursue over the shallow sands. But they reckoned
without the cunning of British seamanship, for the Royal Navy sailed in tiny fire boats. The purpose of the French Fleet had been to convey James II,
Catholic pretender to the British throne, to England. But, as he waited at nearby Château de Quineville, now a hotel, he had to watch his hopes to the
throne go up in smoke – literally.
Understandably the French were keen to prevent a repeat of this humiliation and so had the great French military architect,
Vauban, build the two defensive towers, which now form such a pleasing feature of the view from Hibou Blanc.
The XVIII century was kind to the nearby town of Valognes, where many beautiful “hôtels particuliers” (large and elegant town-houses) were built, earning
the town the soubriquet “Versailles of the North”. Meanwhile, a local minor aristocrat and politician, the Comte de Tocqueville, made a huge contribution
to the study and understanding of democracy. Apart from Cherbourg’s role as a leading transatlantic port, with the coming of the ocean liner in the early XXth
century, life in the Cotentin was fairly peaceful until the outbreak of WWII – and the Region’s pivotal role in the Great Normandy Landings.
D Day and the Normandy Landings
On 6th June 1944 Hibou Blanc would have provided a wonderful, but lethally dangerous Grandstand from which to observe the 5000 strong Armada of Allied
vessels which carried some 160,000 personnel in “the greatest amphibious invasion in the history of man”, generally known as D-Day or “Operation Overlord”.
But the danger would not have come from the Germans (who had other things on their minds by then), but from our own Allied bombardment.
La Pernelle’s Church and ancient Mairie occupy about the highest point on the Eastern coastline of the Cotentin and, during the war, the Germans had made
it a defensive nerve point with listening equipment, early radar, lookouts and lots of long range guns – well able to hit invasion ships 20 miles away – or more.
So, from the Allied point of view, La Pernelle had to be put out of action – or Overlord called off.
And so the Allies set out to smash La Pernelle. For some days before D Day the Allies mounted a massive bombardment by sea and air, with battleships
hurling huge armour piercing shells with well over 20 miles range – while the Allied Airforces carpet bombed the area. Imagine how life was for the Enault
family trying to run the farm where our house now is!
The actual first landings were 20 minutes down the coast at Utah Beach, backing up the airdrops of the night around Sainte Mere l’Eglise. South East from
Hibou Blanc (and around an hour’s drive) is Omaha Beach, scene of some of the worst fighting. Then come the British and other allied beaches, Gold, Sword and Juno -
and everywhere are graveyards of all nationalities, beautifully kept and heart breaking in the sheer youth of the dead.
But that was just the beginning - and military enthusiasts will find more battlefields in all directions, as well as excellent museums. This area is the
military history buff’s idea of heaven.
What about Cherbourg?
Good question. It’s the best harbour for miles and miles and so the Nazis had ordered a warren of gun tunnels to defend it, dug out of the cliffs overlooking
the harbour, and built, mostly with slave labour and at terrible human cost. The whole set up is well worth a visit and it’s scary. But it was useless. The
Allies came up the road from Valognes to the South and the massive guns could not be turned round, so its defenders were eventually simply starved out. Simples!