A personal account of a tour of the Normandy Landing Beaches
by Brenda Warneka
As my husband and I picked up our rental car at Charles de Gaulle International Airport and headed west from Paris to Normandy, we looked forward to reliving "Operation Overlord," the military campaign led by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, in June 1944, that would free Europe from the Nazi occupation.
We arrived in Caen, about 150 miles from Paris, in mid-afternoon and checked into our hotel. Caen is located on the Orne River, and is famous for its connection to William the Conqueror.
Favourite tourist sites in Caen include magnificent twin abbeys founded by William and his wife, Mathilda of Flanders, in 1060 as penance to the Pope, and the ruins of Ducal Castle, their favourite residence.
One of the first objectives of Operation Overlord was to take control of Caen. German resistance at Caen was stiff, and 10,000 tons of Allied bombs demolished three-quarters of its buildings, destroying and burning the city center, before the city was liberated by Canadian and British Forces on July 9, 1944. We initially saw no signs of the bitter battle as we walked about the thoroughly modern city that has arisen from its ashes.
Then, a very high cathedral, not far from our hotel, caught our eye. This slightly staggering structure seemed in danger of toppling over, and we joked about the failings of the architect; we had never seen a cathedral with such a tilt to it. However, we suddenly fell silent as we realized why the cathedral tilts. It must be the result of vibrations from exploding bombs during the liberation.
The next morning, we started our exploration of the D-Day landing sites where, on June 6, 1944, the Allies launched the most ambitious amphibious operation ever undertaken, from a 5,000-ship armada assembled off the Normandy coast.
We drove several miles from Caen to the Pegasus Bridge at Benouville, then followed the coast in a westerly direction to the beaches code-named "Sword," "Juno," and "Gold." These are the sites where the British and Canadian forces landed. The American landing beaches are further to the west. A unit of Free French soldiers, loyal to General Charles de Gaulle, went ashore as part of a British brigade at Sword Beach.
Even though it was only October when we were there, the small seaport villages along the northern coast of France were already battened down for the winter, and almost devoid of tourists. The beaches were peaceful and deserted: long stretches of white sand and deep blue water as far as the eye could see. It was hard to envision the chaos of the morning of June 6, 1944, as 100,000 Allied soldiers scrambled ashore from landing craft, in the face of German fire from reinforced concrete bunkers stretching along the beach.
We imagined members of the French Resistance listening clandestinely to wireless radio the evening before the landings took place, as the BBC gave coded announcements that the invasion was about to begin. The announcements were the signal for the Resistance to dynamite railways and cut telephone lines across the country.
Twenty minutes after midnight, the first members of the liberation force, a handful of British soldiers from the 6th Airborne Division, arrived by glider to take over the Pegasus Bridge on the Caen-Ouistreham Canal outside Caen. This small bridge was important because it was one of only two passing points over the River Orne linking Caen to the sea.
American parachutists from the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions then began dropping over Sainte Mere Eglise and the Cotentin Peninsula. At 4:40 a.m., Sainte Mere Eglise was captured by a regiment of the U.S. 82d airborne division, the first French town to be liberated. By 6:30 a.m., the seaborne assaults had started at Omaha and Utah, followed over the next hour and a half by landings at Gold, Sword, and Juno.
The original Pegasus Bridge, now replaced by a larger, more modern bridge, is in a memorial park in the nearby village of Ranville. It is worthwhile to visit both the original site and the park with the original bridge, in order to fully imagine what it was like there that fateful morning.
By late afternoon, we were suffering the effects of jet lag. We returned to our hotel for an early dinner, delaying our bedtime only long enough to check CNN for the latest news from around the world.
We spent most of the next day at La Memorial de Caen, just northwest of the city. Le Memorial de Caen, which opened June 6, 1988, is dedicated to Peace, but it tells a story of war and violence. It is a "must see" for those who travel to Normandy to learn about World War II. Drawing 450,000 visitors a year, the museum offers film presentations, photographs, and posters that bring the wartime experiences home in a strikingly vivid manner.
We stopped for the night at Bayeux, which was liberated by British troops on June 8, 1944. The swift retreat by the Germans in this area left the medieval town without the war damage that was suffered in other places, and we were impressed with the historical architecture.
Bayeux is famous for the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot-long, two-foot-high embroidery dating from the 11th Century, which tells the story of William the Conqueror's conquest of England. One theory is that his queen Mathilda and her ladies-in-waiting made the tapestry.
The next morning, we visited Centre Fuillaume le Conquerant, the renovated seminary where the tapestry is on display. We listened, through audio head sets, to the historical account of events depicted by the tapestry as we walked slowly along the window in which it is displayed. The tapestry's embroidered William driving the traitor, Harold, out of England, reminded us that war may be endemic to the human condition.
After a brief stop for lunch, we headed for Arromanches les Bains, the site of the code-named "Mulberry Port," at the eastern end of Omaha Beach, several miles from Bayeux. Because the Allies needed a coastal port to handle the massive amount of provisions required to support the invasion, British ships undertook the unbelievable task of towing prefabricated parts across the English Channel to build an artificial port.
The brainchild of Winston Churchill, Eisenhower called the artificial harbor "The key to the liberation of France." Remains of the port are located offshore, and a museum at the site, the Musee du Debarquement, documents the port's history.
The next morning, it was windy and blowing a light rain as we stood on a knoll overlooking the stretch of Omaha Beach, where the main contingent of American forces landed early in the morning on June 6, 1944.
We envisioned waves of American soldiers, members of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, moving off the landing craft. Some drowned in the surf; others made it onto the beach, guns at ready, only to be met by steel obstacles that looked like children's giant jacks planted in the sand. A barrage of enemy fire came from concrete fortifications lining the beach. The Germans built these fortifications, "pillboxes," as the G.I.'s called them, as part of an "Atlantic Wall" along the coast, to guard against just such an attack.
Further west on Omaha Beach, which is about three miles long, at Pointe du Hoc, men from the U.S.2d Ranger Battalion advanced onto the beach toward a 100-foot cliff, which they scaled with the enemy firing down on them from above. More carnage.
Three thousand men died on Omaha Beach that day; just as many were wounded and missing. Only two of the twenty-nine tanks that rolled off the landing craft reached the shore intact.
The slaughter at Omaha was so bad that General Omar N. Bradley, watching offshore from aboard the U.S.S. Augusta, almost called a halt to this prong of the invasion. A simple granite pylon, erected by France on top of a concrete bunker, commemorates the brave souls lost at "Bloody Omaha."
That afternoon, we continued on to Utah Beach. Here, the U.S. 4th Infantry Division came ashore, suffering relatively few casualties, and pushed inland several miles that first day to link up with divisions that had come in by air. Among those who played a decisive role in the securing of this beachhead was Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
On Utah Beach, near the town of Sainte Marie du Mont, is the Musee du Debarquement d'Utah Beach, unique as a museum because it is built over what had been a German command post. Though badly deteriorated, guns, tanks, and landing craft on display outside the museum are representative of the military hardware of the time.
By the evening of June 6, 1944, although the Allied forces were not as far inland as they had hoped, and the British had not taken Caen as planned, they had established a beachhead all across the landing area. And, as time would prove, the Germans were never able to overcome the advantage that the Allies gained by the element of surprise when they invaded at Normandy, rather than at the expected invasion site, Pas de Calais, which is a much shorter distance across the English Channel.
The following day, we went to the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer. This 172.5-acre cemetery is American soil: land donated to the United States by the French government, free of charge or taxation, in perpetuity.
The skies were a threatening grey, and rain drops started to fall as we arrived at this final resting place for over 9,000 American soldiers. We walked past a tour guide who was lecturing about the Normandy invasion to a circle of elderly French veterans, sporting berets with military ribbons and insignia.
At the eastern end of the cemetery is a beautiful semi-circular limestone colonnade, featuring large mosaic battle maps inset in the walls at each end; a 22-foot bronze statute called "The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves"; "Tablets of the Missing," listing the names of 1,557 soldiers; and a chapel and memorial garden.
Looking out over the field of Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David, our hearts were heavy like the weather. We walked up and down the rows, reading aloud to each other--the names, the dates of birth, the dates of death, and the states from which these brave warriors hailed.
A young man, walking along the rows alone, stopped to ask us to take his picture. He was an American businessman who had decided to take a day tour from Paris to visit the Normandy landing beaches. We exchanged pleasantries.
The next day, we visited Saint Lo, a town that was reduced to “a pile of rubble,” before it was liberated on July 18, 1944, by the U.S. 29th Division. A memorial plaque, affixed to a large rock making up part of the medieval ramparts of the town, reads in French: "To the memory of the victims of the bombardment that destroyed the city of Saint Lo--June 6, 1944." The brasserie where we stopped for lunch had a very old sign in the window welcoming "The Liberators."
After lunch, we stopped at one of the private war museums that dot the route of the invading armies. The museum displays a wide variety of memorabilia from the Normandy invasion, including an American soldier's uniform, his rations, and his American cigarettes.
Our day wound up on a rocky outcrop above a medieval fishing village, overlooking the sea. We climbed around ugly concrete fortifications and military hardware on display around the lighthouse, at what is now a park. German sentries stood guard here, looking out over the Baie du Mont St Michel, waiting for the attack that came further up the coast.
The next morning, we headed to the monastery island of Mont St Michel, one of France's greatest tourist attractions. From there, we drove to the wine country of Bordeaux, then on to a Bed and Breakfast owned by American friends or ours in Forges, in south central France, before heading home from our trip.
We left the Normandy landing beaches behind with a renewed understanding of the sacrifices made by Americans and their Allies to free Europe from the tyranny of Nazism.
(see also Normandy Landing Beaches for a guide to visiting the beaches)
Credit: Brenda Warneka is is widely traveled in Europe and has a special interest in history. See more real stories in The Simple Touch of Fate available through Amazon