D-Day: Tuesday the 6th of June 1944, the day the Allied forces invaded Normandy to liberate France from the Nazis. At midnight the German fortifications were under bombardment from the air, and a few strategic actions were carried out by Airborne Divisions, then at 0630, troops started landing on a selection of beaches lining the channel. And what's been called on film 'The Longest Day' thundered on.
These days the beaches where these actions took place are largely sandy and sunny, in contrast to the heavy, historic military actions that took place along them. Where there were flooded fields, now there is neatly rolling grass dotted with wild flowers, the concrete bunkers are grown over with green, or smoothed by sea water, and inside them the guns are in cabinets or stand guard rustily rather than readily. These changes, and the friendliness of the villages that sit alongside the serene rows of white plaques or crosses in the war cemeteries may help sell the idea of travelling to Normandy to the less historically inclined, but for lots of visitors it's the history they've come to meet first hand.
Many local guides specialise in helping families follow in the footsteps of relatives who served, there are eight marked, invasion themed routes which Normandy's Tourist Board has free maps for, or you can plan your own route between the main points of interest. Many of Normandy's beaches are still referred to on maps and signposts by their Operation Overlord, Normandy Invasion code names. In beach side towns many streets are named after the forces who liberated them and there are markers on the sites of many of the most significant battles, such as the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc and the Pegasus Bridge, and off the coast from Arromanches you can still see the remains of the Mulberry harbour, which was the man made temporary harbour dragged from England that enabled a full scale invasion bypassing the heavily fortified ports.
It makes sense to begin your journey where the troops did, on the beaches. The section of Normandy coast to be landed on was split into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Each battle was very different even though they went on side by side.
Utah was the the right, or westernmost flank of of D-Day landing zone between the villages of La Madeline and Pouppeville. Here the U.S. 4th Infantry Division came ashore with little resistance – the forces lost only about 200 of roughly 23,000 troops. Two hours before the main invasion force, a raiding party, armed only with knives, swam ashore at Îles Saint-Marcouf, thought to be a German observation post and found it unoccupied. They then met more luck when they were blown off course onto safer landing positions. The attack was lead by a 57 year old Teddy Roosevelt Jr. (son of President Roosevelt), famous for saying of the new landing positions: “We will start the war from here.”.
Omaha is the five miles of beach between Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes and Vierville-sur-Mer, where the 1st Infantry Division and 29th Infantry Division fought the German 352nd Infantry Division on D-Day. This is the beach where the stories of 'The Longest Day' and 'Saving Private Ryan' come from. Things didn't go to plan here. As well as the defending forces proving to be stronger and more experienced than intelligence suggested, landing troops had to content with some serious fortifications and many of them were pushed further east than they expected by the current. The landing parties struggled with the sand banks and men had to wade for 200 metres though the water so hit the shingle at a walk, laden with weapons – if they didn't have to loose their weapons to swim ashore. Of the 16 tanks that were landed only two survived the landing, and many commanding officers were lost in the first waves so there was more confusion amongst survivors, many who were pinned down by the water's edge or bottlenecking up on the booby trapped beach trying to break though the exits off it.
They eventually forged new exits up the cliffs and began to creep off the beach, but casualties were high, losses at 10%., and the pathways couldn't support vehicles. Of the 2,400 tons of supplies scheduled to be landed on D-Day, only 100 tons actually landed.
Today at Omaha jagged remains of the harbour can be seen at low tide, but the shingle bank is gone, its was cleared by engineers in the days following the landing to help supply movement off the beach. The layout is the same though, and there remains of the concrete defences remain. On the bluff overlooking Colleville is the American Cemetery.
The primary D-Day objectives for the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division landing on Gold Beach, was to to establish a beachhead between Arromanches and Ver-sur-Mer – this was the spot chosen for the creation of the artificial harbour. The German 716th Static Infantry Division and units of the 352nd Division were the ones standing in their way. Casualties here were heavy. Partly because the swimming tanks were delayed because they had too far to come in to shore, and partly because the Germans had strong fortifications on the beach, but the aerial attacks had taken out a lot of the most threatening gun positions and once engineers managed to get in and start clearing mines the invasion force was able to push through – by early evening 25,000 men had landed and the forward forces were about 8kms inland, joined with the Canadians coming on shore at Juno Beach.
Juno was also known as Canadian Beach because it was Canadian forces, the 3rd Canadian Infantry, who were assigned this beach from Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer on the east to Courseulles-sur-Mer on the west. The Germans were dug in well here with 14 heavy batteries, and plenty of machine gun nests and pillboxes and other concrete fortifications for the landing forces to contend with, which can still be seen today. The first wave suffered 50% casualties, but the beach was taken in a matter of hours and by noon the bulk of 3rd Division was ashore, and the forward forces has pushed several kilometres inland. By the end of the day 15,000 Canadian troops were landed.
A single troop of four tanks of the 1st Hussars reached the division's final objective line before nightfall (the Caen–Bayeux highway), but was forced to pull back because they had passed the supporting infantry – this is the force that came closest to completing its D-Day objectives, despite heavy resistance at the water's edge. The Juno Beach Centre commemorating the events that took place here, is the maple leaf shaped building just back from the dunes.
Sword was the eastern most of the D-Day landing beaches, stretching 8 km between Ouistreham and Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer. The British 3rd Division and 27th Armoured Brigade were the main forces landed here, and their main objective was the city of Caen. The invading forces met with little resistance on Sword, by 0800hrs most of the fighting on the beach was over, by 1300hrs troops met with paratroopers, and they all managed to advance 8kms inland by the end of the day.
However, Sword Beach experienced the only real counter-attack by the Germans on 6 June. British troops had been unable to link up with Canadian troops from Juno – as had been planned – and they were attacked by men from the German 21st Panzer Division.
Several actions took place inland before the taking of the beaches, two of the most famous being the taking of Pegasus Bridge and the Melville Battery. The bridge, which the allies would need to hold to forge inland, has been replaced but kept on sight. Here the first actions of D-Day took place. If you visit the Pegaus Memorial Museum on the eastern side of the new bridge, a short distance away in Ranville is a churchyard where you can visit the grave of the first soldier to die as part of the D-Day action, Lt. Botheridge, who has a plaque on his grave stone from the family Gondrée, whose house near Pegasus Bridge was the first to be liberated. The house is now a cafe run by members of the same family. Ranville War Cemetery is next door, where around 2,230 Allied soldiers and 322 Germans are buried.
The Merville Battery Museum has been installed in one of the remaining battery towers where you can learn more about the actions that took place here when men of the 9th Battalion stormed this gun tower in the early hours of June 6th to prevent it firing against the landing parties nearing the coast.
As the troops and those ever following them head inland there are more sites of notable action to include on your route. In Sainte-Mère-Église, a dummy paratrooper hangs from the church spire, and in Caen, visit the original chapel of Ardenne Abbey, where there's a memorial to 18 Canadian soldiers who were captured and killed in the first days of the inwards push.
Caen was a key town to take and has many monuments to the war, but also a Museum for Peace, often referred to as one of the best WW2 museums in the world. It traces a literal downward spiral towards war before chronicling the events that took place here during the liberation and the Cold War that followed. The two films shown are riveting – "Jour J" traces the lead up to the invasion and features real battlefield footage. Bayeux was the first town to be liberated in the Normandy invasion. Its bunker shaped museum to D-Day, or Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie, has a large and impressive collection of tanks on its grounds, including a M10 Tank Destroyer and a Flame Thrower Crocodile Tank. The Bayeux Commonwealth War Cemetery, second largest Commonwealth cemetery in Normandy is across the road from the bunker.
In Arromanches there's a theatre showing, in the round on nine screens, further footage taken during the invasion, as well as views of the Mulberry harbour off shore. The Atlantic Wall Museum, at the entrance to the River Orne, has been built inside s huge concrete bunker that made up part of this epic German fortification. Inside there are reconstructed quarters and artefacts, including a 18mm flak gun, and a German rangefinder and a ladder up to the roof for impressive views out to the channel, and outside there are some reconstructed landing craft, including some used in the film 'Saving Private Ryan', and a one tonne German flying bomb like the ones used on London during the Blitz.
It's a sad reality that many visits to Normandy to follow in the footsteps of a family member end in a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, but it's just as difficult an ending for German visitors. The largest of Normandy's cemeteries is the La Cambe German War Cemetery, which, with its low tablets just raised off the round, looks very different from the rows of crosses and plain white military markers of the Commonwealth cemeteries. The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is one of the largest Allied cemeteries with 9,387 American Service Personnel, and the names of 1,557 more who were missing or remain unidentified.
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