A Tour of the Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches – Part 2
By Mary Anne Evans
The landings at Omaha Beach were the most hazardous and difficult and the American troops suffered their greatest losses here. If you’ve seen The Longest Day, you’ll get the sheer scale of the operation by the American 2st and 29th Infantry Division along with the Rangers deployed from Pointe du Hoc.
There are several relatively small museums about Omaha Beach, but with time passing, we went straight to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer.
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
From the entrance, a curved path on the cliffs above the sea meanders past a look-out point with a map of the landings on the beach below. Trees along the path hid the cemetery established by the US First Army on June 8, 1944 so we had no idea of the sheer size of the cemetery. At the far end, two granite statues representing American and France stand on either side of a small building; beyond that there’s a view towards the church steeple of Vierville-sur-Mer.
At the other end, a vast statue marks the circular memorial area. The pool in front with its fountain reflects the sky and on each side loggias are covered in mosaics depicting the landings. To the east there’s a garden where the names of the 1,557 Americans who died but whose bodies were never found, are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing.
A central walkway runs between gently sloping green lawns of ten grave sections, five on each side of the path. Stretching out in precise lines are 9,380 white grave stones, a Star of David for the Jewish graves, a Latin cross for all the other Christian denominations.
Walking along between the graves, we were shocked by the young age of so many of the troops. 18 years seemed to be the average.
They are not buried by rank, and as we wandered by the white stones we found the headstone of Army general Lesley J. McNair, one of two of the highest-ranking Americans killed in World War II, killed near St-Lôon July 26, and surrounded by ordinary troops. Elsewhere we came across the two Niland brothers who inspired the film Saving Private Ryan.
The Cemetery itself is moving but I strongly recommend making time to go into the Visitor Center where a series of panels and three films document the lives of a very few soldiers. Images show the fresh-faced soldiers; panels give the details of their lives and backgrounds, and there are films of their relatives talking about the young boys who set off so full of bravado, of their hopes and dreams, and of the impact that the news of their deaths had on those at home.
To the Mulberry Harbour
We drove further east along the coast, stopping at the four huge casemates at the battery at Longes-sur-Mer. We walked out to the major look-out point used for observations which were then transmitted by radio to the heavy guns in the battery behind them. Omaha Beach stretched out to the west, with Gold Beach to the east where huge chunks of concrete and rusting metal sat isolated 1 mile out from the shore. These were the remnants of the Mulberry Harbours built around Arromanches-les-Bains, our next stop and remarkably close.
We arrived at Arromanches-les-Bains at 1.15pm and in true French fashion in the off season, the D-Day Museum was shut for lunch. Steering clear of the school children eating their cold packed lunches along the front we made for the Hôtel de Normandie for mussels and chips for Alastair and fish soup with all the trimmings for myself. Mock Tiffany lamps hanging from the ceiling, a faded mural on the wall of a dance, wooden floors, glass dividers and a soundtrack straight out of the 1940s hit the spot perfectly. It brought home the charm of this small town which without the museum would just be a slightly faded seaside resort.
The D-Day Museum
The D-Day Museum itself is small with fairly standard items. What makes the museum stand out is the large, accurate model of the astonishing Mulberry Harbour, its construction a major feat of British engineering. Built to keep the Allied troops supplied in the midst of the fighting, units vital for building the harbour left England by ship on the evening of June 5. Construction started on June 7 when old rusting merchant ships were anchored to form part of the outer breakwater. With the 115 huge concrete boxes brought from the UK in place, the protective sea wall was complete. Three landing wharves were installed within the sea wall to unload supplies, troops, vehicles and munitions. The artificial harbour had to be heavily defended; guns were set up on the breakwater; barrage balloons were floated and artificial fog created every night to hide the harbor. It was an extraordinary project built in the heat of the battles.
The model, which shifts slightly to emulate the tide, is fascinating in its detail and it’s a good idea to make enough time to see it properly. We had to cut the visit short as we’d booked for the film shown at Arromanches 360 just up the hill from the main town. It’s an immersive 19-minute film in the round showing the 100 days of the conflict. Some of the schoolchildren we’d been avoiding at the museum were there and clearly this was the first time they had seen much of the genuine footage. Even we were a little shaken by the clip of an Army medic sewing back the cheek of a soldier with what looked like a standard needle and thread.
Juno Beach Centre
Each of the museums we visited had its own unique take on the D-Day landing, and the Juno Beach Centre was no exception. Founded and funded by a group of Canadian World War II veterans, their widows and children, the non-profit organisation is now run by a board in Canada. It’s staffed by young Canadians who come to work here for a year, and their enthusiasm and knowledge is inspirational.
The museum takes the Canadian point of view, starting with World War I when conscripted Canadians fought alongside the Brits and other Commonwealth troops. It goes through the 1930s in Canada, then you’re swept into the war as old radios tune in to the voices of Hitler, and of Chamberlain and the Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King declaring war on September 10th 1939.
I found the details fascinating about the war effort back home and the tough daily life of rural Canada. I’d known about the British kids shipped to Australia but not the 7,000 kids evacuated to Canada; nor that Canadian troops fought in the battles of Italy, Normandy, the Scheldt, Rhineland and Victory and over 45,000 Canadians died. The film They Walk with You takes you through the fortunes and misfortunes of an infantry soldier during the landings with war footage so real you almost feel the shock of jumping into the sea from the landing craft and running forward onto the beach.
The museum brings you right up to date with a final look at Canada today, revealing facts about Canada’s 10 provinces and 3 territories, its 31 million population and 60 languages spoken daily apart from its 2 official languages.
We joined a tour outside, led by Juno Beach guides, walking down into a bunker complex that was started in 1942 then adapted over the years as the innovations of war changed the needs of defence. A long passageway takes you to the observation post and a tobruk, one of the single firing posts that dot the fields near every bunker. The underground command post that was so vital to the Germans was opened relatively recently in 2014. It had been lost in the shifting sands after the war and only discovered in 2010. There were 30 such bunkers along this 1 mile stretch leaving the intriguing question of how many more are still buried and what they might reveal.
One major museum remained on our tour. The Pegasus Bridge Memorial commemorates the battle for Sword Beach, the furthest east of the five landing beaches. Here the aim was to take the Orne river and the canal to secure the major shipping channel from Caen to the sea. The British 6th Airborne Division was to jump first, capture the battery at Merville on the coast and secure the canal. They were joined by the 3rd Canadian Division and the 2nd Battalion infantry, landing in Horsa and Hamilcar gliders which were almost spot on the target of the bridge at Benouville on the river leading into Caen. Other gliders landed to take the Ranville swing bridge.
Pegasus Bridge Memorial is a small museum full of interest and like the others, is exceptionally well laid out in sections that take you through the simultaneous events chronologically.
In these sections, it’s the small items that intrigue. There are Czechoslovakian gas masks used by the French; special radio sets made by civilians to listen to the BBC broadcasts and ‘one shot’ weapons like pistol pens for Resistance fighters; detailed plans for the attack; photographs of the bombardments; stories of allied soldiers saving Germans from burning tanks; instructions on how to treat ‘wound shock’ show the grim reality. There’s a more light hearted note with the story of Lord Lovat, the larger-than-life experienced commander of 1st Special Service Brigade. He ordered his personal piper, Bill Millin, to pipe his troops ashore (forbidden of course). “I’m sorry we’re a few minutes late”, was Lord Lovat’s greeting to the British airborne troops when he met up with them at the Orne river bridge.
A hut outside the museum, surrounded by tanks and guns, covers the invention and construction of the invaluable Bailey Bridge that was first used here. Another covers the glider and outside there’s a copy of a Horsa glider – fragile but capable of carrying 28 men, or equipment and guns up to 7 tons. The original bridge which stands in the ground was renamed the Pegasus Bridge on June 26, 1944 after the Pegasus insignia worn by the men of the British airborne division on their sleeves. One of the pleasures of such a trip is the amount of (trivial) information you pick up on the way. How many people know that the insignia had been chosen by the author Daphne du Maurier, who was married to General Sir Frederick Browning, the wartime commander of the British airborne forces? I certainly didn’t until this trip.
This was the last of the highlights, but we had managed to sneak in much more on our trip (by missing lunch). On the way to Pegasus Bridge we stopped on a small road to see the Hillman Battery, captured by the 1st Battalion Suffolk Regiment, and walked through fields to the command posts and a concrete platform where German tanks could cross the network of trenches in the ground that concealed the soldiers. The only other visitors was a coach party from Bournemouth in the UK on a World War II trip.
We visited the Merville-Franceville Battery on the coast near Cabourg where we read about the events inside the bunkers, accompanied by loud random bangs emulating the explosions and fire endured by the German soldiers inside.
We stopped at the German cemetery at La Cambe, an austere burial ground where the small, simple hand-engraved stones of 21,000 German soldiers are laid flat in the grass. All that breaks the large green lawn is an artificial mound topped by a cross and two figures, sets of 5 crosses upright in the grass placed at regular intervals, and mature trees.
We managed a quick visit to the new Overlord Museum which for a war vehicle enthusiast is a must-see. Even I found myself peering into the realistic dioramas trying to work out how pistons, tank tracks and field guns worked.
With time to spare before the afternoon ferry back to the UK, we drove to the statue of Lord Lovat’s piper Bill Millin, rather incongruously placed at the entrance to an overground parking lot along the coast. Then we walked up the tower of the Grand Bunker Atlantic Wall Museum in Ouistreham to the top where there’s a 25-mile view (on a clear day) over the Channel. On the way we peered through the glass into small rooms where radio operators crouched over their machines, the injured were treated and generators kept the whole place running. Remarkably this massive structure was never bombed.
The long and beautiful stretches of sandy beaches along this part of the Normandy coast that now attract holiday makers, dog walkers, people sand yachting and small children paddling in the water seem a far cry from the D-Day landings. But you’re closer to the past than you think. A couple of scientists in America tested the sand from Omaha Beach and discovered that 4% is made up of miniscule fragments of shrapnel, iron and glass. They concluded that it had come from World War II. There’s still a link to Eisenhower’s ‘great and noble undertaking’.
More information on the D-Day Landing commemorations from the Normandy Tourist Office website.
Mech Traveller, run by my partner Alastair Mackenzie, is a great site for all things technical. If you’re interested in military museums, ship museums, battlefields and such like, check it out here.
The Manoir de la Rivière in Géfosse-Fontenay near Grandcamp-Maisy and Pointe du Hoc was a real find. The lovely stone manor house has 3 spacious rooms with period furnishings, views over the countryside from the bedroom windows and modern bathrooms. There’s a downstairs room with a large fireplace where you have dinner and breakfast. The owners, Gérard and Isabelle Leharivel, give you a hearty, friendly welcome and can arrange local activities like fishing, visits to farms and more.
Hôtel de la Reine Mathilde is in the center of pretty Bayeux. We had a large, well-equipped room in a separate building overlooking the canal. Dinner and breakfast were in the informal café which doubles as a popular local bar.
La Ferme de la Rançonnière is one of my favourite hotels in Normandy. Between Arromanches-sur-Mer and the Juno Beach Museum, it’s an old manor house converted into a supremely comfortable hotel, privately owned and part of the Logis de France chain. We luxuriated in our spacious suite with mullioned windows, wooden floors, stone walls, and a superb bathroom, and indulged ourselves with one of the best meals of the trip. We finished in a separate bar by a crackling fire, nursing a glass of vintage Calvados.
Mary Anne Evans is a former magazine editor and now a freelance travel writer living in London but partly spending her time at her 400-year old house in the remote French area of the Auvergne. She is the author of guide books to Brussels, Bruges, and Stockholm, and contributes to Frommer’s Guides to London and France. She also writes extensively about Scandinavia and the Nordic countries. Her website is Mary Anne’s France.