A Tour of the Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches
By Mary Anne Evans
There’s an extraordinary sight coming up in June this year that will probably never be seen again. It takes place around Duxford Airfield on June 2 to 4 when members of the Free fall teams, wearing WWII-style Allied uniforms and using military parachutes, practice jumping from a fleet of over 38 original Dakotas from World War II. On June 5 they fly over to Normandy, so if you happen to be in Colchester, Southend-on-Sea, Maidstone and Eastbourne from around 2pm to 3pm, look up at the skies to see them on their way. Arriving in France around 4pm, they fly over Le Havre to land at Caen-Carpiquet Airport around 4pm to 5.15pm.
This is the most spectacular event of the 75th anniversary of the Normandy D-Day Landings. With so few veterans left this will probably be the last great occasion to commemorate the battle that began in the early hours of June 6, 1944.
The French, the Brits, the Americans, Canadians and other of the world War II Allied nations have pulled out all the stops for this year. But don’t worry if you miss the events taking place at most of the museums and major sites from May to the end of June, there’s plenty to see throughout the year. New museums have opened, older ones have been refurbished, and visitor centres built.
So it’s a question of picking and choosing what to see. Having recently done a 5-day tour of the Normandy beaches, here’s my recommended selection.
Our plan was to cover all five beaches along the 50 mile stretch from the Cotentin Peninsula and Utah Beach in the west to Pegasus Bridge and the Orne estuary in the east. We booked accommodation in advance (absolutely necessary at popular times of the year) and reckoned we had filled every day. What we hadn’t reckoned with was the number of small, less well-known (or unknown) cemeteries, bunkers, memorials and sites that every day made us stop the car, get out and explore. Lunch became a luxury.
We took Brittany Ferries from the UK to Caen, slipping out of Portsmouth past an array of British navy ships from Nelson’s HMS Victory to the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. It seemed an appropriate start.
The 8.15am morning ferry from Portsmouth arrives in the French port of Ouistrehem at 3pm. We were staying in Caen that night, so we drove for 20 minutes to the Mémorial de Caen which has to be one of the main stops on any Normandy Landing Beach tour. If you can make it your first stop as we did, all the better.
The Mémorial de Caen is the best place for an easily digestible and comprehensive lesson on the overall history of World War II. Once you’ve visited (and absorbed as much as you can), it’s so much easier to slot in the individual museums, memorials, cemeteries, batteries and trails you’ll visit, each telling their own story.
The Mémorial de Caen is a big museum. Do as we did and start with the main exhibition, walking down a circular ramp revealing the background to World War II, and starting in 1918. Old photographs and small screens showing scratchy black-and-white films tell the story of the failure of the League of Nations, the great depression of the 1930s, the rise of Hitler, the Nuremberg rallies and the persecution of the Jews.
Then it’s full on into the run-up to the war with British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s appeasement speech, heard on a crackly radio, making uncomfortable listening for the Brits.
But this isn’t a comfortable museum; it tells the story as it happened, good and bad. It covers the French Vichy government; the Resistance; collaboration; the Holocaust; the Japanese-Chinese conflict and more, warts and all.
The Memorial’s displays cover every global region affected, providing an impressive in-depth look at the total warfare of World War II with a comprehensive collection of artefacts of every kind, posters, films, models and life-like diorama settings of everything from war rooms to houses in occupied France.
There are tales of incredible courage – like that of the French Resistance hero, Jean Moulin, who died under torture in Lyon. Alongside these are some of those wacky ideas that people come up with under immense pressure. We couldn’t believe the small size of the doll-like hessian dummies parachuted over north France in huge numbers to confuse the Germans as to where the main Allied landing was to take place. They had Pintails attached to simulate rifle fire as they came down and a device to blow themselves up on landing and they were very effective.
Even the inevitable parties of French schoolchildren were drawn in and were relatively quiet.
The Contentin Peninsula
Next day we drove west from Caen to the Cotentin Peninsula. Three sites drew us to Utah Beach on the east coast of the Cotentin and our first step into the story of Operation Overlord, the Battle of Normandy’s code name. Utah Beach was vital to take so the Allies could cut off the peninsula and effectively block the vital harbour of Cherbourg to the north from the Germans.
Driving into the small village of Sainte-Mère-Eglise comes as a surprise to those who haven’t seen The Longest Day (is that anybody?). The first sight is a model of the American paratrooper John Steele of the 82nd Airborne Division hanging by his parachute from the church steeple. He must be the most photographed model in France. He was spotted after two hours pretending to be dead, taken down, managed to escape and survived the war.
Next to the church the Airborne Museum covers the airborne assault that took place in and around the village. Unlike the Caen Memorial, it’s a small museum with just 3 buildings. Step into Operation Neptune and you walk into a C-47 aircraft where you get the impression you’re flying over the channel and dropping by parachute into Sainte-Mère-Eglise. It’s fairly realistic and is great for children. Another building houses a Douglas C47 (the RAF Dakota), one of the aircraft that dropped over 50,000 allied paratroopers during the first few days of the invasion.
But it’s the exhibit around a horribly flimsy Waco CG-4A combat glider, a machine known pessimistically (but realistically), as the ‘flying coffin’ that has the most impact. The glider-borne infantry and their pilots faced not just the dangers of their unprotected aircraft guided by instruments that were basic to say the least. Once through a barrage of firepower, they faced landing in ‘Rommel’s asparagus’, a network of 10-foot poles wired together with explosives. As General Westmoreland, chief of staff of the 9th Infantry Division remarked: “They were the only aviators during World War II who had no motors, no parachutes, and no second chances.”
I found the museum, with its simple exhibits of uniforms and equipment displayed in cases around the walls quietly effective. It depicts a conflict that is now 75 years ago, and is a world apart from today’s cyber, computer-driven warfare. Used to sophisticated museum displays, and to the larger-than-life war films that distance us from reality, it’s easy to forget how technically crude World War II was, and how much luck played a part.
The museums along the beaches may be the main attractions, but to get the full story of the defences the Germans had, visit some of the huge, ugly and menacing concrete batteries that were part of the defensive Atlantic Wall that Hitler had built from Norway to the Spanish border.
The US 4th Division storming Utah beach at 6.30am faced German guns firing from the Azeville Battery, just 3 miles from Sainte-Mère-Eglise.
We walked along the 350 metres of damp, dark underground paths that connect the bunkers, listening to the audio guide that described the layout and the life of the soldiers garrisoned there. From the narrow slits, we looked out at the grey sea, imagining the reaction of the soldier who, early in the morning of June 6, saw the mists clear and the horrifying site of the vast armada of American naval ships approaching the shore. The meticulous planning of the Allies had confused the Germans and even on the afternoon of June 6, Hitler had no idea what was really happening. “Well, is it or isn’t it the invasion?” he asked Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel.
One of the American war ships, the USS Nevada, made quick work of Azeville, firing a shell that blew out the World War I guns installed there and killed 15 Germans with the blast. Today the bunkers, their walls still showing the camouflaged paint depicting tree-covered walls, stand in a windswept field. It was bunkers like these, built between 1942 and 1944, that were replicated along the 1,670 mile route to create Hitler’s extraordinary ‘Fortress Europe’.
Utah Landing Museum
It’s a quick 20-minute drive along the coast from Azeville to Utah beach and the Landing Museum, located at the place where on June 6, 23,000 American soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division landed and stormed the beach, way off the initial target area.
“We’ll start the war from right here” General Ted Roosevelt Jr. said to his battalion commanders as the troops disembarked and the Utah beach assault began.
The well laid out museum was one of the real highlights of the trip and we got a very real picture of the progress of the liberation of Normandy. The story of the combined air battle, naval battle and the actual landings start with Victory in the Sand, one of the best films we saw, with footage of the ships, the landing craft and the assault.
In the museum, a series of excellent displays, dioramas, models and videos fill in the details of the suffering of the residents in this part of Normandy during the German occupation and the allied strategy led by ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
There are testimonies of the troops who were there and letters from those who never saw them again; the bible which stopped a bullet of one Sergeant Louis Harvard which and saved his life; German maps; Allied maps; photos of the soldiers, and cases showing incidents like the sinking of the destroyer USS Corry at 6.30am after the Free French Air Force plane protecting the ship was shot down.
For my partner Alastair, and a whole slew of aircraft enthusiasts, the high point is a B26 Marauder aircraft, a 12-tonne bomber that was so effective over the Normandy coast on D-Day. Housed its own glass-clad hangar, it’s one of only 6 still existing Marauders and the only one outside the USA.
For me, it was the small wooden briefing room where a film and radio recreates the instructions given to those about to set off on this hugely risky, totally unknown battle. The casualties for the Infantry Division landing on Utah Beach were light; from the 23,000 troops landing here there were only 197 casualties. The airborne troops suffered most; from the 14,000 men landing by parachute and in gliders there were 2,500 casualties.
Batteries above Omaha Beach
Today the marshlands on either side of the little Douve estuary that separates Utah Beach from Omaha are peaceful, a place of meandering lanes leading to nowhere and inhabited only by wild birds. When the tide is out the beaches seem to stretch for miles. To launch the enormous one-off, now-or-never assault involving so many men and so much firepower on June 5, 1944 in uncertain weather, was a formidable decision to have to make.
On June 6, there were two batteries aimed at both Utah and Omaha beaches. But whereas Pointe du Hoc was well known to the allies, the Germans had managed to keep the nearby Maisy battery totally secret. After the war it remained hidden for another 60 years until the British military historian, Gary Sterne, discovered its whereabouts from an old map hidden in a US Army uniform he’d bought. He bought the fields where he suspected the battery had been built and started to excavate in 2006.
The Maisy Battery is run today by his son Dan who accompanied by two delightful Labradors greets you in the small hut at the entrance. He’s more than happy to talk about the discovery of the site which involved taking on established military historians who refused to believe that there was a Maisy battery. It’s well worth hearing the story first-hand before walking along the 1.5 miles of original German trenches, past bunkers, tunnels and emplacements where rusting guns stand frozen in time. The Maisy battery was one of the largest German batteries and even today with so little of it excavated, you get the idea of the sheer scale of the Atlantic Wall defenses.
Pointe du Hoc
It was thought vital to take Pointe du Hoc to ensure the success of the Omaha Beach assault. At 7.10am, the American 2nd Ranger Battalion came ashore; their task to scale the 100-ft cliff and take the battery. We walked past the boards telling the story of some of the men and of the assault itself, then onto a headland still pitted with craters from the allied bombardment. Standing on the ruins of the gun emplacements at the top of the sheer cliff, we tried to imagine the Rangers firing guns with attached rope ladders and grappling irons onto the ridge to make the perilous climb. They came under heavy rifle and machinegun fire but strangely no heavy artillery. Once they had reached the top and overcome the battery they found no major artillery on the site. The earlier bombardment had been so effective the Germans had moved the guns away. Despite the success, this was a punishing assault and from an initial force of over 225 men, only 90 remained to fight.
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.