The Beaches of Normandy
July 6, 2019
Today is coincidentally 1 month to the day of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. After breakfast we drove to Bayeux to meet a local tour guide (Lena) for a private tour of the beaches.
Omaha Beach – We started our tour at Le Pont du Hoc on the western region of Omaha Beach. Lena showed us the bunkers and protectants that the Germans built over a period of 4 years at the top of the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach. She explained the role that this area played in the first hours of the campaign. To see firsthand the obstacles that the American soldiers overcame to reach the bunkers and move into the German community set up here, was astonishing. After walking the grounds and the bunkers at Le Pont du Hoc we drove down to Omaha Beach to hear more about the campaign and stories of the first few hours of the landing that were so important to the success of the campaign. Sitting at the top of the beach is Les Braves sculpture dedicated to the courage of the men who represented here that day 75 years ago. The area today is mostly beach filled with day users and tourists. But the number of flowers and memorials left at the statue which symbolize hope, freedom and fraternity are touching.
American Memorial Cemetery – We drove the coast of Omaha past the homes that now or still exist, most by locals who proudly fly the American flag in honor of what occurred here. Above the coast, we reached the American Memorial Cemetery & Visitors center. This brought it all into perspective, the museum located on the bottom floor of the Visitors Center addresses the events that occurred that day and provides a better understanding of the men and women who gave their lives through interactive displays, stories and films. The missing soldier display and the lost lives roll call are very moving as you move from the visitors center outside to the cemetery. The beautiful and peaceful grounds of the cemetery, the first American Cemetery on foreign ground, sits overlooking Omaha Beach and is the final home to almost 9,400 of our military dead from this campaign. Most who lost their lives that day. This site is a not to be missed when visiting the area.
St.-Mare-Eglise – After an hour long (Parisian style) lunch we ventured from Omaha Beach toward the Utah Beach region. Our first stop was St. Mare Eglise to visit the Airborne Museum & St. Mare Eglise church. This area was a key airborne location for the campaign more specifically the 82nd and 101st division paratroopers, which is why it is the home of the Airborne museum. The museum is a fantastic display of insight into the soldiers and their experience. Visiting the museum and seeing the church where paratroopers landed onto the evening of June 5th, and their stories were confirmed by the stained glass windows inside the church paying homage to the military who protected and saved the church from German destruction in the first phase of the campaign.
Utah Beach – Lena directed us next to the last area added to the D-day campaign in the 11th hour. General Eisenhower committing troops to landing in this area, approx. 50 km by land from Omaha, insured the stronghold of the region that the American’s would need for victory over the Germans. The beach was filled with day users and tourists, as would be expected of the beaches on a warm summer day. But, at the entrance to the beach is the Higgin’s Boat memorial with an exact replica of the vehicles used for arrival onto the landing beaches. Not far from the entrance to Utah Beach is the statue of Major Robert Niland who perished here on June 6th, Niland was one of the brother’s who inspired the movie, “Saving Private Ryan”.
Our last stop on our private tour was Angoville Au Plain. Only known to the locals and few, this small church, in a residential area just southwest of the Utah landing beach, is where 2 paratrooper medic heroes took sanctuary and set up an aid station to assist local French citizens and German soldiers who were injured during the fallout from the intense battle that took place in the area. Bloodstains and mortar shell holes in the building frame can still be seen to this day.
Arromanche-les-bains – Exhausted and stunned by what we had seen and learned, we dropped off our tour guide and headed to the last campaign site, which also happens to be near our B&B in Arromanche Les Bains. Now a resort town, in my opinion, of all the beaches, this is the most humbling to visit. Sitting inside the harbor off the beach, and some still on the beach, are large concrete blocks that remain from what was a portable artificial harbor, Port Winston, set up by the British and Canadian troops who landed at Juno beach after Winston Churchill. What was planned as a 3 month port, to land vehicles and supplies arriving in the area, post D-Day can still be seen today. This is the only beach location where the concrete caissons still exist and weren’t removed by the storm of the century later in June 1944. This quaint beach town was the perfect ending to our D-day experience with many restaurants, glacee’s (of course, this is still France) and shops to explore.
Overall thoughts – this is a location not to be missed when visiting France. Visiting on your own by car, or train, a tour group or with one of the many river cruise itineraries that offer port excursions to the area. It is a must see for all American’s, British, Canadians and French. Regardless of how you get to the area, we HIGHLY suggest a private tour guide. There are so many sites and museums and many will offer repetitive information and will lack a personal experience. Our guide Lena, offers personal tours geared toward American, Canadian and British visitors. Her knowledge and the stories that she shared brought our experience to a level we were not expecting.