Learning history about a country or city you’re traveling to is half the fun of visiting somewhere. When the history is of this magnitude, visiting that area makes the entire trip.
France was not on our original itinerary when we began preparing for our trip. Brady, being the huge history buff that he is, asked if we could go to France so we could see the WWII D-Day landing beaches in Normandy – so I made it happen.
♦ Aiming to liberate France and push out Nazi Germany, the Normandy Landings (code name Operation Neptune) was an amphibious naval plan bringing troops across the English Channel to secure a strong foothold on the coast of Normandy.
♦ D-Day: June 6, 1944 – Operation Overlord began and was the largest military seaborne invasion in history.
♦ Troops were faced with bad weather and were oblivious to the obstacles the German forces had put in place to protect the shore including mines, tripods, pillboxes, barbed wire, and more.
♦ Five beaches make up the D-Day Landing beaches:
Utah Beach (American)
Omaha Beach (American)
Gold Beach (British)
Juno Beach (British/Canadian)
Sword Beach (British/French)
♦ Allied forces succeeded against the German forces with some 10,000 casualties taking place on D-Day and over 4,400 deaths.
Given the magnitude of D-Day and all those who had the courage to protect the future we have today, we chose to go back in time 72 years and visit the D-Day landing beaches and step foot on one of history’s biggest days.
Arriving in Paris from Edinburgh, Scotland the day prior, we awoke nice and groggy at 5 A.M. to catch our train to Caen at 6:30 from Gare du Nord. We arrived in Caen about 2 hours later, met with our small group and guide and were whisked away to our first stop, Memorial de Caen (Caen Ware Memorial).
Caen War Memorial
We spent about 3 hours exploring the museum which highlights parts of the D-Day Landings, Battle of Normandy, The Cold War, and the Genocide. It was here that we were able to see original artifacts from the war and dive deeper into the history of these events. Also on site is an underground bunker which contained the command post for General Wilhelm Richter, commander of the 716th German infantry division. The bunker, measuring 70 meters long and 3 meters tall, now displays artifacts from WWII.
Pointe du Hoc
Our next stop of the day was Pointe du Hoc. Situated between Omaha beach and Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc dominates the coast with its vertical cliffs rising 25-30 meters high above the water. Up top, the landscape is littered with bomb craters, some of which are 20-feet deep. Everywhere we looked stood gun emplacements, tunnels, pillboxes, and bunkers, and 155mm gun casements. At the very tip of it all stands the Ranger Monument erected by the French honoring the 2nd Rangers Battalion (who scaled the cliff to disable German guns threatening Utah and Omaha Beaches) and their Commander Lt. Col. James E. Rudder. With only 45 minutes to explore, we began climbing, crawling, and ducking into several of the bunkers, craters, and pillboxes. Looking at Brady, I could tell he was in a whole other world. I can only guess that his thoughts were wandering to the Army Rangers who escaped death after scaling the cliff and destroying the German guns pushing onward to help their fellow troops.
♦ Of the 225 Army Rangers that landed at Pointe du Hoc, 90 were killed or severely wounded.
♦ Fireman ladders installed on landing crafts were used by the Rangers to reach the top of the cliff.
Omaha Beach, referred to as “Bloody Omaha”, is where many American troops suffered the worst on D-Day. Looking out at the English Channel, one would never guess so much carnage took place here. Families sat on the beach having picnics and couples walked hand-in-hand at the edge of the water. My mind kept replaying scenes from the movie Saving Private Ryan and all the American troops storming the beach that didn’t stand a chance. Once on the beach, we were able to see the gun emplacements and sniper holes in the hillside. An overwhelming amount of emotions overtook me in an instant. We were, without a doubt, standing where some husband, father, and son lost his life.
♦ Omaha Beach was the largest of the 5 beaches at 6-miles wide.
♦ Strong tides and winds carried many of the landing crafts off line causing confusion when the troops landed.
♦ Allied amphibious tanks were launched too far out in the water meaning troops on land had very little armored cover.
American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer
A short drive up the beach, we made a few stops before arriving at the American Military Cemetery. The first was at a marker showing the site of the original American Cemetery, and the next at a house. Why a house? It was the only villa left standing on D-Day because it was used as a command center for German officers.
Arriving at the cemetery, we walked up to a large monument and statue surrounded by a semi-circular garden and wall engraved with the names of those still missing in action. We weren’t even in the cemetery yet and I already had chills. We wound our way up around the wall and my breath caught; I had never seen so many headstones in my life. The cemetery sits on 172.5 acres and is truly one of the most impressive places I’ve ever been to. We spent an hour walking around before hearing the taps and watching the lowering of the flag at 5 P.M.
♦ The cemetery is made up of 9,238 crosses and 149 Stars of David.
♦ There are 41 brothers buried in the cemetery and 3 Medal of Honor recipients.
♦ Of the 9,387 graves, 1,557 mark those Missing in Action.
♦ Since the construction of the Wall of the Missing, some 20 remains have been found and identified. A rosette has been placed by their names on the wall.
Artificial Harbor at Arromanches
To end our tour, we found ourselves overlooking the Artificial Harbor at Arromanches. Perhaps one of the most important places of the D-Day Landing sites, there were actually no landings here. Once known as Mulberry Harbor and later changed to Port Winston, this large section of water is how all the supplies made its way ashore. From atop the cliff, we had incredible views of the remnants of the harbor. Looking down at the beach, we watched as people climbed on the “whale” platforms and it was then that I understood why they were named whales; the platforms were massive. These platforms were used as a point of drop-off for ships bringing over supplies. We also got to see one of the floating bridges up close. As you might have guessed, vehicles actually drove on these floating brides delivering the supplies to shore.
♦ Mulberry Harbor became known as Port Winston after British wartime leader Winston Churchill.
♦ 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of supplies arrived via Port Winston
♦ The port was designed to last only 90 days and be capable of unloading 11,000 tons of supplies each day. The port was actually used for nearly 5 months.
We booked this tour through Link Paris because we wanted a very small tour group, which ended up being 9 of us including our guide and a driver. We were very pleased with our tour and our guide was a walking encyclopedia! By having such a small group, we were able to be interactive with our guide and get a more personalized tour than we would with a group of 50 people. The only complaint we had the entire day was that we did not get to spend a lot of time at each place, but that is to be expected with any day tour where traveling is involved. I, personally, would rather have skipped the museum altogether and spent those 3-hours exploring the beaches further. Should we ever find ourselves in France again, we wouldn’t hesitate to book with this company again.
We have not forgotten, we will never forget, the debt of infinite gratitude that we have contracted with those who gave everything for our freedom. – Rene Coty President De La Republique Francaise (Inscription from Normandy D-Day Center)
Check It Out!
Link Paris – Normandy D-Day Tour from Paris; $165 tour only, $255 w/ rail (2nd class), $299 w/ rail (1st class). Lunch and tickets to enter museum and cemetery included in price.
Things to see/Do
“♦” below included in this tour
♦ Memorial de Caen; Tickets from €19,50
♦ Pointe du Hoc
♦ Omaha Beach
♦ Artificial Harbor at Arromanches
Note: All photos were taken by me unless otherwise noted.