To celebrate the week between Memorial Day and D-Day – June 6, I’ve decided to re-visit some of the World War II sites my husband and I saw on our trip to Europe one year ago. This week I will be focusing on the Normandy area in France; I’ll cover sites in other countries at a later date.
When we think about the World War II sites, the beaches of Normandy are often the first ones we think about. Although war had been raging since 1939 in some parts of Europe, the turning point of the war began on June 6, 1944 when the Allies invaded northern France, landing on these beaches.
Other sites have been made popular through a combination of history and media. Here are the ones we found most interesting:
The most visited spots on a tour of World War II sites are the beaches of Normandy in France. Starting from the east, Sword, Juno and Gold beaches were taken by British and Canadian forces. Omaha and Utah Beach were invaded by Americans.
Britain’s 2nd Airborne parachuted in near Sword Beach and headed to Pegasus Bridge (see below). The troops, led by British Commander Lovat and the now famous bagpiper, Bill Millin, landed at Sword Beach where they fought their way inland, arriving at the bridge around noon. A statue of Millin now stands guard.
Juno Beach, where the Canadian soldiers came ashore, is lined with houses and other buildings – the other beaches bordered open land. Germans fired on them from the buildings, but once the Canadians were able to overcome them, they moved inland quicker than the troops at the other beaches.
Gold Beach was taken by the British. Warships had destroyed three of the four large German guns and the troops were able to get through relatively quickly. They took control of the nearby town of Arromanches. A few days later Mulberry Harbor, an artificial harbor, was installed on Gold Beach. Remnants of it are still visible in the water.
Continuing west is Omaha Beach, one of the landing beaches for the American troops. Over 40,000 men came ashore here and nearly a quarter of them lost their lives. Looking at the beach, it’s surprising that any of the men survived. The only chance they had was to make it across the long beach, all the way to the bottom of the cliffs. The Germans sat on top of the cliffs with machine guns, just blasting away at the Americans.
Despite the odds, the troops eventually began to make headway and by evening had pushed the Germans back over a mile. Today, the beach is home to two monuments – one is a memorial and the other, a modern sculpture.
Utah Beach, is the last of the Normandy beaches. The beach was not in the original plans, but was added because of its proximity to the port city of Cherbourg. The paratroopers and troops alike, struggled with nature’s obstacles of wind, tides and marshland, but managed a stronghold with fewer than average casualties. It is hard to imagine the terrible fighting that took place on these now peaceful beaches.
Sites Near the Beaches
Capturing the Pegasus and Horsa Bridges were important parts of the victories in Normandy. In the first hours of the Normandy invasion, three British paratroopers landed within 100 yards of the bridge. They were able to quickly disarm the explosives the Germans had planted on the bridge and take control of it which prevented the Germans from bringing in reinforcements.
There is now a museum near the Pegasus Bridge that honors the effort. The bridge has been replaced but the original is on display behind the museum. A Horsa glider is on display outside the museum – this is the type that was used to drop the paratroopers into the area near the bridge.
Just outside of Arromanches, there is a new theater where we saw a 360 degree film about the first 100 days of the invasion of Normandy. The film uses historical clips and still shots in a 20 minute presentation. The town of Arromanches is right on the beach and is a nice place for a lunch break. There are two WWII museums in the town (Although, I have not been through them).
At Longues-sur-Mer, there are the remains of a German artillery battery. There were five guns enclosed in cement bunkers. You can see where the Allies had tried to damage them, but the shells just made small dings in the thick (at least 12 to 18 inches) cement walls. Eventually they were silenced, some by direct hits from the Allied naval forces.
Pointe du Hoc, where the Army Rangers scaled the cliffs to capture the jut of land, is located between Omaha and Utah Beaches. The once beautiful area is now dotted with huge bomb craters. There are trails among the craters where you can walk out to a memorial at the point.
Closer to Utah Beach is the town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. If you visit on or around June 6, you might see reenactments of camps or other events. On June 6, 1944, the 101st Airborne took control of the town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and it became the first French town to be freed.
If you continue on Road D913 toward Utah Beach, you will pass the memorial to Richard (Dick) Winters, a member of the 101st Airborne.
Around the corner on D14 is a monument dedicated to Easy Company. It is located on the corner of a field where Easy Company had snuck up on some Germans, taking control of their guns and eventually freeing the town of Carentan.
Sainte-Mère-Église is another town that is one of the first to be liberated. The town has a nice museum that demonstrates the events of June 6. There is a glider and a larger plane on display with soldier look-a-likes sitting at the controls. Everything is well done.
On the roof of the church in the center of town, a parachute monument hangs to commemorate John Steele of the 82nd Airborne Division. When the 82nd landed in Sainte-Mère-Église, Steele’s parachute caught on the steeple of the church. He hung there for two hours, pretending to be dead, but eventually the Germans captured him. He later escaped and rejoined his unit. Inside the church is a beautiful stained glass window that honors the paratroopers.
If you follow D15 out of Sainte-Mère-Église, you will come to La Fière, one of three crucial bridges the Americans took control of from the Germans. Again, memorials are set up to honor the paratroopers.
The Bayeux War Cemetery holds the remains of soldiers of the British Commonwealth, mostly British and Canadian soldiers.
The La Cambe German War Cemetery is a German cemetery. Germans are buried two to a grave, laying in opposite directions so one soldier’s head was by the other’s feet. The names were printed on metal plates, laid out on the ground. Crosses were placed in groups of five throughout the cemetery.
The Normandy American Cemetery holds the remains over 9000 American soldiers. The white crosses stand out on the beautifully manicured grounds. It was interesting to see how each country buries their dead in their own way.
Finding your Way
D14 runs along the near the first four of the beaches in Northern France. D913 will take you to Utah Beach. Most of the cemeteries, small towns and monuments are located inland. (Pointe-du-Hoc and the American Cemetery are near the beach).
Locate the sites on a mapping program before you go. Printing out maps is a good idea. The signage for some places may not be as prominent as you would like. Some of the areas are not well populated and may not have a strong data signal. If you are familiar with using the GPS on your phone or device, that may help as well.
Remember, you will not be traveling at 70 miles an hour here – don’t plan to see everything in one day. If you are driving, it will take two or three days to cover the area. One day organized tours usually do not stop at all of the beaches and will not visit every town and cemetery. Make sure you know what the tour covers before you sign up.
Touring the Normandy area will be a moving experience. I hope that when you visit, you will consider the sacrifices of the men who fought to secure our freedom.