My husband and I participated in an organized tour that visited notable European sites from WWII. Previously, I wrote about the Beaches of Normandy and areas in northern France. When our tour left the Normandy beaches, we visited more of France, then Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany, so that is what I’ve included in today’s post.
If you join a similar tour, be sure you familiarize yourself with the main parts of the war – generally the tour will follow areas according to the map, rather than the chronology of events. If any of your relatives served in WWII, you may want to find out where their units were stationed. It is moving to walk where your ancestors fought for freedom.
Our first WWII stop, in France was at the “Little Red Schoolhouse” in Reims, France. The building is a sandy-red brick and is still home to a university, but during the war, it served as the headquarters of the Allied Forces. The rooms used by the Allies are now home to a small museum which includes uniforms, photos and large maps.
On May 7, 1945, German General Jödl signed papers of surrender in this building. The news was made public on May 8, which is now celebrated as V-E or “Victory in Europe” Day. This was the first of several surrenders that happened at the end of WWII.
Our stop in Luxembourg included a visit to the American Cemetery. Over 5000 Americans are buried here, many of whom lost their lives in the Battle of the Bulge. As you enter the cemetery, there is a memorial chapel honoring the men and women who served.
Two large engraved maps showing the movement of the troops through the area stand at the edges of the entrance. On the back of the maps there are lists of men that were missing in action.
General George Patton had his headquarters in Luxembourg and is also buried in this cemetery.
In Bastogne, we visited the Bastogne Barracks Museum and the Vehicle Restoration Center. The Barracks building housed General McAuliffe’s headquarters during the war. A couple key scenes have been recreated, including a Christmas dinner that was shared by several officers.
A communications room is set up to show where McAuliffe received the surrender ultimatum from the Germans. He is now remembered for his one word reply, “Nuts!”
The Vehicle Restoration Center is housed in the the Barracks’ large garage. It is filled with a variety of trucks and tanks from the war.
The Memorial of Mardasson is near the newly renovated Bastogne War Museum. We were not able to visit the museum but were very impressed by the memorial. Set on Mardasson Hill, this huge memorial is a tribute to the United States and all the soldiers who fought to free Belgium and the rest of Europe.
The memorial is built in the shape of a five pointed star with a circle – the heraldic symbol of the U.S. I walked up the stairs to the top and could see in all directions, but the monument itself was more interesting than the view. Each leg of the memorial lists units that participated in the war.
The memorial is topped with a star bearing the name of each of the states.
We stopped at the edge of Jacques woods, part of the Ardenne Forest. This is an area where some of the hardest battles were fought in December of 1944. Walking into the woods, we saw what remains of the foxholes that the men dug to protect themselves. It was easy to picture the men fighting here, since we had watched some documentaries before our trip.
Nearby was Parker’s Crossroads, and then Malmedy. Standing at the edge of Malmedy and looking across the road, you see the field where 84 American prisoners of war were executed by German soldiers.
The remains of the Bridge at Remagen stand along the Rhine River – a new bridge has not been built in its place. The Peace Museum is located inside one of the towers and contains pictures of the bridge before and after the war, plus pictures of some of the men who fought here.
Nuremberg is known for two opposite sides of the conflict. Hitler used two locations in this town as a rallying point for his troops.
The first is Zeppelin Field where the grandstands and Hitler’s podium still stand. The second place, the Luitpoldarena, was destroyed and the area was turned into a park. Hitler’s Congress Hall also remains, now holding the Documentation Center that shows the history of the Nazi Party in a museum setting. It is amazing, yet sobering, to see everything built by this man.
On the other side of the conflict, Nuremberg Courthouse was the location of the war trials held after WWII. It is possible to visit the actual courtroom; audio guides are available that give information about the room and the trials. The room was enlarged for the trials, but was changed back to its original size afterward.
Dachau Concentration Camp, just outside of Munich, was the first concentration camp built by the Nazis. Sample bunkers have been built to show where the prisoners stayed – with five times more occupants than the buildings were designed for. Walking to the back of the property, you can see the crematorium, the gas chamber, and the clothing disinfecting rooms. There is no proof that the gas chamber was actually used at this camp, but it could have been. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish chapels were added later. Dachau is now set up as a memorial with a film and museum – both difficult to view.
In Germany, near the Austrian Border
Near the small town of Berchtesgaden, we visited the area where Hitler’s home and vacation getaway were located.
Hitler’s vacation home, nicknamed the Eagle’s Nest is located on the top of the mountain with phenomenal views in every direction. Hitler, himself, was afraid of heights and spent very little time there, while his mistress, Eva Braun, was there often.
Down the hill, the homes of Hitler, Goering and other Nazi leaders were clustered together and connected by an elaborate underground bunker system.
The homes of Hitler and the others were bombed by the Allies and nearly completely destroyed – the foundations and a few short wall segments are all that is left. (The Eagle’s Nest was left untouched).
On Your Own
It is possible to do a tour like this on your own, but it will not be easy. You will probably have to rent a car to get to all the sites, since not all of them are located where public transportation usually stops. You will need to research carefully – with a detailed map – so that you will be able to find what you are looking for.
You can take public transportation to Dachau if you are staying in Munich, just as you can to visit Nuremberg. You may be able to find a day tour from Berchtesgaden to the Eagle’s Nest and Hitler’s Bunker. If you’d like help researching this, email me.
There are several organized tours available for WWII sites. If you decide to join a tour, be sure to research it carefully so you know what is included. An organized tour can be much more convenient.
I recommend visiting the WWII sites, especially if you’ve had a relative that served in the war. It will be a very meaningful trip.