Normandy & the D-Day beaches

The American Cemetery in Normandy.

With the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion this week, I wanted to share our tour there when Steve and I traveled to France last fall. Normandy was at the top of our list of places we wanted to visit if we returned to France. We had missed it on previous trips, but, as I wrote in a short blog post here, “If I had a bucket list, the D-Day beaches would be on it. This is a piece of the American experience that I wish everyone could share.”

Our geographic base for this leg of the journey was Bayeux. On the way we stopped in Arromanches, where the Allies assembled a temporary, artificial harbor immediately after D-Day. I consider this one of those remarkable feats of military engineering. The Allies needed a place to unload tons of heavy equipment after the initial invasion, so they built one!

Arromaches was close to the D-Day beaches, but spared the heavy June 6th fighting. The British built huge concrete floating caissons which they then towed into place and assembled as the walls and piers of the artificial port known as Mulberry Harbor. Floating pontoons linked it to the land. According to Wikipedia, by June 12, 1944 — less than a week after the invasion — more than 300,000 men, 54,000 vehicles, and 104,000 tons of supplies had been landed. During 100 days of operation of the port 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of material were landed.

We visited the museum here that detailed all of this engineering and advance planning. My husband knew some of this; I must admit I was clueless before I saw it all diagrammed. (I’m not sure, do boys of a certain generation just know this stuff and the rest of us learn it later?) Arromaches gave us a taste of both how lovely these beaches are, but also how formidable.

The next day we were up early and walked the half-block our so from our hotel to the departure point for the various D-Day tour operators. Ours was a small group tour, maybe 12 of us in a van. The guide was a young man from Wales who told us he’d become fascinated by all aspects of WWII as a young boy when his grandfather began taking him to some sights. His knowledge was encyclopedic; clearly he was a very good student.

Our first stop on the tour was the German cemetery. (Yes, kind of a surprise!) As our guide pointed out, the German soldiers were not that different from the Allies. They were draftees called to serve. They weren’t all Nazis or particularly political. They were doing their job. And they died in battle, far from home, just like the Allied soldiers.

The 11th Century church at Angoville au Plain.

We stopped next at Angoville-au-Plain one of the tiny towns behind the beaches where paratroopers landed during the night before the invasion. Terrible weather meant hundreds of soldiers were dropped off course, totally missing their targets. Two of these paratroopers were young medics, 19 and 20 years old. Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore had been given two weeks of medical training. They jumped carrying packs of first aid supplies which they lost when they landed off course in swampy fields flooded by the Germans.

Undeterred, they made their way to the 11th Century church at Angoville-au-Plain. Using medical supplies they had recovered along the way, they hung a Red Cross flag on the door and worked for 72 hours straight on 82 patients, Allied and German, and lost only two men. They had only one rule: weapons must be left outside the church.

Their story really resonates with me. (I originally wrote about it here.) It says everything about soldiers doing their job, handling adversity, never giving up.

Utah Beach, Sainte Mere Eglise, & Pointe du Hoc

Utah Beach was the first actual landing site we stopped at. On a cool, windy fall day but with sun and clear blue skies, the broad beach seemed quiet, despite a number of small groups visiting. I think there is a sense of awe, knowing what happened here, and it doesn’t take much to imagine the beach and water teeming with men and equipment. And noise, it must have been deafening.

This was especially meaningful for Steve and me. My uncle had been assigned to a Patrol Craft, bobbing around in that rough water on Utah Beach, their job to pull injured soldiers out of the water. One of the few times Bill talked about it, he told us that at day break, the water was thick with all kinds of boats. Then the assault and the fighting began. He said that hours later, when they finally had a chance to look around again, the boats that had been on either sided of them, and many of the other vessels, were gone. “Just gone,” Bill said.

I stared out at that water for a long time.

Sainte Mere Eglise is the tiny village in the middle of the route Germans would have likely used counterattacking the Allied troops landing on Utah and Omaha beaches. In the early morning of June 6th mixed units of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne occupied the town, making it one of the first towns liberated in the invasion. The events that unfolded, including one in which one paratrooper was caught on the church spire and forced to hang limply as though dead, were dramatically (though not accurately according to our guide) portrayed in The Longest Day.

St. Mere Eglise, where American paratroopers landed.

Lunch was a quick sandwich and coffee stop at a crossroads cafe that had once served Allied soldiers, as well as decades of French locals before that. The stop kept us “in 1944.”

Pointe du Hoc was the highest point along the coast between the Omaha and Utah landing beaches. In 1943 Germans troops built an extensive battery here using six French WWI artillery guns and early in 1944 began adding to the battery. D-Day plans included an assault by specially trained Army Rangers to breach the steep cliffs and disable the guns. The cliffs are formidable here and the ground atop them is pock-marked by bombings and gun placements. It’s rough to walk today, particularly in a sharp wind, and impossible to imagine how challenging it was on D-Day.

The pockmarked ground remains decades after the battle at Pointe du Hoc.

The American Cemetery & Omaha Beach

Our guide timed our visit to the American Cemetery for the hour when the flag is lowered at the end of the day. Walking to the cemetery I was tired. Despite lovely clear skies and fair weather, it was a very windy day, and we had already walked a lot. But I think I was also feeling emotionally spent. It’s not possible to walk these roads and towns without thinking of the people who came before. And not just the soldiers. But the brave French citizens who loved their communities and way of life, who were totally upended by the German invaders, many of them risking their lives working with the French underground, and who in the end so gratefully welcomed the Allies.

If you have been to the American cemetery, you know it is a heart-stopping sight. As a friend advised before we left, I walked down several rows of crosses. So often the men buried there would have died on the same day, or within days, and then there would be a few who died much later but whose families had chosen to bury them with fellow soldiers. If it hurts your heart to see so many losses, it also warms your heart to see them buried with their comrades.

We ended the day at Omaha Beach, and our guide took the time here to diagram, using a stick in the sand, exactly how the landings unfolded and how they fit into the great scheme of the entire D-Day invasion. (Again, he was just so knowledgeable!)

This tied things together for me. D-Day was a huge, complicated effort. A lot of things went wrong, but when that happened the soldiers on the ground readjusted and pushed on. That’s the story that stays with me.

I know this is a long post, but I honestly couldn’t figure out how to make it shorter. Thanks for reading through to the end. See you next time?

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Normandy & the D-Day beaches

  1. Eloquently expressed. So glad you got to make it there. The toll was so high & the consequences had they failed great. None of today’s electronics. True bravery & grit. Thanks for sharing it. A powerful reminder.

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    1. Thank you, Julie. One of the things I really appreciated about all we learned was the inventiveness and adaptability of the soldiers. Lots of things went wrong and they just adapted and went on. American ingenuity and determination.

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