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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Highs, lows, and our Notre Dame story

This photo and the one below are from April, 2015. We had just enjoyed coffee and croissants at a cafe behind Notre Dame and were on our way Saint Chapelle.

This week has been a lesson in the highs and lows of the human heart. On Sunday morning in Chicago we awoke to mid-April snow. Not flurries, not a dusting, but inches of wet, sloppy, slushy white stuff. In November we would have found it fun. But in April, on Palm Sunday, I didn’t get the joke at all.

In fact, I wanted to pull the covers over my head.

Instead we drank coffee, read the papers, and my husband turned on the Masters Golf Tournament. We got caught up in the drama of the last hole and Tiger Woods’ amazing finish. If you saw this, you know what I mean: sheer joy in every fiber of his being. The crowds and his competitors were equally jubilant. This was a moment Woods was afraid would never come. But it did. A testament to the simplest work ethic: never, ever, ever give up.

What an emotional high. If you watched him hug his children and his mother without feeling tears come to your eyes, you might be missing a heart.

Monday’s punch

I was in the car on Monday when I heard that Notre Dame de Paris was on fire. How is this impossible? Architectural icons don’t burn; they weather revolutions, plagues, World Wars and Nazi occupations. But this was real. When I got home my husband had the news on, and he said, “This is awful. It’s like Katrina. You can’t stop watching.”

He was so right. We watched it off and on throughout the afternoon, waiting for the firemen to somehow get on top of the blaze, to get it under control, but instead the fire kept growing, and we watched the spire fall. The news commentators talked about the added tragedy of this happening during Holy Week. And we looked at each other and recalled a family story.

Our Notre Dame story

Another springtime shot, on the north side of the cathedral looking towards the bell towers.

Seventeen years ago Steve and I made our first trip to Paris together. It was a little earlier in the spring and we got back in time to celebrate Easter with my mom, her brother & his wife. (Our kids were away at school.) This was well before smart phones and selfies and so we took along a stack of printed photos (remember them?) from the trip to share over dinner. And as the five of us poured over the iconic sights from Paris — the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph — my uncle studied one of Notre Dame and remarked that he had been there for Easter in 1945.

What? How could he not have told any of us this story?

Bill was a Chicago kid in the Navy who spent WWII on a small boat escorting much larger ships back and forth across the Atlantic. He spent a lot of time in England and then in Le Harve, France. It was hazardous duty, and like so many WWII vets, he had never shared much about it. But back to Notre Dame…

When we found our voices, we asked what he was doing there. Well, he said, he and several shipmates had leave for Easter and they ended up in Paris. On Easter morning they headed for church. They didn’t know about Notre Dame or go looking for it, it was just the church they found (as if you could miss it, right?) The locals welcomed these young sailors warmly as “Yanks” and led them to seats right up front. I suppose they represented the liberators.

I can only imagine Bill’s blue eyes and his Evangelical and Reformed heart taking in the majesty of Notre Dame: its cavernous space, monumental pillars, stained glass, row after row after row of seats. How can you even take it all in?

Since hearing Bill’s story, I have been to Paris on a handful of additional visits. Notre Dame is simply part of the city, part of the skyline, we’ve walked by it a hundred times (often noting the crowds waiting to get in and said we’ve been here before and we’ll come back at a quieter time), we had breakfast with friends in a cafe just behind it, we’ve admired it up close and from across the river. We’ve picked it out of the skyline from the Musee d’Orsay and Sacre Coeur.

Notre Dame is Paris.

And clearly it will be repaired and rebuilt and continue to play its Parisian role. In the meantime, it hurts the heart to think of its blackened walls and collapsed roof. At the same time we’re heartened by its resilience. Icons can be fragile, it seems, and that should give us pause.

What about you? Do you have a Notre Dame story? I’d love to hear it!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.

Two from the road in France

Most days in France began in a local cafe. In some places, we had a favorites we went to daily, like this cafe in Beaune, where the waitress began to recognize us and our order!

If you follow me on Instagram, you know my husband and I are just back from a month in France. (I know, a long trip with the luxury of time, something one doesn’t often do. We are very lucky to have had this opportunity.)

Briefly, we flew into Paris, picked up a car, and headed to Giverney (Monet’s home and garden), the Normandy beaches (D-Day landings), Mont Sainte Michele (more history), Bordeaux (to taste wine), the Loire (for chateaus), Antibes (the Riviera, the Mediterranean and the art trail), Beaune (we love it) and finally Paris (always a good idea). In the weeks to come, I’m sure I’ll bore you with too many tales tales and too many pictures, but for now I want to share two “travel shorts” to give you a taste of our trip.

First, Normandy

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. We took a highly-recommended D-Day tour, which I’ll write more about later, but now I want to share just one stop. Angoville-au-Plain is one of the tiny towns beyond Utah beach where paratroopers landed during the night before the invasion. The military assignment was to control the nearby Cherbourg to Paris route important to German defenses. The terrible weather the night of the drop, however, meant hundreds of soldiers were dropped off course, totally missing their targets.

The church in Angoville-au-Plain, France, that housed a first aid station for Allied and German soldiers on D-Day. Some pews still bear the blood stains of injured soldiers. Two German soldiers hid in the bell tower for two days before surrendering to the medics.

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 the Germans had flooded. 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.

We heard many amazing stories during that tour, but for whatever reason this one really touched me. I used to think of D-Day as a single, heroic, necessary event, but when you look closer (as so many professional and amateur historians do), it’s also thousands of acts of bravery, heroism, determination and ingenuity.

(Both Wright and Moore continued to serve throughout the war and have returned often to D-Day observances at Angoville-au-Plain, where the immediate community, and the wider D-Day community, has been generous in preserving and restoring the church.)

Behind the scenes at Versailles.

Versailles is the over-the-top palace used by a string of French kings who tired of life in Paris. It’s a 30-minute train ride from Paris, or you can take one of a variety of bus/van/private tours there. I visited 20-odd years before on my first trip to France with my teen-age son. We took a bus tour (which we both hated). It was a cold day, and Versailles was crowded. Frankly, it was nothing I wanted to repeat, so on subsequent trips, Steve and I always talked ourselves out of Versailles. However, we thought early October might be a better time and Steve found a “skip the line” tour of private rooms offered by the chateau for a mere 10 euros each.

This was the best investment we made on the trip!

What we thought would be a 45-minute tour of private rooms in the chateau was actually 2-1/2 hours with a Versailles curator. There were only about 15 of us in the group, making it easy to see the rooms and ask questions. The curator was a charming, knowledgeable historian committed to educating us about the fine points of 17th and 18th century court life. And we learned a lot!

The Versailles commode that found its way to a Rothschild collection, then to a German general, and now back to Versailles.

One of the private rooms we visited was the King’s library. It was, of course, grand and gold, but our guide brought it to life by pointing out this commode, made for the palace but sold off with all the other palace furnishings after the revolution (the new government was desperate for money). It was acquired by one of the Rothschilds. But then, during WWII when the Germans began confiscating the best of European art and antiques, it was acquired by Hermann Goring. It has only recently been returned to Versailles (“Thanks be to God,” as the curator said.)

Some of the King’s book collection is behind those glass doors next to the commode. Our guide pointed out that the volumes include Captain Cook’s diaries from his explorations of the new world. (I considered pressing my face closer to the glass to see better, but was afraid I would set off an alarm! On the other hand, Captain Cook!!!)

Can I just say that these are the travel moments I treasure, little vignettes that make history or culture come alive. Along with memories like the starchy French waiter who cracked a bawdy joke, the Brits we shared an al fresco lunch with in Ste. Emilion, and hands-on lessons in French cooking, they are the best souvenirs.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?