Travel Blog Archive – Part 14, Normandy (the landing beaches)

When we set out planning this Europe trip, the one place we really wanted to see in France was the Normandy landing site.  Because there’s so much history wrapped up in the area, and so many who died there, we felt it was important to make the trip.

Thanks to Jill, we found a great B&B in Pont-Farcy, which is about halfway between Omaha Beach and Mont-Saint Michel.  On our first morning there, our hosts at the B&B, a wonderful British couple, set out an amazing breakfast and gave outstanding travel advice on the area such as telling us to go to Mont-Saint Michel after 7pm because that’s when the tour buses leave.  Our room was cozy and came with an electric kettle, tea, and coffee.  The idyllic Normandy farmland backdrop was beautiful, and it was clear that the owners had put time into making their home welcoming and tranquil.  After our train from Rotterdam to Paris and drive from Paris to Normandy, we were excited to be there and explore the area.

As we only had one full day in the Normandy area, we decided to start early with the landing sites and then work in Mont-Saint Michel in the evening, maybe even heading to St Malo if we were feeling really adventurous.  Thanks to our Garmin Nuvi sending us the wrong way down one-way streets and urging us to ignore traffic laws, we arrived at our first site, Arromanches, a little later than planned.  Nonetheless, we easily found a place to park our teeny purple Renault golf cart of a rental car and headed to the beach.

The beach in Arromanches was where the allied forces set up a temporary harbor called Mulberry Bay after the landings had been secured.  They shipped enormous sections of steel barges from England in order to create a place to bring in supplies, and it was amazing to see the vast area dedicated to resupply and the flow of equipment.  The remaining steel barges out in the water and the photos of what the harbor looked like reminded me of the bases in Kuwait and Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan.  After walking the beaches, we headed back to the golf cart car and reluctantly trusted the GPS to get us to Omaha Beach.

We made it to Omaha Beach after a 30 minute beautiful drive hugging the coastline, and as soon as we entered the Visitors’ Center we were engrossed. The set up is excellent, and the exhibit takes you through the D-Day operation from the planning to preparation to execution stages.  Throughout the center there are displays with the equipment carried during the invasion, videos of Eisenhower discussing the decision to give the go-ahead on the morning of June 6th, and written accounts of those who survived and those who died.  It was all incredibly powerful to see, and reading and absorbing everything took us almost twice as long as the suggested visit time.  We emerged humbled and drained, and moved on to see the cemetery before visiting the beach.

The cemetery was beautiful, moving, and peaceful.  The sheer size of it and number of headstones was staggering – 9,387 in total, which is more than have died thus far in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.  At first it was hard not to pause when passing the ones marked “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God”, and then we noticed entire rows of these unnamed graves.  Being surrounded by the headstones, and realizing the cemetery represents a small fraction of the human toll of the war, helped bring into sobering focus the loss of life during World War II.

We left the cemetery and began the walk down to the beach.  What struck us first was the grade of the hill they fought up and the density of the undergrowth on each side of the path.  We wondered if the hillside was cleared of underbrush when they invaded or if they had to hack their way through before they could clear the trenches and bunkers perched over their heads.  It made what I faced in Afghanistan seem like child’s play.  Sure slogging through fields and dodging IEDs sucked, but it wasn’t avoiding mine fields while assaulting uphill against machine guns, anti aircraft weapons, and whatever else the Germans could throw.

What was striking was the difference in mentality between this military operation and ones today.  Then it wasn’t a matter of “will we lose people doing this?” but instead “what percentage are we willing to lose doing this?”  Perhaps the German threat was greater than threats we face today, and thus the loss of life was more acceptable.  Perhaps it was the distance between the war and the American public that allowed commanders to make command decisions.  I don’t really know what the difference is, but I do know that the climate when I left the military was zero-defect, risk-averse, and would never have succeeded in World War II.

With all these thoughts in our heads, the scene when we arrived on Omaha Beach was a bit jolting.  The weather was picture-perfect, and so the beach was full of families picnicking, kids running through the waves, and a group of teenage boys playing pickup soccer.  We walked along the water glancing back at the cliffs and taking in the juxtaposition of summer-beach-day-laughter with the view of the cemetery above.

After Omaha Beach, we continued up the coastline to Pointe du Hoc, where the Germans had been building fortified bunkers for six 155mm howitzers with ranges up to 20 km.  Because of the strategic location and threat to the Allied landing sites, Pointe du Hoc was the focus of intensive Allied bombing raids.  On D-Day, Rangers used rocket-propelled ladders to climb to the tops of the cliffs where they were then faced with the challenge of clearing the German bunkers.  The howitzers themselves had been moved a kilometer south and hidden from the bombings, but were discovered and destroyed by the Rangers before the Germans were able to use them against the Allied landings.  The deep bomb craters remain at Pointe du Hoc, and seeing them makes you wonder how anything could last through that many explosions.  Some of the bunkers were damaged or destroyed while others looked relatively untouched.  It’s amazing what 6.5 feet of reinforced concrete can stand up to.

Although we wished we had more time to explore Normandy, we were glad that we made visiting the landing sites a priority.  It feels like a place that’s too important to miss, and we left Pointe du Hoc with a newfound appreciation of the sacrifices made during WWII.

Photos of Normandy:

Yard and view of the countryside from the B&B

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Bayuex Cathedral on our way to Arromanches image

Remnants of the false harbor on the beach at Arromanchesimage

Graffiti in Arromanches

Inside the Visitors’ Center at Omaha Beach

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Closeup of one of the displays

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Helmet and rifle from D-Dayimage

Grave of an unknown soldier at the American Cemetery

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“Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” statue at the American Cemetery

Omaha beach as thousands never saw it

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Looking down at Omaha beach from the top of the bluffimage

Inside the Visitors’ Center

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Walking onto Pointe du Hoc

Bunkers and craters at Pointe du Hocimage

Barbed wire still lining the edge of the cliffimage

Looking down the cliffs the Rangers ascended at Pointe du Hocimage

Looking down on the actual Point

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Fairly intact German bunkerimage

President Reagan’s 40 year commemoration

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