D-Day Beaches, Normandy, France

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The next morning we went out to explore the various D-Day landing sites along the French coast. A stretch of 75 miles of Norman coast is full of museums, monuments, cemeteries, and remnants from the battles that took place here in 1944. It all stands as a tribute to the incredible bravery of the American, British, and Canadian troops that successfully carried out the largest military operation in history. 
 Our first stop was near the town of Arromanches to see Port Winston Churchhill, the massive artificial harbor the Allies constructed after the landings.
On 7 June 1944, the day after D-Day, 17 old boats sailed across the channel from England and were deliberately sunk here forming an initial barrier. Then, 500 tugboats tugged over 100 football field sized cement blocks and sunk them atop the boats. This created a four mile long breakwater from which engineers set up 7 floating steel piers with extendable legs that were linked to the shore with 4 mile-long floating made of concrete pontoons. This allowed 54,000 vehicles, 326,000 troops, and 110,000 tons of goods to land on the coast within just 6 days of D-Day. You can still see remnants of this contraption today:
The port was in-between Omaha and Gold beaches between the British and American sectors.

The sun was rising over the observation platform when we first pulled up.
I had been feeling so sad and guilty, for lack of a better word, for being alive at this time and was really struggling coming to terms with all of the people who had died while I walked around without ever really knowing war and that kind of pain and sadness. Then, just a few minutes into our very first stop, a beautiful rainbow appeared in the sky.

I felt like it was a sign from above and instantly felt peace. It was a very moving experience.
Our next stop was to see the Longues-sur-Mer German Gun Battery. These 4 casemates (3 with intact guns) built 300 yards inland were arranged in a semi-circle to maximize firing range. These are the only original coastal artillery guns remaining in place in the D-Day area.

This battery was an important part of Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" defense made up of 15,000 structures stretching from the Pyrenees in the south to Norway in the north.
These guns could hit targets up to 12 miles(!) away with considerable accuracy.
7 soldiers managed each bunker and we able to fire 6 times a minute using shells that weighed 40 pounds.
Camouflage netting covered these concrete casemates so Allied bombers couldn't locate them before the D-Day assault.

Looking along the barrel of one of the intact guns.

Along with the 4 gun casemates there was one observation bunker located right along the coastline cliff.
Field telephones with underground wire ran from this observation post to the guns located further inland to direct fire.

The gorgeous coastal path Sentier du Littoral.
There were no "off-limits" places at these sites. You were free to climb around, in, on, and over all the bunkers.
You could see the remnants of the Port Winston harbor from this area.

Next on our itinerary was a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Flags of all the Allied countries we on display in the museum.
The visitor's center and museum is excellent with a superb exhibit and touching memorials.

Outside the museum you first come to the striking memorial. The statue represents "the spirit of American youth" and giant reliefs of the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of Europe flank it.
Behind the memorial is a semicircular garden with the names of the over 1,500 soldiers who were never found.

And then, crowning a bluff just above Omaha Beach, stand 9,387 brilliant white Crosses and Stars of David commemorating the brave men who gave their lives for European freedom.
Before coming on this trip, Chris made me watch Saving Private Ryan so I would better appreciate the sites we were going to see. While it made me sick to my stomach and I couldn't sleep for two nights, I am glad I watched it. The movie was based on the story of the four Niland brothers, 3 of whom were thought to be killed within about a week of each other. While one of the three presumed dead was actually a POW and survived the war, two of the brothers are buried side by side here.

The area is peaceful and beautiful today. These men deserve such a place to rest in peace.
This is the second WWII American cemetery we have visited while living here. In June of last year we visited the Luxembourg American Cemetery over Memorial Day weekend.
Unknown soldier.

Just down the hill from the memorial and cemetery is the actual site of Omaha Beach. If you've seen Saving Private Ryan, the grueling 25 minute opening scene was depicting the landings at this very place.

Omaha Beach witnessed by far the most intense battles of any along the D-Day beaches. The hills above the beach were heavily fortified. A single German machine gun could fire 1,200 rounds a minute. It's amazing anyone survived. Around 4,000 soldiers were killed or wounded on D-Day at Omaha Beach.
A local artist made this striking metal sculpture that sits in the waves in honor of the forces who liberated Normandy, France, and the rest of Europe.

Standing on Omaha Beach. We picked up a small handful of sand to take with us.

We then drove right along the coast towards our next stop, Pointe du Hoc.
This place is where the intense bombing that preceded the D-Day landings is best experienced. The area commemorates the place where US Army Rangers scaled sheer cliffs to disable an important German gun battery.

When you enter the actual site, the bomb craters that remain leave the area looking like the surface of the moon.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, 225 hand-picked Rangers assaulted the cliffs below this point. They used ladders taken from London fire departments to get up the first section then fired rockets to position their grappling hooks and climbing ropes and climbed those. Only a third of the Rangers survived but the assault was successful and they disabled all the German guns, even the ones that had been moved 1km inland.
This point of land was the most heavily fortified area of the German defenses. It held six anti-ship guns capable of firing on both Omaha and Utah Beaches. In preparation for the assault, the Allies bombed this area repeatedly starting in April of 1944 dropping over 1,500 tons of bombs on this one area leading up to 6 June. Even with all of that, only about 5 percent of the bunkers were destroyed because they were well camouflaged and had incredibly thick, dense, reinforced walls.
Here's another shot from above of Pointe du Hoc.
The entire area is open for you to explore.

The kids and Chris hiked down into some of the craters.

At the very point of the Pointe stands a memorial to the brave Rangers who fought and died here. It symbolizes the Ranger dagger planted firmly in the ground. 
The view from the area reminded us of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

The observation bunker below the memorial dagger.

Flag flying over the visitor's center at Pointe du Hoc.
 Our family at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial on Tuesday October 18th 2016.
I'm glad we were able to experience these incredible, important places. Hopefully we can come back when our kids are older so they can appreciate what happened here. We then continued on our journey and headed to Amboise in the Loire Valley. 

1 comment

  1. Wow! What a humbling experience this must have been for all of you! Loving that the rainbow appeared and brought you peace!!!


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