Getting up close to history on the Normandy beaches

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Apart from seeing our friends in Deauville, one of the things we wanted to do in Normandy was visit the D-Day landing beaches. Now, I have to confess, my knowledge of what happened on D-Day and why was rather sketchy. I have watched Saving Private Ryan and a few other war films, but I didn’t learn any modern history at school and haven’t really taken any time to learn about it as an adult. So, both Andy and I did some reading up before we set off so that we could answer at least some of the questions that we knew would inevitably come up.

So, if you, like me, are a bit sketchy on the details let me fill you in with a bit of what I learnt…..

In early 1944, both sides in the war knew that an invasion in Europe was coming. The only questions were when and where it would happen. Hitler was expecting an attack on the coastline around Calais and had heavily fortified this region. In fact, the German army had built the ‘Atlantic wall’, a line of gun emplacements and fortifications that spread all the way along the coast from the far north of Norway, all the way down to the border between France and Spain. The Allies therefore decided that an attack further south along Normandy’s northern coast would surprise the Germans and give them the advantage. Allied intelligence went to extraordinary lengths to convince the Germans that the landings would take place further north around Calais. They leaked documents, faked radio traffic and invented an entire fictitious American army group, supposedly stationed in south east England in order to confuse the Germans.

The original date chosen for the landings was 5 June but then the worst storm in 20 years set in and the invasion had to be delayed. Despite only a small improvement in the weather the next day, the Allied commander in chief, General Eisenhower, gave the go-ahead. So, after months of planning, the D-Day landings happened on 6 June 1944. They were code named Operation Overlord and the beaches just north of Bayeux on which the allied troops landed were forever after to be known as Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The initial landing force involved 45,000 troops, who stormed ashore in the early morning, backed up by an unimaginable 6000 ships and boats and 13,000 aeroplanes. It was the start of a campaign that was to bring about the end of WWII and the long-awaited liberation of France. The landings were the largest seaborne invasion in history, bringing tens of thousands of soldiers from the USA, the UK, Canada and elsewhere onto French soil. Many of them didn’t even make it onto the beaches, but were killed by German guns fired from the cliff tops or by mines and underwater obstacles placed on the beach by the Germans.

The landings on D-Day were followed by the 76-day Battle of Normandy, during which the Allies suffered 210,000 casualties, including 37,000 troops killed. German casualties are believed to have been around 200,000, with another 200,000 German soldiers taken prisoner. About 14,000 French civilians also died. The first town to be liberated, on the morning of 7 June 1944, was Bayeux. Over the next 3 months, the Allies fought German troops throughout Normandy, gradually liberating towns as they went and eventually freeing Caen, making the way clear to advance on Paris.

Omaha Beach

Normandy beaches - Omaha beach
The golden sands of Omaha beach today

Today Omaha beach is a beautiful stretch of golden sand with children playing and families enjoying the sunshine. It is hard to imagine the death and heroism that happened here.

Normandy beaches - Omaha in 1944
A very different Omaha beach on the day of the D-Day landings in 1944

There is a beautiful sculpture on the beach called ‘Les Braves’, which features strong, straight poles in the centre representing freedom and reminding us to stand strong against all forms of inhumanity. These are flanked on one side by wings of hope, reminding us that together it is always possible to change the future and on the other side by wings of fraternity, reminding us of our responsibility towards others as well as ourselves and that the men who fought here were more than soldiers, they were brothers. It is a moving and fitting monument to the thousands who died here, the sentiments of which I think we would all do well to remember today.

Normandy beaches - Les Braves sculpture
The sculpture ‘Les Braves’ on Omaha beach in Normandy

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

After the beach, we visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer. Situated on high land overlooking Omaha beach, it contains the graves of 9,387 American soldiers, including 45 sets of brothers and 3 medal of honour recipients. It also remembers 1,557 men who were missing in action. It is a vast cemetery, with neat rows of Latin crosses and Stars of David surrounded by smooth lawns, clipped hedges and mature trees. You cannot help but be struck and moved by the scale of the deaths represented here. In fact, to me the crosses looked like people standing with arms outstretched and I could really imagine them as men standing there.

Normandy beaches - American cemetery
Rows and rows of graves at the American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer

Each cross bears the name of the soldier, together with their regiment, where they were from and the date they died. So many recorded the date as 6 June, the first day of the landings, including one of Jimmie W Monteith, a First Lieutenant in the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, who was one of only three Medal of Honour recipients to be buried here. He was only 26 years old. In an effort to make the whole experience real for the girls and to help them understand the significance of the many graves here, Andy took out his phone and, with the wonders of modern technology, was able to find out about Lt Monteith and why he was awarded the medal of honour for his actions that day. It was incredibly moving and really brought home to all of us the human cost of the war. There were also photographs of Lt Monteith online, and all of a sudden he was a real person, not just a smooth white cross in a cemetery on a hill. In fact, all these crosses represented fathers, husbands, brothers and sons from across the other side of the world who had fought and died here. For many it was possibly the first time they had left America and almost certainly their first time on French soil. I won’t go into what actions had earned Lt Monteith his Medal of Honour, but I encourage you to google his name just as we did and read it for yourselves.

Normandy beaches - Lt Monteith
The simple Latin cross on the grave of Lt Jimmie Monteith at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy

Another grave that caught our eye was that of Elizabeth A Richardson from Indiana, one of very few women buried here. She was a volunteer for the American Red Cross and we discovered that, like many Americans of her generation, she hadn’t wanted America to enter the war in Europe. However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese, she had changed her mind and realised that they couldn’t stand by and do nothing. She apparently wrote to her Aunt soon afterwards “Like a toothache, I hope it ends quickly.” She joined the Red Cross in early 1944 with two friends from college, feeling the need to do something. She died just over a year later, on 25 July 1945.

There is a chapel at the centre of the cemetery and I particularly liked one of the inscriptions on the wall inside. It read “Think not only upon their passing. Remember the glory of their spirit.”

Longues-sur-Mer

Further along the coast, at Longues-sur-Mer, you can see some of the massive artillery that the Germans placed along this coast to repel any invasion. The original 150mm guns are still there in their colossal concrete bunkers and you can wander freely around them. They were designed to hit targets up to 20km away, including most of the D-Day landing beaches. I was suddenly struck by the fact that these giant guns had been responsible for killing so many British, American and Canadian soldiers 72 years ago. It seemed wrong not only that they were still there, but that we were just able to wander around them like that. Some people were climbing inside the guns, where the German soldiers would’ve sat to fire them, and we were all touching them and posing for photographs. I’m not sure why, but it suddenly made me feel quite uncomfortable.

Normandy beaches - gun emplacement
One of the huge German guns still in its colossal emplacement at Longues-sur-Mer

Arromanches-Les-Bains

Our last stop on our tour of the Normandy beaches was Arromanches-Les-Bains. Once they had established a base or beachhead in Normandy, the Allies needed a way of getting vast quantities of men and cargo ashore and they did this by setting up temporary marinas, code-named Mulberry Harbours, off two of the landing beaches. These harbours were made of pre-fabricated cement blocks that were towed over from England and sunk to form two semicircular breakwaters. The various parts were made in great secrecy around Britain and were moved to Normandy immediately after the landings. By June 18th both harbours were in use. Radiating out from the beach were ‘roadways’ that floated on steel or concrete pontoons and allowed them to land men and vehicles safely. In the three months after D-Day, a mind-boggling 2.5 million men, 4 million tonnes of equipment and 500,000 vehicles were brought ashore via the Mulberry harbours. They are considered to be an outstanding example of military engineering and some of the harbour built at Arromanches-Les-Bains can still be seen.

Normandy beaches - Arromanches
One of the huge concrete blocks that made up the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches-Les-Bains. In the distance you can see other blocks that formed the breakwater of the old Mulberry harbour

One of the giant concrete blocks still lies in the middle of the beach and we were able to walk right out to it and really appreciate its size. Some of the other blocks can be seen just off the beach, stretching for miles along the shoreline. I’m not sure if you can pick them out on the photographs, but you really could see what a massive operation and achievement it had been to build the harbour.

Normandy beaches - pontoon at Arromanches-Les-Bains
The remains of one of the floating pontoons at Arromanches-Les-Bains. In the distance you can just make out part of the breakwater of the old Mulberry harbour

WWII and the D-Day landings are present everywhere you go around this part of France. There are countless museums, small and large, about the conflict and signposted routes to drive to all the beaches. Our day exploring had been interesting and thought-provoking and on the way back to the campsite the children telephoned their grandparents and learned about their memories of the war and the part some of our ancestors played in it.

Has anyone else visited this part of France? What were your feelings about visiting some of the beaches and cemeteries? We would love to hear your experiences so please leave us a comment below. Thank you for reading our blog. If you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe to receive an email each time we post. Just go to http://www.ownyourdays.co.uk and fill in the form at the bottom of the homepage.

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3 thoughts on “Getting up close to history on the Normandy beaches

  1. What a wonderful summary of what happened there. I don’t know if I ever to,d you but John Osborne (Mavis,s partner) and Laurence Whitaker of The Laurence Singers both went ashore on the 6th June thought they never met until much later in their lives. Much love mum x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, I never knew that about John! Having read more about what happened that day and seen the German guns that were firing on them, they were both so lucky to have made it back from there. Thank you for sharing that. Xxx

      Like

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