As a milestone year in the heavily chronicled second World War, the battle at Normandy will stand alone as one of the most difficult but most rewarding battles that took place to free the French people from the tyranny of the Nazis. Those soldiers, British, American, Canadian and their families who have made the pilgrimage back to these areas of invasion are many. To view the graves where our men were permanently laid to rest is a point of poignancy and recollection which emphasizes the serious cost of human life imposed on so many, besides the holocaust itself.
One does not have to have a direct tie to this war or even have existed at the time, such as myself, to understand the significance of this particular battle. In each Memorial Day celebration we honor our soldiers but if you visit Normandy this year you will be greeted with quite a bit to see and do in following the same paths of these brave and sturdy warriors for freedom.
Itineraries are actually signposted on the roadways where paratroopers landed, in French and English. Even with restoration many of the abandoned fortifications on the beaches, memorials, museums and cemeteries stun the casual visitor to a foreign country. Organization into actual itineraries are trails which follow the sequence of events regardless of each soldiers role in the invasion and counter attack. You will find these if you hang around long enough to see it all. There is operation Overlord (or L’Assaut), D-Day- The Onslaught (or D-Day-Le choc), Objective- A Port (or Objectif- Un Port), The Confrontation (or L’Affrontement), Cobra-The Breakout (or Cobra-La Percée), The Counter Attack (or La Contre-Attaque), The Encirclement (or L’Encerclement), The Outcome (or Le Denouement.)
Many of Normandy’s towns offer something of memorials or museums or both. A good place to start would be the town of Bayeux (pron. ba-yuh) as it was the first French town to be liberated. On the roundabout in the old town the 1944 Battle of Normandy Museum with its exhibition of tanks, guns and armored vehicles used in the battle is open all year (tel. 02.31.30.47.60). Opposite to the museum is the British Cemetery and Memorial, honoring the memory of 1,837 missing British servicemen.
After Bayeux, the search of the D-Day landmarks and beaches will follow a scenic route that traces the coast, through the seaside villages that were close to the battle, which took place on five principal landing beaches- Sword (farthest to the east), Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah (to the northwest). Two were named for the places where the military who landed came from- hence Omaha and Utah. Along the way you will wend your way through small villages filled with grey stone buildings and whose tall walled farmhouses and barns form their own fortifications scattered around the battlefields. The route numbers identify various segments but there is basically only one road that hugs the coastline.
If you head for the coast northeast of Bayeux to Gold Beach you’ll find the lively seaside town of Arromanches. This wide expanse of golden sand was a landing beach commandeered by the British troops. In June 1944 a floating harbor was erected in a gigantic crescent in the bay. This harbor was designed by British Engineers on English soil, then shipped over the channel and is comprised of massive concrete blocks, floating fore-piers with ten kilometers of floating pier roadways. Seventy years of Atlantic storms have done little harm as most of the exhibition harbor remains and several enormous sections marooned on the beach are available to see up close. The D-Day Museum is right there with displays of models, photographs and films of the military operations of June 1944. ( It is closed in January). On the hillside above town is Arromanches 360 where an 18-minute production, the Price of Freedom, is dramatically shown on nine screens of this theater in the round.
If time allows, you might want to continue east to explore the beaches of Juno and Sword. If you head west along the coast from Arromanches to the village of Longues sur Mer you can take the country road outside the village as far as to the bluffs to an open-air museum. Here, a walking path weaves through the wheat fields to abandoned gun emplacements, overlooking the stretch of coastline that the German artillery so fiercely guarded. Longues sur Mer is the only naval artillery battery on the Normandy coast that still has its guns.
Only five kilometers further along the coast, tucked on an inlet, you’ll find a quaint small fishing village named Port en Bessin which has a museum with a collection of remains found on the sunken warships. Inland from the water’s edge leaving Port en Bessin you’ll come to Colleville sur Mer, where the road out takes you to the American Cemetery and a 170 acre plot overlooking Omaha Beach. 9,387 white crosses stand in perfect alignment on a backdrop which overlooks sand and ocean. It is as poignant as it is gorgeous with paths that weave along the bluffs, a nearby chapel and a dramatic memorial.
Continuing along the length of Omaha Beach to the town of Saint Laurent sur Mer, which hosts a museum, Musée Omaha, you can pore over a collection of vehicles, weapons, uniforms and insignia which were found on the sandy battlefield. Both Omaha and Utah Beach, which lie northwest in Normandy, is where the American army landed under the direction of General Bradley. Follow the coast around Pointe et Raz de la Percée to the dramatic overlook of Pointe du Hoc. As you stand on this rugged stretch of coastline, pockmarked by bombs on the ruins of the German fortifications, it is difficult to comprehend the courage of the American soldiers who braved scaling the cliffs and stormed the enemy believing this was a strategic stronghold. A few more kilometers away at Camp Maisy, the Musée des Rangers focused their exhibition on the specially-trained American unit and the capture of Pointe du Hoc.
From here you can easily travel the stretch north along the coast to back to Utah Beach or leave the coast and travel south to St. Lô, a short drive from there will bring you to Mont Saint Michel which you will want to see if you have never visited it before. I have never forgotten my visit there in 2001 and it will add greatly to your experience of traveling in France. To get a great view of it you can visit my official web site page for the famous citadel: www.ilovecastles.com and click on Mont Saint Michel.
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