Landing on the Beaches of Normandy (Paris 2009, Day 09c)
Today, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy, France, I am reposting my original travel blog of Paris, and specifically, of the bus tour I took to visit the Normandy region, including all 3 major landing beaches for Omaha (America), Gold (UK) and Juno (Canada) beaches. The article’s wording has not been edited since my original Blogger posting in 2009.
For the events of Saturday, September 5, 2009
1:00 PM – As we departed the Caen Memorial, our tour guide told us the museum is made out of the local stones of Normandy and built on top of an old Nazi bunker! The Germans actually flooded all the roads we are driving on today just before D-Day, to try to slow any potential successful Allies landing, which obviously didn’t work.
AMERICAN SECTOR (OMAHA BEACH)
1:04 PM – We are now on a 45-minute drive to the Coast. As we moved along, I noticed that the houses were all out of a movie set – everything is primarily the same as it was before or during the D-Day landing. I liked this particular house because it had all the historic charm of the French coast, seen for hundreds of years – but with a satellite dish stuck right in front . Also went by a church that had served the community for centuries . Apologies for the blurry pictures at times – I was taking them out of a bus window traveling at a good clip down the little roads.
Our first stop on this historic trip for me is the American Sector codenamed Omaha Sector – it’s not actually known only as Omaha Beach as many know it today, because some parts of it don’t have beaches at all. So far this has been a very high-end trip – the guide talks a lot (15-20 min) of background which is good. She kept saying we’d be a bit rushed in places this AM but I didn’t feel that way. Really impressed so far.
If it weren’t for the heroic efforts of the tens of thousands that died on D-Day, the beaches of Normandy would not have been cleared for more than 2.5 million other Allied soldiers that flooded France by the end of September, halting the German invasion and slowly liberating country after country from the Nazi death grip.
D-Day was without a doubt the greatest military invasion in human history, and the largest amphibious landing of troops of all time. Operation Overlord (as the invasion was codenamed) began just midnight on June 6, 1944 first with an aerial assault of tens of thousands of American, British and Canadian troops behind the enemy lines. What followed at 6 AM was later described by the Germans as a total horizon of ships – more than 5,000 in fact, carrying over 175,000 soldiers to 50 miles of beaches. Operation Overlord continued until the advance to the outskirts of Paris on August 19, and the Battle of Paris began.
The German defenses used an interlocking firing style, so they could protect areas that were receiving heavy fire. They had large bunkers, sometimes intricate concrete ones containing machine guns and high caliber weapons. Their defense also integrated the cliffs and hills overlooking the beautiful view. The defenses were all built and honed over a four year period and were extremely complex. It was like a city made out of concrete, and included guns so huge they ran on rail cars. Those who landed on those beaches faced what was later described as the greatest concentration of firepower in world history.
My Uncle Clayton was one of those young boys that jumped off a boat and faced that horror on Juno Beach. Having seen how open some of these beaches were to enemy fire, I’m actually amazed anyone survived. The Allies were to bomb the smithereens out of the German guns before the landed, but in some cases,the bombs never hit a single target, especially at Juno Beach, and it caused an unknowing Allied landing party to come under tremendous attack.
PM – Our first stop of the tour, situated between Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east was a little jutted-out place called Pointe Du Hoc (see map – the tip of which is the Pointe), where many American soldiers first landed. This is an original map from the invasion, and the Americans erroneously called it Point du Hoe on this map until later corrected.
Pointe Du Hoc is not a beach, but sheer cliffs rising from the water, making it very difficult to storm. The German guns, housed in 6 concrete bunkers, some with living quarters built into them, were able to reach as far as Utah Beach to the left (west) and Omaha Beach to the right (east), so it was imperative that the Americans successfully neutralize this area.
Though they literally bombed the heck out of the area first, they realized that they would still need to land troops there to ensure all guns were neutralized, and the 2nd Ranger Battalion was ordered to take the Pointe. However, before they could get there, the Germans, alerted by the continuous bombings, moved all the big guns about 1 mile away for safety. Before the Rangers attacked, their leadership knew the guns were moved, but the soldiers didn’t.
Regardless of the big guns being gone, the concrete fortifications were intact, and would still present a major threat to the landings if they were occupied by artillery forward observers. On these cliffs, 75 American troops were shot trying to climb the 100-foot cliffs with ropes, ladders, and grapples, and the troops had no ammunition reinforced to them for two full days after finally taking the Pointe – an eternity when you are being shot at constantly. Because of the price America paid to take this Pointe and ensure the success of D-Day itself, and the future liberation of France, the French gave this particular piece of land to America, and it is now permanent American soil.
1:55 PM – The first thing I noticed when I got to the Pointe, beyond the German bunkers, was how many bomb craters there were – it was like looking being on the surface of the moon. The second thing you notice is that literally nothing had been
touched since the landing – except for the guns, etc. removed. The broken concrete of the bombed-out German bunkers was left completely untouched.
The bunkers themselves were amazing (see photo for the German’s viewpoint), and completely available for you to crawl and wander through, which in hindsight seemed so crazy from a liability perspective, but then, who would you sue? They had open-ended concrete tunnels to connect them and were extremely dangerous to crawl through in places, with concrete half-bombed out and left dangling, etc., crawlspaces made half as big because they had collapsed, etc.
It was neat to see the track where the huge battery gun had been placed and ordered removed by General Rommel before the Americans attacked. It was huge – looked like it could turn 360 degrees on something like a gear set, and about 40-50 feet across, with about 6 stairs leading down on 4 sides.
I guess it was felt that the horror of war should not be put behind glass or barricades, but touched and felt. The blood of German and American soldiers had soaked the concrete in places, and it was left as it had been shed. It was both fantastic to see and horrifying to be near at the same time.
2:27 PM – Had to run to catch the bus back and did exactly on time – I was the last one. Oops! Felt rushed there but I understand there’s lots to see! I literally could have spent hours walking through those bunkers. It was beyond amazing. Definitely would like to come back and wander around more someday.
At this point, the roads are only one lane and very windy – they haven’t been changed since they were first constructed for humans and horses, with big trees on both sides – as it was in 1944. Beautiful old stone houses. And I just saw… a furry pig!
2:45 PM – We stopped for a 5 minute look at Omaha Beach itself, which wasn’t much to see – just a huge flat beach that seemed to go for miles, and some hills overlooking it that now had houses built up. Would be amazing real estate now and a very popular beach in summer time, but horrific on that June day. In that picture, there’s a little memorial at the bottom right hand corner. That is the marker of the first American cemetery in France, right on the beach – a mass grave where they just had to dump bodies for days to get them out of the way. They were later moved to the American Cemetery at Omaha Sector, our next stop.
3,700 Americans and 1,200 Germans died at Omaha Beach from 6:30 AM to noon. That’s 1 soldier every 4 seconds – and it went on for 5.5 hours.
3:00 PM – After a short drive we arrived at the American Cemetery at Omaha Sector, officially named the Colleville/Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer Cemetery. The cemetery was inaugurated in 1956 after four years work, overlooking the beaches of Omaha. Emotion overwhelms the visitor facing the large central viewpoint, the Memorial decorated with a huge Battle map, the Garden of the missing, where are carved the names of 1 557 missing soldiers. At the entrance to the Cemetery, a capsule is dedicated to General Eisenhower which contains his hand-written report of the D-Day fighting, sealed there on June 6, 1969 (the 25th anniversary of the landing).
But it’s the number of crosses that cover over 10 acres of land (and official American territory) that literally brings tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat. 9,386 American men (and 4 women) are laid to rest in this unbelievably beautiful and peaceful place.
I have seem video of this cemetery before (it was shown at the beginning and end of Saving Private Ryan), and thought I was prepared. Had a picture in my mind of my visit to Arlington National Cemetery as well but so wrong. This was like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life.
There are 50 people time staff that do nothing but cut the grass here. Of course they use electric equipment for the most part, but around each grave, the grass is always trimmed by nothing but hand clippers only. The graves are located at random, but are in sections of the alphabet from A-Z, and numbered rows in each section. There are four big sections in four quadrants, which have a central Chapel in the middle of them. While the majority of the Cemetery is filled with crosses, there are 300 Stars of David for Jewish soldiers as well.
As much as this was a nice place, we spent far too much time here. Why we had to be so rushed at the Beach and then spend an hour almost here is beyond me – I thought it was pretty stupid. I strongly recommend not doing a tour of the Normandy region in a bus – take a car from Paris and go on your own.
4:00 PM – We departed from the Cemetery and made our way out of the American Sector to the neighboring British Sector. Here, the roads so narrow and houses right up to the road, so it was difficult to take many pictures from the bus. At some points, you literally could have reached out the window from your seat and touched the walls of the buildings – a large charter bus such as ours could only go at a crawl, and no other vehicles could be coming from the other direction. In a few places some of the buildings were a bit farther off the road, allowing for a good shot, like this beautiful historic church.
The tour guide told us that the best dairy products in France, including Colbert and Camembert cheeses, come from here. There are also a lot of farms here with sheep and cows on them.
BRITISH SECTOR (GOLD BEACH)
4:15 PM – stopped at the British sector (Gold Beach) at Arromanches-les-Bains (or Arromanches as it’s known mostly), at low tide. I fell in love with this adorable little town at first sight – it reminds me of the Rock of Gibraltar on south tip of Spain, where I spent my 16th birthday in 1983. I just told myself I’ll be back here for summer vacation someday. I imagine it would be insanely busy- would like to rent a house or apartment and stay in the area for a week or two. Cute as a postcard with little souvenir shops, restaurants and B&Bs.
The town lies along the stretch of coastline designated as Gold Beach during the D-Day landings, one of the beaches used by British troops in the Allied invasion. Arromanches was selected as one of the sites for two Mulberry Harbours built on the Normandy coast, the other one built further West at Omaha Beach. Sections of the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches still remain today with huge concrete blocks sitting on the sand, and more can be seen further out at sea.
At a meeting following the disastrous Dieppe Raid, Winston Churchill told his generals he remembered that in World War I, they had sunk old ships for a bridgehead for an invasion in the Danish Islands during World War I. The concept of Mulberry Harbours began to take shape quickly, to build an artificial harbour at Arromanches to make it easier to ship supplies in, etc without rough seas at the landing spots.
By June 9, just 3 days after D-Day, two harbours codenamed Mulberry “A” and “B” were constructed at Omaha Beach and Arromanches, respectively. However, a large storm destroyed the American harbour just 10 days later, leaving “Port Winston” at Arromanches with heavy duty for 8 months— despite being designed to last only 3 months. It was used to land over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tonnes of supplies providing much-needed reinforcements in France.
Today Arromanches is mainly a tourist town. Situated in a good location for visiting all of the battle sites and War Cemeteries, there is also a museum at Arromanches with information about Operation Overlord and in particular, the Mulberry harbours.
Got a great coffee-flavored Italian gelato for about 1€ from a street vendor across from the bus.
CANADIAN SECTOR (JUNO BEACH)
5:05 PM – We got back on the bus and again, after only a few minutes were at what I waited for all day – a moment (it seemed, almost literally a moment only) at Juno Beach, where my Uncle Clayton landed and lost so many friends. Canada had the second largest losses at Normandy behind the US – and we were such a little country then. I think that’s when the whole world sat up and took notice of us – and watched as we liberated country after country. People celebrating by the thousands in the streets and throwing flowers on Canadian tanks in Holland, Belgium, and France.
The biggest regret on this tour was that we were only to spend 15 minutes there. Screw that, I thought – there are 8 Canadians out of 23 on this bus, and we’ll hold it up as long as we want. The Americans got hours, we’ll get a few more minutes – and I talked to the other Canadians and we agreed to just drag it out a few minutes longer. The Americans understood later and didn’t complain at all. They all agreed the Museum there is the nicest of them all today.
Juno at the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer was the second most heavily defended (the British Gold beach was the least defended) of the five landing sites chosen. The Germans had 11 heavy batteries of 155 mm guns and 9 medium batteries of 75 mm guns at their disposal, plus pillboxes and other fortifications were present all along the beach, most heavily concentrated in the Courseulles-sur-Mer region. The seawall was twice the height of Omaha Beach’s, and the sea was heavily mined. German troop strength numbered under 8,000 soldiers and was one of the weakest divisions in Normandy. Thankfully, or the Canadian casualties, the second worst of the D-Day invasion, would have been much larger.
In the first day of the invasion alone, Canadian casualties numbered nearly 1,000 killed and wounded, but it was such an unbelievably chaotic day that no accurate record is possible to indicate how many were killed on the beach and how many became casualties inland. Once the Canadians cleared the seawall (about an hour after leaving the transports) they were able to advance towards their objectives farther inland.
Having seen how completely open this beach was, I’ve never been so proud of my country in my life. There were several completely intact bunkers at this beach, that had full living quarters built into them underground. Quite amazing. I didn’t get pictures, but have a bit of video and will show upon request.
The Centre Juno Beach, paid for with individual Canadian donations, was beautiful. Sorry folks, it was so dismal outside, and I had so little time, that I didn’t get great frontal shots of the building. It was a very impressive looking centre, designed to look from the air like a stylized maple-leaf, made with polished copper to shine in the sun. And it had these little posts that had little nameplates of donors from coast-to-coast in Canada, who had given more than $6 million total. Only Canadians would rally together for something like that. I encourage everyone to visit http://www.junobeach.org to learn more about the Centre, and the price Canada paid to free Europe.
5:30 PM – could have spent much more time here, but maybe this would be a great second trip. Beautiful place. But finally we had to get ready to leave. As we left the region, I saw that Juno is right by a pretty little harbor that looked a bit like False Creek. Would be a great place to live, so close to the ocean. They also had an oyster farm there, which was interesting.
7:00 PM – we stopped at a truck stop on the way called Total. It was the most unique thing I’ve seen all day, as it seemed to look best on a Canadian freeway – really different than anywhere else I’ve been to in France. They had a bank of coffee machines against one wall that made expressos, chocolate cappucinos, anything you wanted practically. Really neat. Got a ham and Emmental cheese (which I’ve never had before in my life) sandwich, a Lion chocolate bar (which was really amazing – had Rice Krispies, caramel and covered with chocolate), and a Fanta Tropical juice for the road back. But was so tired I fell asleep right away and didn’t eat any of it!
8:00 PM – Woke up in time to see a high-speed “bullet” train that takes you from Paris to Normandy. I swear it was the fastest thing I’ve ever seen with my own eyes run on land. Amazing – must have been going a few hundred kms/hour.
9:00 PM – we made great timing back, and were back around 9:00 (supposed to be 9:30) back at the station. Before I hopped on the train, however, I ran over to the Louvre (just a block away from the Cityrama office0 to get a great night shot. It’s so beautiful at night, and it was a great night in Paris, so I couldn’t resist. A bit creepy at night there, mind you.
9:45 PM – I quickly took the train back, and got back to the hotel. Found a really nice fruit basket at the hotel that they had left as a thank you gift – nice touch. Going to head to bed around 9:45 PM so I can get up and pack and finish some of my blog in the morning. Good night – loooooooong day, but really amazing.
Was exhausted so ate the supper I bought at the truck stop, some of the fruit, and went to sleep.