After every trip I organise and host I ask myself the question what could have been done better. For our recent D-Day trip to Normandy I certainly have some small points for improvement for a next edition. But overall I can look back to a successful and deeply impressive trip. We got so much more than I had hoped for, despite that traffic on the small hedged-border Normandy coastal sometimes threw a spanner in the works.
With a long Pentecostal weekend ahead, we departed on Friday evening towards our first destination in Upper Normandy, Le Havre with its harbour. The city was not part of the D-Day offence, but it was part of the larger Operation Overlord. Being at the end of the Seine river, it was an essential stronghold for the Germans and a key objective for the Allies. The primary reason for staying in this city was the impossibility to find accommodation in Caen of Bayeux in Lower Normandy right after D-Day (with big international delegations in the city), the main starting points for any D-Day Beaches tour.
I was happy I woke up a bit earlier the next morning, because I had never been in Le Havre before and had some time to walk around. The city was almost fully destroyed by the Allies, so I didn’t expect too much. The city seems well organised, with here and there a nice building, a monument and an interesting theatre and library in the shape of a volcano. But one building totally surprised me, namely the St Joseph Church.
From the outside it was utterly unimpressive and even ugly if you’d ask me for my honest first impression. It looked like an ill-designed quickly-built concrete building that barely could carry the title of church. But once inside, I was overwhelmed with the beautiful colourful light produced by 12 768 small coloured windows that seem to hide between the concrete from the bottom to the top of the 110 meters high octagonal hollow tower. Just magnificent!
That we were not the only ones travelling to Normandy became quickly clear after crossing the impressive Pont de Normandy. Due to a big traffic jam on the highway towards Caen we could spent a bit less time than planned in the Mémorial de Caen, the main museum dedicated to the Battle of Normandy and a memorial to the brave soldiers who lost their lives here. It’s an outstanding museum, but personally I had expected more emphasis on Normandy itself instead of the entire WWII history. A visit to the SS Bunker and the viewing of an emotional overview movie of D-Day and Operation Overlord completed our visit. It was now time to meet our guide for the next 3 days, mr François Gosselin.
François grew up in Normandy and shared many of his personal memories to the region. It was clear he was very passionate about his job, and the high level of his knowledge would reveal itself over the next few days. With a lovely thick French accent it became obvious we had found the right man for the job when he started to tell about how British soldiers quickly captured the Pegasus Bridge in the Sword sector.
The rest of the day was dedicated to learning more about what happened in the sectors of Sword and Gold (British) and Juno (Canadian), which stretches out over 30km. Taking these beaches was much easier than the more Westward Omaha beach, partially because the dunes are not very high there and the hinterland is rather flat. Along the way to our final destination for that day, Arromanches-sur-Mer where the artificial Mulberry Harbour was built to facilitate the arrival of many more troops, vehicles and other materials to further the Battle of Normandy and the ongoing liberation of Europe.
Along the way to Arromanches we were treated with many extras that you can only see during the actual D-Day weekend, due to the many official festivities. First, during these days you will see many soldiers from all over the world, including D-Day and WWII veterans (although less every year). Second, everywhere you will see vehicles from WWII, both military and civilian. Third, many helicopters and military planes will fly along the beaches, including many C47 Dakotas, which is the military version developed from the regular DC3. The next day especially, we would see dozens of them.
The second D-Day day started in Bayeux, where we picked up François for a trip towards the Cotentin Peninsula. He first showed us the Bayeux War Cemetery, where 4648 souls rest from the Commonwealth countries. This was also the starting point for a war vehicles parade, so we were lucky enough to witness the arrival of many such cars. Rather impressive.
After Bayeux we diverted a little bit from our route by visiting Pointe du Hoc on the Omaha Beach section. With its steep cliffs and rough rocky sea, it was a key point to hold for the Germans and at the same time a very difficult point to recapture for the American troops from the 2nd Ranger Battalion who landed here.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather. Whereas the forecasts looked rather grim 4-5 days before departure, we only had very few drops falling when we were there, most of them during the night and while being on the bus. On the picture above you see a few drops on the bus front window. You may ask why this picture? Well, we were driving by the town of Isigny sur Mer. A long time ago a few citizens of this town moved to the US. Upon arrival at the immigration desk they tried to explain from where they came. Just imagine: “Je suis d’Isigny”, or I am from Isigny. “DE ISIGNY,” he shouted, but still misunderstood. “DI-SIGN-Y!!!”. But when it still didn’t work they just imagine they said “Oh what the heck, just make it Disney!”. Indeed, Mickey and Donald have their roots between the fields of Normandy.
The day planning had to be flexible, because we knew that it would be rather busy in the Utah Beach sector. Therefore we decided to first go to Cherbourg, an important harbour town in the North of the Peninsula. It was not part of the D-Day landings, but certainly an objective to recapture during the larger Battle of Normandy. Along the way we would have to pass St Mère Eglise, the village and area where thousands of U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Divisions landed just hours before the beach landings.
We were all very surprised to see the reenactment of these droppings when we passed by St Mère Eglise. And apparently we were not the only ones because the highway was flooded by cars that were parked on the emergency lane, largely blocking traffic from continuing their way towards Cherbourg. But for us, the 20 minute delay actually become the best traffic jam ever.
Cherbourg was not part of the D-Day landings, but an important city to recapture from the Germans during the Battle of Normandy. We stopped here to learn a bit more about the fights around this city to free the deep-water harbour. The Allied forces reached the city 11 days after D-Day. They met with bitter resistance and had to fight for every street until the 37.000 Germans surrendered. The victory was of paramount importance, because Cherbourg became the world’s most busy port until the very end of the war. After lunch we continued our trip to Utah Beach.
The landing on Utah beach was in many ways much easier than at Omaha beach, despite that many soldiers also lost their lives here. Our guide François first took us to the Northern part of these beaches, where the Americans were supposed to have landed, after which he took us to the more Southern parts where some 21.000 troops landed and “only” 197 soldiers died. Still, capturing the hinterland was more difficult, because Germans had flooded the fields. Since there were many small ditches and canals, it was dangerous to cross these fields because one could easily suddenly drop and drown due to the heavy loads the soldiers were carrying.
The Utah Beach landings really started with the droppings of 14.000 paratroopers right after midnight, as we saw reenacted on the highway a few hours before. The losses of these divisions were very large, namely 2.500. Without being able to steer the round parachutes, the paratroopers were easy targets for the German machine guns.
Some troops landed right in the middle of St Mère Eglise, with John Steele getting stuck on a church pinnacle. A dummy paratrooper still hangs there nowadays. The Germans initially thought he was died, but when the tried to remove him from the tower, he was still alive. He died in liberty a few decades later. It was a memorable day with many great impressions, such as the low-flying C-47 flying over the village when we arrived. Personally I was impressed with the joyous and loving atmosphere on the main square of the village. I saw soldiers from many different countries, including my own (Netherlands) and even Germany. That’s how it has always been supposed to be.
Our third day focused on the most infamous beach in history, the Omaha sector. By far most soldiers died here because of a variety of reason. Although it is true that the higher cliffs right behind the beaches gave the Germans the advantage of having a good view and a deadly angle with their machine guns, other reasons could also be mentioned. One reason was that soldiers were given a very good “last meal” because chances one would not survive were very high. This caused many to suffer from sea sickness. Another reason was that most of the amphibious tanks sank because of the high waves, so they couldn’t bomb the German bunkers from where so many soldiers were shot.
We started the day at the Arromanches 360˚ cinema. Due to heavy traffic 2 days before we didn’t make it on time there, so we decided to turn the program a bit around to ensure we would be able to see this impressive movie about the landings. It allowed François also a bit of time to explain more about the Mulberry harbour “Port Winston” as we were standing high on the cliffs and had a good view over the beaches and the remains of the harbour.
The next site we visited were the batteries of Longues-sur-Mer. Four huge guns were pointed at the sea to bomb ships taking part in a possible invasion. The views from the command post bunker are very impressive. In the movie The Longest Day there is a scene from this place where a German commander sees hundreds of ships looming up in the early morning sea fog.
After a very nice lunch at the Mercure Omaha Beach hotel, which is located right next to a beautiful golf course with holes named Général Dwight Eisenhower and Général George S. Patton. It was for us a perfect lunch stop for our last stops in the afternoon: Omaha Beach and the US Cemetery.
Omaha Beach was by far the sector with the heaviest fighting. The opening scene of the Steven Spielberg movie Saving Private Ryan depicts the unbelievable suffering of numerous American soldiers. During our outbound journey we watched a documentary about how soldiers didn’t have a chance against the German MG-42 that could fire an incredible 25 bullets per second. We also learned that a bullet from this machine gun, which travels with a speed of over 2500 kph could not fatally wound a soldier if the point of impact in the water would be at least 90cm away from the point of impact of the body. So to a certain extent, soldiers in the water would be safe from the bullets. Still, many drowned with their heavy load, or they were shot after all. In total 2.000 soldiers from the 1st and 29th divisions died that day, and many more were to follow the subsequent weeks in the Normandy hinterland.
The D-Day invasion cost the lives of over 4.400 allied soldiers, of which 2.500 Americans. A multifold more would follow in the further Battle of Normandy and Operation Overlord at large, with estimates going up to a staggering 120.000. Many who gave their lives for freedom would never leave Normandy again and were buried in one of the many cemeteries. The most impressive and most visited one is the Normandy American Cemetery that looks out on the Omaha Beaches and the Channel. A total of 9.388 soldiers are buried here under a white cross or a white Star of David. It is a bone-chilling sight, but one that must be seen by everyone at least once in a lifetime.
This D-Day trip was the first that was fully dedicated to this decisive battle. We had been to the Normandy beaches before, but only for one day as part of our Mont Saint-Michel trips. That’s definitely better than nothing, but to really understand the size and significance of this battle, one should see all the beaches, see a few museums and cemeteries, see the old vehicles and soldiers from around the world, and travel to all the 5 beaches. The days around D-Day itself may be the busiest (and expensive), but the experience of being there during the commemoration time makes it all the better due to all the additional impressions, such as old airplanes, paratroopers, commemoration ceremonies and other D-Day related events. Travelling with expats from all around the world makes it even more special because it makes the need for international collaboration and understanding even more relevant.