4-5 April 2019
Travelling east along the D-Day Landings our first stop was Grandcamp Maisy, part of the Atlantic Wall fortifications built by the Germans to protect against invasion from the sea. Grandcamp Maisy was responsible for a lot of the shelling of the beaches in the American sector on D-Day. Unfortunately for us it was closed so we moved on to Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the American sector landings of Utah Beach & Omaha Beach. Far more extensive than we had thought, this heavily fortified battery was attacked by the US 2nd and 5th Rangers who scaled the tall cliffs, took the battery and held it for 2 days until relieved.
We joined the many school groups weaving between the countless shell-holes to explore the bunkers and remnants of gun emplacements, and stood at the viewing slit like in the Longest Day, trying unsuccessfully to imagine what it would have felt like to look out and see the approaching fleet of 5000 ships while being bombarded from air and sea. Looking at the cliffs we realised just how impressive the Rangers achievement was, particularly as they lost half their force before landing. Their losses during the assault were huge and a monument commemorates their achievement.
Onwards to Omaha Beach itself, a 5-mile long sector of the attack which has since been immortalised in Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Difficulties in navigation caused the majority of landing craft to miss their targets and the defenses were unexpectedly strong causing the Americans to suffer heavy casualties before eventually winning through.
Another skirmish took place there when we had a brief but painful encounter with a bollard. We were so busy arguing about ‘where’ to park that we completely failed to register the expensive reversing camera and parking sensors – money well spent! Who was the driver? The old military expression “No names – no pack drill” applies.
Once peace was restored we headed to the Omaha Museum – worth it for the film but we didn’t linger.
A short drive away is the American Military cemetery at Coleville sur Mer, overlooking Omaha beach and the only Normandy American cemetery. We wrapped up against the cold wind and joined the 20-plus coachloads of students to walk round the cemetery. The sheer number of them really brought home to us the relationship that France – at least this part – has with the USA. The cemetery contains 9,388 burials, each marked by a simple white marble cross, and a Garden of the Missing with 1,557 names engraved to commemorate those missing in action from the operation, mostly lost at sea.
Amongst the burials are President Theodore Roosevelt’s son, Teddy Roosevelt Jnr. We were previously unaware that the president lost another son in WW1 and he is now buried here next to his brother. There are 45 pairs of brothers here and a father and son – very poignant. The memorial – a statue surrounded by 2 semi-circular colonnades – has huge maps on the walls carved out of limestone showing how the operation developed. At the viewpoint we looked down onto the beach below and could see just how exposed the soldiers were to German defences. Scary.
Reaching Gold, the first of the British landing beaches, we overnighted at Arromanches parking up in a small car park close to the centre which allows over-nighting out of season. Site of one of the famous Mulberry harbours the remaining segments are impressive and the fact that these huge pieces of concrete were floated across the channel is remarkable.
On the cliff above the village is Arromanches 360, a circular cinema of 9 screens that shows an excellent and really moving 19-minute film of brilliantly cleaned-up archive footage telling the story of the 100 days of the Battle of Normandy. Best we have seen and very moving, well worth it.
Moving on to the Juno Beach Centre Museum at Courseulles sur Mer where the Canadians commemorate their part in Operation Overlord. This museum was different again, detailing life in Canada in the run-up to the war, the involvement of the Canadians including the challenging politics for their government, their preparations and contribution. It finished with an exhibition on Canada today. Very, very interesting to see things from their perspective, we learnt a lot. 45,000 Canadians lost their lives during the war, 5,500 of them in the battle of Normandy and 359 on D-Day.
The final D-Day beach is Sword, the other British part of the assault. We parked at Ouistreham on the Aire – right next to the Brittany Ferry terminal – and walked to Le Grand Bunker Musee, a 6-storey bunker that was part of the Atlantic Wall fortifications and in very good condition – probably because it surrendered. We climbed the rung ladder right to the top , to stand on the roof and survey the beach. Back inside, we played with the rangefinder and examined the many exhibits which reconstructed it very effectively.
Outside, a restored landing craft that was used in Saving Private Ryan provided a photo opportunity.
A wander along the flat beach now populated with beach-huts and boardwalks, backed by tennis courts, boules pitches, a skateboard park and other leisure facilities it is a far cry from what it must have been like in 1944. We could travelled a short distance to visit Pegasus Bridge but we had already spent a lot of time there in 2014 so we finished our D-Day pilgrimage here. We had been immersed in 1944 but our next stop would take us further back in time to a very different invasion.