Visiting the D Day beaches of Normandy
By 1944, Hitler had over-run Eastern and Western Europe, and only the English Channel separated the Third Reich from Great Britain. As the months went by, Germany created its “Atlantic Wall” – a seemingly impregnable string of concrete bunkers and artillery emplacements. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill surmised that the only way the war could be won was by going on the offensive and taking the fight to the Germans in a coordinated invasion of occupied France. The day chosen for the D-Day invasion was June 6. Allied troops landing on unprotected beaches to confront the gun emplacements suffered tremendous casualties before securing their objectives.
Veterans of the landings often spoke of the horrific images and sounds that stuck with them for decades after that day. For today’s visitor, it’s still the sights and sounds, albeit very different ones, that make Normandy an unforgettable pilgrimage.
In the parking lot at the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, hundreds of visitors made their way to the manicured entrance. The air was filled with revolving languages – French, English, German, Japanese, Russian. All talk dialed down to a hush as they walked through the columns of the Memorial and looked out over the reflecting pool to the neatly rowed landscape of 9,387 marble crosses and Star of Davids stretching from the woods to the cliffs.
A carillion began to play. The tune wasn’t the expected church music; instead the bells were ringing The Star Spangled Banner. They were followed by a single bugler, who stepped out among the rows of crosses to blow Taps. A few veterans hunting for specific graves stopped their searches to come to attention, while adults and children of the various nationalities stood in respectful silence.
Visitors who are physically up for it can walk a series of zig-zag steps down to Omaha Beach, which was one of the assault points assigned to the American forces, and scene of the day’s biggest casualties. If you go, walk to the water’s edge, turn around and imagine the difficulty of the assault, with hundreds of yards of beach, followed by high, vegetation-tangled cliffs.
A trip to the D-Day beaches can be done in a long day, but the scope of the invasion was so large that I recommend taking two days to fully appreciate it. Two days also provides the opportunity to venture inland to see towns like Caen and St. Mere Eglise, where British and U.S. paratroopers dropped in to cut German supply and reinforcement routes. St. Mere Eglise is where the 101st Airborne profiled in Band of Brothers saw their first action.
Normandy is in the northwest part of France, approximately 150 miles from Paris. The French highway system is excellent and they drive on the right side of the road, making it very U.S. driver-friendly, even in the small towns, although the roads there can be tight. There are lots of tolls, so understand the currency values before getting on the road and have coins on hand.
Driving to the ocean from Caen will bring visitors to Sword, Juno and Gold Beaches, where the British and Canadian troops landed. These are pretty quick stops, since there wasn’t much German resistance built up in this part of Normandy and the three beaches show little evidence of being battle sites. Continuing west along the coast, the next stop is the military port of Arromanche-les-bains. This is where the British Navy filled barges with cement, then towed them and sunk them close to the French coast to create an artificial harbor that was used to offload tanks, trucks, artillery and supplies. Remnants of the harbor can still be seen today. The story of the harbor’s daring creation is told in the D-Day museum at Arromanche. Entry is 6.5 euros for adults and 4.5 euros for children, and is well worth it for the films, interactive maps and collections of military memorabilia.
A little further west are the German gun emplacements and concrete bunkers at Longues-sur-Mer. These are worth a stop because they are among the best-preserved and most intact structures on the route. Sure to be a big hit with kids. Again, think of the massive firepower these emplacements were able to direct onto the beaches.
Omaha Beach is about 8 miles west of Longues-sur-Mer. Continuing past Omaha, you’ll come to Point du Hoc. Here, a team of 260 Army Rangers was assigned to scale the rock cliff with grappling hooks and eliminate the gun emplacements trained on nearby Omaha and Utah Beaches. Two-thirds of the Rangers were lost in the assault. Point du Hoc vividly illustrates the raw power of war. Prior to the assault, U.S. Navy battleships concentrated their big guns on the clifftop. Today, Point du Hoc remains a kind of man-made moonscape, without as much as five consecutive feet of level ground. The tangle of twisted reinforcing rods and shattered concrete bunkers makes you wonder what it was like for the Germans, many of the Czech and Polish conscripts, who sustained that bombardment.
West of Point du Hoc is the last major beach, Utah, which also was an American landing zone. Utah had less German resistance and the smoother rolling landscape reflects it. Utah has some emplacements and also has several of the inverted-cross anti-tank obstructions.
If You’d Like To Go
Normandy hotels for the June 6th anniversary of D Day are booked solid, so I shopped an alternative trip for the Memorial Day period, departing May 24 and returning May 31.
It’s better to visit early or wait until the fall, since the airfares once you reach mid June start to climb north of $700 per ticket, depending on departure city, to Paris. For the Memorial Day trip, priceline.com had fares of $538 from New York’s JFK to Charles DeGaulle airport. Check here for latest fares and availability.
A couple options here. You can take the train www.raileurope.com from Paris to either Caen or Bayeux, which are both close to the D Day sites (Bayeux is also home to the Bayeux Tapestry exhibit). In either city, you can rent a car and see the sites yourself, or book a tour. In Paris, priceline.com had compact rental cars from $344 for the week, or $404 for a mid-size car. Rentals were cheaper in Caen, $299 for a compact and $359 for a mid-size. Check here for the latest rates and availability. A tour is a little bit easier on your otherwise designated driver, since he/she can sit back and enjoy the sights, but a full-day private D Day tour for a group of up to six people can run almost $600.
Priceline.com offers a robust lineup of hotels throughout the Normandy region, with the majority clustered in the larger towns close by the ocean. Check here for rates and availability. Start your hotel search in the cities of Caen or Bayeux, then explore the drop-down box which will show other nearby towns. All will be less than ½ hour drive to the beaches.
Prices can vary quite a bit depending on the type of hotel you want. In Caen, the smaller properties include the 25-room Rex Hotel at $73 a night, or the 50-room Hotel Clarine at $86 a night. In Bayeux, accommodations can go all the way up to the Chateau de Bellefontaine at $226 a night.
The food in the Normandy region of France reflects the abundance of seafood and dairy livestock. Mussels (moules) and sole are favorites from the sea. Many dishes come in rich butter or cream sauces. Be sure to try the local dishes, since they are very different from what you’ll find in Paris and other regions of the country.
Photos copyright Lyle J. Ek, 2008