One of the pivotal moments of modern history was written on June 6, 1944, on remote beaches and cliffs of the Normandy coastline in northern France.
Today, the picturesque villages along this 85 kilometer (53 mile) stretch of English Channel, with names like Ouistreham, Arromanches, Colleville-sur-Mer and Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, are remembered the world over under very different names. They are evermore immortalized as the places where allied troops from Britain, Canada and the United States landed under fire on beaches code-named Juno, Sword, Gold, Omaha and Utah. This, the largest amphibious assault in history, set in motion the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi occupation and the ultimate resolution of the Second World War.
By now, history books document with chilling clarity the epic scope this opening assault. And famed movies such Darryl Zanuck’s 1962 “The Longest Day” and Steven Spielberg’s 1998 “Saving Private Ryan” are vivid illustrations of the horrific cost of reclaiming lost freedom. But I never fully grasped the extent of the heroism of the 150,000 men of D-Day until my recent visit to “this tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more than the fate of a war, but the course of human history.” (President Obama, at the June 6, 2014 D-Day Anniversary, Omaha Beach, Normandy).
The Caen Peace Memorial
My D-Day itinerary starts at the Caen Peace Memorial. Inaugurated in 1988, the stark memorial complex stands on the site of an old bunker on the northern outskirts of Caen.
The main exhibit space, which focuses on the causes and consequences of the Second World War, is entered via a descending spiral staircase lined with photograph panels illustrating a detailed chronology of the rise of Nazism. Exhibits include models of bunkers, battleships and battlefields, artifacts from the French Resistance, a tribute to the Holocaust and outstanding video presentations of D-Day, showing the events from the Allied and German perspectives on a split screen.
A new wing added in 2002 covers the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attacks of September 11, 2001. (n.b. The Caen Memorial was the first museum outside of the United States to display artifacts from 9/11).
The museum is surrounded by serene gardens that commemorate the allied forces: the Garden of Canada, the American Garden and the British Garden. I find them to be meditative spaces that invite to reflection on the necessity of finding lasting peace.
La Pointe to Hoc
Between Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east, the cliffs form a sheer promontory towering thirty meters (100 feet) above a narrow strip of rocky beach. This is the Pointe du Hoc, a strategic point where the Germans had established a network of interconnected bunkers with a heavy artillery battery capable of raking a long stretch of the coastline.
Although Allied bombardments had repeatedly targeted the position in the weeks leading up to D-Day, there was no guarantee that they had neutralized it. The decision was therefore taken to attack the position at dawn on D-Day. The men of the U.S. Second Ranger Battalion scaled those cliffs under enemy fire only to face heavy fighting in a lunar landscape pockmarked with bomb craters at the top. They took and held the position for two days before they could be relieved. Of the 225 commandoes that stormed the beach, only 90 were still standing, many of them wounded.
La Pointe du Hoc is now a hallowed site that has remained mainly untouched since then. France erected the Second Ranger Battalion Monument, shape like a gigantic menhir (ancient Breton language for standing stone) soaring toward the sky at the edge of the cliff to honor the memory of the US Rangers who fought and died here.
Omaha beach was the hardest fought and the costliest of the D-day landings. A combination of strong defensive positions and rough seas that caused the loss of most of the supporting tanks and artillery saw the first wave of American troops pinned down on the water’s edge. They endured grievous losses but held on as successive waves of reinforcing troops joined in. By nightfall in spite suffering over 2400 casualties, 34,000 men had landed and gained a hold on the beach and one mile of the immediate hinterland.
Sainte Mere l’Eglise
Located 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) inland from Utah beach, the western-most of the five invasion beaches, Sainte Mère l’Eglise was one of the first villages to be liberated in the night of June 6. US Airborne units parachuted in and around the village shortly after midnight, just as the entire village population was engaged in a bucket brigade to put out a major house fire right across from the church, under the watchful eye of the German occupiers. The paratroopers, clearly visible in the fire-lit sky, suffered heavy casualties. But by 4:30 am the Stars and Stripes was flying over the town. And Private John Marvin Steele had survived the night that was to make him an international celebrity (after it was related in “The Longest Day”). After his parachute lines fouled on the church steeple, he hung over the battleground for two hours before being cut down and taken prisoner. He managed to escape his captors and rejoin his unit a couple of days later.
The village remembers his story by keeping a replica of a paratrooper hanging from the church steeple. Meanwhile, inside the church, the sky-borne liberators are honored with two brilliant stained glass windows dedicated in 1972. One shows the Virgin Mary surrounded by airplanes and paratroopers, the second honors Saint Michael (patron saint of paratroopers).
The Normandy American Cemetery
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is the most poignant memorial site I’ve ever visited. It stands on a verdant bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, on the ground of the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II, established as a temporary cemetery by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944. It is said to be on the very spot where they first reached the top of the bluff and breached the Nazi defenses overlooking Omaha beach.
The 70 hectare (172 acre) site, granted in perpetuity to the United States by the French government, contains the graves of 9,387 U.S. military dead, most of whom fell on the D-Day landings and ensuing operations, as well as Army Air Corp crews shot down over France as early as 1942. The Memorial consists of a semi-circular colonnade with a loggia at each end containing large mosaic maps and narratives of the military operations.
Then, beyond a long reflecting pool, the burial ground with its endless rows of neatly lined graves marked by white marble crosses and stars of David faces west toward the United States. Along with a long curved wall of white marble inscribed with 1,557 names that borders the semi-circular Garden of the Missing, it is a heart-wrenching reminder of the immeasurable price of war.
Good to Know
- Getting There – The most efficient way to visit the beaches of Normandy is by car. It’s 340 kilometers (211 miles) via the A13 toll highway from the center of Paris to the Caen Peace Memorial. From there it’s about 130 kilometers (80 miles) meandering westward along the coastal country roads to Sainte Mère l’Eglise. Or it’s a two hours train ride from Paris, Gare Saint Lazare to Caen. From there, a number of tour companies offer various tours with pre-set itineraries of the main sites of the D-Day invasion.
- Where to Stay – To make the most of my visit, I planned an overnight stay in the area. From hotels and country inns to bed and breakfasts and even camping grounds if weather cooperates, there are options to accommodate all preferences and budget. If in doubt, consult the tourist office site of the town you are considering for your stop over.
- Visiting – Memorial de Caen, Esplanade du General Eisenhower, Caen. www.memorial-caen.fr. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 2 31 06 06 45. Consult the site for opening hours as they vary with the seasons. Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer. www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials/europe/normandy. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 2 31 51 62 00. Open daily from 9:00am to 6:00pm. from April 15 to September 15 and from 9:00am to 5:00pm the remainder of the year. Closed on December 25 and January 1.The cemetery receives over one million visitors a year. The site is entered through the visitor center inaugurated in 2006 in a wooded grove just east of the Garden of the Missing.