Julia McLean, who lives in Normandy, a strategic piece of geography in WWII, takes us on a tour of the Normandy Landing beaches and other important historical sites of D-Day, June 6, 1944.
June 6 had come around again and the roads were jammed with U.S. military wagons and bagpipe-playing British troops. They were mostly historical re-enactment groups — all quite normal in today’s Normandy. The French had decided to celebrate their 1944 liberation and cut down on the criticism of their American and Allied deliverers.
Forty years ago, when I first went up to the Normandy Beaches to visit the Museum at Arromanches and gaze out over the remaining bits of Mulberry Harbour, there was very little else to see apart from a few stone monuments with soldiers’ names carved on them. Now, all five beaches have their museums and visitor attractions.Operation Neptune, as the Normandy landings of 6 June 1944 were known, was the “largest amphibious invasion in world history, with over 160,000 troops landing on 6 June 1944. 195,700 Allied naval and merchant navy personnel in over 5,000 ships were involved. The invasion required the transport of soldiers and material from the United Kingdom by troop-laden aircraft and ships, the assault landings, air support, naval interdiction of the English Channel and naval fire-support. The landings took place along a 50-mile (80 km) stretch of the Normandy coast divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.”
The troops landed at 6.30 am. A decoy landing had been prepared and the Germans had never thought the Allies would land on these beaches. Just to be sure, they had peppered the shore with huge spikes, known as Rommel’s asparagus, intended to pierce the hulls of invading craft. Had the Allies landed at low tide, they would have been scuppered but they arrived on the Spring high tide in stormy weather. Many of the troops were sea-sick. Some boats were blown off course, which was all to the good because the German gun turrets could only swing in a certain arc and lost sight of the boats as they drifted further down the beach.
The airborne assault troops (the paras and gliders) had already started landing overnight. Although it was a bright moonlit night, some divisions got lost because one of their landmarks ( a local water tower) had helpfully been destroyed by the French Resistance the night before! I met two of the original paras (who told me this story) a few years ago at the Café Gondrin, the first French café to be liberated. It is just to one side of Pegasus Bridge. We happened to go there to show a young Scots friend around. He was known as Jimi the Piper and had a fabulous rock pipe band which did gigs all over Scotland.
We had met him in a wedding in Edinburgh and invited him to Normandy to pipe in another of Ted’s 21st to the power of ‘n’ birthdays. The battle of Pegasus Bridge was particularly crucial in order to cut off any re-supplies by the Germans. Every Scots piper knows that the battalion commanded by Lord Lovat crossed over Pegasus following a piper called Bill Millen. The Germans were so astounded by the strange noise and the lone Piper that they didn’t shoot! Jimi marched over the bridge piping the very same tune that Bill Millen had piped on June 6th 1944.
When we asked Jimi how he knew the right tune, he replied “Och, every Scottish Piper knows that.” He attracted so much attention that a local journalist invited us into the not-yet-opened Pegasus Bridge Museum. There were still dummies lying on the floor and all the museum staff were working overtime to get the place ready for the opening two days later by Prince Charles. The organisers had a problem however, because Bill Millen had donated the old bagpipes he had used on D-day. And they had been unceremoniously lumped into a black garbage bag and worse, the museum had no idea how to display them. Jimi put them reverently into working order and showed the staff how to display them properly. A display case was quickly built before the opening!
The historic Norman city of Caen was assigned as the main D-Day objective of the British 3rd Infantry Division who had to land on Sword Beach They moved forward to Caen with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division advancing on its western flank, to secure Carpiquet airfield, 11 miles (18 km) from Juno Beach, on the outskirts of the city. The landing beaches each have their museums. The Sword Beach museum is located at Ouistreham in “The Grand Bunker” and houses a vast amount of artifacts from WWII. The Sword beach cemetery, at Hermanville, is a wonderful resting place as it looks like an English country garden. I found it very touching.
The Canadian Museum is located on the edge of Juno Beach which was the site of the D-Day landings by Canadian soldiers. The museum covers not only the landings themselves but also gives an insight into Canadian culture and life, both past and present. By the end of D-Day, 30,000 Canadians had been successfully landed, and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division had penetrated further into France than any other Allied force, despite having faced strong resistance at the water’s edge. They lost 50 per cent of their landing force on that beach. Behind the beaches, there are two large military cemeteries housing Canadian soldiers – one is just inland at Beny sur Mer and the other much further inland at Bretteville sur Laize. One particular Candian soldier lies here in peace. He was fifteen years old.
One of the most spectacular museums is at Arromanches (Gold) where you can see the remains of the Mulberry harbour which the allies towed over the Channel to provide a safe harbour for the landing troops. Arromanches also has a good museum but more spectacular is the 360-degree cinema showing a film of the landings – very Steven Spielberg! Some of the museums are housed in old German bunkers and have elaborate models of the landings with bilingual guides who are really passionate about their subject.
Omaha beach museum is huge as was the effort of the troops.
The beach itself is picturesque “where romantic tales and childhood fables could be told — a beautiful place painted with high plateaus, rocky cliffs, and sandy bluffs. It is on this beach that one of most historical accounts of perseverance, tragedy, and torture played out”.* Omaha Beach, on June 6, 1944, was where one of the deadliest battles during D-Day occurred. “As American soldiers moved to and from the shore as effortlessly as the tide, a flawless plan of victory was no match for their tragic course of destiny”. The first footage of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was an excellent testimony to the courage of the invading forces. Amazingly, this film received little publicity in France when it appeared in 1998. The French attitude at the time was “Huh, another account of the Americans winning the War…”
This attitude was still in vogue when I visited the museum at Utah which was one of my favourites because of our guide, who was truly impressive. His presentation was so exciting that we were all saying “Yes, Yes, go on!” and almost wondering who was going to win! I remember the French audience being particularly attentive and then appalled as he announced the troop losses for the first few hours. They asked, “But why did the Americans come?” They were so used to the French socialist governments laying into the Americans and their greedy capitalist ways that they couldn’t imagine why all those young Americans had willingly died for France, except for gain. The guide replied, “To liberate Europe from the Nazi yoke, because Americans believe passionately in that liberty which inspired us French to our great Revolution.” They were obviously not aware of how interconnected the two histories are — and a pensive silence fell over the crowd. I have to say, it was very moving. The museum is housed in a German Bunker WN5.
Inland from here is St Mere l’Eglise, famous for the scene in the longest Day where the paratrooper is stuck on the church spire. A model of him is still there! The Airborne museum here, standing in the shape of a parachute, is filled with memorabilia. Further up the coast in Quineville is an extraordinary little museum called Le Memorial de la Libertee Retrouvee which shows everyday life in France under German Occupation. There is a re-constituted village street and propaganda posters put out by the Vichy Government. There is a fabulous one of Churchill as an octopus with tentacles spread over his great “Empire” with the words – “We are about to amputate his tentacles”.
There is, in fact, too much to take in unless one makes the Beaches the focus of the trip and spends a good few days. An overview of Operation Overlord can be found at the museum Memorial de Caen, which is expensive. Personally, I would recommend Arromanches, Utah and Quineville for people who have little time.
Needless to say, there are a gazillion websites on the Normandy D-Day landings. You will find more historical facts on some than on others. I liked these websites for their animations or true stories.
“Omaha Beach Today” Photo Coutesy of Julia McLean
A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of the U.S. Army‘s First Division on the morning of June 6, 1944 (D-Day) at Omaha Beach. Wikipedia
“Hand-Drawn Map of Normandy Landing Beaches” Courtesy of Julia McLean
Poster from Quineville Museum