From whatever vantage point one is to view the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the view exercises the mind and is not easily comprehended. The eyes of a pilot flying one of the 13,000 aircraft, the eyes of a naval officer commanding one of the more than 5,000 vessels, the eyes of a German soldier in a bunker manning an MG42 machine gun (which could fire 1,500 bullets per minute), the eyes of a paratrooper dangling uncomfortably from a church bell tower — they’re all unique perspectives, parts of the mind-boggling whole.
And then there are the eyes of the tourist, who decades later is wandering through the beaches, museums, and cemeteries that mark what happened here.
D-Day, the first day of the Normandy invasion during World War II, was the most complex operation in military history and the first cross-Channel invasion since William of Orange pulled it off in 1688 (he was going the opposite direction, however). About 160,000 Allied troops, mostly American, British, and Canadian, landed that day, and 4,413 of them died. An estimated 1,000 German soldiers, and 3,000 French civilians, also lost their lives.
Following are ten D-Day related sites to visit in Normandy. This is far from an exhaustive list, and in focusing on the American sectors of the battlefield it neglects most British and Canadian sites.
In the hours before dawn on D-Day, around 13,100 American paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions jumped into Normandy. Many drops were off-target, and some were made at too fast an airspeed or too low an elevation with disastrous consequences. The most famous paratrooper that night may be Private John M. Steele, whose chute got caught on the church bell tower in the German-occupied village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. He hung there and played dead, and the scene was immortalized in the 1962 film The Longest Day. Today the church’s stained glass windows depict paratroopers dropping from the sky, and a model of Pvt Steele hangs from the tower. Across from the church is the highly recommended Airborne Museum.
2. UTAH BEACH
The D-Day invasion took place over a 50-mile stretch of coastline, which military planners divided into five sectors. The westernmost sector was Utah Beach. Remarkably, one of the American soldiers who landed in the initial wave had a heart condition and arthritis, and he used a cane. His name was Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt Jr., the 56-year-old son of former president Theodore Roosevelt. The general’s son also landed the same morning, but on Omaha Beach. Worth visiting is the Utah Beach D-Day Museum.
Located three or four miles inland from Utah Beach, this small town was the scene of fighting between the American 101st Airborne Division and the German Wehrmacht. The centerpiece of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont is the Church of Notre Dame — an American bazooka once knocked on the main door —and a walk in town is made all the more interesting by the numerous panels which, using military diaries as well as first-hand accounts of residents, tell short stories about what happened in each spot.
4. POINTE DU HOC
On the morning of D-Day, U.S. Army Rangers scaled the 90-foot cliffs at Pointe du Hoc to take out the German positions. This strategic bluff is the highest point between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach. For the Rangers, the costliest part of the operation was not scaling the cliffs but, once at the top, defending their foothold from German counter-attacks, which took place over the next two days. Germans weren’t the only people Americans killed in the area; one Ranger reported that French civilians believed to be shooting at them and serving as artillery observers were also shot.
5. LA CAMBE GERMAN WAR CEMETERY
La Cambe, maintained by the German War Graves Commission, contains the remains of more than 21,000 German military personnel, most of whom died between June 6 and August 22, 1944. A sign near the entrance reads in part, “With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.” The small visitor center contains poignant displays, including letters written by some of the deceased. The mound in the center of the cemetery holds the remains of 207 unknown and 89 identified German soldiers.
6. OMAHA BEACH
On D-Day, 34,250 American soldiers landed on the six-mile-wide Omaha Beach, compared to 23,250 soldiers who landed on Utah Beach. Omaha was by far the bloodier location. The aerial and naval bombardment immediately preceding the landing was ineffective, and contributed to the high casualty count that followed. The Eighth Air Force, for example, dropped 13,000 bombs one-half hour before the landing, but not one bomb hit the German beach defenses. One American soldier who witnessed the bombing said angrily, “All it’s done is wake them up.”
7. NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY AND MEMORIAL
My first memory of the American cemetery in Normandy is from television in 1984, when Ronald Reagan visited to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day. It would be another 30 years before I would see it with my own eyes. Beautifully situated above Omaha Beach, it is the final resting place of 9,387 Americans, including Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt Jr, who died of a heart attack several weeks after landing on Utah Beach. To my surprise at least one person in this cemetery, an American pilot, didn’t die in World War II but in World War I. Originally buried in a WWI cemetery elsewhere in France, in 1955 his family had the body disinterred and transferred to the American cemetery in Normandy so that it could rest beside his brother. That brother, in case you’re curious, was General Roosevelt.
More recently, another body was removed from the cemetery. In 2015, the grave of an unknown soldier was disinterred and DNA testing confirmed that the remains belonged to John Anderson, a 24-year-old sailor who died in the Omaha Beach landing. Just last weekend, on May 28, 2016, he was reburied in his home state of Minnesota.
8. BAYEUX WAR CEMETERY
The Bayeux War Cemetery, completed in 1952, is the final resting place of 4,648 people, mostly from the United Kingdom. Ten other nationalities are also buried here, including 466 German soldiers.
Seven miles from Bayeux is this picturesque beach and town which, during the summer of 1944, was home to an artificial port disembarking an average of 9,000 tons of war material a day. The port, called Mulberry Harbour, was floated over from England in pieces and then assembled in Arromanches. Its remains are still visible in the sea and on the beach — giant, ghostly relics of another era, and of a mammoth enterprise.
On a bluff beside the town is the Arromanches 360 Circular cinema, home to one of the most moving short documentaries I’ve seen.
This last item on the list isn’t a specific place so much as a general wandering. Particularly around Utah Beach, the rural roads often have memorial road signs named after a soldier who died. You read the soldier’s name, the date he was killed in action, and then you look around at some of the landscape in which he and so many others lived their final moments. The fields are beautiful and often quiet, like the peaceful lanes that run beside them. You feel the passage of time, but also the things that are beyond time.
If interested in a comprehensive and very readable account of the entire Normandy campaign, I recommend Anthony Beevor’s book D-Day: The Battle for Normandy.