On the now-peaceful Normandy coast, remembering the drama of D-Day
There is a stark contrast along the Normandy coast between the size and violence of the D-Day invasion and the peaceful, relaxed landscape of today.
On one hand, it’s not hard when you’re there to imagine tens of thousands of soldiers fighting on the beaches and among the hedgerows, fields and country roads just inland. The images have been immortalized in movies such as “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
Standing on Omaha Beach, you feel the ghosts of American soldiers whose bodies bloodied the surf 60 years ago. Looking up at the hill, you can practically see Tom Hanks leading the charge toward the German positions.
But on the other hand, Normandy today is a place utterly lacking in such drama. This section of northwestern France is about cows and farmyards, narrow roads and uncrowded beaches. The beaches are especially soothing during the lingering twilight, which in June lasts until 11 p.m.
There is no better place to take a picnic basket filled with a sack of shrimp, bottle of wine, a few apples and some locally made butter, cheese and a fresh baguette. Finish it off with a splash of calvados bought from a roadside stand and you are ready for a nap.
That quiet peacefulness will be broken next month as a horde of international VIPs, including President George Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the accompanying press invade the area for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
But it will not last long, and soon the region will quickly return to the serenity it is known for.
Be forewarned that Normandy, on the northwestern edge of France, is quite a haul from central Europe. For example, it’s about a seven-hour drive from Frankfurt for a driver with a lead foot and enough luck to miss the Paris-area traffic. Better to plan for nine or 10 hours.
Highway tolls add up as well. Be ready to spend nearly $100 round trip. And add the cost of gas — remember there are no gas coupons for France.
The good news is that most D-Day sites are within 35 miles of one another. The best advice is to stay a few days, don’t rush things, and make the most of your trip.
And don’t feel obligated to visit in June. Normandy has year- round appeal and better prices in the off-season.
Here are a few of the attractions:
• Ste.-Mère-Église is the epicenter of D-Day hoopla. For most of the year it is a charming village with just a few thousand residents. But during the first few weeks of June, it takes on a carnival atmosphere.
• Before dawn on June 6, 1944, the first U.S. troops parachuted into the area, and Ste.-Mère-Église became the first Nazi-occupied town to be liberated by the Allies.
• Among the nearby sites is the monument of “Iron Mike,” which honors the paratroops.
Also nearby is Utah Beach. It was a different type of landing area compared with Omaha Beach and its long, steep hill or Pointe du Hoc with its rocky cliffs that were scaled by Army Rangers during the attack. Utah has a wide beach with sand dunes that today features a museum, souvenir store with Internet café and a large parking area where last year visitors gathered to watch a fireworks show.
• At the Normandy American Cemetery near Omaha Beach, there might be a lot of people, but there is never a lot of noise. The 9,386 white crosses, in perfect rows on green grass against a blue sky, makes for a somber site that inspires quiet reflection and not small talk.
But the cemetery isn’t totally silent. The chirping of birds drowns out the murmur of people paying their respects. Metal buckles clank against flagpoles and flags snap in the ocean breeze. Carillon bells playing the “Marines’ Hymn.”
Most of the visitors are French, just like at all the D-Day sites. But there will be Americans there, too.
“People need to fight for freedom but need to deserve it as well,” said Gene Garren, a disabled retired veteran from Burnsville, N.C., last year during his annual visit.
Each year, Garren is hired by survivors to photograph headstones. He places a miniature American and French flag on either side, a red rose on the grass in front, and snaps a picture to send back home.
Then he salutes the grave.
“If we don’t remember these guys,” he said, “do we really deserve the freedom we have?”
• The big guns of the Batterie de Longues-sur-mer still point to the ocean in the distance. The German guns are still encased by concrete shelters 4-to-6-feet thick with reinforced steel, designed to fire at Allied ships miles away. The guns, slightly inland, are a short distance to the west of Arromanches, the site of Gold Beach, where troops from the 2nd British Army came ashore.
Standing on top of one of the batteries, it’s easy to imagine the German soldiers scrambling to load, aim and fire at the invading armada below.
There’s a wheatfield now between the guns and the beach, and the wheat stalks rustle in the breeze.
Many sections of the coastline are pockmarked with holes in the ground up to 10 feet deep. Grass has grown in the holes, which were made by Allied warships as they shelled the shore before the invasion began.
• The hill above the village of Arromanches is a perfect spot to throw down a blanket for a picnic lunch or just to rest. There is a spectacular view of the town, the beach and coast. As with many places along the Normandy coast, the spacious green hill above Arromanches is a fine place to watch the sun set over the coastline to the west.
Out in the water, the concrete pontoons remain. They were towed across the English Channel during the invasion and placed there to break the waves and create a safe harbor for Allied ships. They served as floating docks to help the unloading of supplies and reinforcements after the initial assault.
On top of the hill, there is a theater-in-the-round that plays a short movie about the invasion. There is a modest entry fee. Stairs lead down into the town of Arromanches, where there is a variety of shops, cafes and bars.
• The German Cemetery at La Cambe, is a grim place in contrast with the heavenly American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, less than 10 miles away.
The expanse is covered with dark gray crosses and headstones. Some flowers have been placed at the graves but not many. No flags are raised and there is no display of nationalism.
The German Cemetery is more heavily populated than the American one. Soldiers were buried two to a grave to save space. Burial plots the size of a modest American living room contain 24 bodies. Each headstone has two names on it, although many have the simple inscription Ein Deutscher Soldat ( A German Soldier) for the dead who could not be identified. Ages are included for most who could be identified, and many are 18 or younger.
In the center of the cemetery, on top of a large mound under which nearly 300 unidentified soldiers are buried, stands a large black cross and two figures wrapped in shrouds, overlooking the rest of the graves.
Until 1947, American soldiers were buried at the cemetery at La Cambe. Their bodies were exhumed and shipped to the United States, and in 1948 the cemetery was turned over for German use.
It is best to go to the German Cemetery in the morning before the tourists show up. It’s a moving experience, a sad and melancholy place that helps bring your D-Day experience full circle.
More about sites in Normandy ...
It has been called “Bloody Omaha” and for good reason: More than 2,500 Americans died on the 2.5-mile crescent of beach on June 6, 1944.
Plans called for the 116th and 16th regimental combat teams to make the initial assault. Then the bulk of the 1st and 29th divisions would come ashore. Ideally, the assault would establish by nightfall a beachhead 16 miles wide and 6 miles deep. The Americans were to take and hold the beach against what was thought to be a division of German teens and older men cobbled together to defend an unlikely target. This breach would gives Allied troops a staging area.
But only days before, the Germans added the battle-toughened 352nd Infantry Division to the defense of the coastline. The U.S. troops also faced the toughest natural obstacles of the landing. Rough seas hampered the invasion. The four ravines the Americans hoped to take were heavily guarded and reinforced with concrete walls. Steep 100-foot cliffs waited at the edge of the beach, and the tide would shift just as the invasion began, creating a beach at least 400 yards wider than expected.
To defend the beach, the Germans built eight concrete bunkers with 75 mm or larger guns, 35 pillboxes, four artillery batteries, 18 anti-tank guns, six mortar pits, 35 rocket-launching sites and 85 machine-gun nests.
As the first American troops left their assault ships, high waves swamped some of the craft and 300 men drowned. Most of the artillery was also lost as the transports were swamped and overturned. Preliminary air and ship bombardment failed to soften German gun emplacements.
The first invading Allied troops lacked adequate armored support because only half of the 64 tanks made it to the beach. The rest sank. American landing craft foundered on sandbars off the beach. The Germans sat in their bunkers and ripped the U.S. soldiers to ribbons as the doors of the landing craft opened. The assault was in disarray.
Eventually, though, a few soldiers rallied to reach Vierville-sur-Mer. By noon, 200 Americans held the small town. By nightfall, the Americans had established a small beachhead 6 miles long and 2 miles deep.
The Allies had kicked open the door to Fortress Europe.
Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. 1st Army and in charge of the landings at both Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, wrote in his memoirs that “Utah Beach was a piece of cake.”
And compared with what the invaders faced at Omaha Beach, it was. The Americans suffered fewer than 197 casualties as they seized this strip of the Normandy coast.
Geography favored the invaders. Unlike the British and Canadian landing sites to the east, the area was thinly populated. The area behind the beach was flat and marshy, offering the defenders no natural advantage like the Omaha Beach cliffs.
The assault began around 6:30 a.m., about a half-hour after sunrise and an hour after Allied ships began shelling German positions.
As the landing craft pushed into the shelter of Cape Barfleur, which includes the beach, the water became calmer than at other landing sites. Some boats drifted off course in the haze from the shelling and accidentally dropped troops at sites even better than planned. Most tanks and artillery evaded German mines and made it to shore intact.
A hapless regiment of the German 709th Division tried to repulse the attack. The soldiers were described as reservists and foreign volunteers, who effectively raked the landing area, but gave up quickly in close combat. Paratroops had already dropped in behind the defenders, cutting off their communication and making it impossible for them to send an alarm or radio for help.
By day’s end, 23,000 Americans had disembarked on the beach and one division had pushed six miles inland, capturing several villages. Their quick advance made it possible for the Allies to turn the beach into a gigantic landing area to unload war materiel, and eventually, Lt. Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army, which in the months played a key role in toppling the Third Reich.
Sword, Juno and Gold Beaches
British and Canadian forces had the responsibility for the eastern flank of the invasion, landing at three beaches near the key city of Caen, France.
Armored units from Britain’s 3rd Infantry Division led the charge on Sword Beach. Under the cover of heavy shelling by ships offshore and a smoke screen sent up to conceal troop movements from German artillery, 31 of the unit’s tanks managed to crawl ashore.
However, landing craft were hampered by heavy winds and rough surf that hid barbed wire, mines and iron stakes along the shore. Wreckage mounted on the beach and wounded men, pinned to the sand by the weight of their equipment, drowned in the rising tide.
Still, by 1:30 p.m. the commandoes managed to secure a foothold, push inland and meet up with Allied airborne troops.
To the west, on Juno Beach, the 3rd Canadian Division faced dangerous reefs, jutting rocks and floating mines, with some of the obstacles hidden by the surf. Only four of the initial 24 landing craft returned to their ships, while many of the others exploded and showered advancing troops with debris.
Most of the tanks were delayed and followed, rather than led, the ground troops to shore. Heavy machine-gun fire from the Germans rained down on the invaders, who detonated land mines as they sought cover. Others died when their own tanks ran over them.
Eventually, the tanks were able to clear lanes for the advancing troops and by nightfall they had moved well inland where they safely awaited reinforcements.
British troops were met by an eerie silence on Gold Beach, the landing farthest to the west, until they were about 200 yards inland. Then came a relentless barrage of enemy machine guns and mortars, making it clear that an earlier air bombardment had not destroyed the German defenses, especially from around the town of Le Hamel.
Troops outside the firing range, however, suffered few casualties, enabling them to quickly take the beach and several nearby villages. By 11 a.m., they established a clear lane from the beach to villages as more troops came ashore.
—Stars and Stripes files
At Ste. Mère-Église, they remember
Children in Ste.-Mère-Église, France, skipped up to the old man in the starched uniform. Encircling him, they held out pen and paper.
Stoker 1st Class Albert Rogers, now 76 years old, signed with pleasure.
“This one I got from Bush Senior,” he told the children, pointing to one of his medals. “And this one I got from Reagan.”
People who live along the Normandy coast treat D-Day as an unofficial national holiday, sort of like how Americans treat Super Bowl Sunday. Ste. Mère-Église was the first town liberated on June 6, 1944, and the locals still celebrate.
Every June 6, they dress up in vintage uniforms and zip around town in their vintage Willys jeeps. Others grill food and serve beer and wine.
At last year’s D-Day festival, marking the 59th anniversary of the invasion that liberated France, old soldiers such as Albert Rogers were treated like Super Bowl heroes. Tourists asked him for memories and Stoker 1st Class Rogers happily obliged.
“I was only 17 and a half,” he began, sounding a little like the old Commander McBragg character from the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” television show. “It was an adventure for me at the time, until I saw what happened on Omaha. That made me think about what fear is.
“An American personnel ship had turned over. I jumped in and got four Americans out of the water. Unfortunately, one was dead; the others were drowning. The officer said he’d pass [the act of heroism] on to his major, but I never did hear from him.”
It soon became apparent he wasn’t telling the story for the first time.
“Any man who said he wasn’t scared was either a liar, mad or dead drunk,” Rogers continued. “They [soldiers on the beach] were going down like ninepins.”
Each D-Day, the people of Ste. Mère-Église unfurl the flags of France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and other nations and raise them on flagpoles side-by-side. Last year, as usual, they were proudly snapping in the wind against the blue sky.
— Charlie Coon