The coast of Normandy is a funny sort of place, one of those places that manages to combine being a receptacle of the world’s memory with beautiful scenery and family beach holiday fun.
On D-Day (June 6th 1944) this was the venue for history’s greatest amphibious assault and an invasion that unfolded with heroism and tragic loss. Normandy’s D-Day beaches are a popular touring route and you could spend weeks (and a small fortune in entrance fees) visiting every museum, memorial, cemetery and World War II site.
We just had one weekend and after an unscientific survey of reviews on the internet we chose one museum, one cemetery and a few sites.
We also drove nearly the entire length of the Normandy invasion beaches to gain an impression of the lie of the land where over 175,000 troops landed in five sectors – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – names that have gone down in history.
Beginning at Port au Bessin Huppain, a gorgeous French village with fishing boats in the harbour and a creperie on the quay, there is also a Second World War memorial on the harbourfront. This was where commandos brought oil and supplies ashore – vital to linking the beach heads of Omaha and Gold during the invasion and then supporting the advancing frontline.
Port au Bessin was the linkup point between the American and British forces on June 7, 1944. The scenes of the 1962 film The Longest Day set at Ouistreham were actually were actually filmed here.
I hadn’t really thought much before about the enormous amount of infrastructure and logistical effort behind the Normandy invasion. This was also brought home to me at the viewing platform above the beach at Arromanches (Gold Beach). Enormous concrete blocks both in the sand and sitting out to sea are remnants of the Mulberry harbours so necessary for bringing ashore supplies and linking the beachheads.
In the village of Arromanches itself there are beach huts and cafes and shops with piles of plastic buckets and spades. But in the smooth gold-coloured sand there is a half-buried landing craft like the tip of an iceberg. The museums all along the Normandy coast are serious and emphatic but this is where French people come on holiday, eat fish and chips and buy tourist tat, just like everyone.
The cemetery we chose to visit is the biggest: the 172.5 acres of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer. As you would expect, the sheer number of crosses and headstones is overwhelming, and made even more so by the beautiful setting overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel.
It was dedicated in 1956 and memorialises over 20,000 dead or missing-in-action soldiers. A tree-lined promenade follows the curve of the high ground above the beach where, as US 1st Army Commander General Omar Bradley described it, a “thin wet line of khaki dragged itself ashore on the channel coast of France”.
Caen is famous for its William the Conqueror connections and it is now also the home of the Memorial. This museum is not just about the Normandy landings but a history of the war, telling the story of a Europe still traumatised by the Great War and sinking into the new conflagration. Of soldiers not yet recovered as the democracies they had fought for were exposed as fragile through economic and political crisis.
The exhibition expresses this as a physical spiral descent into the hell of war. There is an extremely poignant photograph of a London newspaper seller sitting beside his “war is declared” bill with a stunned face. This is a brilliant museum, seeking a better understanding of our history and evoking the fragility of peace.
At Point du Hoc flowering gorse bursts like yellow flame. The cratered cliff top is scattered with lumps of blasted concrete that out of the corner of your eye look like fallen Neolithic monuments. This is where the 2nd Ranger Battalion made their incredible landing, scaling the cliffs to disable German guns threatening both Utah and Omaha beaches.
Driving east of here the narrow roads, crumbling walls and houses of the typical bocage seem locked in time. This is the farmland of tiny fields and woodland that provided the GIs “hedgerow hell” as they fought their way inland.
Of course it wasn’t just D-Day and the landings but the days and months that followed that ultimately led to victory in Europe. It took another three months to free Normandy and open the way to advance towards Paris and ultimately Germany.
The four huge gun emplacements at Longes-sur-Mer, with gun barrels still pointing out to sea, are a stark reminder of the hard reality faced by Allied shipping as the landings progressed.
As we returned to Port au Bessin, we could see the spires of Bayeux Abbey pierce the sky on the dead straight road from the village where we were staying. The soldiers must have been able to see it as they fought their way through the bombed fields.
At the fish market on the dockside there are piles of scallops and oysters and all types of fruit of the sea. In the evening there were plenty of restaurants on the waterfront offering seafood but we went one street bank and found Le Bistro d’a Cote, where the scallops were as big as small fists and melted in the mouth after being flambeed in the local Pommeau aperitif.
We got the ferry from Ouistreham port to England and as the ship pulled out the beaches and the coastline were spread out into the distance in a long, gentle curve. It was difficult to imagine the beauty of this beach, the sea and the sand, transformed into one of the ugliest scenes known to history.
But that made me all the gladder that the world has gone to such an effort to remember. In fact it has been proposed that Normandy’s landing beaches be listed as a UNESCO patrimony. At the same time the Normandy beaches are today a place where families come on holiday and children play on the sands. That’s how it should be.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you visited the Normandy beaches? If you’ve found this interesting take a look at my post on touring the First World War battlefields of Belgium.