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A visit to Normandy: exploring the D-Day beaches

True to its history, our visit to the coast of Normandy was cool, windy and wet -- but that's how it's been for thousands of years.  Many an armada was delayed in leaving or landing on these shores because of inclement weather, including the D-Day attack which had to be postponed one day to June 6, 1944 because of poor weather conditions.


D-Day Beaches 2013-126 Juno Beach

(Wartime propaganda, Juno Beach Centre)


We spent two days exploring the D-Day sites, not an exhaustive visit but enough time to gain a perspective of the region you can't get from books or films.  Our goal was to see the different fronts of the invasion and gain a first-hand understanding of the scale of the largest naval assault in world history.  And we came to pay our respects to all those brave young warriors who lost their lives in the Battle for Normandy and who changed the course of human history.


During the D-Day landings, code named "Overlord", five areas of the Normandy coast were divided for attack between American, British and Canadian troops specially trained for the assault.  The beaches were, for reasons of security, given code names, from West to East these being: Utah Beach (USA), Omaha Beach (USA), Gold Beach (UK), Juno Beach (Canada) and Sword Beach (UK).  The assault started with airborne divisions dropped by parachutes during the night, followed at 0630 by six divisions landing on the 5 aforementioned beaches.  The Battle for Normandy, which lasted three months, gave the Allies a strong foothold on the continent and they advanced toward the ultimate liberation of Europe in 1945, but not before hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed.


D-Day Beaches 2013-131 Juno Beach

(Wartime gas rationing coupons, Juno Beach Centre)


Visiting some of Normandy's D-Day sites:


The D-Day beaches encompass a 75 mile (120 km) stretch of the Atlantic coast.  There are dozens of D-Day related places you could visit here ranging from museums to cemeteries, monuments to the remains of a battle site.  So you have to be a little selective on what to see.  I'd recommend the area between Omaha and Juno Beaches.  This region lends itself well to exploration by car, and not to reliance on public transportation (van tours are also good way to get around).  We focused on several key sites, which from west to east are:


D-Day Beaches 2013-003c Pointe du Hoc

(Heavily bombed and cratered, Pointe du Hoc)


1) Pointe du Hoc and its Ranger Monument.  The sheer cliffs of Omaha Beach were scaled by 225 hand-picked Rangers -- the best of the best -- 60% of whom were killed or seriously injured in their efforts to reach and disarm the German artillery here.  The landscaped is deeply scarred, pocked with dozens of bomb implosion craters from planes "softening the target".  Those Rangers who survived the climb up the cliff found the guns had been removed, but they destroyed these bunkers, moved inland one kilometer, found their large guns and destroyed them.  Mission accomplished!


D-Day Beaches 2013-027 Pointe du Hoc

(Inscription on the Ranger Dagger Memorial, Pointe du Hoc)


At the far end of Pointe du Hoc, you can see the granite Ranger "Dagger" Memorial set atop a bunker.  The Dagger is the symbol of the U.S. Army Rangers and the memorial honors those of the 2nd Ranger Battalion who scaled these cliffs.

A large plaque near the entrance to Pointe du Hoc has a quote by President Ronald Reagan, who on the 40th anniversary of D-Day gave a memorable speech here that was a wonderful tribute to these brave young guys, "the boys of Pointe du Hoc" as he called them.


D-Day Beaches 2013-042 American Cemetery

(Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial)

World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  A gift of 172 acres to the American people by the people of France.  Perhaps the single most moving monument in Normandy is this cemetery, sitting on a cliff above Omaha Beach.  More than 9,000 white marble monuments -- crosses and Stars of David -- mark the final resting place of some of the Americans who helped free Europe.  There's an excellent visitor which is where you begin your visit, descending to a museum that gives an overview of the war, the decisions leading up to D-day invasion and the course of the war beyond that.  But more importantly it also sheds light on the human costs of a war.  I found particularly moving the stories of individual soldiers who lost their lives and are buried here.  Film clips of these soldiers and of their surviving relatives remembering them are gripping in their simplicity yet intensity.  One I remember vividly is of a young mid-West USA farm boy who was killed nearby.  His family said he would have wanted to be buried here because he came to liberate farmers -- the French to him were like the folks he knew back home, simple people who loved and worked the land, like he and his family did.
D-Day Beaches 2013-059 American Cemetery(The "Spirit of American Youth", Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial)

When your visit to the Museum is completed, you exit to the cemetery.  It is here you see the beautifully symmetric rows of crosses and the large monuments.  One of these monuments is a statue soaring to the sky symbolizing the spirit of American youth.  There is also a small chapel in the center of the cemetery with beautiful ceiling mosaics including of America blessing her departing sons and France bestowing a laurel wreath upon the American dead.  There are several nice viewpoints of Omaha Beach and the English Channel from the Cemetery.  Footpaths take you from the cemetery to the beach if you want to walk on its sands.


D-Day Beaches 2013-074 Batteries of Longues Sur Mer

(Artillery Gun, Longues-sur-Mer)


3) Longues-sur-Mer:  The only surviving artillery guns in Normandy are found here, with four case-mates (three intact, one destroyed by a bomb) that were built by the Nazis to fight a seaborne attack.  These 150 mm guns were part of Hitler's Atlantic defense and impressively could hit targets as far as 12 miles (19 km) away.  You can walk between these placements and go into the bunkers as well.  Each bunker was staffed by seven soldiers, who must have been deafened by the roar of these guns.  Walk to the cliff overlooking the sea, where you can find and explore the observation bunker where spotters directed the firing of the big guns.


D-Day Beaches 2013-098 Arromanches, Port Winston Beach

(Beach at Arromanches, with debris from WWII on its shore)


4) Arromanches:  An extremely important town for the D-Day invasion, giving the Allies a quick foothold and more importantly, a port.  Start your visit here by going to the 360 Degree Theater sitting on a hill overlooking and providing great views of the town and harbor.  To the right lies the British and Canadian sector.  To the left lie the cliffs of the American sector.  The film showing at the 360 Degree Theater, called "The Price of Freedom", gives you a broad rounded film presentation of the historic context of the invasion and specifics of what happened at Arromanches, with actual WWII footage.


D-Day Beaches 2013-107b Arromanches, Port Winston Beach

(Town of Arromanches, Normandy)


The harbor quickly built in Arromanches was formed by the sinking of 17 old ships and 115 massive cement blocks that were flooded and sunk bow-to-stern, creating a long breakwater.  Seven floating piers were constructed from which thousands of vehicles, hundreds of thousands of troops and tons of supplies were landed.   This artificial port was named Port Winston Harbor in honor of British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who conceived of the idea.  The port was intended to last only a few months but almost 70 years later large parts of it survive.


D-Day Beaches 2013-111 Juno Beach

(Juno Beach Centre, Courseulles-sur-Mer)


5) Juno Beach, with the Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer, built by the Canadian government to highlight Canada's history at the time of WWII.  The Centre describes Canadian ties with Britain, the USA and France, and the important role the country played in D-Day (on a proportionate population basis, there were as many Canadian soldiers deployed here as USA soldiers).  We ended our visit at the small Canadian Cemetery in nearby Beny-sur-Mer.


D-Day Beaches 2013-149 Courseulles-sur-Mer

(Canadian Cemetery, Beny-sur-Mer)


Our D-Day visits were not exciting or fun in any way.  Exploring this historic coast was a sad but moving experience.  I could not get past thoughts of the amazing bravery of those stormed these beaches amidst heavy gunfire and fought here, and was deeply saddened to think of all that young life wasted.  Have we as a society learned lasting lessons from this?  I not sure we have....


I have to commend the citizens of coastal Normandy, whose relatives also died in large numbers, for remembering with gratitude the sacrifices made by those who liberated them, an unusual attitude in 21st century France.  We were surprised by how many local families made a day of going to visit these historic sites; parents teaching the young about the price of freedom.



 For an extended high resolution slide show of the D-Day beaches, please go to this link.  The slide show is at the bottom of the post.  Click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar for full screen enlargements.



Images (21)
  • Pointe du Hoc, Normandy: The landscape is cratered everywhere
  • Bunker,  Pointe du Hoc
  • Bomb damaged bunker,  Pointe du Hoc
  • The point of Pointe du Hoc
  • Ranger Monument, Pointe du Hoc: Designed in the shape of the Ranger's symbol, a dagger
  • Ranger Monument, Pointe du Hoc
  • American Cemetery Visitor Center, Normany: A very excellent summary of the war, including it's human cost
  • American Cemetery, Normandy: There are over 9000 markers like these...
  • Memorial, American Cemetery, Normandy
  • "The Spirit of American Youth" statue, American Cemetery
  • Gun Batteries of Longues Sur Mer
  • Winston Churchill Harbor,  Arromanches: Viewed from the 360 theater.  The shapes in the water are part of Port Winston Churchill
  • Arromanches, Port Winston Beach: Remnants of the war still litter the beach
  • Arromanches, Port Winston Beach
  • Arromanches, Normandy
  • Juno Beach Center, Normandy
  • Juno Beach Center, Normandy: Canada's WWII memorial center
  • Juno Beach Center, Normandy
  • Juno Beach Center, Normandy: Typical propaganda posters
  • Juno Beach Center, Normandy: Ration coupons
  • Canadian Cemetery, Courseulles-sur-Mer: A quiet rural setting

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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Thank you, thank you, for this, Dr. F.  This is an excellent time (November 11, Remembrance Day tomorrow) to be reminded of the D-Day assault.  We were in Normandy in 1994, when they were marking the 50th anniversary of D Day, and one night we were having dinner in a restaurant and struck up a conversation with a young couple.  They were a  bit rough looking, a couple of Brits who were starting on a tour of France on their motorcycle but they had stopped off in Normandy at the beaches to "pay tribute to our lads".  I was very touched by this and have remembered it ever since.

Thanks for your comment, Arion.  It's hard not to be moved by D-Day.  The vastness of the assault, the staggering loss of life (civilian and military).  What most impressed me is that the local people remember.  Not French people away from the coast, but those whose relatives went through the assault make a point of teaching their children and grandchildren the price paid to liberate them from the Nazi fascists.


The Juno Beach Center, built by the Canadian Beach, really did a great job of portraying what life in Canada was like in the 1930s and Canada's involvement in the war.  It does so on a large scale, as well as on a personal level, recounting the stories of soldiers who made it back and whose lives were lost.  I think you would enjoy it, if you ever make it back that way.


To our American friend, tomorrow is Remembrance Day in Canada.  Much like Memorial Day in the USA.  Canada remembers the price of freedom as it honors its fallen soldiers.

That's an interesting and historic document, GarryRF.


Many of those who landed on the D-Day beaches never spoke of this with anyone -- so horrible was the experience, so many wounded and killed among them.  I'm curious --did your dad ever share these experiences with you?

Yes - my Dad and lots of other guys told me their stories!

My Dad was in the Royal Navy and was taking landing craft full of soldiers from ship to shore - several times - under heavy fire!


A guy I was doing work for had lots of photos and souvenirs on the walls of his house.

Medals and maps. Newspaper cuttings and Badges. All in frames. I asked him how much he remembered of D-Day.


"Every minute of every hour. Me and my mate had been together since the outbreak of war. Nearly 5 years. We were dropped off the landing craft near the beach, water up to our chest and holding our rifle above our heads to keep it dry. We had to get to the beach and there was shells exploding all around us. My pal and I made it to the sand and I didn't know which way to run up the beach. Everywhere  was just sand exploding into the air. So I shouted him "Which way shall we go ? Left or right ?" But he just stood there holding his Rifle and pack. Motionless. His head was missing and I just froze.  Some guys grabbed me and we all ran into the smoke and sand and bullets"




Several vets I know say that the Normandy beach landings as portrayed in the movie "Saving Private Ryan" are the way they remember it.  Madness, chaos, noise, death, fear, adrenaline, more fear.  And yet they ran into the madness.  It takes a type of courage that's hard for us to imagine in the 21st century.


Thanks for sharing that story, Garry.

When I was a little nipper and hadn't started school we would visit family at the weekend.

No TV. No money. 1950's -you get the picture. So socialising with Dad's 9 brothers and sisters was as good as it got !


If you mentioned the War in some homes you'd be out the front door quicker than a Rat up a Drain pipe !

Others would tell you tales to make your hair curl. Tails of unbelievable bravery, absurdity and stupidity.


The Ladies would tell the tale of how the American and Canadian GI's would offer to help chop wood and dig the Potato's for the women who's Husbands had been gone for many years. Then they'd ask if there were any local Dances they could take them to.


The men would then call for Tea and Sandwiches -and change the subject ! 



Thank you mr fumblefinger for your poignant description and photos.  Our family lost my uncle at Omaha Beach.  He was one of those young men caught up in the drama of war who did his best in a very bad situation.  


Several times during the 1980s and early 1990s, I made my way to northwestern France to visit the D-Day landing sites.  At that time, I was struck by three things - the immaculate grounds and air of respect, the gratefulness of the French people and the fact that there were very few visitors.  


WWII vets could not seem to bring themselves to return to this place of high emotion.  Their grown children - who are now visiting in large numbers - were busy with their own lives at that time. 


Now various museums have been built and there are buses to take the tourists about.  It is good that the lessons of this horrid war are being passed along.  It is a pity that we are losing our few surviving vets daily.   As the song says, you really do not know what you've got til it's gone. 

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