On an off-season trip to France in early February, my husband and I were mesmerized by the Normandy beaches. Their windswept expanses and blustery beauty are inescapable, of course, and in many of the small-town historic locations not another tourist was in sight. Winter hours were in effect at those museums and attractions that were open at all. Days were cold and drizzly, and the climax was the epic blizzard that blew through Brittany and Normandy on its way to paralyzing Paris.
But the somber season underscored the meaning of the trip for us. Although we both had previously been to Normandy, we had also then been enchanted by Mont St. Michel, by the food, the warmth, the sun and the flowers. This time it was the history that drew us — the beaches themselves, the battlements and the cemeteries.
The experience changed us.
An Overview of Overlord
We began our “beach” day at the Caen Memorial Museum, the Centre for History and Peace in Normandy. It is astonishing in its scope, and in its pertinence. A full-size P-51 Mustang hangs in its great hall, looking surprisingly small and fragile. A German bunker mockup is eerily realistic. And its tableaux and diverse displays are awesome.
The collections span events far beyond D-Day, detailing how a European conflict became a World War, and how battleground experiences morphed into the Cold War. There is also a piece of twisted metal from the World Trade Center in New York, a chilling reminder that peace has not yet been achieved in our time. I would eagerly return to spend additional time there. On this cold, windy day, it was good to be inside, and we learned a great deal during the time we spent there. But we were eager to get out to the beaches before the sun sunk too low on the horizon.
The five Normandy beaches that supported the D-Day landing are not far from Caen, and not far apart, scarcely 50 miles — one day is sufficient to see them all. In 1944, it took the allies six full days to gain control of the embattled territory and unite the beaches. Operation Overlord, the military campaign begun on D-Day, succeeded in liberating all of northern France by August 30, and by the next spring, the war was nearly ended.
June 6 is a day, much like December 7, that should, perhaps, live in infamy. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 American troops died on Omaha Beach where there was heavy fighting; more than 9,300 Allies were killed, injured or went missing along the five beaches that day. Instead, though, June 6 is a day that is remembered — as it should be — as the turning point of a war that lasted far too long and cost far too much in terms of both dollars and lives.
By the end of the day, more than 156,000 Allied troops were ashore on the coast of France. By the end of the week, the numbers swelled to more than 326,000, in addition to 50,000 vehicles and at least 100,000 tons of material. Approximately 5,000 ships and landing craft were part of the surprise invasion, along with support from 11,000 aircraft.
Prior to the beach landings, paratroopers were already in position behind the front lines; some of them had arrived in gliders. World War II tested the mettle of a whole generation — men and women — both at home and abroad, and of all parties to the conflict. And D-Day changed the course of that war. Eleven months after D-Day, the allies accepted the surrender of the German Army. Hitler had already committed suicide.
Preserving the Memories
Tributes to those who fought are everywhere. Pocket museums and unexpected reminders of the war are evident in every small town and along every roadway in this area. Local residents still remember what happened here, even though those who lived through the hard times are aging. Those who survived now die of old age. D-Day was, after all, 74 years ago.
Near Omaha Beach we stopped at a simple monument erected to the Big Red One, and walked out on the bluff above the beach to an impressive obelisk that stands as a lonely guidepost and memorial to the 1st Infantry Division. It is eerily quiet, and peaceful. We looked into a German artillery bunker and stood gazing across the expanse of sea grass and sand at a clear view of the waves below. We imagined the landing craft arriving in the crashing surf with their cargoes of young fighting men.
We stopped in the colorful village of Arromanches-les-Bains — designated Gold Beach, to see the remains of concrete Mulberry Harbours, towed across the English Channel to assist with the unloading of supplies ferried to France following D-Day. It was quiet and deserted on the day of our visit.
We spent somber moments in the Normandy American Cemetery Visitor Center at Colleville-sur-Mer. We choked back tears at the thought that there are more than 9,300 white marble headstones here, and that the first burials dated to June 8, while battles still raged all around. This is American soil, paid for at great cost, but granted in perpetuity as a gift from a grateful French nation.
On the walls of the impressive semi-circular memorial that leads visitors into the grounds are the names of an additional 1,557 American soldiers whose remains could not be located and/or identified subsequent to the invasion.
The Impossibility of Forgetting
We left the American cemetery on that first day — thinking we did not need to walk among the headstones.
We drove on to the nearby La Cambe burial ground of 21,000 German soldiers who were never to return home. And we are still haunted by the stark black crosses and poignant symbolism of the battlefield cemetery established by the U.S. Army graves registration service during the war. It once held both American and German graves. The American dead were later exhumed and reburied at the American Cemetery, or returned to the United States in accordance with the wishes of next of kin.
The German Cemetery now contains a central mound to mark a mass grave: It is the final resting place of 209 unknown German soldiers and 89 identified combatants buried together. The cemetery was officially dedicated only in 1961, and, to this day, occasional interments of German soldiers whose remains are discovered throughout France are held there. La Cambe’s black crosses are purely symbolic. Flat ground markers list the names of the dead.
There are other cemeteries as well in Normandy — British, Canadian and Polish, along with many burial grounds that contain graves of both Allies and Axis troops — many of them still unidentified.
A Powerful Reminder
We drove on to Brittany, for several days of immersion in French countryside, food and culture. It was welcome after the emotional journey to the beaches.
But then we returned to the American Cemetery. We were drawn back to this spot, and were among a handful of visitors on a day that was blustery and frigid — snow was even then in the air — but it dawned bright and sunny. We walked among the headstones, reading the names, the units and the ages of those who died. We visited the chapel at the far end of the reflecting pool, gazed once again down at the beach, and stood, transfixed, as the color guard lowered the flag at 4 p.m. The mournful sound of Taps sounded across the silent acreage filled with stately white crosses and stars. Only then did we leave.
There is a time capsule embedded on the grounds — dedicated to General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the forces under his command on June 6, 1944. It was unveiled June 6, 1969, the 25th anniversary of D-Day, by the newsmen who were there. It contains original reports and newspapers detailing the event.
It is slated to be opened on June 6, 2044.
Hopefully, 26 years hence, what happened on these beaches 100 years earlier will not have been forgotten.
Note: It was only recently that I became aware that my father, who served with the 364th Fighter Group in Honington, England, during World War II, earned service ribbons for D-Day. It came as a surprise, because he never talked much about his service during the war. I think I understand why. But I wish I could have heard his stories.