During the US roadtrip portion of our year of travel, we visited three national battlefields: Yorktown, Gettysburg, and Battle of the Little Bighorn. And even though we are now in Europe, we’re not done visiting American battlefields, for America’s greatest battle (arguably) occurred not on US soil but in France. I am of course talking about D-Day, which occurred on the Normandy coast, 80 miles from Mont St Michel.
The D-Day battlefields consist of five beaches (Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah) along approximately 50 miles of Normandy coast. These beaches were taken by allied forces during WWII, in what was and still is the largest naval invasion in history. The allied victory here opened up the long awaited European western front, which led to the liberation of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the eventual end of the European theater of the WWII.
Most people visit Normandy by car, which allows for access to all five D-Day beaches. Those who don’t travel by car usually visit Normandy with a guide, which allows access to several D-Day beaches, depending on how much you want to spend. As for us, we didn’t rent a car and also wanted to save money by avoiding tours, so we took the bus. And while the bus doesn’t stop at all the Normandy beaches, it does stop at the most important one (at least the most important for Americans): Omaha. So that’s where we went.
To get to Normandy, we took the bus to Caen, the largest city in the area. Unfortunately, Caen was almost completely destroyed in WWII, resulting in a new and rebuilt city that doesn’t have much to see or do.
Because there isn’t much in Caen, we stayed in Bayeux, a smaller town between Caen and the Normandy coast. Bayeux, home of the Bayeux Tapestry, was the first French town liberated in WWII and was one of the only Normandy towns spared during the war. It was spared because the Germans were more focused on defending Caen, a fact that French citizens convinced the allies of only a day before the city was set to be invaded.
Bayeux’s top two attractions are the 950 year old Bayeux Cathedral (left) and the equal aged Bayeux Tapestry (behind the door pictured right, unfortunately we didn’t have time to go inside), an enormous tapestry that documents history’s only successful invasion of England, by the Normans in 1066.
Bayeux also has a beautiful little river that cuts through the city, and wait a second… what is that? We never found out for sure, but we believe it was a coypu.
Alright, enough city action. Lets get to the reason we came here: Normandy Beach!
Here is a small section of Omaha Beach, viewed from the angle of the American soldiers who took it. American, British, and Canadian forces led the D-Day invasion, Americans taking Omaha and Utah beaches, the British taking Gold and Sword, and the Canadians taking Juno. Australian, Belgian, Czech, French, Greek, Dutch, New Zealand, Norwegian, and Polish soldiers also participated. Omaha beach saw by far the fiercest fighting of the five invasions that day.
Another view from the allied position. Can you find the German bunker in this picture?
The German view of the battlefield. I wish that parking lot wasn’t there, it kind of ruins the image.
Remains of two German bunkers. These are the only bunkers that remain at Omaha Beach, although there may be more at the other beaches that I didn’t visit.
D-Day Memorial at Omaha Beach. This was a strange memorial, there were no descriptions and I have no idea what the sculpture is supposed to mean.
Omaha Beach is several miles long, and we walked about a mile of it. To walk back, we took inner farm roads, in the same area where the post-beach fighting occurred. Many people (myself included before I visited) don’t realize that D-Day was only one part of the invasion of Normandy. The entire Normandy campaign lasted about 45 days, and even though the allies took the beach on the first day, it took them almost a month to move inland, in the area we walked through here.
There were lots of museums in this area, mostly consisting of the machines of war left over after the Normandy campaign.
Finally, and most powerfully, overlooking Omaha Beach is the American Cemetery. This cemetery, part of the American Battle Monuments Commission, is owned and operated by the US government. The land was given by France to the US, free of charge in perpetuity. As an American quote at the cemetery stated (paraphrased): “This [WWII] truly wasn’t a war of aggression. The only land we ask for is to bury our dead.”
9387 American soldiers are buried here, the vast majority of which died in the Normandy campaign of WWII.
The American Cemetery also contains a small museum, dedicated to the allied soldiers who died in the Normandy campaign of WWII.
Anyone who thinks the French don’t like the US has never been to France, especially not Normandy. They love America here, and they fly almost as many American flags as French ones.
This marks the end of our tour of Normandy. Like I said, because we took the bus, we missed a lot (most notably Pointe du Hoc, only six miles west of Omaha Beach), which means we’ll just have to come back and do a Normandy specific visit! This way we can allocate more time and money to exploring Normandy Beach.