July 16, 2013

Normandy and the D-Day Beaches

"The first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive...The fate of Germany depends on the outcome...For the Allies, as well as Germany, it will be the longest day." Field Marshal Erwin Rommel

Al writes:  Thousands of books and movies, such as Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day, have immortalized events that took place on 75 miles of French coastline bordering the English Channel.  It is an area that was very high on my list of places to visit on this trip.  Much of the history is very familiar to most, so I will try to give some impressions of our two and a half days spent in the area.

First of all, I was surprised at how rural and unspoiled the surrounding beaches and countryside were.  It has not been commercialized with condos, hotels, restaurants, and tourist traps. Many of the villages were very similar to what they looked like 69 years ago.  Many sites of importance have been preserved and there were many museums and monuments.

Our first stop was Sainte-Mère-Église, which was the right flank of the landings where the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions parachuted to protect Utah Beach and secure causeways over marshlands immediately behind the beach.  My first reaction on arriving in the modest town square near the church was, "Geez, that is tacky and in poor taste."


Who can forget Red Buttons as the paratrooper getting hung up on the church steeple in the movie The Longest Day based on the book by Cornelius Ryan?  However, I then saw this street panel with the happy story that John Steele survived the war and returned for one of the anniversaries of the landings.  I decided it was OK.

Other street panels were fascinating because they showed that this small village has not changed that much in the ensuing years.


Visiting the church, we found this unusual stained glass that says it all about the villagers and their respect for their liberators 69 years ago.

Finally, going back to our RV, I looked at the license plates of my neighbors, and I guess this pic says everything about how we all have moved on.  

Our next stop was Utah Beach.  This landing was a success story. Little went wrong and there were a limited number of casualties.  I was totally dumbfounded by what a peaceful, natural setting still exists today at this beach.  There was a fine museum which we went through with a guide who recounted many personalized stories of men and events at this beach.  It is hard to believe that over 800,000 troops poured over this beach in 3 weeks.


The next day was July 4th.  We have all had nice 4th of July holidays which have included fireworks, parades, barbeques, and sharing with family.  Our July 4th was one of the most moving I have ever experienced.  We started out by visiting Pointe Du Hoc, the rocky, fortified, cliff-protected peninsula between Utah and Omaha Beaches.  The First Ranger Battalion had the task of riding small boats to the base of the cliffs, scaling the cliffs under fire, and neutralizing the German guns. President Reagan gave one of his best speeches at this site on the 40th anniversary of the landings.  

President Reagan's words: 
"These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc.  These are the men who took the cliffs.  These are the champions who helped free a continent.  These are the heroes who helped end a war."
It was a misty, cloudy day that seemed to fit the solemn mood of visiting such a place of horror and bravery.  Only a third of the Rangers survived, but the mission was accomplished, saving countless numbers of soldiers on the beach landings.  

Then it was time to face bloody Omaha Beach where there were over 5000 casualties in the first 24 hours.  Once again, I was surprised how peaceful and undeveloped the beach area was.  There were some houses and a few businesses, but for the most part it was still a tranquil area.  A large, sandy, vegetation-covered bluff overlooked the wide beach.  It was heavily fortified with numerous concrete bunkers that resisted the pre-bombardment phase of the landings.  By all accounts I have read, Saving Private Ryan is an accurate depiction of what it was like to be in the leading waves on this beach.  I cannot imagine or comprehend the bravery of the troops that conducted this assault.

Our next stop was the American Cemetery.  It is located on the top of the bluffs overlooking the beach and is one of the most beautiful settings I have seen for our veterans.  There are slightly less than 10,000 graves of those lost in the Normandy campaign.  Surviving loved ones always have the option that their soldier, airman, or sailor be returned to the USA for burial.  Many chose to let their loved one remain in the land they liberated.  As one relative said, they earned that piece of ground.  


We ended the day near the Longues-sur-Mer German gun battery.  It was a similar area of high cliffs like Pointe du Hoc overlooking the English Channel.  It was at the junction of the American and British beaches. After 36 hours of dueling with American and British cruisers, the German battery of 4 large guns was finally knocked out.


We drove to an overlook over the English Channel above the cliffs and decided this was the place we would stay the night.  It was the most beautiful stop of the trip so far.  The sun was out by then....I could see Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc to the west, and the British beaches and Port Winston (more on this soon) to the east.  


Out the front of the windshield, we could see Port Winston...


Out the passenger's side was our wheat field...

Out the back was our poppy field...


and the English Channel out the driver's side.

Not done yet.  I ended up taking a 4-mile roundtrip hike on this gorgeous coastal trail toward the remains of Port Winston.

Port Winston was an artificial harbor assembled and operating within 24 hours.  It was built by sailing 17 old ships from England and sinking them to create a breakwater.  Then 500 tugs towed 115 cement blocks (I will have to research how concrete blocks are made to float) and sunk, thus creating a 4-mile-long breakwater 1-1/2 miles offshore.  Then piers, pontoon bridges and anti-air guns were installed.  The end result was that in 10 months of operation 2.5 million troops, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of supplies were put ashore.  Astounding!

Our 4th of July and stay in Normandy came to a close with the sun setting on Pointe du Hoc.  We are in awe of the planning, dedication, and sacrifice that was made here to liberate the continent and help bring an end to the Nazi darkness that covered this land.  

"You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months.  The eyes of the world are upon you...I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle.."  General Dwight Eisenhower to the troops on the eve of D-Day



1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful July 4th! Very moving!