Prepare yourself for an emotional ride when visiting the infamous WWII historical Normandy Beaches and surrounding area.
Although moving, the plethora of books, documentaries, and movies do not compare to when you actually stand on one of these beaches, gazing across the horizon, trying to understand what happened on the 6th June, 1944 during D-Day and ensuing weeks.
“Over 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or went missing during the Battle of Normandy”.
The first day of the allied invasion was critical in securing the beaches for the arrival of allied reinforcements in the following days.
This coastline was now an “interlinked series of strongpoints, each with guns, pillboxes, barbed wire, land mines, and beach obstacles”.
- Sword Beach (British)
- Juno Beach (Canadian)
- Gold Beach (British)
- Omaha Beach (American)
- Utah Beach (American)
Only managed to spend time on four of the five beaches during the 3-night stay in an airbnb self-contained apartment in Caen – an excellent base to explore this region.
The short time spent here just does not do this region justice. There is so much to experience, but so grateful we made the effort.
Supported by armour regiments, the British 3rd Infantry Division, French and British Commandos had the responsibility of taking this almost 8-kilometre beach at Lyon-sur-Mer and Ouistreham.
Against specific orders, Lord Lovat instructed his personal piper to pipe the British Commandos ashore.
Standing on this beach and looking back, you can see the beachhead’s vantage points; and can imagine the 28,000-plus allied troops that came ashore and across this beach.
The impressive Kieffer, Monument of the Flame sits on a German bunker overlooking the beach, which is about 15 kilometres from Caen.
The contemporary flame monument is a tribute to the commandos who landed on June 6th 1944.
Located at Courseulles-sur-Mer, is Canada’s WWII museum and cultural centre, which is close to Juno Beach and a permanent memorial to the fallen Canadian soldiers.
A major problem for the soldiers was landing at low tide. Although not targets until wading into the killing zone along the almost 10-kilometre beach where Germans open fired.
Historians estimate the soldiers had a 50/50 chance of survival.
Lucky enough to have caught the last 20 minutes of the The Highland and Lowland Bands of the Royal Regiment of Scotland concert: “paying homage to the men who on this beach 72 years ago showed great feats of courage and sacrifice in order to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny – our thoughts are with them today” – speech from Colonel Piers Strudwick, commanding officer of 7th Scots.
Suffering the worse casualties of the five beaches during the D-Day landings, infamous scenes from war photographer Robert Capa’s grainy black and white photos come to mind, which helps to visualise allied troops gunned down by German machine fire.
Standing on this beach peacefully in the glorious sunshine 72 years’ later, it’s hard to envisage what occurred here without Capa’s proof.
From the American Cemetery and Memorial, it’s an easy walk towards the hills of Omaha Beach and the monument that overlooks the beach, which honour’s the US Corp II forces’ achievements.
Scarring this hill is remaining evidence of a deep zigzag trench almost all but filled in now, which still reminds us of what occurred here during the Allied landings. As does the still visible concrete bunkers, Tobruks, gun emplacements, machine gun nests, communication trenches, and communication observations posts.
Many are either now crumbling or barred up for public safety.
About 12 kilometres east of Bayeux, this is one of the towns in which an artificial port was installed, the other built further West at Omaha Beach.
The port allowed the unloading of required supplies and troops, about 9,000 tons of material per day.
Huge concrete caissons were built in England, towed to Normandy, and then assembled, which formed walls and piers that became the artificial Mulberry Harbour.
Floating roadways linked by pontoons connect the harbour to land. Even today, you can still see sections of the port’s huge concrete blocks sitting on sand and out to sea.
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
This expansive and painstakingly well-manicured 172-plus acres will leave you speechless. Especially on a bright sunny day with snippets of the infamous Omaha Beach’s azure blue back-dropped against over 10,000 brilliant white marble crosses – extremely moving and does moisten the eyes.
Receiving approximately one million visitors per year, today is also a busy day.
Sadly, we arrived only an hour before the museum closed, but did manage to walk the cemetery until being kicked out at around 6:30 pm.
I can’t believe the museum shuts so early in the summer as it doesn’t get dark until 10:00 pm.
Straight off the ferry from Cherbourg and visiting one of the famous D-Day battle scenes: Sainte-Mère-Église.
You may have heard about this incident regarding the paratrooper John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment?
Paratroopers were dropped directly on the town at about 01:40 am, making these brave men easy targets on descent. Many hung from utility poles, trees, shot dead, or sucked into the fire of lit buildings.
John Steele’s parachute caught on the spire of the church.
Pretending to be dead by hanging limply for a couple of hours, he was later captured and taken prisoner by the Germans, and later escaped.
Now a quaint village, a life-like mannequin paratrooper commemorating John Steele’s story now hangs from this gorgeous church’s spire, which still shows evidence of bullet holes in its stonework.
The village has a few touristy activities such as US Marine jeep rides if you so wish to partake.
You can park about a 10-minute walk from the church for €2/day. Although dirt cheap, expect to pay top dollar for food and drinks in this village.
Between Caen and Ouistreham, Pegasus Bridge and the Memorial Pegasus (€7.50 entry) is situated on the Orne Canal in Bénouville, and an easy 15-kilometre drive from Caen.
A vital strategic position during the Allied invasion in France, previously named the Caen Canal Bridge, this bridge was renamed in 1944 in honour of the British Airborne Forces’ operation. Pegasus is the emblem worn by the 6th Airborne Division who landed in Normandy.
The role of the Glider Infantry unit was to “land, take the bridges intact and hold them until relieved”. This strategy was to prevent German armour from crossing bridges and attacking the eastern side of Sword Beach landings. Also, following the Normandy invasion, this would limit the effectiveness of a German counter-attack.
The incredulous thing to mention here is that the first Glider landed as close as 47 yards (about 42 metres) from their objective, surprising completely the German defenders and within 10 minutes, taking the bridges.
Be sure to visit the excellent museum, which you will easily spend a few hours here learning about the bridge and its significance during the D-Day landings. A shop and cafe provides respite, if you need a break from information overload.
The original Pegasus Bridge built in 1934 is displayed at the Pegasus Museum. The currently functioning bridge is a replacement.
Near Vieux, the memorial of the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division is not an easy site to locate as it is literally in the middle of nowhere, amongst beautiful French farm fields.
This hill was a strategic highpoint, which offered commanding views out to sea and over the countryside to the south, west, and east of Caen.
Germans observed the Allies from this vantage point and so, this was the objective of capturing the hill from the Germans.
On arriving here, apart from another elderly couple, we had this site to ourselves…for a while, until the tourist bus arrived spoiling the silence.
I’m one of those painful people that likes to absorb such shrines in silence – a time to reflect, remember, and pay respects.
A restored British Churchill tank sits quietly next to the memorial.
Take a stroll down the dirt road towards a small wooded area named Cornwall Wood and you’ll come across more solitary graves.
This woodland exudes an eerie presence. I’m not sure whether this is psychological or otherwise.
Bayeux Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery
As the largest WWII cemetery of Commonwealth soldiers in France, this cemetery holds 4,648 burials of which most are from the Normandy Invasion.
Although Bayeux itself did not experience a particular battle, soldiers who died on Sword Beach and from around the regions were brought to this cemetery.
The Bayeux Memorial is opposite the cemetery and commemorates more than 1,800 casualties of the Commonwealth forces who died in Normandy, which have no known grave.
This region also offers many wonderful experiences, such as soaking up the Normandy medieval history amongst gorgeous architecture.
Visiting the Bayeux Tapestry is a must. Why not take in a wine tasting tour if you have time, or just enjoy the wonderful food on offer…
Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux
Wow! I’d heard about the Tapisserie de Bayeux in history lessons, but to actually see this in the flesh is amazing. To think this almost 70-metre long tapestry is 1,000 years old is mind-blowing.
Originally embroidered in wool, the tapestry was created to tell the story to illiterate people by using pictures of events, leading up to the Norman conquest of England – William (Duke of Normandy) and Harold (Earl of Wessex, later King of England), which culminated in the Battle of Hastings.
What an ingenious depiction, which has outlasted many wars and centuries.
You are not free to walk around the 70-metre long glass as you please. Instead, everyone is ushered around the reception desk where you can collect your headphones (free with ticket) and directed to the start of the tapestry. Here, you are encouraged to walk from the start to the finish in an orderly line. If you wish to stop longer at any point, you can step out of the moving line. Once at the finish, you exit and cannot go in for a second look, so make the most of your visit.
Wish I stepped out of the line more to really take in this amazing piece of history.
Photos are not allowed. The tapestry museum is also included in the €9 ticket price and is well-appointed with dioramas and wonderful intricate models of villages, which depict everyday life from 1,000 years’ ago.
The impressive and stunning Norman-Gothic Bayeux Cathedral dates back to 1077.
Experiencing damage in the 12th Century, the cathedral was rebuilt in the Gothic style. Some re-building started in the 15th Century and not completed until the 19th Century.
Salon de The (47 Rue Saint-Martin) – Whilst in Bayeux, check out this wonderful tea house with beautiful surrounds.
Walk through the door and step back to the 1800s with a massive crystal chandelier, ornate white tables and chairs, huge ornate mirror, and a fresco-like painted ceiling. Not to mention the scrumptious freshly baked pastries (€0.80+), wonderful Gateau (€2+), and handmade chocolates.
I think this is the cheapest coffee around at €2.50 compared to €3-4 elsewhere in town. Wonderful family-run business, very friendly and inviting.
A trading port since the Middle Ages, we parked at the port and walked a very long way along the foreshore trying to get to Sword Beach.
Sadly, it is too far on foot so ventured into the Tourist Office instead on Jardins du Casino Esplanade Lofi, collecting maps and information about Normandy’s Beaches.
Delahaye Carole (72 Avenue de la Mer) – Great Boulangerie Patisserie, which serves good coffee (€1.10+) and wonderful pastries (€1+).
Need to press on and continue driving to southern Italy as my Schengen clock is ticking. What could possibly go wrong on this drive?