Recently Dan and I were fortunate enough to travel the historic D-Day sites of Normandy with a well-rounded and knowledgeable group of military history enthusiasts including some members of our party whose relatives had fought in the invasion. Over the three days of our tour of area museums and strategic battle sites, we were poignantly reminded of the incredible feat and sacrifices of a brave generation.
The westernmost of the five landing beaches, Utah Beach was where the first American troops landed on June 6, 1944. The objective for the amphibious landings at Utah was to secure a beachhead on the Cotentin Peninsula in order to capture the important port facilities at nearby Cherbourg.
The 4th Infantry Division landed 21,000 troops on Utah at the cost of only 197 casualties. Airborne troops arriving by parachute and glider numbered an additional 14,000 men, with 2,500 casualties.
At the museum onsite, you can admire an original B26 bomber, one of only six remaining examples of this airplane still in existence worldwide!
The first major triumph for the Allies on D-Day was the taking of Pegasus Bridge in the early hours of June 6th by the British troops of D Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry who landed by Horsa gliders a mere 50 yards or less away from the, at the time, minimally German guarded bridge. The surprise landing along with minimal German presence aided the British in capturing the bridge with relative ease. Paratroopers dropped in the area helped defend against the German counterattack and the Allies were able to maintain control of Pegasus Bridge.
The capture and control of Pegasus Bridge was vital to the invasion’s success in order to disrupt the Germans ability to bring in reinforcements to the Normandy landing beaches of Gold, Juno and Sword as well as providing vital equipment to Allied Forces operating west of the bridge and an equally vital exit route eastwards.
Veterans and family members from both British and German sides still come together every year on June 5th to commemorate the anniversary of the landings.
Pointe du Hoc
Located to the west of the Omaha landing beach, the promontory of Pointe du Hoc provided an elevated vantage point from which huge German long-range gun emplacements could deliver fire upon both Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.
On D-Day, the objective of the seaborne assault by U.S. Army rangers, who impressively scaled up the 100 foot cliffs was to neutralize the guns and cut off access to the roads that ran behind the Pointe.
The area was heavily bombed during the invasion and all the craters in the earth make it feel as if you’re walking on the moon!
In order for the Allies to be successful with a Normandy invasion a port needed to be captured in order to provide continual supplies to ground forces. After an unsuccessful raid to capture the port of Dieppe, it was apparent that the Allies would need to construct their own manmade port instead and thus the “Mulberry Harbor” was conceived.
Floating roadways and pierheads which went up and down with the tide were constructed in Britain and then towed across the Channel and assembled off the Normandy coast of Arromanches. In order to avoid rough seas, huge hollow concrete blocks and old ships were sunk in order to form a breakwater.
The port was meant to be temporary and last for only a few months, however, even after 70 plus years many of the pierheads still remain and you can see the outline of the harbor that allowed for the arrival of 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies. When the tide is out, you can even walk right up to two of them!
La Cambe German Cemetery
Located close to Bayeux, La Cambe German Cemetery is the final resting place for over 21,000 German military personnel of World War II.
The first town to be liberated in France. Parachutists from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division began landing in the town square of Sainte Mère-Église the night of June 5th during a daring but ill-fated raid on the small German occupied town. Normally a dark, sleepy town in the late hours of the evening, that night a prominent house in the town square had caught fire and so what was meant to be a stealthy landing site was abuzz with townspeople and German forces filling up buckets of water to put out the blaze.
The German forces open-fired on the landing troops, however, by early morning of June 6th June the town was liberated.
One of the parachutists named John Steele, was stuck helplessly on the side of the church tower when his parachute became tangled on the spire and to this day an effigy of John Steele is maintained, hanging off the side of the church tower. Can you imagine being stuck up there as an easy target for German forces for several hours?!
Longues Sur Mer Battery
The Longues-sur-Mer battery was a former German long range artillery battery constructed near the French village of Longues-sur-Mer as part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
The largest of the D-Day assault areas, Omaha Beach stretched 6 miles and was the second beach from the west among the five landing areas of the invasion. The Americans suffered a staggering 2,400 casualties at Omaha on June 6, but by the end of the day they had landed 34,000 troops.
There is a beautiful war memorial titled Les Braves located on the shores of the beach now representing three elements: The Wings of Hope, Rise Freedom, and the Wings Of Fraternity.
Normandy American Cemetery
Located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer, the Normandy American Cemetery covers 172.5 acres and contains the graves of 9,387 military dead, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. A further 1,557 names are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing, in a semicircular garden on the east side of the memorial.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s two sons are buried there: Theodore Roosevelt Jr , one of three Medal of Honor recipients buried at the cemetery, and Quentin Roosevelt, who was killed in World War I and whose remains were later exhumed and reburied next to this brother.
Our group witnessed the lowering of the American flag at the end of the day and as the sound of taps played over the cemetery and the sun sunk a little lower in the sky it was a moving reminder of the human cost of war and the sacrifice of a generation.
Interested in touring the D-Day site of Normandy yourself? Visitors can explore old Army bunkers, tanks, and Atlantic Wall defenses along the five landing beaches as well as tour the many museums and memorials throughout the region.
For a list of all museums and historical sites, click here.