Back to the beaches.
My visit to Normandy last fall fulfilled a longtime wish to see the coastline and countryside where this pivotal WWII offensive took place. I was overwhelmed. The landing beaches stretch across 63 miles of Normandy's 360-mile coast. And a French tourist brochure covering the battle for Normandy lists 29 museums and points of interest, along with 27 cemeteries.
There is even more to see than the brochure suggests--unusual and worthwhile museums and exhibits all over the coast and inland. At Arromanches, for instance, at high tide you can see offshore remnants of a giant concrete harbor known as a Mulberry--one of two the Allies built after D-Day to help get men and supplies ashore. From an American perspective, however, the iconic, must-see attractions are Utah and Omaha beaches (the two areas where Americans came ashore), the Utah Beach Landing Museum, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, and Pointe du Hoc.
Visiting Utah and Omaha beaches is made easy by signs and markers that guide the way. Maps and signposts still refer to the invasion beaches by their code names, streets near the beaches are named after units that fought there, and occasional markers commemorate notable incidents. To accommodate the many American, British, and Canadian visitors whose history is remembered here, information is displayed in English as well as French.
Veterans and history buffs alike should definitely visit the Utah Beach Landing Museum. Built around German blockhouse W5, the museum has long rectangular windows that simulate the view from a German fortification. From the windows you can see rows of hedgehogs--anti-tank defenses made of angled iron--on the beach below. Displays include landing craft used in the D-Day assault, plus archival photographs, maps, and artifacts. Scale models of the German defenses show the Allies' conquest of Utah Beach and the evolution of the front. Museum staff are available to explain the German beach defenses and the different stages of the landing.
Farther east, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer stands on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel. The 172.5acre site was donated to the United States by France. Established by the US First Army two days after D-Day, it was the first American WWII cemetery in Europe. Today it is kept immaculate by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Displays at the cemetery's visitor center, completed in 2007, convey the significance of the largest amphibious and aerial assault the world has ever seen--Operation Overlord, as the Normandy Invasion was codenamed. Visitors enter the center by descending below ground before proceeding to the cemetery. On the ground floor, flags of the 12 Allied nations that participated in the invasion are prominently displayed--a reminder that D-Day wasn't a solely American operation. While US forces stormed Utah and Omaha beaches, British and Canadian forces fought their way ashore on Gold, Sword, and Juno beaches to the east. Allies from nine other nations also participated in the landings.
A third of the visitor center's 30,000 square feet is dedicated to exhibit space. Personal stories of participants, and a mix of narrative text, photos, films, interactive displays, and artifacts portray the competence, courage, and sacrifice of Allied forces. The contributions of local French resistance forces are recognized here, too. Engaged in behind-the-lines sabotage and combat against the occupying Germans, resistance fighters risked capture, torture, and execution.
Just inside the cemetery are the Walls of the Missing, where 1,557 names are inscribed on walls in a semicircular garden. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified. Walking farther brings visitors to a curved colonnade with an open-air building at each end, containing large maps and narratives of the Normandy military operations.
A 22-foot bronze figure rising from waves, Spirit of American Youth, looks past a reflecting pool toward the burial area where 9,387 American military dead lie. Row upon row of precisely placed, identical white Latin crosses and Stars of David, with a circular chapel in the center, create a mood of reverence and awe. Flowers laid on graves here and there recall the loss of life that is still felt by families and loved ones left behind.
Thirty-eight pairs of brothers rest here, as do a father and son--Colonel Ollie Reed and 1st Lieutenant Ollie Reed, Jr. Staff members are on duty to answer questions and escort relatives to graves and memorial sites. Moviegoers may recognize that the beginning and end of Saving Private Ryan were filmed here.
Walking through the visitor center and cemetery puts the Normandy Invasion in context. Visitors emerge with an appreciation of World War II's human cost and of the importance of honoring our war dead. They also begin to realize what an achievement America and her allies accomplished in carrying out the greatest amphibious invasion in history.
Feelings of respect for the men of D-Day arise again at the massive concrete cliff-top gun emplacement at Pointe du Hoc, just west of Omaha Beach. Huge craters, 30 or more feet across and at least 10 feet deep, pockmark the ground. These were blasted out when Allied warships pounded the position. Several gun emplacements hit by the shelling had huge pieces of concrete weighing many tons torn from them and thrown about. It's hard to conceive that any German forces could have survived such a barrage. But they did.
Peering down the vertical cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, I could appreciate the challenge the US 2nd Ranger Battalion faced in scaling them, weighed down with heavy equipment and weapons, and with German gunfire and hand grenades raining down on them. The bluff overlooking the edge, including the stone monument honoring those Rangers, has been fenced off to protect visitors from the crumbling cliff face.
I could have spent weeks exploring Normandy and its countless sites that tell the story of the Allied invasion of Europe. I'm already planning a return trip to see and learn more about this historic operation that proved to be the turning point of World War II. it
Joe Razes is a freelance photographer who resides in Columbia, Maryland.
LOCATION: The D-Day landing sites are about 170 miles northwest of Paris and are accessible by train, bus, and automobile.
INFORMATION: The website www.normandiememoire.com (which can be displayed in English) provides video clips, webcams, descriptions of the D-Day museums, maps, and more. Information on the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is at www.abmc.gov.