Written by Wildcat Dianne on 01 Oct, 2007
On April 19, 1985, I was 11 days shy of my 18th birthday, but I accomplished one of my travel dreams. It was to visit Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, which has become famous for one of the most bloodiest and costly battles in history.…Read More
On April 19, 1985, I was 11 days shy of my 18th birthday, but I accomplished one of my travel dreams. It was to visit Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, which has become famous for one of the most bloodiest and costly battles in history. It was a personal journey for me because from the time I could understand history, Mom told me the story about my Uncle Al on her side of the family and his experiences on one of the biggest days in military history, June 6, 1944, Operation Overlord--D-Day. It was a very personal trip for me, and I was looking forward to it since I booked my trip to France with my high school earlier that year.
The group that took the trip to France from East Providence, Rhode Island in 1985 consisted mostly of the French Club, about 27 teenage kids along with six of their chauffeurs and teachers. I had done a lot of heavy reading and research on Normandy before leaving Rhode Island, and I felt I was ready to conquer Omaha Beach in my own modern-day invasion.
Our home base was in the small Normandy town of Dinard, and the trip to Omaha Beach was on our last day in Normandy and Brittany before heading back to Paris that afternoon. I was so excited, I was ready to explode with anticipation of seeing Omaha Beach. I spoke with our guide, this cute English guy named Jonathan, about Uncle Al's experience in Normandy during World War II most of the way there, and I took a little teasing from my French III teacher M. DuLude and a couple of other teachers as we were getting off the bus once we arrived there.
After getting off the bus and taking a short walk to the Omaha Beach Memorial, I got an eerie chill as I looked at the English Channel and imagined what it was like for the brave soldiers who lost their lives coming off the landing barges from the big ships in the Channel and came under the most hellacious German machine gun and mortar fire as they tried to conquer the beachhead.
Uncle Al was part of the second wave of the American invasion of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The Allied Invasion of Normandy was an Anglo-American effort and covered five beach heads on the Normandy Coast. The British and Canadian troops were to take Sword, Gold and Juno Beaches while the American troops were to take Omaha and Utah Beaches. Operation Overlord had been postponed for 24 hours because of bad weather, and June 6 dawned rainy and cloudy, and the Channel was very choppy, but the powers that be said the invasion had to go on, and the choppy waters made several soldiers toss their cookies overboard in their landing barges.
But tossing cookies was the least of their problems. Hundreds of soldiers died drowning as they disembarked from their landing barges because the barges stopped too far from shore, and the soldiers couldn't swim with their heavy packs on their backs. The ones who survived going ashore were pinned down or hit with heavy German fire from the pillboxes on shore. Uncle Al was almost decapitated by German barbed wire that was laid out across the beachhead. For the rest of his life, Al had a faint scar on his neck from where the barbed wire went across.
It took over a month before the Allied invasion troops broke through Normandy and were able to push through to Paris. Over 5,000 American soldiers died on June 6 alone and thousands more were to perish during the battle for France and the push into Germany.
Today, Omaha Beach is a shrine and cemetery for the 5,000 soldiers who died at Omaha Beach. Several of the landing barges lie rusting in the English Channel as a reminder of the battle to future generations.
After France, Uncle Al's unit under General Courtney Hodges fought through Eastern France into the Ardennes, where on December 17, 1944, Al was in a foxhole on his 20th Birthday. The Battle of the Bulge had begun the day before when the Germans began their co
Written by Ed Hahn on 19 Dec, 2005
I believe I didn’t really absorb the significance of D-Day and its aftermath until I visited some cemeteries, particularly the American cemetery situated about halfway between Colleville sur Mer and St. Laurent sur Mer. In 2003, John Flaherty and I visited this cemetery and a…Read More
I believe I didn’t really absorb the significance of D-Day and its aftermath until I visited some cemeteries, particularly the American cemetery situated about halfway between Colleville sur Mer and St. Laurent sur Mer. In 2003, John Flaherty and I visited this cemetery and a British, a Canadian, and two German cemeteries.There are 28 military cemeteries in Normandy, 16 British & Commonwealth, two American, two Canadian, one Polish, one French, and six German. John told me that over 130,000 servicemen were killed in the Battle for Normandy, most of them German. Until the First Gulf War, British war dead were always buried near where they fell, which explains the large number of British cemeteries. American families have the choice of bringing their loved ones home. As a result, less than 20% of those Americans who perished liberating France are buried here. The Germans were originally buried in as many as 1,400 locations around Normandy. These have been centralized into the six current cemeteries, which hold over 58,000 bodies. This does not count those in undiscovered graves, missing in action, or re-buried elsewhere in France or Germany.THE AMERICAN CEMETERY AT COLLEVILLE/ST LAURENTIf you saw Saving Private Ryan, you would recognize Colleville/St. Laurent. The pine trees shown in the movie are on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, where so many Americans died. The first time I visited I had a serious problem. I couldn’t stop crying for about the first half-hour. The place is set up to elicit emotion, with the long central walk to the chapel, the Memorial, and the Garden of Remembrance, whose wall is inscribed with the names of 1,557 servicemen who were never found and the perfectly aligned graves of 9,386 Americans who gave their lives here and whose remains their families decided to leave here. I did not have the same reaction when I visited other cemeteries. Maybe it was triggered by my recent viewing of Band of Brothers. I finally did settle down enough to walk the grounds and help John place flowers on the graves he’s adopted as a member of Association Les Fleurs de la Memoire. One of the graves belongs to Sgt. Leo Flaherty, John’s namesake, if not his distant relative.The Chapel, in the center of the grounds, is quite small and is intended for individual contemplation and prayer. The care given to the grounds here is beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Each day the graves are tidied up and any flowers or other debris is taken away. Each Italian marble grave marker carries the soldier’s name, rank, unit, and the name of his home state. All the crosses and Stars of David face the west, towards America. There are three Medal of Honor recipients buried here, including General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. We visit his grave and some others that John has information about. In 2004, Tom and I wandered around on our own, trying to take in the enormity of the sacrifices these and other Americans made to win WW II. I count visiting this cemetery as one of the most moving moments in my life.THE AMERICAN CEMETERY AT ST JAMESI’ve never visited this cemetery, but John Flaherty assured me it is beautiful and worth seeing if time allows. St James is the smaller of the two American cemeteries in Normandy. Its 28 acres are on the border of Brittany and Normandy. A cemetery was started here just after the area was liberated in August 1944. The stained glass windows in the chapel show all the major battles fought in the liberation of Normandy. The cemetery contains the remains of 4,410 servicemen who lost their lives fighting in the area, including 95 “Known but to God.”THE BRITISH CEMETERY AT HERMANVILLE When we visited this cemetery, I learned quite a bit about how the British treat their war dead. All 16 of the cemeteries in Normandy are looked after by the British War Graves Commission, which has responsibility for all the Commonwealth graves in Europe from both world wars. The cemeteries also contain Germans who were originally buried here and never disinterred. As I mentioned earlier, it is the custom of the British Army that a soldier killed in battle is buried near where he fell, even in local churchyards. Each headstone has the name and rank and Regimental insignia of the soldier together with his age and date of death. A simple personal message chosen by his relatives is often included at the foot of the headstone.Though Hermanville is one of the smaller British Cemeteries in Normandy, it is beautifully landscaped and contains a Norman-style chapel and visitor center as well as a Cross of Sacrifice, which can be found in most British military cemeteries. It is the last resting place for 1,005 Allied soldiers who fell in the battle to take Sword beach and the surrounding area. I didn’t have the emotional reaction I had at Colleville/St. Laurent, but I was still deeply touched, especially when reading the personal messages on the headstones.THE CANADIAN CEMETERY AT BÉNY – RIVIERSWe only drove by this cemetery because of time constraints. It is beautifully situated on high ground overlooking the sea. It contains 2,049 servicemen who fell in the early days of the invasion. All but five are Canadian. I recommend stopping. I regret that we didn’t. THE BRITISH CEMETERY AT BAYEUX This is another cemetery we only drove by. It is the largest Commonwealth WW II cemetery in France. This cemetery is the last resting place for over 4,600 Commonwealth soldiers, airmen and sailors, and some of the opposing forces. They come from the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, Italy, France, Russia, and Germany. John filled me in on some interesting facts. For instance, at first glance, all the headstones look the same, but there are many differences depending on nationality. If comrades died together and could not be identified, because they died in a plane crash or a tank, their markers are placed together with two or more headstones, depending on the number who lost their lives. THE GERMAN CEMETERY AT LA CAMBEWe visited two German cemeteries, La Cambe and Orglandes. La Cambe is the largest German Cemetery in Normandy, with 21,222 graves. At one time it was an American cemetery and the fallen of both sides were buried here in two fields by The American Graves Registration Service since the Germans were in no position to bury their own dead. After the war, the Americans interred here were either sent to America or to Coleville/St Laurent. In 1954, the French and Germans signed a treaty on war graves, and it was decided to re-bury all the fallen Germans in six cemeteries. The German War Graves Commission (The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfusorge) accepted the task of identifying the last resting places of the German troops, who were buried in over 1,400 villages scattered over northern France. Unlike the American and British War Graves Commission, the German Commission is entirely voluntary and relies on gifts and collections to further its work. During the summer months, John told me, you can see German school children tending the graves. They volunteer to work with the Volksbund during their school holidays. It is one of the ways the Volksbund hope to promote peace. There is an interesting museum across the road from the cemetery entrance that illustrates what the Volksbund does and discreetly solicits contributions for its work. Most of the graves have at least three bodies. John explained that the Germans say this is to show comradeship in death, but he adds that a more likely explanation is that after the war the French were reluctant to give the ground required for individual plots. Under the huge Maltese cross in the center of the cemetery lie 207 unknown solders, along with 89 who have been identified. I also learned that victims of the war in Normandy are still being found, even after 50 years. As we drove away, I noticed hundreds of trees planted in neat rows. John explained that the Volksbund student volunteers plant many trees every year on the roads leading to this cemetery as a symbol of peace and the hope that France and Germany will never again go to war with each other--very impressive.THE GERMAN CEMETERY AT ORGLANDESThis site was also a provisional cemetery for American dead and those abandoned by the retreating German Army. It contains 10,152 remains. Each grave site contains six or more bodies for reasons mentioned above. I no longer had to wonder how a cemetery with so many soldiers could be so small. It is very poignant to see a cross with the names of six soldiers on it. One grave, John showed me, contains the bodies of 22 German POWs who died loading explosives near Bayeux. Their remains were impossible to separate. I hope these cemeteries helped the post-war healing process. Close
Written by Ed Hahn on 17 Dec, 2005
As I said in the review of the British and Canadian Beaches, this is a story impossible to tell in 500 or even 1,500 words. For a suggested 3-day exploration of all the invasion beaches, see “The Invasion of Normandy – British and Canadian Beaches.”UTAH…Read More
As I said in the review of the British and Canadian Beaches, this is a story impossible to tell in 500 or even 1,500 words. For a suggested 3-day exploration of all the invasion beaches, see “The Invasion of Normandy – British and Canadian Beaches.”UTAH BEACHUtah Beach is the best-preserved invasion site because there has been little development near it. The museum here is outstanding, as are the memorials in the plaza in front of the museum. I walked the beach and found all kinds of interesting things, like one-man machine gun nests and other oddities. On D-Day, the Utah Beach landings went almost perfectly according to plans. Not long after the naval and air bombardment began, all the major weapons defending the beach were out of action. The defenders surrendered to the Americans, led by General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. By midday, the invasion forces had linked up with the airborne troops near St Mere Eglise. On D-day, more than 23,000 men and over 1,600 vehicles landed here, and by midnight 23,250 troops were ashore with fewer than 200 casualties. Because of the diversity of regiments that landed here, there are many monuments to them dotted around the beach. All the roads leading from the beach and into St. Mere Eglise are named after soldiers killed here during the battle.John Flaherty and I ate lunch at the Café de Roosevelt across from the museum. The owner has built a replica of an underground communications center, but he keeps it locked up because of vandalism and theft. We had to ask him for the key. It was worth the time and trouble to see it. We also visited the battery at Crisbecq, which, I understand, will soon have a museum. We visited the battery at Azeville, too, which was one of the first built on this peninsula by the Germans. There is a small museum here that takes about 10 minutes to walk through. It took the American forces 7 days to capture this spot and Crisbecq. One of the most interesting sights is seeing the damage an unexploded shell from the Battleship USS Nevada did when it hit one of the casemates, killing everyone inside. ST. MERE EGLISEFrom Utah beach, we drove to St. Mere Eglise. Before the D-Day landings, it was decided that bridgeheads be established at both ends of the landing beaches. This would be undertaken by airborne regiments. At the western flank near Ste Mere Eglise, it fell to the Parachute Infantry Divisions of the 82nd (All American) and the 101st (Screaming Eagles). The morning of June 6th, a house in the square that is now the site of the airborne museum caught fire. The inhabitants formed a chain with buckets from the pump in the square. At this point, parachutes were seen in the night sky and began landing in and around the town. It was the 82nd airborne division. The town was taken by members of the 505th Battalion. At 4:30 the stars and stripes were hoisted and St Mere Eglise became the first town to be liberated in France. Another reason for the town’s fame came from the film "The Longest Day." John Steel, a paratrooper, played by Red Buttons, managed to land on the church and his chute caught on the steeple. He hung there while the fighting continued on the ground for 2 hours before being cut down by the Germans, taken prisoner, and later released by the Americans. I took a photo of the effigy of John Steel that can be seen on the church. Inside the church there are two stained glass windows, one shows the Virgin Mary surrounded by paratroopers and the other shows St. Michael, patron saint of the paratroopers. Both were dedicated in 1972. GRAIGNESOne of the most poignant sites is the village of Graignes. Two battalions of American paratroopers were mistakenly dropped near this village. Helped by the villagers, they decided to resist, even though the town had no strategic value. They were finally overrun by 1,500 Germans 5 days later. Many escaped with the help of the villagers, but the wounded remained in the church under the care of the clergy and others. Unfortunately for the townspeople and the wounded Americans, an SS regiment appeared and executed all the wounded and many of the villagers including three priests. The church was left in ruins and is now a monument to the fighting. There are plaques on the crumbled walls with the names of the villagers who were executed next to the names of the Americans who died under their protection. I had a hard time keeping my composure when I was there.OMAHA BEACHPerhaps the most renowned of the invasion beaches, it was featured in both “The Longest Day” and Saving Private Ryan.” Today it is a tranquil stretch of sand. Out on the tidal flats local people cultivate mussels and clams. Nowhere, except up on Pointe du Hoc, is there much indication of the chaos and slaughter that occurred on June 6th. Looking at it today, you can see why it should not have been chosen for an amphibious landing. There are 6 miles of exposed beach with no natural cover for an attacking force, but this beach was necessary to link the other attacks at Utah and Gold. The weather was worse here, and many of the landing craft and amphibious tanks never made it to the beach. The Germans had the beach well covered with fire power, and there were only five exits and steep cliffs along the length of the beach. The first wave of Americans came ashore and were immediately cut down with machine gun fire. In the first wave, 80% of the American Infantry perished and over 1,000 Americans lost their lives in the first 8 hours. By the end of the day, a small bridgehead had been established, and fortunately there was no counterattack by the Germans. By the end of the second day, 3,000 soldiers were dead and a further 3,000 injured or taken prisoner. POINTE DU HOCThe Allies believed this cliff, overlooking both Omaha and Utah Beaches, was home to six large guns. Guns that could have inflicted damage to the Allied ships at both of the American landing beaches, but the guns were not here. In April 1944, the Allies bombed the site and destroyed one gun. The Germans decided to move the remaining guns farther inland. Pointe du Hoc today retains its battlefield character because of the destruction left by the rain of bombs and shells the Allies unleashed to neutralize this rocky point. This concentration of fire left craters and ruined Casemates, which 60 years hasn’t erased. The day I was there, children were playing in the ruins. The monument to the Rangers who scaled the 100-foot cliff is off limits because of erosion, but it isn’t hard to imagine how difficult the task was. The slopes and ropes were wet, the tide was strong, and the Germans could drop grenades onto the heads of the climbing Rangers. Eventually the Rangers gained a foothold on the cliffs, but the remaining defenders were difficult to dislodge. It took 2 days for reinforcement s to fight their way to relieve the Rangers, and by then the force had been reduced to about 90 effective men from the original 640 who left the transports June 6th.Directly above Omaha Beach is a large American cemetery, Colleville. I describe it in another review in this journal. Close
I think it’s impossible to write a review of the D-Day Invasion sites in 500 or even 1,500 words, so I’m positioning these two reviews as “Experiences.”I have visited this area twice. In March 2003, I spent 3 days with John Flaherty of Hand Maid Tours…Read More
I think it’s impossible to write a review of the D-Day Invasion sites in 500 or even 1,500 words, so I’m positioning these two reviews as “Experiences.”I have visited this area twice. In March 2003, I spent 3 days with John Flaherty of Hand Maid Tours exploring the entire area: all five beaches, the German bunkers and artillery batteries that constituted the “Atlantik Wall,” and the museums and memorials that are to be found throughout this whole area. I will write a separate review on the cemeteries. In August 2004, I once again engaged John to give my friend Tom Trier and I a quick 1-day tour of the invasion beaches. We chose a holiday weekend, which was a mistake, but we still managed to cover a lot of ground. If you are interested, you can read my Review of Hand Maid Tours in my Normandy Journal.Based on my experience, in planning a visit to the D-Day sites, I recommend that you either start at Utah Beach and work your way north and east or start at Sword Beach and work your way south and west. An ideal itinerary would be to spend 1 day at Utah Beach and its museum, visit the many gun emplacements covering the beach, and then travel to St. Mere Eglise, the first town captured on D-Day. The next day I would start with the Pegasus Bridge and Museum, then visit the three British and Canadian Beaches, Sword, Juno, and Gold. The area is now very built-up, so parking can be a hassle. You should also visit Arromanche, overlooking the famous temporary Mulberry Harbor, which is still visible 60 years after its construction, and view the 360° Cinema on the battle of Normandy.On day three I would start with Longue sur Mer, the artillery site overlooking both the British beaches and Omaha Beach. Then go to Pointe du Hoc, where the rangers scaled the cliffs to capture the heights, before exploring Omaha Beach and its many memorials. If you are American, give yourself lots of time to visit the American cemetery above the cliffs of St. Laurent sur Mer. It is the largest U.S. cemetery in Europe and takes time to fully absorb. I’d work in visits to the British and German cemeteries, as time was available. To me, 3 days is a minimum amount of time to fully appreciate the scope of the invasion and the subsequent 70-day battle for Normandy. You’ll need another full day for the Caen Memorial Museum, plus at least 1 day to see the Bayeux Tapestry and visit Mont St. Michelle.SWORD BEACHThis beach, at the east end of the allied landings, was taken by the British. Because of air and naval bombardment, there was little resistance and the British troops moved quickly inland and captured Hermanville by 10am. There’s not much to see. Some of the bunkers have even been converted into houses and shops. In the port city of Ouistreham, we did visit the 52-foot concrete tower that served as a communications and fire control center and is now a museum. It is the only major part of the German Atlantic wall left in Ouistreham. Unfortunately, it was closed the day I was there, but I understand you can visit the generator room, the gas filter rooms, machine gun emplacements, the telephone exchange, radio communication room, and observation post. PEGASUS BRIDGEThis is one of the most fascinating sites both because of its history and because of the museum and other memorabilia from the D-day landings. The original bridge across the Caen Canal has been replaced but is just down the road, at the excellent museum complete with bullet marks and bomb dents. The museum also has a completely rebuilt Horsa glider, which was the type used in the assault. I could have spent half a day in the museum alone.The airborne troop’s task was to secure the two bridges crossing the River Orne and the Caen canal at Benouville. The British decided to use six Horsa gliders, three for each bridge. The first glider carrying Major John Howard, whose bust is in a small park near the canal, landed just 60m from the bridge. The second glider landed 1 minute later 20m from Major Howard's glider. The third glider landed between the other two. I can’t imagine a more impressive exhibit of airmanship than that. They overran the German positions before they could react with the loss of only one soldier. The bridge over the Orne River was also captured, though not so easily. Not only had the bridges been captured easily, but they were intact. The cafe Gondree next to the bridge was the first house to be liberated on D-day and is now owned by British Veterans together with Mme Gondree, who cooked us an incredible omelet for lunch.JUNO BEACHThere is even less to see here than at Sword. Evidently the Germans thought the reefs out to sea would stop the Allies contemplating a landing here. Nevertheless, on D-Day the beach was strewn with obstacles to prevent landings, many of which were mined. The attack here was led by Canadians. They did not have an easy time of it because of rough seas and blocked landing areas. We stopped at a few of the many monuments in the area dedicated to Canadian Units. There is a Canadian cemetery nearby at Berny, which we did not visit.HOBART'S FUNNIESWe also stopped and looked at some of the specially modified tanks, called “Hobart’s Funnies,” which the British had created to help in the invasion. They were named after their creator, Major General Percy Hobart. We saw the Spigot Mortar, called the flying dustbin and able to fire a 40lb charge; the Churchill Crocodile, which was equipped with a flame thrower; and the Firefly, a standard Sherman tank fitted with the tried and tested British 17lb gun and the only Allied tank capable of dueling with a German Tiger with any chance of success. GOLD BEACH At Gold Beach houses are built clear down to the beach and seawall, so there is little to see other than monuments and memorial tanks. Because of heavy pre-invasion bombardment, there was little or no opposing artillery fire, and the sea wall was easily breached by British and Canadian troops with the help of Hobart’s Funnies.By the end of D-Day, 25,000 men had been landed, and they occupied the beach area between Arromanches and Courseulles and later met up with the Americans, as well as capturing Port en Bessin. On June 8th, work commenced on building the artificial port I mentioned earlier.THE MULBERRY HARBOR AT ARROMANCHESAfter the disastrous raid at Dieppe, the Allies realized that they were unlikely to be successful capturing a port in a frontal assault, so they decided to build two ports that could be constructed right off the invasion beaches and used until Cherbourg was captured from the land side. They were named “Mulberry.” Mulberry One was to be on Omaha beach and Mulberry Two at Arromanches.While they were being assembled, an incredible storm appeared and pretty much destroyed the American harbor but left the British one intact. The British Mulberry continued to be used until November 19, 1944, a month longer than planned. Much of the structure is visible today from the cliffs of Longues sur Mer, in spite of the effect of being subjected to two tides a day for over 60 years. Interestingly, I noticed that at low tide I could see the remnants of the destroyed Mulberry at Omaha Beach.LONGUES SUR MERThis battery that overlooks both Gold beach and Omaha Beach is unique in having its guns still in their casements. There is also an observation post about 200 yards in front of the guns, which I crawled into. As an interesting note, the bombing had destroyed the telephone cables linking the observers with the gun emplacements, so the Germans tried to use signal flags, but the smoke from the guns made the flags impossible to see. The gun crews finally fell back on the traditional technique of "creeping fire" and did little damage. The batteries were put out of action by naval bombardment and were easily taken on June 7th. The first casemate we saw as we entered the site was from a post D-Day explosion, which threw the gun and its barrel out of the bunker and killed four servicemen. According to John, one of the soldiers caused the disaster with a lit cigarette.My review of the American beaches is in a separate item. Close
Written by Idler on 05 Jun, 2004
May 29, 2004: The Final MusterThe build-up has been massive; week after week we’ve been bombarded with stories and rumors, but now at long last it’s the big day.No, not the invasion of Normandy – the dedication of the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.Thousands…Read More
May 29, 2004: The Final Muster
The build-up has been massive; week after week we’ve been bombarded with stories and rumors, but now at long last it’s the big day.No, not the invasion of Normandy – the dedication of the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.Thousands of veterans are converging on the Mall to mark an occasion that has been a long time coming. As long-time Washington area residents, we’ve seen one monument after another go up on the mall: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, The Korean War Memorial, The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.For 17 years, plans for a World War II memorial were mired in bureaucratic wrangling. It took a cadre of dedicated advocates and some Hollywood clout – Tom Hanks throwing his Saving Private Ryan weight behind it – to cut through the red tape and give the project the green light. Oh sure, there have been any number of nay-sayers and critics. Columnist Jonathan Yardley derided the monument as "ghastly," while architects, art critics and civic planners have bemoaned the "sterility" and "cold formality" of the seven-acre monument. But on the morning of the dedication, I step outside to retrieve the newspaper and minutes later decide to go to the dedication. I’ve read something that prompts me to go: while 16.4 million Americans served in WWII, there are fewer than five million who remain alive, and they are dying at the rate of over a thousand vets a day. This will probably be the last time they gather in any significant number.It’s an absolutely gorgeous spring day, atypically cool and without a hint of humidity. Normally, I shun the Mall from Cherry Blossom Festival time to October, until the crowds thin and the weather cools. But today is different; there’s something in the air, an aura of expectation and buoyancy.I have seen the battlefields of Normandy. Now it is time to meet the men who fought there. A Most Unusual Metro RideI get my first inkling that something big is happening when I pull into the Metro parking lot in Rockville. Normally on a weekend this vast parking complex is deserted, but today it looks nearly as full as on a weekday. I’m lucky to find a spot.The station is thronged with out-of-towners trying to make sense of the finicky fare card machines. "Press this button here," I tell a panicked-looking woman who has inserted her money and now stands helplessly gazing at the confusing mass of instructions. She thanks me, moves to the turnstile, and inserts her ticket the wrong direction. I smile to myself, remembering that a few weeks earlier I had been the out-of-towner in New York, invariably inserting my fare card incorrectly. "The other way," I tell her, and the turnstile swings open. The Metro car is full of couples and families, many clustered around a central figure wearing a uniform or VFW cap. Some are in wheel chairs, others carry canes, while a few sit ramrod straight in their orange upholstered seats, eyes front. There are Vietnam vets, Korean vets, and Desert Storm vets, but above all Word War II vets. I sit in front of two men, one elderly and the other roughly my age. The younger man leans forward and asks how long it takes to get downtown. We strike up a conversation.The older man was at Pearl Harbor, the younger in Vietnam. When another man hears "Pearl Harbor," he joins in the conversation. Then another. And another. All throughout the car, strangers are suddenly talking, laughing, shaking hands, and joking with one other. In my purse, I’m carrying pocket packages of Kleenex. I thought they might come in handy.On the Metro, I realize this won’t be the solemn occasion I’d expected. Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times One of the first people I meet on the Mall hails from Curtis, Ohio. "My family’s from Ohio," I tell him, and we begin a long, rambling Ohio-style conversation. Turns out he’s brought a buddy from Curtis to Washington to attend the dedication ceremonies. "Come on over here and I’ll introduce you to him, " he says. "Smokes" fought under General Patton in Europe and is full of stories. "Yeah, old 'Blood and Guts' Patton," he reminisces. "Our blood and his guts!" We all laugh at the old saw, though in Smokes’ case it’s more than a joke. He’s still got a bullet in him somewhere, "But it didn’t kill me then, so I don’t think it’s gonna now." Smokes is an electrician. "Where were you when I couldn’t find anybody to rewire my old house?" I ask him. His buddy chimes in, "You shoulda had Smokes! He did my son’s place for just the cost of materials and a few beers. Started early every morning and worked till ten at night!" He shakes his head, admiringly, "That’s Smokes for you." Over at the "Arsenal," a crowd is gathered round a Sherman tank . A bear of a man in khaki is explaining the tank’s features, but he stops when he spots a vet with an 82nd Airborne patch on his uniform. "Come on up, sir," he says, and the crowd parts. Just then a woman races up to the vet. "Dad, you won’t believe this! Look who’s here!" She points to the young man beside her. "It’s Bob’s grandson!"The WWII vet looks momentarily confused, then a smile spreads across his face as he turns to the young man and puts his arm around him. It’s clear that "Bob" didn’t make it here today, but that this, to the vet, is the next best thing.Throughout the crowd, I spot people carrying photos of WWII vets or wearing T-shirts or pins emblazoned with the image of one. An extended family, all in identical T-shirts printed with a fresh-faced soldier’s face on them, proudly push the older version of the soldier along the gravel path of the mall. A young man wears his grandfather’s uniform. "He couldn’t be here, but, boy, he sure would’ve liked this," he muses.Behind the vast Reunion Tent, the equipment buffs are admiring a row of vintage army jeeps. One stands out: splattered with mud, loaded with duffel bags and boxes, with Chianti jugs strapped to the side. Inside, there’s a crate labeled ‘PROPHYLACTICS’, Hershey bars, a pair of silk stockings, a garter belt, "Yank" magazines, and muddy boots. On the hood in a cage, a stuffed hen wearing a miniature helmet presides over a clutch of Army-green eggs. A captured Nazi flag is mounted on the front bumper. "Doc," the jeep’s owner, put together the display as a tribute to his WWII days in Italy. I ask him about the mud. "Oh, it was muddy," he says. "It rained and rained." Although the mud on the jeep isn’t original, that certainly isn’t true of Doc’s purple heart, irreverently fastened to the front of the chicken’s cage. Granite, Marble, and GiltAll along the Mall, huge video screens have been placed before several vast seating areas. At 1:30 sharp, the dedication begins. Tom Brokaw gives a speech, culled from his book, The Greatest Generation, followed by Tom Hanks narrating a piece about the new memorial. Then a great whoop goes up when Bob Dole, one of ‘the boys’ to this crowd, gives his speech. Finally, all rise for the Commander in Chief. Bush receives a restrained reception compared to Dole. Some vets, I notice, stand respectfully but don’t applaud. When the dedication ceremony is over, I make my way down the Mall toward the Memorial. This area had been open during the ceremony only to those with tickets available only to dignitaries, vets, and their families. It’s a long walk, past the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial, moving against a huge crowd. Normally, this sort of slow-moving assembly makes me impatient, but the presence of the vets and their families puts it into perspective. They’ve waited a long time for this. Surely I can wait a bit, too. Down by the memorial, I meet Ed Matz, who enlisted when he was "seventeen years old and a day" and went around the world on a light cruiser "from Boston to San Francisco." We talk for several hours in the shade of the Memorial’s granite columns, watching the crowds go by. A young woman asks Ed to sign a copy of Brokaw’s book. Another vet and his wife stop and join the conversation for a bit. Groups of people come and go, everyone talking unselfconsciously, openly. We’re all Americans, after all. Especially today.As the sun starts to set, Ed says, "I’m hungry. Wanna go get something to eat?" I think to myself, ‘Now’s my chance.’ But Ed’s an old hand, and he beats me to it when it comes time to pick up the check.
Pointe du HocIt is late in the afternoon when we reach Pointe du Hoc, a rugged headland jutting out to sea west of Omaha Beach. The Allies believed a powerful artillery battery was in place at the top of the sheer cliffs, and it was…Read More
Pointe du HocIt is late in the afternoon when we reach Pointe du Hoc, a rugged headland jutting out to sea west of Omaha Beach. The Allies believed a powerful artillery battery was in place at the top of the sheer cliffs, and it was vital that it be neutralized so that it could not fire down upon Omaha and Utah beaches. Unfortunately, the only way to attack the position was to climb a sheer 100-foot-high cliff face, a task assigned to two Ranger battalions. Equipped with special grappling hooks and using modified ladders provided by the London Fire Brigade mounted onto DUKW amphibious craft, the Rangers began their attack at 6:30 on D-Day. They were supported by the 16-inch guns of the USS Texas anchored out to sea, which kept up a steady barraged aimed at the top of the cliff. A pitched battle between the Rangers attempting to scale the cliff and the Germans above ensued, but at last a few intrepid Rangers hauled themselves over the edge of the cliff, where they fought from bunker to bunker against the German garrison. At the end of the fight, however, it was discovered that the Germans had actually taken the guns from the emplacements and moved them to a field inland. The ‘guns’ that had been observed by air reconnaissance were long timber beams. The Rangers’ ordeal was not over once they routed the garrison at Pointe du Hoc. Completely surrounded but with no reinforcements forthcoming, the Rangers withstood German counterattacks for over two days before they were finally relieved. Only 90 of the 225 men who made the cliff-top ascent survived. Today Pointe du Hoc is one of the more dramatic D-Day battlefields, with enormous craters gouged into the earth by the more than ten kilotons of high explosives that rained down upon it. This is equal in explosive power to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Even so, many bunkers remain, the meter-thick walls pockmarked but intact. It is the ground that bears witness to the day’s savagery, sculpted by explosions into an eerie landscape of hollows, craters, and irregular gullies. Greg insists on exploring each bunker and emplacement, of course, scrambling up iron handholds and clambering down steps into narrow fortified chambers. Once again I marvel at the difference in attitudes between Europeans and Americans in regard to public places. In the U.S., there would surely be dozens of cautionary signs, advising the dim-witted not to get to close to the edge of the cliff. Here, however, the French rely on visitors having the common sense – and respect – not to damage themselves or the site. Before leaving Pointe du Hoc, we stop to read the inscription on the Rangers’ Monument at the cliff’s edge. It stands on top of the ruins of a firing casement, soldiers’ bodies still buried beneath the massive concrete structure. Sainte-Mère-ÉgliseAs we enter the quiet village of Sainte-Mère-Église in the late afternoon, it’s easy to imagine the scene that took place here on the night of June 5th/6th. A stray incendiary bomb had hit a villa on the broad village square, and the entire town had awoken to the sound of the bells in the church tower, an alarm signal. As the bewildered townspeople came out into the square and began battling the raging fire, they saw a strange spectacle. Hundreds of white parachutes were suspended above the town, illuminated by the flames below as they gently descended. Unfortunately, the villagers were not the only ones to witness the descent of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne; the Germans garrisoned in the village had been roused by the alarm as well, and they opened fire on the parachutists as they came down.This event was made famous by Darryl Zanuck’s film The Longest Day, of course, but what I hadn’t realized was that the movie was filmed Sainte-Mère-Église. In fact, a number of villagers played bit parts in it. At one point during the filming, Zanuck had to prevent onlookers from throwing stones at the "German soldiers" (actually French extras in Nazi uniforms) who marched into the village square. Although it was 1961, the residents of Sainte-Mère-Église still bore a grudge. There’s movie trivia like this and a great deal more at the Airborne Museum just off the village square. We’re ending our day, as we began it, with the Airborne. Two great airborne operations – one to the east undertaken by the British and one to the west by the Americans - were the prelude to the D-Day invasion. As mentioned in the entry on Pegasus Bridge, the British airborne assault quickly achieved its objective, made possible in large part by the accuracy of the glider and parachute landings.The incoming American Airborne troops were beset by bad weather and heavy firing from anti-aircraft guns. Parachutists were dropped miles from their landing zones and wandered lost through the countryside, separated from their companies. The pilots of the C-47 "Dakotas" dipped and zig-zagged to avoid being hit; in some cases they signaled their ‘sticks’ (groups of parachutists) to jump at too low an altitude for their parachutes to deploy. Others were dropped into fields the Germans had flooded as a form of coastal defense. Many men drowned, sometimes in as little as two feet of water, as they struggled with their parachute harnesses and equipment in the darkness.Isolated, spread out, and confused, the elite Airborne troops still managed to achieve many of their objectives, though in most cases it took longer than had been planned. Despite the slaughter that had occurred in the square, Sainte-Mère-Église was taken within four hours. Then, outnumbered five-to-one, the Americans held the town. Private John Fitzgerald of the 101st Airborne recalled: A sight that has never left my memory. . . was a picture story of the death of one 82nd Airborne trooper. He had occupied a German foxhole and made it his personal Alamo. In a half-circle around the hole lay the bodies of nine German soldiers. The body closest to the hole was only three feet away, a grenade in its fist. The other distorted forms lay where they had fallen, testimony to the ferocity of the fight. His ammunition bandoleers were still on his shoulders, empty. . . Cartridge cases littered the ground. His rifle stock was broken in two. He had fought alone and like many that night, he had died alone.At the Airborne Museum, it feels not as if we are in a museum but instead have been given a glimpse into living memories of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Like many museums in the area, symbolism weighs heavily in the design of the buildings and layout of the exhibits. One building houses a Waco glider surrounded by dozens of glass cases containing artifacts, photos, and memorabilia. Each piece of equipment carried by the paratroopers is displayed, each type of K ration or phrase book. A ‘stick’ of mannequin paratroopers inside the Waco glider wears authentic uniforms and insignia, while the other building houses a Dakota C-47, its wings painted with the black and white D-Day ‘invasion stripes.’Men of the 101st, the 'Screaming Eagles', don war paint before loading into a C-47 heading for Normandy On our way out of the museum, just before it closes, I buy Greg a ‘cricket,’ a simple noisemaker the Airrbone men used as an identifying signal in the early hours of June 6th. One click was to be answered by two. It produces quite a distinctive, carrying sound. Needless to say, before we’ve traveled a mile from Sainte-Mère-Église, I’ve confiscated the cricket. Close
THE NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY
Anyone who’s seen Saving Private Ryan is familiar with the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. There’s that final scene, when the surviving veteran comes to pay his respects; the camera pans through the cemetery, across row upon row of perfectly…Read More
THE NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY
Anyone who’s seen Saving Private Ryan is familiar with the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. There’s that final scene, when the surviving veteran comes to pay his respects; the camera pans through the cemetery, across row upon row of perfectly aligned white crosses, intensely green grass, and reverent stillness.
I knew in advance what I’d see at Colleville-sur-Mer. I had all the facts at my fingertips: 9,386 graves at the site overlooking Omaha Beach; 172 acres of French soil granted in perpetuity to the United States.
But that had not prepared me in the slightest.
We have entered the zone of the American landings and American losses. Nowhere is this clearer than at the American Cemetery. This Thanksgiving Day, there are a surprising number of visitors, almost all American. Entire families have assembled to pay respect. Knots of people gather at individual graves, but others, like us, simply wander, bereft of speech or purpose. I’m struck by how pristine the graves are, how flawless the lawn, and how precisely deployed the marching rows of headstones. It is unmistakably a military cemetery.
Despite the open vastness of the grounds, everyone speaks in a whisper, as if in church. We walk to the focal point of the cemetery, the memorial featuring a bronze statue "The Sprit of American Youth Rising From The Waves." It’s flanked by two enormous maps of the European Theater of Operations (ETO). An elderly man stands with several younger men and points to one spot on the map, then another, perhaps indicating places he’d fought during the war.
The cemetery is ringed by a wall of dark evergreen trees. A long path through the trees runs parallel to the cliff edge. Walking down this path and then toward the beach, we find the viewing platform overlooking Omaha Beach. The 1st Division landed on this sector of the beach on D-Day, and it seems strange now to see nothing there but a placid ocean beyond a featureless spit of sand. It occurs to me that a good portion of the cemetery must stand on what were once German defenses. As I look down at the beach, I wonder if it is high or low tide.
The Allies, of course, had to land at low tide to avoid having their landing craft hit the mines and other obstacles which were concealed in the water at high tide. Since the beach shelf slopes very gradually, the difference between high and low tide amounts to several hundred yards more of beach to cross, perilous yards consuming precious minutes as the American troops were exposed to withering fire from German machine guns while attempting to reach the relative safety of the seawall.
I think of that fatal gauntlet, braved by men burdened with heavy equipment, as we leave the American Cemetery and head down to Omaha Beach.
"The enemy is at his weakest just after landing. The troops are unsure and possibly even seasick. They are unfamiliar with the terrain. Heavy weapons are not yet available in sufficient quantity. This is the moment to strike at them and defeat them." - Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
The American troops who came ashore at Omaha Beach had been assured of three things: That the German gun emplacements on the cliffs would be destroyed by a massive bombardment from the air and sea, that the ‘swimming’ DD (dual drive) tanks would swiftly knock out remaining artillery and machine guns, and that the German troops they faced on shore were not high grade.
None of this proved to be the case.
Air Force bombers, unable to accurately pinpoint objectives through dense cloud cover, bombarded areas far inland, leaving all the German guns intact. Almost all the specially-outfitted Sherman ‘DD’ tanks designed to swim ashore were caught by currents then swamped and sank as they attempted to correct course. And Allied intelligence had judged the German troops positioned at Omaha to be the less-than-half-strength 76th Infantry Division, consisting mostly of disheartened Poles and non-German troops. Instead, the Americans faced the combat-hardened 352nd Infantry Division, operating at full strength.
Casualties at Omaha Beach were greater than all the other four beaches combined – over 4,000 men. The overall survival rate was 1 in 9, but this is misleading, for the troops who came ashore later in the day suffered very light losses, whereas the nearly half the men who came ashore in the first wave were killed.
Huddling in their landing craft, the men in the first assault were wet, cold, and suffering from seasickness, yet they had little idea of the hellish prospect they faced. As they approached, it was strangely quiet as the Germans held fire until the landing craft were within range, then hit them with the full weight of their firepower. Company A of the 116th Regiment, ‘the Stonewall Brigade,’ lost over ninety percent of its men before managing to fire a single shot.
A high percentage of the men who were killed weren’t shot but drowned. Those who made it ashore faced a stretch of beach that was no more than a shooting gallery for the German machine gunners. It seemed, at first, hopeless, and in fact General Bradley, overseeing the battle plan offshore, considered aborting the plan to invade at Omaha and sendind incoming troops to Utah Beach instead.
Yet somehow the stunned and demoralized men at Omaha Beach began to coalesce and fight, forming ad hoc groups rallied by the surviving officers. "Two kinds of people are staying on this beach," bellowed Col. George Taylor, "the dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here."
Somehow, they got the hell out of there.
Down on Omaha Beach, it’s midway between high and low tide, though I’m unsure if the tide is coming in or going out. No one is around; it seems few of the visitors at the cemetery make the trek down to the beach. Jack and Greg have elected to stay in the car, once again humoring me as I take my time, slowly walking down the beach. Pebbles on the sand click together as they wash back and forth in the surf. I bend down and pick a few up. They’re unremarkable, like any other pebbles on any other beach, but I carefully brush them off. I put them in my pocket as I turn to walk back to the car.
MULBERRIESI am trying to explain to my son, with scant success, what a mulberry was, "mulberry" being the code name for artificial harbors constructed off the Normandy coast. "They deliberately sank old ships," I explain, "and flooded hollow concrete cubes with seawater to…Read More
MULBERRIESI am trying to explain to my son, with scant success, what a mulberry was, "mulberry" being the code name for artificial harbors constructed off the Normandy coast. "They deliberately sank old ships," I explain, "and flooded hollow concrete cubes with seawater to form a breakwater and pier."He’s having none of it. "So how does that make a harbor?" "Wait and see," I tell him. "One of the mulberries is still partially there."We’re on the D514 running parallel to Gold Beach, on our way to Arromanches. One of the most interesting things to me is the sheer logistical brilliance of the D-Day invasion. Starting with an elaborate deception campaign to mislead the German command into thinking that the Allies were planning to invade at Pas de Calais, the Allies also relied on the Germans expecting them to use a pre-existing harbor to stage an invasion. As a result, the harbors at Cherbourg, le Havre, and elsewhere were heavily defended. However, the Allies, who had learned at Dieppe the difficulty of gaining at foothold at a defended harbor, came up with another solution. Unbeknownst to the Germans, some 20,000 workers in British shipyards began working around the clock beginning in the summer of 1943, building more than 150 caissons which were later used to form two artificial harbors, "Mullberry A" in the American sector, and "Mulberry B" in the British. The project consumed over two million tons of steel and concrete and required huge numbers of tugboats to tow the Mulberries into position. Although Mulberry A was destroyed during a storm before it could be completed, Mulberry B was finished and provided an effective harbor. Remains of Mulberry B offshore at ArromanchesWe stop at the viewing table overlooking Arromanches, where we can clearly see remnants of Mulberry B offshore. More than 500,000 tons of equipment were unloaded here during the summer of 1944. From this vantage point we have a good view up and down the coast. Looking west are the cliffs housing the gun batteries at Longues-sur-Mer, a commanding position on this stretch of coastline. But the most striking things are two religious memorials nearby, one of the Virgin Mary atop an immense pedestal and the other a huge crucifix overlooking Arromanches beach. ARROMANCHES 360°While there is a D-Day museum in Arromanches, we’re pressed for time and elect instead to view the short 20-minute film, "The Price of Freedom," shown in the wrap-around Arromanches 360° cinema just a short distance from the viewing table. More intimate than the vast IMAX screens favored in the States, we stand in the center of the cinema and watch scenes unfold around us. Images are projected onto nine wraparound screens, producing the sense of being in rather than watching the action. The thing that impresses me most is the quality of the 1944 footage. For example, in one sequence, taken aboard a landing vehicle approaching the beach, we look all around us in a complete circle, viewing the men in the boat, the coastline, and the other landing craft. During a sequence showing tanks moving through village, the entire theater rumbles and vibrates with the sound of the engines. There is no narration or music, only sounds that would have been heard that day.Interspersed with the scenes of battle are images of the same areas taken recently. A meadow in 1944 strewn with bodies morphs into a pasture with grazing cows, or a view of a street lying in rubble changes into the same street today. It’s an extremely affecting film, particularly the images of the troops. We are so accustomed to seeing the romanticized Hollywood images of soldiers that it’s almost shocking to realize that these are the actual men who fought in Normandy.' My longsuffering fellow travelers seem to have appreciated the film, too. "That was great!" Greg says as we exit the cinema. It was the sequence with the Allied warships blasting away at the German bunkers on the coast that seems to have impressed him most. "Let me show you what those ships were firing at," I say as we head westward toward Longues-sur-Mer.LONGUES-SUR-MERBuilt on the cliff tops on the outskirts of Longues-sur-Mer, the Longues battery was a formidable component in the German defenses. Set in thick concrete housing, the 155-mm guns were able to fire over 25 kilometers out to sea. Even though the Allies pounded the battery during the aerial bombardment prior to the D-Day landings, the German guns inside the meter-thick concrete emplacements were barely scratched. The Germans began firing on several battleships before the HMS Ajax, positioned eleven kilometers offshore, engaged one gun in the battery in long ship-vs-cannon duel. Even though the battery was not destroyed, the pounding on the concrete housing was so intense that the German artillerymen eventually fled their posts. The Ajax managed to score a direct hit on one gun emplacement, apparently sending a shell through the slit in the fortification at a crucial moment when the gunners had opened the door to the magazine and were loading shells into the breech. The shell from the Ajax set off what must have been one helluva explosion; it threw up immense chunks of concrete and blew the entire roof off the emplacement. At the end of WWII, most Atlantic Wall defenses were dismantled, but the battery at Longues-sur-Mer was left intact. It is one of the few places visitors can get a sense of what Allied troops faced as they came ashore. Certainly my son and husband seem impressed; Greg explores the command bunker, with its meter-thick reinforced concrete walls, and sizes up the impressive 155-mm cannon.The fickle weather brings a sudden rain squall and we take refuge in one of the concrete emplacements. We share it with a British couple and begin chatting the way strangers do when thrown together. The rain subsides, but I linger in the concrete shelter for a moment, imagining what it was like to be a German artilleryman on the morning of June 6th, 1944. Later, I read the account of Major Werner Pluskat of the 352nd Artillery Division, in charge of the artillery at Arromanches. He was was in the observation post on the morning of June the 6th::"I picked up my artillery binoculars with amazement when I saw that the horizon was literally filling with ships of all kinds. I could hardly believe it. It seemed impossible to me that this vast fleet could have gathered without anyone being the wiser. I passed the binoculars to the man alongside me and said, ‘Take a look.’ He said, ‘My God, it’s the invasion."At that moment, Pluskat later recalled, he knew for a certainty that "this was the end for Germany." Close
RANVILLE CEMETERYIt is perhaps fitting that our first D-Day stop is at Ranville Cemetery, the final resting place of the first Allied soldier killed on D-Day. His name was Den Botheridge, and he was a member of the British 6th Airborne glider infantry, whose…Read More
RANVILLE CEMETERYIt is perhaps fitting that our first D-Day stop is at Ranville Cemetery, the final resting place of the first Allied soldier killed on D-Day. His name was Den Botheridge, and he was a member of the British 6th Airborne glider infantry, whose mission was to secure the two bridges linking Ranville to Bénouville, the major artery between Caen and the sea. (Map of the area.)Just after midnight on June 6th, 1944 three Horsa gliders landed silently just yards from the Caen canal bridge, an astonishing feat of flying accuracy. Within minutes, men from the "Oxs and Bucks" Regiment under the command of Major John Howard swarmed over the bridge, surprising the sleeping Germans. When the shooting stopped, Lt. Botheridge was found lying near a café on the far side of the bridge, lethally wounded. The doctor who treated him reported that Botheridge was "lying on his back looking up at the stars and looking terribly surprised, just surprised." He died before the doctor could dress his wounds.The cemetery at Ranville is deserted this November morning. My feet leave prints in the dew as I make my way along the long rows of graves. Most of the men buried here are British, many from the 6th Airborne, but there are a handful of Canadians and a few Germans as well. I read the headstones. Such British-sounding names: Algernon and Terrance; Ian and William. There’s a sheltered portal at the main entrance to the cemetery with a brass vault containing a thick visitor’s book. I read the hometowns of the visitors: Stoke-on-Trent and Norwich; Doncaster and Cheltenham. I make an entry, "from Washington, D.C." Beside the date, November 27th, I write "Thanksgiving Day," by way of cross-cultural clarification. OPERATION PEGASUSLeaving the cemetery, we drive the short distance to the museum housing artifacts from the daring British airborne assault. The bridge across the Caen canal was renamed "Pegasus Bridge" in honor of Operation Pegasus, the codename used for the plan use glider to land early and seize the bridges. Numerous roads in the area also bear the name of D-Day heroes, while the village of Colleville-sur-Mer was renamed Colleville-Montgomery.The 6th Airborne Museum (Mémorial Pégasus) on "Avenue du Major Howard" is relatively new, as is the bridge which is now used to cross the canal. The original bridge sits on the lawn outside the museum, the flags of the six armies, which fought in Normandy snapping in the breeze above it. There are plaques where each o the gliders landed, as well a series of markers for the Pegasus Trail, a walking tour of sites associated with the 6th Airborne. The new bridge over the Caen canalAfter Howard’s men captured the bridge shortly after midnight, they had been instructed to "hold until relieved." Other gliders and parachutists were landing, but they had separate objectives, such as destroying the battery at Merville. Howard’s men were under heavy rifle, rocket, and mortar fire from the German garrison in Bénouville. It was almost two o’clock in the afternoon when the besieged men at the bridge heard the skirl of bagpipes in the distance. It was piper Bill Millen, coming down the road with Lord Lovat and his commandos. He was playing Blue Bonnets over the Border to make sure the men of the Oxs and Bucks didn’t mistake the approaching commandos for the enemy. The troops who had landed at Sword Beach were at last linking up with the airborne men holding the bridges. Jack and Greg express impatience at the prospect of visiting the museum, so I content myself by looking at the original bridge and a few of the memorials nearby. We drive across the new bridge to Café Gondrée, the first building in France liberated by the Allies. The Gondrée family still operates the café, which serves as a sort of informal museum with memorabilia displayed on the walls. Unfortunately, it wasn’t yet open. I would have liked to meet descendents of Madam Gondrée, who passed key information about the bridge to the Resistance, or Georges Gondrée, who broke out his reserve of champagne on June 6th to serve it to the liberators.However, I know the day will be short and we have barely begun our pilgrimage. Regrettably, there’s no time to linger at the café until it opens. We bundle back into the car and head for Sword Beach.SWORD BEACHApproaching Ouistreham, we’re surprised at how tidy and prosperous the town looks. Although this is an historic area, commerce marches on: the valuable beachfront has sprouted countless holiday cottages and villas, while the fishing port of Ouistreham goes about its business. I get out and walk a section of the Sword Beach, a broad, flat swath of burnt orange sand dotted with bathing huts. It’s hard to believe that this area was once fortified to within an inch of its life, with anti-tank ditches, ‘dragon’s teeth’, enormous concrete walls, tetrahedrons, tank traps, and mines. A bunker armed with cannon was placed every 100 meters along the 8-kilometer-long beach, though the main defense came from 75- and 155-mm guns positioned further away. It was a formidable section of ‘the Atlantic wall’ devised by Rommel to keep the Allies from advancing inland. Here at 7:30 on June 6th, the first British troops arrived with specialized tanks, nicknamed "Hobart’s Funnies". Equipped with floatation devices, the Sherman and Churchill tanks swam ashore bearing an astonishing array of specialized equipment. There were tanks with mine-clearing flails mounted in front of them, tanks with ramps and bundles to go over or fill anti-tank ditches, bulldozer tanks to clear paths. There were even assault bridges mounted on tanks, enabling them to span gaps of up to 30 feet. "Hobart’s Funnies" were a triumph of ingenuity over seemingly insurmountable obstacles, clearing paths and allowing troops to get off the beach. As we drive along the D514 coastal road toward Lagrune-sur-Mer, we see monument after monument, each commemorating a regiment or particular event. I begin to suffer from ‘monument overload,’ but we stop at Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer to get a closer look at the remains of a bunker.It is at this point that my 13-year-old son finally expresses enthusiasm about the day’s proceedings. Monuments he’s seen out the whazoo in Washington, but the chance to clamber over an enormous concrete bunker was something else again. To my eye, bunkers are squat, evil-looking things, but to his they are miniature fortresses. I think to myself, ‘Wait till he gets to the gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer. He’ll be in hog heaven.’ JUNO BEACHThe morning fog has given way to a piercing blue sky with banks of purple-tinged clouds scudding swiftly inland from the sea. We’ve reached the Canadian sector, Juno Beach, where we make a stop at the Juno Beach Centre, just opened in June of 2003. The metal façade of the new complex gleams in the sunlight. Rows of pentagonal-shaped stele inscribed with the names of the Canadian combatants stand in front of the center. Juno Beach CentreWe go in and approach the front desk, where a movie-star-handsome young man is conversing with a visitor in rapid French. When I address him, he switches to English spoken with an unmistakable American accent. Ah yes, the bilingual Canadians; so useful now, as they were sixty years ago. French villagers near Juno Beach were astonished to be hailed in their native tongue when the 3rd Infantry Division and 2nd Armoured Brigade came ashore. The Canadian D-Day force consisted entirely of volunteers, anxious to avenge the terrible losses suffered two years earlier at Dieppe, where 3379 Canadians were lost out of force of 5000. The soldiers who came ashore at Juno Beach were magnificently trained: former lumberjacks, farmers, fishermen, and other tough outdoorsmen spoiling for a fight. Germany’s 716th Division was no match for them. Outside the Juno Beach Centre once again, the weather has dramatically changed. The sky over the channel is dark with an approaching storm, but still the areas inland are bathed in sunlight. I walk toward the beach, drawn to the sight of the angry purple sky over the slate blue sea. An enormous double-barred Lorraine cross, symbol of the French resistance, holds a lonely vigil on the edge of the beach. The approaching storm makes it easier to imagine what took place here sixty years ago. As I stand gazing out to sea, a rainbow forms at the edge of the dark bank of incoming clouds. By sunset on D-Day, the Canadians had progressed further into France than any other force, facing opposition stronger than any save at Omaha Beach. The men who’d waded ashore that morning, spoiling for a fight, had found one. Close
Written by bdxtremeone on 02 Apr, 2008
OMAHA BEACHIf you’re very fond of war movies and watched “Saving Private Ryan” or played “Call of Duty 2” then you definitely know about the battle that happened on this beach. The Allied forces invaded Normandy on June 6 1944, a day referred to as…Read More
OMAHA BEACHIf you’re very fond of war movies and watched “Saving Private Ryan” or played “Call of Duty 2” then you definitely know about the battle that happened on this beach. The Allied forces invaded Normandy on June 6 1944, a day referred to as D-Day.I was standing by the water, trying to picture myself as a German soldier and seeing thousands of troops invading you from the sea. From here you can still see some of the turrets, canons that the Germans used during that battle. Some were very well hidden inside hills and were hard to pin point.POINTE DU HOCThis was a pretty cool hill. From here you could actually see Omaha Beach and Utah Beach below. During the war, the US soldiers use this base as a point of attack since the Germans were able to use this site to bomb soldiers that were coming from beaches.It was a high climb but once I got to the top, it was all worth it. First thing I noticed were the German gun posts that were still somewhat intact. These soldiers would apparently crouch under their post to hide their position from airborne attacks and shoot at Allied soldiers from afar.AMERICAN CEMETERYThis cemetery is actually directly above Omaha Beach so instead of riding in the taxi, I decided to walk there and enjoy the sites.The American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer was surreal. Before this trip I can admit that I was very uneducated about the specifics that actually took place in Normandy during this war but when I started to see the endless rows of cross or statue of David (for Jewish American Soldiers) + the names of all those that didn’t make it back home… There was a wall with over 10,000 names on it of soldiers that either died or not accounted for after the battle. It filled me with sorrow at first but that quickly turned into admiration and complete respect for all those that went to serve there country in times of war and unrest. I probably spent a good hour just walking around and reading the names of those that had fallen. I think every American should visit this place one day if they could because it makes all the other troubles in life seem so trivia and there is some feeling of peace & tranquility when you walk through this place. Close