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This year, 2009, we decided to make a family trip to Normandy during the 6 June celebrations. We travelled by car to Dover then by Ferry to Calais and down the coast road to Normandy. The trip took us through some beautiful countryside and past Le Havre where we crossed the superb Normandy bridge. Although it costs €5.00 to go over the bridge, it is well worth the cost for such a marvellous spectacle.
Our holiday home was situated just off Utah beach in a pleasant but roomy villa that easily housed the 9 in our group.
The Utah Beach Museum sits in-front of an original cafe that also incorporates a German concrete bunker at the rear and is the site of a memorial to the members of the Allied forces who lost their lives during the D-Day landings.
Around the corner from our villa was one of the many monuments to individuals whose heroic actions have afforded them a lasting memory and for whom the local roads have been re-named in their honour. The pictures here show a returning veteran being greeted by military and civilians alike in thanks for the great part he and his comrades had played in the liberation of Europe.
Outside on the beach, a couple of enterprising artists created this fantastic sand sculpture in honour of the veterans.
Our first visit took us to Arromanches where the British built a floating port based on enormous concrete Mulberry and Phoenix caissons and a massive array of pontoons and causeway sections in order to provide a deep harbour for the re-supply of the Allied invasion forces. The construction of the port is demonstrated in superb detail in the museum, which includes film and animated models to show how the whole structure was created, assembled and used. This concept had first been voiced by Winston Churchill just after the Battle of Britain, to develop and build a floating port that could be towed across to France to support the eventual invasion of Europe. Since that initial statement of requirement, countless man-hours and funding were expended on the design, development and production of millions of tons of floating port equipment and defences that would eventually be towed into place in 1944. The harbour was intended to provide only a temporary facility until the port of Cherbourg could be captured and turned over to Allied operations. However, just a short time after its creation, the harbour was hit by a violent storm from 19-21 June 44, which all but destroyed a similar installation built by the Americans on Omaha Beach. However, the breakwater of sunken ships and mulberry units managed to protect the British harbour and despite needing some repairs, the port stayed in action throughout the period and became the single point of entry for all Allied equipment. The picture below shows some of the remaining small pontoon floats that supported the ends of the floating causeway sections linking the unloading docks to the beach and allowing vehicles to drive off the ships directly to the shore. The British laid many miles of these floating roads and docks including a massive breakwater to shelter the dock area. Yet little remains today as a reminder of this fantastic feat of engineering, organisation and willpower.
The Pegasus bridge represented a vital target that had to be secured by British paratroopers early in the operation in order to provide a means of passing heavy vehicles out of the landing area and on to their first objective Caen. The capture of the bridge featured in the film "The Longest Day". The original Pegasus bridge has now been replaced and the original is now in a museum which depicts the capture of the bridge and includes one of the Horsa gliders used to transport troops to the site.
The American Cemetery at Omaha beach is a beautiful peaceful site where 9,386 American servicemen are buried and with a Garden to commemorate the passing of a further 1557 missing. The cemetery has a splendid visitor centre that provided information, backgrounds and personal reflection from family and friends of those who gave their lives. The photos show the cemetery and the monument which also includes a representation of the allied movements from D Day to the end of the war in Europe.
Pointe Du Hoc
Pointe du Hoc was the site of a massive German gun emplacement that provided a commanding view of the Allied and the invasion beaches. The need to neutralize the German artillery was a top priority for the Allied forces and so 2 battalions of Rangers under 116 Infantry Regiment 29 Division were sent to assault the Point. The force failed to find the base of the cliffs and instead were in plain view to the enemy fire whilst they made their way along the base of the cliffs to Pointe du Hoc. Having reached the correct spot, they then scaled almost vertical 90 foot cliffs using grappling hooks and ladders whilst under fire and grenade attack from above. Despite a nearly impossible task, the Rangers gained the top of the cliffs and then captured and disabled the guns. However, the force remained cut off and had to hold their position for the next 2 days before they could be relieved. A force of 225 Rangers went into the assault and only 90 survived, many of them wounded.
Saint Marie Du Monte
Sainte Marie du Monte lays claim to being one of the first villages to be liberated on D Day, being only a few kilometres from Utah beach and being within the American para-troop drop-zone. The village was quite small but boasts a lovely church and a quaint village square. We went to the local restaurant 'L'Estaminet' for two family nights out and enjoyed excellent meals and great service.
Sainte Mare Eglise
The village of Sainte Mare Eglise is well known for its role in "The Longest Day" and the story of the American paratrooper whose parachute, affected by freak winds, got caught up on the church tower. The unfortunate trooper hung for hours on the tower and played dead. He was even shot in the foot by a passing German soldier. After hours in this position, he was eventually recognised and taken prisoner, however, his imprisonment was short lived when the German forces were quickly overrun by the invading Allied forces from Utah beach. Sainte Mare Eglise offers a beautiful French village with a traditional church in the village square surrounded by many traditional shops, cafes and bars. There are also shops selling both original and replica equipment and uniforms most favoured by re-enactors. The village also boasts an excellent museum containing many examples of equipment, uniforms and vehicles used during the Allied landings.
Vierville Sur Mere
The Omaha Beach D-Day Museum is at Vierville on the western end of Omaha Beach and although small, it includes many excellent examples of Allied and Axis equipment. The most interesting items for me included the ENIGMA coding machine, used for encrypting German radio messages; the mini motor cycle in its parachute capsule, used by paratroopers to cover more ground when dropping into their war zone; and the high frequency X Ray transmitter, which was used to power a field X Ray system.
Of particular interest were these letters
After visiting the museum we walked down a steep road to the village on the beach where a ceremony was in progress and veterans of the 29th Division recalled their experiences of D-Day. It was a joy and a privilege to see these characters so full of life and energy describing their particular part in the operation, how hard it had been and how overwhelming the odds. But all this was wrapped by humour and comradeship. The village was also playing host to a convoy of re-enactors and the following photos show some of the excellent vehicles on display that day.
We went to visit the Ranger museum in Grandcamp-Maisy but we arrived at 1215 just as the museum closed for lunch. Only the French would close the museum for lunch during the week of the 6 June celebrations !. The museum didn't re-open until 14.00hrs so we gave it a miss and visited the port where we found a monument to the RAF. However, this monument only mentioned the French Squadrons that took part in the liberation.
Dead Man's Corner - Carentan
The museum at Dead Man's Corner is small but is extremely well presented. The house had originally been occupied by the Axis forces to control the road into Carenten, and a fierce battle was fought to take the position away from the Germans. Inside, the first scenes depict the German control post and the first aid station that had existed during the worst of the fighting. Upstairs, the museum is cleverly made up to look like the inside of a tank or some military vehicle and its depicts the stories and artefacts of many heroes including Dick Winters from the "Band of Brothers". Dead Man's Corner derives its name from a destroyed American tank in which the dead commander could still be seen sitting in the turret and which had served as a landmark for many of the advancing Allied forces who had to make their way past this crucial junction. Finally, the museum boasts one of the best shops for replica and original materiel from the second world war and is well worth a visit.
German Cemetery - La Cambe
The German cemetery lying alongside the main N13 route near La Cambe, is the resting place for 21,222 Axis troops who died during the fighting in 1944. The cemetery is one of the most peaceful places we visited in Normandy and its understated grace and beauty exemplify the respect given to these unfortunates who died in defence of a corrupt and soon to be defeated regime. Despite the horrors of war and the death and destruction wrought to both sides, veterans today meet and greet each other as old friends and put behind them the pain and torment of those terrible days when Europe was finally liberated. The visitor centre provides many interesting and moving personal accounts of the people and events of 1944. The Centre also provides computer systems that allow people to trace where family and friends appeared in the original records from the time, helping people to finally discover the fate of lost relatives and loved ones. Although sad to witness the waste of young lives, the German Cemetery is a recommended visit which helps to put in perspective a sometimes one-sided view that we 'British' often hold of the D-Day events.
In the next part of our Normandy visit we took a
trip up to the north end of Utah beach.
Along the way we passed the Utah Beach museum and memorial which commemorated the sacrifice made by the American forces that landed there in 1944.
Further up the beach road, we discovered a monument commemorating the place where the French 2nd Armoured Division under General Leclerc had landed.
Travelling further up the coast we found the Occupation Museum at Quinéville. The museum provided an illuminating insight into life in France during the German occupation and the rule of the Vichy government under General Petain. It included everyday scenes of shops and small businesses as well as much of the publicity that was given to encourage the French to cooperate with the German occupiers. Of most interest was the scheme that promised to free one French POW for every 3 French workers that volunteered to go to work in Germany. The scheme did not meet with much success and so eventually the Vichy Government imposed a forced labour law to send skilled workers to Germany against their will. The museum included scenes, artefacts, lots of clear information and a great cinema showing original footage from the 1940s. It is well worth the time for a visit.
German Gun Batteries
Our next stop was the artillery battery at Crisbecq. This was a major installation built on high ground to provide complete coverage of the the beaches and sea approaches in the Channel. The battery consisted of a series of concrete bunkers that were interlinked to provide gun positions, armouries and accommodation for up to 400 troops. The site had been an overgrown woodland up until a few years ago, when enthusiasts bought the site and then excavated the bunkers and equipment that lay buried beneath the ground. The site was built from tons of steel and concrete installed by forced labour. The coverage of the guns was divided into areas that were given names and each of these names were painted on the surrounding channel for each gun turret allowing the guns to be swung quickly onto the correct azimuth to counter any threat.
The gun emplacement shown on the left had been partially destroyed when US engineers piled ammunition in a small room at the rear and set off an enormous explosion. The blast lifted the concrete roof which then fell back almost into place, whilst at the same time killing and injuring many of the engineers who had underestimate the size and violence of the blast.
Continuing on our way, we arrived at an even larger battery at Azeville, however, the museum and layout of the site were much better developed and provided an excellent opportunity to learn about the life and operation of the unit and the people in it. The tour began with a cinema presentation of 1940s footage and then audio guides explained each stage of the journey as we walked through the fortified connecting tunnels that covered the site. Different bunkers were laid out with scenes and information to explain the different specialist uses for each.
One of the gun bunkers had received a direct hit from a Naval artillry shell, which entered through the open front of the gun emplacement and broke through into a room at the rear where it killed the off duty gun crew. The shell then smashed through the rear wall of the bunker and ended up embedded in the ground without exploding. All of the damage caused tot he emplacement had been caused by the kinetic energy of the shell.
Sainte Marie Du Mont
Returning to Sainte Marie Du Mont, we visited an excellent museum off the village square which was had been used as the German administrative headquarters up to the invasion and then later used as an Allied command post in the 6 months following D Day. The museum is well worth a visit just to see how the occupation affected the lives of normal civilians in France and within its rooms you can see original wall paintings made by the German soldiers.
This concludes our recollections of our Normandy trip and we hope it
provides a little information and insight into what we had learned and
all felt was an enormously important episode in world history. We
found it both humbling and exciting to realise what our ancestors had
achieved and sacrificed in the name of liberty.
We should never forget that this did happen and could happen again should we fail to maintain our sense of right and honour.
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