One of the reasons we chose the Normandy region for our last week in France was to visit the D-Day and WWII sites and museums. We decided the best way to see as many sites as possible would be to take a guided tour. Leave the driving to the professionals. Plus, our guide (P?) added a lot of information and insights that we would have missed doing this on our own.
We did some prep work watching “The Longest Day,” “D-Day at Ponte du Hoc,” and episodes 2 and 3 of “Band of Brothers.” Our tour took us to many of the places featured in those films and it was interesting to look over the ledge at Ponte-du-Hoc and walk on the beaches.
The Beaches – Omaha and Utah
Our first stop was Omaha Beach. There’s not much left there to indicate this was a battlefield. It’s a long, empty beach. I don’t know if the French protected this area from development because of the history or environmental conservation, but I’m glad it wasn’t wall-to-wall condos and kitschy shops.
Utah beach, has many more statues and remnants of the battle. There is also a museum at Utah, but we did not go in.
On to the Cliffs of Ponte-du-Hoc
I hadn’t remembered much about Ponte-du-Hoc before we started planning this tour. It’s an amazing story and if you want to know more, the documentary, “D-Day at Ponte-du-Hoc” is currently available on Amazon Prime. The short version of the story is that American Second Ranger Battalion scaled the 110-foot cliffs and destroyed six German artillery pieces that could have fired on the American landing troops at Omaha and Utah beaches. At the end of the two-day action, the initial Ranger landing force of 225+ down to about 90 fighting men.
The German bunkers are still there, the ground uneven from the pre-attack shelling. The French added a monument to the Rangers, in the form of a large stone dagger.
The inscription at the base is in French and English:
TO THE HEROIC RANGER COMMANDOEShttps://www.uswarmemorials.org/html/monument_details.php?SiteID=553&MemID=829
D 2 RN, E 2 RN, F 2 RN
OF THE 116TH INF
WHO UNDER THE COMMAND OF
COLONEL JAMES E. RUDDER
OF THE FIRST AMERICAN DIVISION
ATTACKED AND TOOK POSSESSION OF
THE POINTE DU HOC
Sainte-Mère-Église and the Airborne Museum
If you watched “The Longest Day” or “Band of Brothers” you may remember Sainte-Mère-Église. Private John Steele (Red Buttons in the movie) got hung up on the steeple for hours before finally being captured. The church is still there, complete with a dummy hanging from the rooftop. (Our guide told us the actual paratrooper was on the opposite side of the church, but the dummy is more visible to the square from this angle.)
The village has preserved the area around the church and welcomed the Airborne Museum. This museum is dedicated to the American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne involved in the D-Day invasion and subsequent battles.
They have a Waco glider (so small!) and a C-47 along with many other artifacts and paraphernalia used by the paratroopers. The museum loans you a computer tablet that let you play videos as you go through the exhibits. I good use of technology, I think.
A Walk Through the American Cemetery
The Normandy American Cemetery has been featured in many films; the rows of white crosses and Stars of David are well-known. Walking through the ranks of more than 9,000 white headstones is sobering. I hope that anyone visiting Normandy takes the opportunity to visit this place and reflect on the staggering loss.
This was not the first resting place for these men. On D-Day and in the following weeks, the military used temporary burial places. Our group drove by one of the markers for these de-commissioned sites.
Mark and I were struck once again at the great care and honor that the French people continue to pay to the WWII Allies. We didn’t visit any of the Canadian or British sites, but I expect the same attitude would be found there as well.
Ending on a Heartwarming Note
The small medieval church in Angoville-au-Plain is home to a wonderful story of two American medics, Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore, of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. This very tiny village was the site of fierce fighting on D-Day. The church itself went back and forth from the control of the Germans and Americans. Wright and Moore carried on, treating the wounded from both sides.
Today, there still isn’t much to see other than the church, the graveyard, and the markers honoring these two heroes. Well worth stopping in to hear the full story and see the church.
Next Year a Big Event
In 2024, the Normandy area will commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Plans are underway to make this a huge event along the entire coastline, including Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Gold Beach, Juno Beach and Sword Beach. They are promising parachuting, parades, drone flyovers, fireworks and more.