Sunday, September 30, 2018

Travelogue: Normandy Beaches

I just finished Stephen Ambrose's magnificent D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, and thought it appropriate that I incorporate it into my post on visiting the Normandy Beaches in August.

After Mont St Michel, we drove across the Cotentin peninsula to the Normandy beaches, where we would spend three nights in the lovely little fishing village of Port-en-Bessein, which will be getting its own post later on, and is between Omaha and Gold beaches.

We stopped enroute at Utah Beach, the westernmost part of the D-Day landings because our tour the next day didn't include it and we wanted to see it. We didn't have time to visit the museum, but instead opted to sit on the beach and eat the sandwiches we picked up in Mont St Michel and enjoy the beauty of the place.

A very striking monument at Utah beach, showing a replica of a Higgins boat.
The next day we did two tours with Bayeux Shuttle -- the morning focused on the British beaches and cemeteries, and the afternoon focused on the American beaches, ending with a visit to the American cemetery. I'm usually not one for tours, but I felt that this would really be the best way to get to the most interesting sites and get good info from an expert. 

The tours were both fantastic--definitely the right choice. In the morning, my husband and I were the only ones on the tour, so we had the very personable and knowledgeable guide all to ourselves. We got to ask loads of questions, and he gave us a first rate intro to D-Day. In the afternoon, the American tour had about a dozen people and so was less personal but still excellent.

We started at Longues Sur Mer and I got my first view of the German pillboxes, or batteries that shelled the beaches on D-Day.  The ground around was cratered by the aerial bombing that the Allies did leading up to D-Day, and it was eerie to walk inside and stand behind the guns.

We also visited the town of Arromanches (Gold Beach), and I was absolutely fascinated by the remains of "Port Winston," which was a Mulberry (or temporary) harbor that the Allies constructed  since there isn't a natural harbor in the immediate area.

Arromanches, Gold Beach - absolutely lovely, would love to return and spend some time here.

WWII remnants- full disclosure, my husband photoshopped the people out of this image. 
We ended our morning with a visit to one of many British cemeteries, which included casualties from Great Britain as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and also German troops. Not a lot, but some. Unlike the American cemetery, the gravestones are not uniform, and family members were able to add a few words (usually scripture or poetry) to the vital information. 

Ryes British War Cemetery
In the afternoon, we visited Pointe du Hoc, a cliff overlooking the beach, and then Omaha Beach. Omaha is a spectacularly beautiful beach, and since we visited on a hot August day, it was crowded with people playing in the surf and sun. Our guide made a point of saying that while sometimes visitors are a bit shocked that people are playing where so many thousands died, it is a fitting tribute to the cause for which they died that the beach can today be enjoyed by everyone.

Memorial at Omaha Beach with people photoshopped out.
We ended the day at the exquisite American cemetery, where we observed the flag ceremony at the end of the day, which was very moving.

During our morning tour, I asked the guide for a book recommendation and his number 1 choice was D-Day by Stephen Ambrose. It was absolutely excellent, with most of the narrative being snippets of interviews the author conducted with veterans of the landing. The stories they told surpass anything that a novelist could create and reading their words was inspiring, chilling, and incredibly moving. Ambrose did an first-rate job of putting the invasion into context--from the massive preparation, including years of training and scouting right up to the last minute--as well as his own analysis of why it succeeded, what the Allies did right and what the Nazis did wrong. 

I was so glad that I was able to visit Normandy before reading the book as the place names and geography and feel of the land and sea helped me better understand the stories that the soldiers told of their experiences.


  1. You visited such an important place. Thanks for sharing these pictures. The Ambrose book sounds impressive. When I was younger I read a lot of World War Two history. I think that it is time that I read more.

  2. So cool that you got to visit all these places! Your photos are awesome.

  3. Lovely post Jane! I too went to many of these same sites this summer in late June. We also were on a tour which was quite informative. The beaches, the Mulberries, the cemeteries, the batteries, Pointe du Hoc, and Arromanches -- the whole trip was fascinating. I have not read Ambrose's D-Day yet, but you have given me inspiration to do so. It was a very memorable trip for us, going with my 80+ year old parents.

  4. A good and poignant visit. The photos are wonderful. I'm not one for tours either and used to go round museums quietly, but recently I've started asking room guides questions when it's not busy and it really adds to the experience.

  5. Hi Jane,
    This sounds as though it was a most comprehensive tour of key sites of the beaches and environs as they relate to D-Day. Ken and have contemplated doing our own WWII tour of Europe, but I think at this point, doing it all ourselves would be a stretch. Maybe a tour would be the answer.
    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about each site.
    Our contemplated trips included Normandy beaches, Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam, the biggest sites of the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, where my uncle fought, the key sites in Berlin, and Auschwitz, with hopefully a journey to the totally resurrected, completely destroyed by war city of Dresden.
    Have you visited Berlin? I'm not sure I've been reading your blog long enough to know that. I'd be very keen to spend a week there I think.

    1. Jane, please forgive me, I have numerous typos in this post. Sorry!

  6. What an interesting day!

  7. We made a similar trip a couple of years ago. My husband knows a lot about D-Day so he was my tour guide. I really didn't understand the scope and the planning that went into it until we spent a couple of days seeing the beaches and the great museums. It sounds like you had a fantastic trip, thanks for sharing!

  8. We used this same tour company last year when we visited Normandy! They were great! I'm usually a go at it myself person, bit have found that specialized tours like these really help me learn more and I get way more out of them than I would on it own. My husband's a history teacher and he got a lot of things he can use in his classroom.