Travelers who love history can re-live one of the key sites of World War II in Normandy, France. Allied troops crossed the English Channel and landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944. A river cruise down the Seine from Paris or an ocean cruise porting in Le Havre or Honfleur is perfect for visiting the Normandy beaches of France. This article describes a typical shore excursion from either a river or ocean cruise.
On the way to the D-Day beaches, you cross the Normandy Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world. It goes over the Seine River near where it pours into the English Channel. This river is the same one that flows through Paris but is much larger since Paris is over three hours upstream.
One of the first stops is at the Pegasus Bridge, the first site to be liberated by the Allies during the June 6, 1944, invasion. The bridge is located at Benouville near Ouistreham. It took the Allies only 10 minutes to take the Pegasus Bridge, and they used gliders. The invasion started at midnight on June 6.
The Allies needed another six weeks to capture nearby Caen on the Orne River. The Pegasus Bridge was rebuilt several years ago because it was too low for today's trucks. The new bridge is a replica of the original, only larger. The original was moved away from the small Caen Canal it crosses and sits on land next to the Pegasus Bridge museum.
On the two-hour drive to the bridge from Le Havre, guides provide many facts about D-Day and what the invasion meant to the French and to the War. They also give some of the flavors of the Normandy area. Those who have seen the D-Day movie The Longest Day will recognize that this movie was fairly accurate in its portrayal of the events of June 6.
It's a good idea to watch the movie before your visit to Normandy.
Normandy, like much of the rest of France, is famous for its cuisine. Two of its food products are very interesting. First, Normandy is colder than the rest of France, and grapes don't grow well. However, apples do, and the French make both cider and an apple brandy called Calvados in Normandy. The cider is only about three percent alcohol and is like a sweet beer. The Calvados is very strong and is said to make a "Norman hole" in your stomach. It is customary to drink Calvados during the two-day celebration at Norman weddings that consist of almost non-stop eating. According to legends, the Calvados is needed to bore a hole in your stomach so you can eat more!
One Normandy dish people either love or hate is tripe à la mode de Caen. This dish is made by layering onions and carrots on the bottom of a casserole, then adding a halved steer's foot with its meat, on top of which is laid beef tripe (intestines), garlic, leeks, and herbs. This concoction is covered with apple cider and -- since Caen is a city in Normandy -- finished with a shot of Calvados. The casserole is then sealed with a paste of flour and water and baked for 10 to 12 hours.
Finally, it is served cold in its terrine.
The term D-Day is the first day of any military operation and is used by military planners for coordination purposes. The Normandy beaches are located 110 miles from England, compared to 19 at the closest crossing point near Calais. The Germans had all of the ports along the English Channel very closely guarded, so the Allies chose to have the major part of the invasion down the Normandy coast. Tours drive along the coast on the way to Arromanches.
All of the beaches look so peaceful, it is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for the soldiers and residents of the area during the invasion.
Eisenhower wanted a low tide, a full moon, and good weather for the landing. Therefore, those requirements limited the invasion to only three days per month. The Allies left England on June 5, but had to turn back because of bad weather. June 6 was not much better, but Eisenhower gave the go-ahead. Interestingly enough, General Rommel of Germany took June 6 off and went to Germany to see his wife because it was her birthday. He didn't think the Allies would try to invade France in such bad weather!
After driving past the three beaches (Sword, Gold, and Juno) invaded by the two British divisions totaling 30,000 soldiers and the Canadian division, you speed through some of the charming Normandy villages full of narrow streets and flowers before arriving at Arromanches, site of an engineering marvel--the artificial harbor.
After a scenic drive along the Normandy coast, the small museum might be the first stop. It has interesting to hear and read facts about the artificial harbor built at Arromanches in the first days after the invasion. Although many who are not history buffs have never heard of this engineering feat, it is fascinating, especially since it was built in 1944.
Winston Churchill had the foresight to recognize the need for the creation of an artificial harbor in Normandy. He knew that the thousands of troops landing on the beaches of France could only carry enough supplies (food, bullets, fuel, etc.) for a few days. Since the Allies were not planning to invade any of the major existing ports on the northern coast of France, the troops would suffer without the reinforcement of supplies. Therefore, engineers took Churchill's concept and built huge concrete blocks that would be used to create the docks needed for the port. Because of the secrecy required, workers in England built the giant blocks without even knowing what they were!
The museum sits right on the beach at Arromanches, and by looking out the windows that go all the way across the museum's beachside, you can still see the remains of part of the artificial harbor. Many of the huge concrete pieces were used elsewhere after the War, but enough are left to get a sense of how the harbor looked. The museum also has a short movie and several models and diagrams of the construction of the harbor.
More than just the floating blocks were needed to create the artificial port and harbor. In the first days after the invasion, the Allies sunk several old ships to make a breakwater.
Then the blocks built in England were towed across the English Channel to Arromanches where they were assembled into the artificial harbor. The port was operational soon after the invasion.
Arromanches was not the only artificial harbor built by the Allies. Two harbors were originally constructed and were named Mulberry A and Mulberry B. The harbor at Arromanches was Mulberry B, while Mulberry A was near Omaha Beach where the American forces landed. Unfortunately, just a few days after the harbors were built, a major storm struck. The harbor at Mulberry A was completely destroyed, and Mulberry B was severely damaged. After the storm, all of the Allies had to use the harbor at Arromanches. The harbors were named "Mulberry" because the mulberry plant grows so fast!
After walking around the small town and having lunch, you board the bus for the trip to the American beaches and cemetery.
The American Cemetery and the Normandy beaches invaded by the American forces are both moving and inspiring. The beaches that Eisenhower chose for the Americans to land were much different than those to be taken by the English and Canadians. Instead of flat lands, the wide Omaha and Utah beaches ended in steep cliffs, causing many more casualties for the American troops. Many of us have seen these cliffs in movies and film clips, but can't really imagine the horror the soldiers felt when they saw them for the first time from the sea.
Over 2,000 Americans died on bloody Omaha Beach alone.
The American Cemetery at Colleville Saint Laurent is impressive as you walk in awe among the Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David markers. Seeing so many young men's graves, most dated during the summer of 1944, is moving for all who are there. The cemetery overlooks part of Omaha Beach and is high up on the cliff with a beautiful view of the English Channel. The immaculate cemetery is maintained by the U.S. Government.
A monument on the grounds of the cemetery contains a statue honoring the dead and diagrams and maps of the invasion. There is also a beautiful garden and the Tablets of the Missing--a list of all of the soldiers missing in action similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. Two graves of the Niland brothers, a family whose story is memorialized in the movie "The Saving of Private Ryan" are easily found. President Theodore Roosevelt's son is also buried at Colleville Saint Laurent, although he did not die during the Normandy invasion.
After spending about an hour at the cemetery, guests board the bus and drive the short distance to the last stop, Pointe du Hoc. This high cliff overlooking the sea still has many remains from the War, and Pointe du Hoc was an important landing site for the Americans. Sources had told the Allies this point was an important battery with many guns and stored ammunition.
The Allies sent 225 Army Rangers to scale the cliffs and take the Pointe. Only 90 survived. Interestingly, some of the source information was flawed. The German guns were not on the Pointe, they had been moved inland and were in firing position prepared to decimate American troops landing on Omaha and Utah Beaches. The Rangers that landed on the Pointe quickly moved inland and were able to destroy the guns before the Germans could put them into action. Had the Americans not landed on the Pointe, it would have been much later in the day (if at all) before any troops could have taken on the German position, by which time more American troops, ships and landing vessels could have been targeted, potentially threatening the success of the landings across the entire American sector, and therefore the success of the entire operation.
Pointe du Hoc looks much like it must have in the years immediately following the war. Many bunkers remain, and you can see holes where shells exploded. The ground is very uneven, and visitors are told to stay on the paths to avoid sprained ankles or worse. Children were playing in the old bunkers, and many of them were connected by a series of underground tunnels.
Tours only stay at Pointe du Hoc for a short time, but that is ample time to get a sense of the fierceness of the battle there.
The only really bad part of the day comes at the end. The 2.5-hour non-stop ride back to the ship seems longer than the outbound trip. Many might nap fitfully on the return drive back to the ship, either because they cannot get comfortable in the cramped seats or because of the memorable day they had experienced on the Normandy Beaches.