Every American would be well served to visit Normandy, the site of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. It’s been cinematized in The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, and Band of Brothers, but being there is entirely different. Our country paid a high price for the freedom we enjoy, and too many of us take it for granted.
Combined with a business trip to London, it was fairly simple to extend my trip with a short visit to Normandy. It was a two-hour train ride from Waterloo Station to Portsmouth Harbour, where I embarked via Brittany Ferries across the English Channel to Caen. The route from Portsmouth Harbour was the identical one taken by 150,000 troops 71 years ago, on June 6 and 7, 1944, although I’m betting that my first-class accommodations were much more comfortable than theirs.
The Amarique ferry was more like a floating hotel: there were movies, bingo games, cafeteria-style restaurant with excellent food (after all, it is French), even a trivia contest to keep passengers amused on the 5-1/2 hour voyage. That it took that long was a surprise—it’s only 100 miles—but ships sail slowly (and France is an hour ahead of England’s time zone).
From Caen, I took a taxi to Ferme de la Ranconniere, a wonderful hotel in Crepon, deep in the Calvados region, where many houses and farms date from the 13th century. I believe it—the steps leading to my second-floor suite carried impressions that only could have come from centuries of feet trudging up and down. Although the excellent restaurant was closed for the night, the charming hostess arranged for a repast of assorted cheeses, bread, and an excellent Sancerre.
After grabbing a few hours’ sleep, followed by a quick petite de jeuner, I met my guide, whose services the hotel engaged for me. It was a worthwhile investment. Proprietor of Normandy Discoveries, Philippe Labeau squires private groups for extensive tours of the area. The man knew his history—and he was fluent in English. He picked me up in a Land Rover, and our first stop was a non-descript farm field, where the Allies had built an airfield immediately after the invasion. There was a story attached—the French weren’t always so happy with the Allies, as our bombs killed over 20,000 French citizens in collateral damage leading up to and immediately after the invasion. The airfield was “requisitioned” from a farmer who had to forego his wheat crop—and there was precious little food in France as it was. But few would deny that the airfield was needed: it allowed bomber pilots to land, refuel, and return to England to begin the bombing process all over. (Now again a farmer’s field, it partially may explain why the French appear to have changed their attitude toward Americans).
Philippe showed me another field that once housed a hospital for those wounded who could be patched up and sent back out to fight. Those who were in more critical shape were transported back to England for care, and the former farmer’s field made it possible.
Our next stop was the British Cemetery in Bayeux, the largest cemetery of Commonwealth soldiers, where nearly 466 German and Eastern European soldiers also are interred. I found it moving—that after such a terrible war, the British saw fit to extend the hand of magnanimity to those who also made the supreme sacrifice on the other side. Nothing but proper, the Brits.
On our way to view the famous Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the battle of Hastings between William the Conqueror of Normandy and King Harold of England, we passed by what can best be construed as a medieval fire alarm—a stone, slightly conical structure that resembled a short silo. When farmers tilling their fields spotted the invading Vikings in the harbor, they set fire to the grass or hay inside to warn their countrymen, before high tailing it to the nearby castle for protection. Even in medieval times, invaders were feared. Centuries later, it is said that the Germans didn’t believe the Allies would invade Normandy, calling to mind the gist of George Santayana’s words, that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.
Viewing the Bayeux Tapestry, illustrating the preparations for the war and its grueling battle, was spectacular—hard to believe the embroidery has lasted so long (nearly a thousand years), and not only tells the story but also adds some humor. In packing the ships to sail from Normandy to England to wage war, the French made certain to include the wine. Even then, their priorities were clear.
A German bunker was next on our tour, and the guns were mounted on the side, rather than the front, for maximum range and out of the line of fire of Allied ships attacking from the Channel, Philippe explained. It was ingenious—and also was one of the reasons why the loss of life on Omaha Beach was so vast. I’m a history buff, and so I asked loads of questions. Philippe not only knew the answers, he gently reminded me that if we kept talking, we’d miss important sites, so off we went to the beaches. We focused on the American ones, Utah and Omaha, and Mulberry Harbor, an artificial harbor built by towing concrete sections across the English Channel, and then assembling them on the beach after the invasion, so supplies could be distributed and additional soldiers landed.
Much has been written about Omaha, where casualties numbered nearly 2,000. Mistakes were made both in planning and execution, and no one could predict the weather. Generals Eisenhower and Bradley did the best they could with the information they had, and one must believe that despite the success of the invasion, which changed the tide of war, they forever were haunted by the carnage. The tremendous loss of life on Omaha Beach, according to both Philippe and subsequent reading I did, came down to timing, coupled with the weather that hampered the boats’ reaching their planned precise destinations.
D-Day was to operate on a strict timetable, but unforeseen events arose that had a compounding effect. Engineers, tasked with clearing the beach of German mines and defenses, had too little time to accomplish their job. Aircraft were to bomb the beach, thereby creating craters that the soldiers coming 30 minutes or so later could use for protection. But Allied bombers were told to delay dropping their payloads so as not to hit the engineers, and most of their bombs landed in fields south of the beach, probably hitting many cows but few German soldiers. Because not all the defenses were cleared, the landing craft couldn’t discharge soldiers as close to the beach as had been planned, and many men, encumbered by 80-pound packs, drowned in water that was over their head as they disembarked their landing craft. The ones who made it to the beach were sitting ducks for the German soldiers manning the bunkers above. The first wave of soldiers suffered 90% casualties.
Pointe du Hoc was a strategic part of the Utah Beach invasion, where the Rangers scaled 100-foot cliffs, using grappling hooks and ropes, to take out a battery of German guns. Of the 200 who made the attempt 70% were either wounded or killed. Unfortunately, once the Rangers got on top, they discovered the ‘guns’ were in actuality telephone poles: the Germans had moved the actual guns to another area. Fortunately, the surviving Rangers subsequently found and decimated the guns (and many German soldiers, too). Their bravery made it possible for the Utah Beach landing to succeed with only 200 casualties.
The American Cemetery and Memorial sits atop Omaha Beach, where 9,387 Americans are buried. Having seen pictures of it, I was not prepared for the emotion it conjured. Philippe arranged for us to arrive at the end of the day, just in time for the flag-lowering ceremony, accompanied by Taps. The marble crosses (and Stars of David) had each soldier’s name, age, and unit. Some, however, were blank—there had been no way to identify the bodies. It’s hard to imagine 9,387 dead, but seeing the crosses, lined up perfectly in every direction, helped me understand. It is a tribute to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and a moving message that we must do all within our power to prevent such loss of life ever again.
Philippe and I then walked to the cliff overlooking Omaha Beach, and at last I could comprehend why the dead numbered so many. With no protection, soldiers had to make their way through the water, onto the beach, and up the draw to the higher land. There now is a paved pathway that follows the route the fortunate survivors climbed back then. I wished we had left enough time so I could walk it. It was getting dark, and I was cold. Seventy-one years ago, 150,000 brave soldiers faced the same conditions. The difference was that their lives depended on surviving—and that any did, against such terrible odds, is a miracle.
Our last stop was the German Military Cemetery, located in La Cambe, where more than 21,000 are buried who died in battles between June 6 and August 20, 1944. In stark contrast to the white marble in the American Cemetery and Memorial, the German graves are marked with flat, round metal disks, brown from age. A sign notes that “…it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.”
In a strange way, I was glad Philippe insisted on showing me the German cemetery at the end of our tour. Both sides suffered tragically, and both deserve to be remembered. World War II took a tremendous toll on all—soldiers and civilians alike. Visiting Normandy is a sober reminder that we must do our utmost to prevent repeating it.
After Philippe dropped me at my hotel in Caen, I did further research while sipping an excellent Calvados, and discovered a student’s master’s thesis that recapped the devastation of Omaha Beach. Well footnoted and factual, it helped to explain in greater detail why the loss of life was so high.
I also happened upon a much under-reported incident: Exercise Tiger, also known as Operation Tiger, a disaster that occurred during a dress rehearsal for the invasion, conducted in Devon, England, in April 1944, just 40 days prior to D-Day. Recognizing that many of the soldiers had never seen combat, and even fewer had landed on a beach, Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower planned a simulated beach landing to prepare the soldiers for what was in store. By day’s end, a total of 936 American troops lost their lives to a combination of unforeseen German patrol boat torpedoes and friendly fire resulting from miscommunication between the British and the Americans. Many deaths occurred by drowning: soldiers had not been instructed on the correct way to put on their life belts. Those who survived were sworn to secrecy to prevent leaks about details of the pending invasion, and the incident was, understandably, kept under wraps by the military. But the carnage of Operation Tiger helped to prepare the survivors for what they would face on D-Day.
World War II has been deemed “our finest hour,” and in many ways, it was. But no matter how just the cause, wars are waged with imperfect information, and we trust our leaders to do their best. Yes, much went wrong, reminding me of other wars we’ve fought, and how easy it is to second guess the decisions made at the time. Back then, French civilian casualties were massive, as were those in Britain, and many soldiers were killed by friendly fire. Those are the realities of war. Another reality is that our leaders are human—they do their best, and only in hindsight can we discern whether or not their decisions were right. The Normandy Invasion sites are a sacred reminder of a time when Allies were united in a common cause, pitted against an evil regime, and prevailed over what seemed like impossible odds. Visiting Normandy, with its historical significance, made me proud to be an American.
Photos by Merry Sheils