First, I’d like to start out by wishing us a Happy Anniversary!
It was a coincidence that this trip coincided with our third wedding anniversary, andddd… this is the only picture we took together all day.
Well, apparently spending holidays learning about wars is our thing now: Christmas at the Vietnam War Remnants museum, anniversary in Normandy for World War II. 🤷♀️
Anyway, back to the beaches.
I think the theme of this whole trip (which is very unlike me) was ”unprepared”. I did most of the planning in terms of driving route, not necessarily what to see. We learned quickly that our day and a half in this area was nowhere near enough. So, I’ve decided to put together a little guide in case we have a chance to go back. Who knows, maybe someone else might find this helpful.
Let’s start with some basic history…
The Battle of Normandy, code-named “Operation Overlord”, was a coordinated attack on German forces by the British, the Canadians, and the Americans and marked the beginning of the end of Nazi control over Europe. On June 6, 1944 Operation Neptune, commonly known as D-Day, started the battle across five code-named beaches: Sword & Gold (British troops), Juno (Canadian troops), Utah and Omaha (American troops).
Tip: If time allows, plan for one day per beach.
As I mentioned before, we were short on time, so we prioritized from an American’s perspective.
Things to see:
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
Location: Colleville-sur-Mer (Omaha Beach area)
The American Cemetery was our first stop. The overcast morning seemed fitting for the occasion.
Tip: Do not miss the (free) museum in the Visitor Center.
It’s the final resting place for over 9,000 men who lost their lives during Operation Overlord. Each Cross (or Star of David) listed the name, division, home state, and death date of the individual. An Unknown Soldier Cross was places for individuals who could not be identified.
The Visitor Center has a great exhibit on the American involvement in D-Day. Two facts stood out to me:
- In December of 1940, America’s troops numbered ~800,000; by December 1941, 2.2 million.
- Inflatable tanks (literally – like bouncy house inflatable) and stuffed paratroopers (called paradummies) were used as decoys to throw off German intelligence… and it worked!
I think the most powerful part of the Visitor Center was the constant roll-call. Names of those lost were said over the speakers as you left the building and walked to the cemetery itself.
Omaha Beach Memorial
For Americans, I would say Omaha beach is the most ‘famous’ of the landing beaches. The memorial itself is located in the center beach which, to our surprise, is 8km (5mi) long.
Tip: Parking at the beach is free, and the D-Day House restaurant directly adjacent offers a nice (& affordable) lunch.
I’ll be honest, we weren’t wow-ed by Omaha Beach. It’s hard to feel the history here – you really have to use your imagination because, at the end of the day, it’s just a beach. One thing that helped came from a documentary we watched before the trip. A veteran suggested:
Should you ever visit Omaha beach, walk out as far as you can at low tide and turn around. Notice just how much beach there is; how much unprotected beach.
Not to mention, things went sideways on D-Day. These young guys were unloaded in water over their heads carrying 35kg (75lbs) of gear and told to take the beach. We walked out at low tide as far as we could go, and thanks to that documentary, you could imagine it.
Musée Mémorial d’Omaha beach
Location: Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer (~200m from the beach)
A quick walk up the road will take you to the Omaha Beach Museum. Now, you should visit this place with an open mind, because I walked in and instantly thought ‘nope!’. It’s one of those museums that has really bad mannequins… like, a lot of them. I spent the first 15 minutes annoying the shit out of Shane because all I could focus on was how f*cking creepy these things were. But, if you get over the fake people and actually look at the things on display, then you will be impressed. They have tons of artifacts from the war: uniforms, guns, obstacles from the beach (like the Czech hedgehog – meant to take out tanks), and trinkets from soldiers. And, they have a great film describing the events of D-Day as related to Omaha beach. All you need is about an hour, and it’s worth the visit.
Pointe du Hoc
Pointe du Hoc is a cliff which overlooks Omaha Beach and was a battery for the Germans. Here, there were six 155mm cannons – which means nothing to me except for ‘that’s a big gun’. It meant a lot to the Allies, since these were intended to target approaching ships.
On June 6, 1944, American Rangers were tasked to take Pointe du Hoc. After a series of bombings targeting the battery, the rangers scaled the 100m (~330ft) cliffs and attacked the German positions, but they found that the guns had already been dismantled.
Unlike Omaha Beach, you can see, feel, and explore the leftovers of war. The pits from bombs are everywhere and you can walk through all the bunkers and gun pits.
The Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument is also here – at the very edge of the cliff overlooking the English Channel and Omaha Beach.
I purposefully chose to show the above picture first, because the monument itself is uh… well, I’ll let you decide what it looks like.
Tip: Pointe du Hoc is open 24 hours (but the Visitor Center only 09:00 – 17:00).
We did miss a few things specifically related to the American efforts on D-Day, for example, all of Utah Beach. With more time, I would suggest:
We were able to squeak in a few more noteworthy stops in our short time…
Gold Beach / Mulberry Harbor B
We honestly had no idea about this (remember, I said poor planning?). We were driving to get to the American Cemetery, crested a hill, and there was a spectacular viewpoint. In the distance you could see… things? Obvious remnants, but what we weren’t sure.
Turns out, those ‘things’ are leftovers of Mulberry Harbor B and you can actually walk up to them at low tide. There’s just something about things you can physically touch that solidify the history of a place.
Mulberry A (at Omaha Beach) and B (at Gold Beach) were code-names for the temporary ports which were built by the UK so cargo could be rapidly unloaded once the landing beaches had been secured. The pieces above, that you can walk to from the beach, were part of the road from the boats to the shore: ‘beetles’ (floating steel pontoons) held ‘whales’ (the roadway). What you see in the background are caissons and purposefully sunken ships to create a harbor and shield the roads from the sea.
Unfortunately, Mulberry A was destroyed in a storm, but Mulberry B was functional until November of 1944.
Tip: If time allows check out the Musée du Débarquement which goes into more detail.
We, unfortunately, didn’t have time for this and regretted it!
The German Gun Battery
This is the only gun battery with the guns still in place!
It feels weird to be excited about big guns?
And, similar to Pointe du Hoc, you can walk in / around / over.
Tip: It’s also open 24 hours. Go before 10am and you’ll basically have it to yourself.
Do you play ‘happy & crappy’? My Sis & TB introduced us to the game and now it’s a thing. It’s simple. At the end of each day, you pick one happy moment and one crappy moment – whatever you want them to be. It’s a nice way to reflect on the day, especially on vacation.
Shane wanted to see this SO bad and we couldn’t find it the day before. We didn’t know the name, we didn’t know the location… After some serious Googling we managed to find it and went early in the morning on our way out of town. I know for a fact this was Shane’s ‘happy’ for the day, but I think it might have even made the top ‘happy’ for the trip (no offense, Sarah & Barend – we love you 😜).
Apparently, these bad boys had a 20km (13 mile) range…
Tip: Hour long guided tours of the area are offered for only €5! Check out their website for details!
I think, despite only having 36 hours in the general area, we managed to fit in quite a bit! And, as an added bonus, we saw a little bit of Juno Beach. We rented an Airbnb with a great view and a 2 minute walk to the beach.
Up next, Mont Saint-Michel!