Visiting Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches

This year commemorates the 70th anniversary of D-Day landing on Normandy beaches. Andrew Sanger visits the must-see sites in the area.

By Andrew Sanger on 05 June 2014 in Travel Articles

The lush lamb-dotted region of Normandy is full of rustic villages with pretty country lanes, apple orchards and little dairy farms, and delicious dinners washed down with fiery tots of Calvados, the world’s finest brandy made from the local apples.

Etretat, Normandy (c) wikipedia/Christian Offenberg

It was a very different picture on 6th June 1944 – D-day. That ill-fated day exactly 70 years ago when 150,000 British, Commonwealth and American troops waded ashore from the sea at dawn directly into a torrent of German gunfire. This was the onslaught that ended the Second World War.

Normandy Landings (c) F. Sargent

Within a month of D-Day, some one million Allied troops landed on this coastline and within that time some of the most dramatic battles of the war were raging in the farms and fields and even in the small market towns behind the coast.

The scene is so peaceful now yet every so often there is a memorial or museum along the length of the Landing Beaches to ensure we don't forget. And most telling is the massive German defences, many almost intact.

Most poignant of all are the neat military cemeteries. Some are breathtakingly huge, with row upon row of pristine white graves. Thousands lie at Omaha Beach American Cemetery, which features in Stephen Spielberg’s film about the Normandy invasion, Saving Private Ryan.

American Cemetery (c) wikipedia/Boing-boing

Most of the invasion took place along only a 50-mile (80km) stretch of Normandy coast. The whole distance is divided into five different Landing Beaches. Each has its own character, and all are easily accessible by car or bike or on foot.

There’s a lot to see, as well as a much to contemplate, and the wide, airy beaches under big skies are beautiful and inspiring. In parts there are small resorts, especially near Caen. In other parts the coast remains quite undeveloped.

Sword Beach is the most easterly of the beaches and nearest to Caen. At dawn on 6th June, British troops landed here and fought their way towards Pegasus Bridge, which had been liberated the previous night by airmen using gliders. Famously, after the success of their daring mission, the airmen also ‘liberated’ the café beside the bridge. The café is still in business and the original Pegasus Bridge lies in the museum across the road. Both are a must-see.

Simultaneously, Canadian troops took neighbouring Juno Beach, and next to it Gold Beach was another British landing point, where the ‘Mulberry Harbours’ were assembled. Huge concrete vestiges of these artificial docks still lie visible in the water and on the sand beside the small resort of Arromanches. Meanwhile at Omaha Beach, the Americans had chosen the toughest challenge of all, and incurred the biggest losses, as the men climbed slopes from the sea into the German guns.

Utah Beach, 12 miles (20km) from Omaha by sea and twice as far on land, is a long, wide expanse of sands where American troops came ashore. At one end of the beach stands their fine Navy memorial and a small D-Day museum. A cramped little landing craft beside the museum vividly conveys what the troops had to endure.

Some of the greatest sights are not on the seashore but a few miles inland. Allow plenty of time for visits to Caen and Bayeux. These two lively, likeable towns also make good places to stay, with plenty of good hotels and restaurants, and world-class sights.

Among them is the stupendous Caen Memorial, a huge modern museum on the city’s northern edge, giving a comprehensive, poignant and utterly fascinating overview of the causes of World War II and its impact on Caen, on France and the world.

It’s somehow poetic that the Allied troops whose Normandy Invasion in June 1944 brought the Second World War to an end came mainly from Britain, America and the Commonwealth. That puts them in a direct line of inheritance from the Normans under William the Conqueror who crossed the Channel in the other direction in 1066.

The Bayeux Tapestry tells the whole tale – in cartoon-strip style, complete with captions – of his victorious Norman Conquest. The 900-year-old ‘tapestry’, in fact a seamless 70-metre embroidery, is beautifully displayed in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum in the centre of in Bayeux, a charming, handsome old country town just 6 miles (10km) inland from the D-Day Landing Beaches.

Bayeux Tapestry (c) wikipedia/LadyofHats

It brings home powerfully the close and ancient bond between Normandy and England.

The Normandy Coast by Andrew SangerAbout the Author:

Andrew Sanger is the author of more than forty guidebooks, mainly to the regions of France.

His latest book is The Normandy Coast (includes Caen, the Landing Beaches & Mont St Michel).

Published by Footprint Guides (RRP £7.99) and available from Amazon at £6.87.


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