“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world….” — Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
On June 6, 1944, after more than a year of planning and intricate deceptions, the British, Canadian, and American Allied force launched an invasion of Normandy with a single unified goal: defeat Nazi Germany. About 156,000 troops were involved in the aerial and seaborne landings that day – 61,715 British, 21,400 Canadian, and 73,000 American troops. It would be one of the bloodiest battles of the war, but this is the invasion whose victory would turn the tides of the war. It was the beginning of the end for Hitler and the Nazis – a defeat from which they would never be able to recover.
We rose early and headed out to the Longues-sur-Mer Gun Batteries. It was gray and drizzling out, which somehow seemed the perfect setting for the somber day ahead. Most of the German defenses were torn down shortly after the war, long before anyone thought about the potential for those seeking to see a piece of history. These survived intact.
Standing on the quiet and serene grounds of Omaha Beach, it is hard to grasp or understand what was going through the minds of those Americans as they readied to land (I imagine it was a mixture of excitement and terror). For many, it would have been their first taste of battle. For the 2,499 Americans who fell on the beaches that day, it was their last (not to mention the many more who would perish over the next few months in the battle for Normandy). These men and women paid the ultimate sacrifice – a sacrifice that will never be forgotten.
On the bluff overlooking the sands below is the beautiful Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Before walking through the cemetery grounds, we stopped into the visitor center and we highly recommend you do as well. The center describes the preparations for the invasions and logistical challenges the Allies faced, and brings to life the stories of those who fought so bravely. We headed out to the cemetery grounds and wandered through the rows of white crosses marking the final resting place of 9,387 Americans.
We drove further down the beach. We made a quick stop at the Musée Memorial d’Omaha Beach, and then walked on down to the beach.
For the 60th anniversary in 2004, the French government commissioned a sculpture by the local artist Anilore Banon. The sculpture, called Les Braves (The Braves), contains three elements: “The Wings of Hope – so that the spirit which carried these men on 6th June 1944, continues to inspire us, reminding us that together it is always possible to change the future; Rise of Freedom – so that the example of those who rose up against barbarity, helps us remain standing strong against all forms on inhumanity; and The Wings of Fraternity – so that the surge of brotherhood always reminds of our responsibility towards others as well as ourselves.”
Pointe du Hoc followed next. This was one of the Germans’ most heavily fortified locations and U.S. Army Rangers scaled the steep cliffs in order to take over the six anti-ship guns firing towards the Omaha and Utah Beaches. In anticipation of the climb, the Allies dropped more than 1,500 tons of bombs on the cliff top. Unfortunately, the concrete bunkers were well camouflaged and heavily reinforced. Because multiple direct hits were needed, only 5% were actually destroyed in the bombing. The grounds are open for you to explore – you can walk down into the deep bomb craters, crawl into the bunkers, and explore the gun batteries. This was our favorite spot of the day.
On our way down to Utah Beach, we made a slight detour to go see the churches at Angoville-au-Plain and Ste-Mère Eglise. On June 6th, paratroopers landed nearby Angoville-au-Plain and met fierce German resistance. Two American medics set-up shop in the small town’s church and treated both American and German wounded equally. Several of the church’s wooden pews still show bloodstains. The church recently added new stained glass windows – one honors the American medics, and one honors the paratroopers (see below).
Many paratroopers landed off target on June 6th, landing in the small village of Ste-Mère-Eglise (one American paratrooper even dangled from the church steeple for a couple of hours (you’ll find a parachute up on the church steeple, although apparently not on the right corner). Many paratroopers lost their lives in this small town, but eventually they were victorious and took the town (The Longest Day is based on this – have you seen it?). Similar to Angoville-au-Plain, the church recently added two contemporary stained glass windows in appreciation of the paratroopers’ heroic acts.
Since we were ambitious, we quickly stopped by Utah Beach (too late to see the museum, so we just walked the grounds).
Our final stop of the day was the German Military Cemetery (Cimetiere Militaire Allemand).
“The soldiers’ graves are the greatest preachers of peace.” – Albert Schweitzer
This cemetery is a stark contrast to the Allied cemeteries with their gleaming white crosses – this one was beautiful in its simplicity. After the war, Germany, bankrupt and destroyed, chose not to bring the bodies of their dead home. More than 21,000 men are buried in this cemetery. Soldiers are buried two to a grave, and the graves are marked with simple dark stones (note that the second man listed on the marker was only 18 years old). Dark stone crosses in groups of five are scattered throughout the grounds. A large mound in the center covers the remains of the 207 unknown soldiers. There is no doubt when here that this cemetery was not built for victors.
It was a long, exhausting, and emotional day. But it was an important experience. This is a day that will stay with us for the rest of our lives – a trip that will not easily be forgotten.