Normandy Beaches

Normandy Beach 1

I don’t think I need to explain why I’m posting these photos.

Normandy Beach 2

But I will.

Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day. On June 6, 1944, the Allied Forces launched the largest seaborne military invasion ever attempted. The invasion ― by no means guaranteed to succeed ― gave the Allies a toehold on the European continent, thereby opening up a Western front in the European theatre of World War II that eventually led to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Omaha Beach

I’ve long had a keen interest in learning what happened in Europe during World War II ― I’ll explain the origins of that interest some other time. Today, I’m posting about my visit to the Normandy beaches on a sunny August morning many years ago.

Normandy Beach 3

I was backpacking through France and Germany with my dad ― if you’re going to visit military sites, be sure to go with someone who shares your interest in history. Dad was the perfect travel companion to take to Normandy, which is only three hours from Paris by car, slightly less by train. We based ourselves in Bayeux, a small city just 12 kilometres from the English Channel and the first to be liberated during the Battle of Normandy.

German Battery 1

After settling into our hotel ― one so old I’m sure it was in the thick of it during the invasion ― we immediately marched ourselves down to the tourist information centre and booked a half-day tour of the Normandy Beaches.

German Battery 2

Even if you have your own vehicle (which we did not), I highly recommend taking a guided tour of the Normandy Beaches. Without our guide navigating us from beach to beach, it would have been impossible for Dad and me to see as much as we did in one afternoon. And because there were only four of us on the tour, we had lots of time to pump our guide with questions and lots of time to explore at each stop.

Arromanches

Our tour took us to Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha, Pointe du Hoc, Longues-sur-Mer (where the remnants of a German battery still stand), and Arromanches (where the remnants of the Mulberry harbour built by the British forces still lie on the beach). My only complaint is that the tour we took was geared to Americans; next time I’m in Normandy, I will be sure to find a tour that caters to Canadians ― there are loads of them; we just didn’t think to ask ― so I can see Juno Beach.

Bayeux

The Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy, which provides a good overview of the battle, is located in Bayeux, as is the largest British cemetery in France ― almost 4000 British servicemen are buried here. Dad and I visited both after our tour of the beaches.

Bayeux Cemetery

Many years earlier, on my first backpacking trip to Europe, my girlfriend and I had bypassed Normandy completely except for an afternoon spent in Cherbourg. We were there to catch the boat to Ireland and ended up hanging out with an American guy who was waiting to catch the same boat. After exchanging stories and consuming many cups of coffee, we tagged along with him to the post office so he could make a collect call home. (This was way before Skype and email, kids.)

I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I overheard this guy telling his father how he had spent hours walking on the Normandy beaches — the same beaches, it turns out, where his father had landed on June 6, 1944. Although each of us has personal connections of all sorts to historical events, some of those connections seem just a little more meaningful. I was awestruck to think that someone not much older than me had a father who played a role in a significant battle in the war to liberate Europe. I promised myself then and there that I’d return one day to walk those same beaches — and I count myself blessed that I was able to take that walk with my own father.

American Cemetery

Weeks after Dad and I returned to Canada, he phoned me one night. He’d just seen Saving Private Ryan, which was still playing in the theatres. The film begins and ends in the American cemetery above Omaha ― a cemetery he and I had walked through together only weeks before.

“We were right there!” he said with much enthusiasm.

“I know,” I said to him, with the same level of enthusiasm. “I know!”

I’ve mentioned several times before how I’m a bit of a history geek. Nothing gets my geekness going more than seeing places where history comes alive in a way that it never can in a book or a film. One small comment made by our guide, which has stuck with me all these years, illustrates what I mean. As we drove along, she pointed at the hedgerows that line the fields and roads in the Norman countryside. Those hedgerows, she explained, ended up providing highly effective protection for the German forces in defensive positions, resulting in high losses for the Allied forces even after they were safely off the beaches.

I could read a detail like that in a book, but it probably would not register. To see it in real life ― well, I’ve never forgotten it.

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