Tuesday, October 18, 2016
And here it is – the ultimate destination of this river cruise and this journey, to visit the beaches of Normandy where Allied troops landed on June 6, 1944, in a massive invasion to take France back from the Germans after their 4-year occupation. This was our earliest departure for excursions – 8am and we were told we wouldn’t be back until around 6:30pm – yes, a 10+ hour day. We were also told it would be a long drive – almost 2 hours – and that there might be rain in the afternoon. We could bring whatever we want and leave things in the bus while we were at the various stops. So we brought things to do on the ride (iPad, iPod, Kindle and crocheting), and we also brought a change of shoes, socks, and pants in case it rained. We were fortunate in that it only started to rain as we walking to the bus at our last stop, but we were ready!
There were three choices of excursions today – US Normandy Beaches (visiting the beaches on which US troops landed), Normandy Beaches for residents of UK and Canada, and Taste of Normandy (a culinary tour to Bayeux for those who might have already been to the beaches). There were two busloads of those going to the US Beaches.
A note on the guides – we have had different ones every day. All of them speak excellent English and their knowledge is impressive! Having the headsets so we can listen while they talk and don’t have to stand so closely together is very helpful too.
The guide spoke for the first part of the bus ride, giving a basic overview of the war until June 6, 1944. Once we got on the highway, she said she would be quiet so everyone could nap if they wanted to (and many did).
We drove through a couple villages with memorials to the battles, and then stopped in Arromanches. There were no landings here in this town because of the cliffs on both sides, but it was here that artificial harbors were built for the subsequent waves of Allied soldiers coming to France. We were given free time and then told to meet back in a half hour for lunch.
We went to the local museum, then we looked at the monuments and the view down into the water where pieces of the harbors still remain. We met the group and then walked over to the June 6 Brasserie, where we enjoyed lunch. Everyone from our group got the same complimentary lunch – ham and cheese quiche and a small salad. As we came out of the restaurant, it was lightly raining as we walked up the hill to the bus.
Next we drove through Colleville sur Mer, the town where the Big Red One group came through. Throughout the day, the guide referred to two movies – “The Longest Day” is the first one, and is shown every year on June 6 so she knows it by heart. The other is “Saving Private Ryan.” I wish I had seen the first (don’t think I ever have), and had seen the second more recently (it’s been years) in preparation for this trip.
Our guide explained that while the losses of soldiers coming on to the beach were huge, there was also a lot of loss of life as they came through the countryside. French properties used large “hedgerows” as dividers between properties (instead of fences). Over the years these had grown very tall and thick, so when the soldiers came through, they were attacked on the other side – these were known as the Hedgerow Battles.
We next stopped at Pont du Hoc, where we saw the hilltop area where Germans soldiers were stationed. There had been so many bombs dropped on the area that it was filled with large crater-like holes. We passed one concrete piece that the guide showed us had been blown off the casement structure where the large guns were held, but it had been blown 75’ away. We saw a bunker where the German soldiers slept, and we looked down on the beach where the Allied soldiers had landed. Far to the left, we could see Utah Beach, and to the right was Omaha Beach.
As we continued the drive, we could see the “pill boxes,” small square areas cut into the side of the hills, from which the Germans shot at the soldiers below. And we saw the site of the first cemetery in France where American soldiers were originally interred, prior to the remains being moved to the US Memorial Cemetery of the Normandy Beaches.
Next stop was Omaha Beach – the beachside still looked the same as when the soldiers landed, the shore side of the road, however, was now filled with homes and businesses. I can’t imagine living on the site of such human loss. On the beach is a sculpture, called “Les Braves,” intended to look like wings. There were pillars with photos of the area not only during the D-Day invasion, but as soon as a month later, there were people picnicking on the beach next to the remains of the vehicles.
Our guide said that in her years as a guide, she had had the good fortunate to have met a couple of the men who actually landed on D-Day. One of them said that he was part of the team that landed at Dog Green – Omaha Beach was divided into four sections – Charlie, Dog, Easy (which obviously is a misnomer), and Fox. Within those, there were colored sections – green, red, and white. Dog Green was one of the worst hit landing areas – 90% of the men who landed there in the first wave died.
Our final stop was at the US Cemetery, where 9,387 are buried, plus 1,557 missing in action are memorialized. A total of 425,000 Allied and German soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing during the battle. Families of the lost were given the option of having them buried there or having the bodies shipped back home; these are the remains of those whose families chose to have them buried at this cemetery.
While the movie “Saving Private Ryan” is fictional, it is based on the true story of the Niland brothers. In the movie, when “Private Ryan” goes to visit the grave of the captain, he is actually visiting a grave site right near the Niland brothers. We googled it as we walked through the cemetery, and found that the two Niland brothers were buried here, and we found the location. As we had gotten off the bus, each of us was given a rose to leave on the gravesite of either someone we knew, or someone we just wanted to honor. Or we could leave it at the monument at the entrance to the cemetery. I left mine on the gravesite of one of the Niland brothers.
We walked to the side of the graveyard, where we were told there was a good view down to the undeveloped beaches, so it looked much like it did from the perspective of the German soldiers on the day of the invasion. They did have a good view from there, sad to say.