Everybody has learned in school about the D-Day, or the Operation Overlord as the invasion of Normandy in France was officially called. But visiting the actual locations where British, Canadian, French and US troops landed on June 6th in 1944 and learning about the longest day in history that ultimately lead to the end of World War 2, was certainly something special…
Normandy, the D-Day Location in France
Interestingly enough, but Normandy itself turned out to be a really beautiful place with sleepy villages and a stunning coast of rough cliffs or shallow beaches. Despite this natural beauty, the traces of the D-Day invasion were around every single corner and not a single square meter could be found that hadn’t been fought over during the last World War. Since this resulted in an abundance of museums, bunkers, memorials, cemeteries and landing sites, we decided to put together the five must-see highlights that we encountered during our road trip through Europe in the Homemade Campervan.
1. The Battery Museum of Merville-Franceville
The small town of Merville-Francevill-Plage offered not only old timbered houses, but also some parachute images that reminded of the happenings in the early morning hours of June 6th. A British Parachute Battalion plus Airborne Division had set out to conquer and disable the heavy-caliber guns of the Merville Battery to ensure the safe landing of the troops at Sword Beach. Despite the incredibly high losses, out of 600 men only 75 survived, the mission was successfully completed and this museum was dedicated to their incredible achievement.
The Merville Battery Museum was an entirely preserved area of open gun positions, four gun casemates, a command bunker and a legendary Dakota C47 airplane that took part in the landings. For us it was the perfect location to start the exploration of Normandy, on the one hand because Merville was situated at the far eastern edge of the D-Day beaches and on the other because the parachute unites marked the actual begin of Operation Overlord.
Besides learning about the parachute training and the preparation of the gun battery neutralization in the different gun casemates, the main commando bunker offered even more. There were reconstructed scenes from the life inside the bunkers and an impressive sound and light show, reenacting the fighting hell that took place at dawn on June 6th in 1944. After all the smoke had cleared and the noise had died down in the narrow concrete bunker, we felt properly prepared to see the other D-Day sights of Normandy…
Info: The museum of Merville Battery is open from 10am to 5pm during spring and fall and until 6.30pm during the summer months. Entrance for adults costs 6 euros and is well worth the investment. Start your Normandy exploration here and pick up a free brochure with map of all D-Day locations in the area. For more information please refer to the official website at http://www.batterie-merville.com
2. Mulberry floating Harbor at Arromanches Beach
Arriving at Arromanches and looking down to the beach, we had no idea what we were seeing, neither in the water, nor at the shore. As it turned out, this was the very location of one of the two Mulberry harbors the Allied erected to compensate for the lack of a deep-sea harbor in the area. After a storm destroyed the artificial harbor at Omaha Beach, Port Winston in Arromanches became a key location and was used for a much longer period of time than initially expected. What was left today were sunken Phoenix breakwaters, some stranded Beetle pontoons and a massive floating dock…
Besides the leftovers of the floating harbor at Arromanches Beach, there were bunkers, tanks, landing crafts and Whale elements of the artificial piers on display. Additionally, photos could be found that showed how the artificial Mulberry harbor of Port Winston once looked like when it was in full use in 1944, there was a D-Day museum down by the beach and a big 360 Circular Cinema on top of the cliffs.
While visiting the beach of Arromanches was great, watching the 20 minute documentary of the 100 day battle over Normandy in the cinema and then visiting the leftover of the floating harbor was even better. Being composed of original footage of Canadian, American, German, British and French archives, the short film clearly helped to understand the context better while graphically showing the struggle of the Allies to liberate the area and to finally reach Paris.
Info: The Arromanches 360 Circular Cinema is open in the spring and summer from 9.30am to 7pm and from 10am to 6pm in the fall. Entrance for adults costs 5 euros and the 20 minute show start at 10 past and 40 past each hour. For more information refer to the official website at http://www.arromanches360.com/en
3. Longues-sur-Mer Battery of the Atlantic Wall
The Atlantic Wall fortifications had a key position in Longues-sur-Mer with a gun battery consisting of a large command bunker and four gun positions with concrete casemates. There were also smaller machine gun emplacements and shelters for personal, but the star attractions were definitely the 152mm navy guns with their steel enclosures. Disabling this gun battery that was overlooking the landing beaches Omaha and Gold was a major task of the D-Day operation.
Visiting the Longues-sur-Mer Battery was an interesting experience because it was the only Atlantic Wall stronghold in the area that still had the original WW2 guns installed. Having stood there for some 70 years, these large guns were giving the impression as if the war had ended just yesterday. Even if one casemate blew up with stored British ammunition, the remaining three gun positions gave an extremely realistic impression of what the Allied forces were up against during Operation Overlord.
Info: The Longues-sur-Mer Battery is located right in the open fields, set back from the waterfront cliffs. It can be reached easily by road, visited all year round and no entrance ticket is required.
4. Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
Set in the most prominent location, overlooking Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery came with symbolic statues, two reflecting pools, a central chapel, a Garden of the Missing, a lookout, a memorial with a 22 foot Statue called “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves”, 10 extensive Grave Plots, a visitor center and a lot of Great Words.
For me personally this 172 acres, meaning 100 football fields large cemetery of superlatives was way too heroic, much too grand and unnecessarily spread out. Trying to impress by any means appeared to be the motto of this self-acclaimed attraction and it seemed so extremely over the top that it was actually worth the visit.
A more relatable experience offered the intimate British War Cemetery in Beaux. It came with a better sense of scale, some lightly colored flowers and fewer crowds, which in turn allowed for a pleasantly quiet cemetery visit.
Also very different was the German War Cemetery which appeared in dark shades, without flowers and in a self-contained, circular mausoleum. It actually managed quite well to make the stretch between remembering the fallen family members without glorifying their actions.
Info: The Normandy American Cemetery is located in Colville-sur-Mer and for more information please refer to http://www.abmc.gov. The British War Cemetery is located on Bd Fabian Ware in the center on Bayeux and the German Cemetery can be found in Rue Mont d’Huisnes of Huisnes-sur-Mer.
5. Pointe du Hoc Battlefield at Cricqueville-en-Bessin
The 100 foot high cliff projection of Pointe du Hoc was located right between Utah and Omaha Beach, making its gun positions a prime target for the D-Day operations on June 6th. The 6 open concrete gun pits had to be taken by a specially trained Ranger Battalion that first need to scale the steep cliffs with ropes and ladders. When finally arriving at the top, they found to their greatest surprise that the open gun positions were only occupied by wooden dummy guns.
This battlefield of Cricqueville-en-Bessin was quite an interesting place to visit since it vividly displayed the immense force of destruction of the Allied bombings. The entire area was until today covered with bomb craters and war scars of destroyed bunkers and gun casemates. Since the erection of the six concrete casemates was never finished and since this area was heavily bombed prior to the actual D-Day, the German soldiers had, in an act of desperation, hidden the open guns in the bushes and placed wooden dummies on the concrete platforms.
For us, Pointe du Hoc marked the end of our D-Day tour. We had certainly seen more bunkers, memorials, museums, documentaries, cemeteries, gun batteries and battlefields than we ever wanted. But at least we had learned a lot and understood the history a whole lot better while visiting the actual locations. At the end of the day, we were left once more to enjoy the countryside of Normandy with its stunning coast of rough cliffs and shallow beaches. There were a lot of scars from the past, but beyond that, was still a really beautiful place to visit…
Info: The Battlefield of Pointe du Hoc can be visited all year round. The free visitor center is open during the winter months from 9am to 5pm and during the summer months from 9am to 6pm. For more information please refer to http://www.abmc.gov.
Have you been to Normandy? Did you visit other D-Day sites that you would consider as a must-see?