D-Day beaches in Normandy

D-Day beaches in Normandy

To commemorate the anniversary of the D-Day Landings, Kate Chappell travels to Normandy to visit the beaches where so many lost their lives in World War II…

There can be few places in the world as evocative as the D-Day beaches in Normandy. Today, the miles of white sand lie calmly, flanked by rolling dunes and the sometimes bleak, but always comforting, English Channel. Big skies turn from deep blue to brooding grey and back again, while the shrieks of wheeling seagulls are often the only sign of life. If it wasn’t for the unpredictable Channel weather, this beautiful stretch of coastline would be the stuff holiday dreams are made of, but instead it remains peaceful and unspoilt a fitting tribute to the thousands who died under the same big skies in 1944.

For the many more who visit the Normandy beaches every year, the scene is moving, heartrending even, but always with a silver lining of inspiration. Whether they be a D-Day veteran, a relative of someone who took part in the landings. a school child or a passing stranger each visitor can’t help but be touched by the stories of bravery and sacrifice that are wrapped up in the beaches’ every grain of sand.

This year, the 80th anniversary of the D-Day Landings, the poignancy couldn’t be more keenly felt. The anniversary celebrations will undoubtedly be a momentous occasion and for those lucky enough to take part, a chance to experience history first-hand. But the beaches, the memorials, the museums and the rest of Normandy’s countless World War II sites are special places to visit all year round and offer a trip to France that you will never forget.

© Alan Wilson – Flickr

The Museums

For anyone wanting to experience the full power of the Normandy beaches, brushing up on your knowledge of World War II should be first on the agenda. Luckily, this needn’t be a chore as superb museums at many sites along the coast help put things in context. While not strictly a museum. the Caen Memorial is almost certainly the best place to start. Opened in 1988 as a testament to the consequences of war in the 20th century, the Memorial has become one of France’s most popular attractions, visited by more than seven million people of all nationalities since its inception.

The exhibitions inside the large modern building on the outskirts of Caen take in world history from 1914 to the present day, but a large section of the Memorial is taken up with D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. A fascinating gallery in a symbolically downward spiral explains the lead-up to World War II, the war itself. D-Day and the eventual collapse of Nazism, while original film footage, photographs and letters remind visitors of the human face of the conflict. However, it is the Memorial’s breathtaking film D-Day and the Battle of Normandy that goes the furthest in helping visitors experience the events of June 1944 first-hand. With a wordless soundtrack, the film uses original footage spliced with excerpts from movies such as ‘The Longest Day’ to tell the story of D-Day from both the Allied and German points of view. As an introduction for non-historians or as an added dimension to any visit to the beaches, it is highly recommended.

© Toastydave – Wikimedia Commons

For an all-round guide to D-Day, the Memorial is key, but there are plenty of other fascinating museums specialising in certain beaches or certain aspects of D- Day. The Musée du Débarquement in Arromanches offers a compelling explanation of one of the most awesome achievements of the Normandy invasion, the ‘Mulberry B’ artificial harbour. The last remaining sections of the harbour wall can be seen from an enormous panoramic window that spans the length of the museum, while a series of scale models shows how the enormous harbour was built in just a few weeks. A Movie tone newsreel brings the whole thing to life. On a clifftop just outside Arromanches, with breathtaking views of the town, its beach and the harbour remains, is the Cinéma Circulaire Arromanches 360. With the audience standing in the middle of a circular auditorium, the cinema shows a 360° film show.

© Simon de l’Ouest – Wikimedia Commons

Further west, behind the American army’s Utah landing beach, the town of Saint-Mère-Eglise, made famous in the film The Longest Day, is home to the Airborne Museum. This great museum-cum-air hangar tells the story of the American parachutists of the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions who dropped on Sainte-Mere-Eglise in the night of 5/6 June, 1944. Alongside exhibits of letters, photos, rations and uniforms, are an original Waco glider and a huge Douglas C-47 plane.

For a tale of immense British bravery, the Merville-Franceville Battery is a fascinating site to visit. Situated in a quiet village behind Sword landing beach. the collection of underground German gun posts are now home to a museum dedicated to the small band of British soldiers who attacked the battery on the night of 5/6 June. There is a son et lumière experience in one of the bunkers, while another shows interviews with those who took part in the raid.

© Musée Airborne – Wikimedia Commons

The Cemeteries

A visit to one of the many Allied and German cemeteries in Normandy is a truly moving experience. At first it might seem strange to walk among the graves of those you never knew, but you cannot help but be deeply affected by the endless lines of crosses, gravestones or memorial markers, a tribute to the unimaginable bravery of those who fought in Normandy and a memorial to the thousands of young men who died. There are more than 15 cemeteries in the Normandy beaches area alone and all are worth a visit.

For a full map and directions to each cemetery, visit the Normandie Mémoire website. The British cemetery in Bayeux is one of the most affecting, with row upon row of identical gravestones, each with its own personal inscription. The families of each dead soldier were asked to provide a message to be engraved on the graves of their loved ones and each makes for heart- breaking reading. Perhaps just as poignant though, is the small comer of the cemetery where a collection of graves for German soldiers sits alongside those who fought against them.

© Kevin C. Fitzpatrick – Wikimedia Commons

A dedicated German cemetery at La Cambe, west of Bayeux, is a peaceful place, with the graves of more than 20,000 soldiers buried there. In the centre is a huge and beautiful sculpture of a crucifix, placed high above the ground on a grassy hill.

Endless lines of identical white crosses stretch as far as the eye can see at the vast American cemetery high above Omaha beach at Colleville-sur-Mer, while the sea air and the wide vistas across the Channel are always present. The visitor centre at the cemetery tells the story of the American presence at D-Day The modern building is light and airy and has been designed to make the most of stunning views out across the water.

© Peter K Burian – Wikimedia Commons

The Tours

If you’d rather not go it alone, there are many tour options covering all aspects of D-Day. The D-Day Academy offers visits to many of the key sites in authentic World War II vehicles Military experts lead the tours, which could include a full exploration of the Atlantic Wall, a vivid account of the capture of Pegasus Bridge, on the site of the original bridge, or an exploration of key inland battlegrounds.

On the 80th anniversary of D-Day, delve into the captivating world of wartime espionage and deception as France Today explores the intriguing Double Cross System, a covert operation that played a pivotal role in the Allied victory during World War II.

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