Saturday, July 16, 2011

D-Day Beaches Trip - Part 2

The following day, rather than go straight to the beaches from Rouen, I decided that we really had to detour out a little further west and go to Mont St Michel. It is amazing. A fortified monastery on a little mountain island 1km off the coast and connected by a causeway, it looks so commanding and impregnable from a distance. And it was. The monastery dates back 1300 years though most of it was built much later. It is truly an architectural wonder though as it consists of halls and rooms on top of halls, built in such a way that the top can support a much larger church than is possible on the very top of the hill. It is also surrounded by huge tidal flats that once completely surrounded and protected the mount.

That's a long way to run in the pouring rain...

Unfortunately the weather was terrible and we had hard rain the entire day. Not just wet but pouring with rivers running down the steps and walkways up the mount. We had to run a long way from the car to the island and then up the hill to the monastery and were completely soaked before we even started. Of course I didn't have any extra clothes and we didn't even think to bring an umbrella. The site is very famous and a huge tourist attractions and even on a terrible day like this there were crowds of tourists there too, all fighting over the same dry spots....I will definitely have to come back again some day and enjoy the whole thing at a more leisurely pace instead of feeling like a fish swimming upriver to spawn....
From there we drove through the rains northeast to Bayeux, the closest and most central town inland from the D-Day beaches (the first liberated in WW2) and location of a thorough, recommended museum on the Normandy invasion. We got there in time to visit the museum before it closed and then retired early for the evening to dry off and prepare for the long day to come.
There were 5 beaches along a 100km front that were invaded on D-Day (June 6th, 1944). From west to east they were called Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. The Americans took Utah and Omaha, the British landed at Gold and Sword while the Canadians were at Juno. The most famous and site of the heaviest fighting and more perilous foothold in Normandy at the end of that day was at Omaha beach which had a roughly 10% death rate for the invading American forces. I won't get into all the figures and statistics but the numbers are staggering. Every little village has it's own small museum and memorial to whatever unit liberated it. There are a lot of visitors to the beaches but the whole area is so big that we didn't feel like it was too busy. Our plan was to head out to the furthest west beach (Utah) and work our way east from there stopping at whatever took our fancy. Utah beach wasn't very busy and actually looked like a beach. I don't know what I was expecting, I have never been a huge WW2 fan and don't know the battles in detail, but for some reason I wasn't expecting to see a long sandy coastline with sand dunes.

Utah beach.

The weather turned out to be really nice all day but my camera was dead from the rain the day before. I still turned on and sounded like it was snapping photos but the LCD screen was blank white so from this point forward I thought I had a broken camera. I kept taking or trying to take photos the remainder of the trip but didn't take it too seriously and often didn't bother to take my camera with me at all when we made short stops. So all the rest of the photos were blind shots and rather lucky because it was only after I got home and I checked my chip that I knew that my camera had still been working. Good thing I'm a dork and kept trying :)
From Utah beach it is only a couple of km to St Mere-Eglise a small village I'd never heard of but dad insisted we go because of his remembrance of the old movie "The Longest Day" which I had never seen. It was in this village that the 82nd airborne was dropped the night prior to D-Day and where one paratrooper was famously stuck hanging from the church belltower but survived the ensuing firefight. Today there is a dummy still hanging from the top of the church to remind us of the event and info signs posted in various places around the main square and along the street showing photos and telling small stories of events taking place at that spot. This seemed to be a very common method of personalizing the war for each village and sharing it with tourists.

The dummy paratrooper hanging from the church in Saint Mere-Eglise.

Utah beach is the furthest from the other beaches and was not immediately linked up with the others nor is it really a continuous stretch of beach to the other ones (which do seem to be all connected with each other naturally) so we had to drive a little towards Omaha before first reaching Pointe du Hoc. Pointe du Hoc is a must-see stop if you are visiting the beaches and doing a war sites tour. It was probably the most interesting spot of the whole day for me. It has been left as a "ruins" in that the area is still full of craters from the bombardments, some easily 5m deep, and the twisted concrete bunkers that had also been hit. It was a strategically important point as it overlooks both Utah and Omaha beach and so on D-Day 225 US Rangers scaled the 100ft cliffs in 5 minutes under fire, and secured the area and destroyed the artillery within half an hour of landing on the beach below. Not bad at all. 2 days later when they were finally relieved there were only 90 guys remaining, having been subjected to repeated counter-attacks without reinforcements.

Pointe du Hoc.

From Pointe du Hoc we continued east to Omaha beach, by far the most interesting of the actual beach sites and the one with the most memorials and information about the war. We would later to go to Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. Gold and Juno had a very touristy/resorty feel to them, and at Sword we didn't even find any obvious markers though they must be there somewhere. All the beaches were long sandy beaches and had at least a few swimmers and sunbathers and I had to ask myself the question of which is more messed up, war tourists like us that want to run around on a beach because thousands of people died there, or people that just want to be on a beach and use it like a beach and forget about all the thousands that died there? To me war tourism is all a little messed up. There is honouring the dead and being respectful and then there's the tacky souvenir side of it all as well which just seems wrong. To what extent do all these villages remember the war and events just to profit from the tourism industry it creates? But everywhere does that in the end I suppose. I found it very educating and interesting in any case, linking up all the various events from all the sites I've been to all over Europe and tying history together. It's part of the enlightening process of travel. To see the Normandy beaches, the bridge of the river Kwai in Thailand, the fortifications in northern Norway, dive on the sunken Japanese navy in the Philippines, visit Auschwitz in Poland, read about the siege of Leningrad in one of it's museums, the list goes on and on, and it's all part of the same war, with the same people and events leading up to it. I don't know how to explain it but it really gives you that sense of global interconnectedness and how important what we do today in one place is to people on the other side of the world at some later date. We are one and have a responsibility to each other everywhere.
Anyway, back to Omaha beach where we could see the largest monuments and get the most information. I had no idea that during the war they had to use artificial harbours, called Mulberry (one at Omaha and one at Gold) for months during 1944 and that at the time they were the busiest ports in northern Europe. You can still see the remains of the one off Gold beach during low tide. Also just behind the beach is the American military cemetery, the largest on foreign soil that they have with over 9000 graves. It's an impressive cemetery, very well maintained and with a large visitor center that is effectively a free museum about the battle for Normandy.

Omaha beach.

The American cemetary.

We were also able to see some artillery bunkers with guns still attached at a site called Longues sur mer. There is tons of stuff everywhere along the coast really and we quickly realized that A. there is no way to do it all in a day and B. you don't need to because it gets very repetitive. But I'm sure we still missed a lot of good stuff.

The guns at Longues sur mer.

The remains of the Mulberry at Gold beach.

Juno beach.

Sword beach.

There is apparently a good museum at Arromanches at Gold beach but we had to keep going so we could set foot on all 5 beaches before crossing over the Pegasus bridge (a key initial objective and the eastern edge of the initial landings) and onward to Amiens where we stayed the night.


At 1:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ammon,
I remember the movie your Dad talked about "The Longest Day", and really remembered the guy stuck hanging from the Church, did not realize it was real. Very cool trip, would love to go someday. When do you cross the pond? Heard we were meeting someof the group for dinner in August, looking forward to meeting up again.

The Bear


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