On June 6th, 1944, the Allied powers launched history’s largest amphibious invasion across the English Channel, landing in the beaches of Northern France and beginning the grueling, ten-month-long process of liberating Europe from the Nazis and defeating Hitler. As a WWII historian, visiting the landing beaches of Normandy has been a massive, massive bucket list item for me for, well…. for as long as I can remember! Thanks to the urging of a friend of mind – a fellow history nerd who lives in France – I started planning my journey during the pandemic as a way to get through the stress of lockdown and the over-all boredom and misery which Covid inflicted upon all. Below is a collection of “then-and-now” compilations which I made from my favorite photographs and posted to my Instagram.
No, it’s not an original concept – you can find plenty of versions of this all over the internet in relation to historical places – but this is my version. I hope you enjoy.
Side note: I really ought to have some sort of proper article on D-Day to link here, but I do not. ::swats:: Bad historian! Grounded! ::swatswat:: Most of the students in my European Theatre class decided to write their final papers on Operation Overlord, so, in my usual manner of general contrariness, I choose to write about the Battle of Britain instead and my obsession with aerial warfare began. Instead, have written brief, informal summaries of events on each of the beaches we visited. As of right now, I kind of feel like loads of more eminent historians have covered this anyway, so go check them out for more information.
Omaha Beach – We started here, driving about an hour west of the Air BnB I had on Sword beach and beginning our return by stopping here to explore. The plan was to hit several major highlights on the way back and find a spot for a picnic, making a full day of the D-Day explorations. Omaha Beach was, of course, the most heavily defended beach and had been assigned to the Americans, specifically the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions. 43,000 Americans faced the heavily entrenched German 352nd Battalion, a force of approximately 7,000 experienced troops. The primary goal of capturing Omaha was to link the Americans at Utah with the British at Gold. As tends to go with the best-laid plans of mice, things quickly went awry. Strong currents swept many of the forces east of their intended landing points, and out of fear of hitting the troops our air support delayed bombing, leaving many of the beach fortifications intact. Return to the picture above and take notice of how far out this beach runs at low tide – as you can see, it’s really quite shallow for a ways. As a result, much of the landing craft ran adrift on sandbars and our American boys were forced to wade ashore in deep water, weighed down by their equipment and under intense German fire. A great number of the tanks from the 741st Tank Battalion were dropped 5,000 yards from the shore and sank. Hard fighting and heavy casualties finally resulted in the establishment of two footholds by the end of the day, and over the next few days these foot holds were exploited to achieve the objective of linking the D-Day beaches. It is difficult to get an accurate count of American losses at Omaha, with estimates ranging between 2,000 to 5,000 American boys at the cost of just over 1,000 Germans.
The sculpture I photographed on the beach is known as Les Braves, by Anilore Banon. The three “wings” represent hope, freedom, and fraternity. The sculptor’s explanations are as follows-
The Wings of hope
So that the spirit which carried these men on June 6th 1944 continues to inspire us, reminding us that together it is always possible to change the future.
So that the example of those who rose against barbarity, helps us remain standing strong against all forms of inhumanity.
The Wings of Fraternity
So that this surge of brotherhood always reminds us of our responsibility towards others as well as ourselves. On June 6th 1944 these men were more than soldiers, they were our brothers.
Point du Hoc
Point du Hoc is a MUST. Utterly pock-marked with bomb craters and scattered with German bunkers and machine gun posts, it could not be missed! Sneaking into our classically French picnic of baguette, cheese, and saucisson, we navigated the winding roads past countless tiny D-Day museums and to the parking lot of the Army Rangers museum at Point du Hoc. It’s a bit of a walk to the site itself, and there were many warnings that visitors should not climb in the craters or on the ruins. As it turned it, such was impossible – since the signs went up practically everything had been fenced off.
There are a couple of open machine gun pits, several of these concrete emplacements, and a good few German bunkers, one of which is extra spooky because it was not lit. No one else would go into that one except for this tenacious pair with our cell phone flashlights. Dark and dank, with holes blown out of the cement walls here and there and the rebar exposed and rusting. One could spend a good half-a-day exploring the cliffs and the Ranger museum!
Point du Hoc is situated between Utah and Omaha beaches, bristling with a German costal defense battery of six captured155mm French guns dating from the first World War. The German battery was originally built in 1943 then soon improved by enclosing the open concrete gun pits with casements; by summer of 1944 the older guns had been removed and four of the pits had been completed. Point du Hoc also boasted an observation bunker and mounts for 20mm flack 30 AA guns. Deemed a threat to the Allied troops, seizing the battery at Point du Hoc was a task given to the 2nd and 5th US Ranger Battalions. The morning of June 6th, British landing craft landed 225 Rangers at the base of the cliffs and they began their hundred foot climb while battleships USS Texas, USS Satterlee, USS Ellyson, and the HMS Talybont “softened up” the fortifications. Despite 200 Germans raking them with gun fire, attempting to cut their ropes, or lobbing grenades at them, all but 15 Rangers made it to the top of the cliff and discovered, to their surprise and no doubt frustration, that the guns had been removed (they later discovered them tucked away beneath the trees and summarily destroyed them with hand grenades). However, Ranger orders were not limited to capturing Point du Hoc and the guns; they had further objectives down the coast including capturing the town of Grandcamp and attacking the Maisey battery.
Delayed in signaling for their reinforcements, the second wave consisting of 500 Rangers was instead deployed to Omaha beach where, some historians argue, they helped avert disaster.
Isolated from Allied forces, for two days the Rangers bore German harassment, sustaining heavy casualties which reduced their numbers to approximately 90 men before finally being relieved on June 8th by forces from Omaha Beach.
It is easy, on these beautiful French beaches where the Channel is turquoise and green and the sky a perfect blue, to disassociate from the events of the past as if in a dream. It seems impossible that such misery ever occurred on the peaceful, clean sand.
Hence my tiny “then and now” picture project. I, myself, needed the reminder.
However, at Point du Hoc one is faced with the brutality of war at every single turn, inescapable and horrifying. The blood is long gone, but smashed concrete, bullet-scarred walls, and burnt timbers stand in stark testament to the cruel deaths endured by the young men on both sides.
Gold Beach has long fascinated me thanks to images of the rotting Mulberry Piers, an amazing feat of engineeringg in answer to an Allied logistics problem.
A British landing point (with support from sundry other Allied powers), Gold was the center of the D-Day beaches and the objective was to establish a beachhead, capture the town of Arromanches, and link up with the Americans in the West and the Canadians in the East. They faced approximately 2,000 Germans from the 352 Infantry and 716 Static Infantry Divisions, who had been improving the defenses along the hills and cliffs since 1943 beneath the command of the capable Erwin Rommel. Suffering casualties of approximately 1,000 British and Allied troops, almost all objectives were achieved by the end of the day.
On June 8th, the first element of the Mulberry harbors was sunk at Arromanches. These prefabricated, portable, temporary harbors were designed by the British and built jointly by British and Americans for the loading of military goods. They are – quite frankly – ridiculously clever, a complex collection of movable piers, breakwaters, and roads that just can’t be fully grasped via photographs. Brought over from the UK in the days following the invasion, Mulberry A was assembled at Omaha and promptly destroyed in a storm on June 19th. Mulberry B was assembled at Gold Beach and served well for ten months, offloading 2.5 million men and millions more tons of supplies and vehicles. Since it’s wartime use, the harbor has been destroyed by storms and tide. Elements of the breakwater can still be seen out to sea and several of the piers have washed onto the beach.
I think my companion’s main goal at Arromanches was actually just to have our picnic next to a particular Sherman tank, so that’s what we did. I’m really not sure there’s a better meal than warm cheese and saucisson and red wine on a beautiful afternoon.
We ended our D-Day day back at Sword Beach, one of the British landings and chosen because this is where my companion’s grandfather, a British commando, had landed. I actually have no family connection at all to D-Day – the Akins fought entirely in the Pacific, and the Grossis were in Italy until 1946.
Someday soon I will hopefully have a synopsis of the commando’s war experience to include in this little site, which will be linked here when it is completed.
Sword Beach was the Easternmost of the Normandy landings, assaulted by the British 3rd Division with British and French commandos from the 1st and 4th Special Divisions with the added support of various other Allied powers, including the Canadians, who landed here at St. Aubin-sur-Mer. The objective was to protect the flank of the Allied advance, link up with the 6th Airborne, and recapture the city of Caen. The Commandos were slowed from their meeting with the Canadians by tough resistance from the German 21st Panzer Division – the only armored counter-attack of the day. The fighting on Sword that day was successful with casualties relatively light; the British suffered less than 700. However, retaking Caen would not be accomplished for another month.
I’m going to take a moment here and brag on the wonderful Air BnB I scored in St. Aubin-Sur-Mer, hosted by Rolan of La Balen Blue. He didn’t ask me to do this, but in light of the nightmare I enjoyed in Nice (which will be linked here so y’all can share in my horror) thought I would share positive experience as well. Right on the beach, the entire little apartment was made up of kitchen, living area, bedroom, and a nice little bathroom, and is accessible through a lovely little gated garden. Rolan gave me directions to get there from Caen, and the apartment was well-appointed in every way from chargers of all kinds to blankets, beach towels, and cashmere sweaters. There are all sorts of charming little restaurants and bars right next to it, and I was able to enjoy a nice morning cappuccino at a different place each day. In all, I absolutely fell in love with Normandy. The architecture is fascinating and the lifestyle laid back. The weather is a bit cool for my taste, but after weeks of blistering hot, triple digit Texas temperatures it was a welcome relief. The gardens and wildflowers were all still blooming when our Texas plants were busy dying. I didn’t see much of a night life, but I was saving that for Paris anyway. The only thing Normandy could have done to improve the experience would have been to generally stock a better selection of bourbon!
Cappuccino a la machine gun. Europe is always so fascinating and surreal to me, as they just live and work around all this history, and it’s just… ordinary to them. I was far too entertained by my second cappuccino of the trip which I spent quietly in the company of this German anti-tank gun emplacement, put there to guard the streets from advancing Allies. This was my first exploration of any Nazi fortification in my entire adult life, and I was delighted.
A note on transportation in Normandy. My companion insisted on renting a car, and I am now recommending that to you. I had just assumed there would be some sort of convenient, D-Day oriented bus line that went from beach to beach. There is not. In fact, public transit is somewhat limited up there. We rented the car in Caen and it made our little exploration of the beaches and the surrounding areas (such as Caen itself and Mt. Saint Michele) much easier.
The Battle for Caen lasted from June to July, 1944. Strategically located, Caen was a major road hub and an important communications center, making it highly coveted by both sides. Additionally, the surrounding flat fields made it an appealing potential airfield for the Allies. Thwarted by traffic jams, the British 3rd failed to capture it on June 6th and so the Allies spent the next week focusing instead on linking their beachheads before turning their attention to the capture of the city. Determined to hold Caen, the Germans concentrated their Panzer divisions here and thus ensured a great loss of life while simultaneously neglecting the western Allied advance. Six weeks of heavy fighting and numerous Allied attempts to attack the city finally resulted in success on July 18th. The cost of the battle was high – more than 70% of the city had been destroyed by Allied bombing and ground combat, and it is estimated that 3,000 civilians lost their lives.
Caen only got half a day, which involved a thorough exploration of the stunning St. Peter’s Cathedral pictured above….
I was delighted the Normans had taken the time and treasure necessary to restore this gorgeous building in spite of the extensive damage. Although our trip through Caen revealed the extent of the war damage – new architecture sprouting from in between the old – it was good to see how much they had managed to save.
Caen also boasts the Chateau de Caen, which was built by William the Conqueror in 1066. As we only had half a day here and wanted to go Mt. Saint Michele, we satisfied ourselves with a walk around it rather than the full tour.
Caen has so many beautiful churches that one could easily spend an entire day just exploring them, all on their own!
We had also arrived in Caen just in time for the anniversary of their liberation from the Germans, and witnessed them setting up for a ceremony. Unfortunately, the ceremony was not to happen until the evening, and we had a monastery to visit.
On the whole, Normandy was an amazing trip and I was so excited to tick so many important items off my bucket list! However, there was simply so much to see – so many museums, so many interesting cemeteries, so much beautiful architecture and good food to eat – there was no way to do it in the time I had allotted! A return trip to France is a must, which I will plan around Notre Dame’s reopening. I will visit that stunning jewel of architecture and strike that from my bucket list, then spend a day exploring the Maginot Line and perhaps plan a return to Normandy, so I can get lost in more museums, collect and label sand from each of the five landing beaches, and just generally be a history geek.
To close, dear reader, please enjoy this stunning Channel sunset!