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The Normandy Landings Area

With the Normandy Landings came one of the defining battles of the Second World War. Shortly after midnight on June 6 1944, allied forces began the aerial bombardment of German troops in occupied France. At 6.30a.m. the largest amphibious assault in history took place as more than 160,000 troops landed on the beaches, comprising 73,000 Americans, 61,715 British and 21,400 Canadians.

The Normandy Landings, often referred to as the D-Day landings, saw some of the bloodiest combat of the Second World War. Casualties on both sides were high. Ultimately, the allied forces were victorious, thanks, in part, to a series of misinformation which led Hitler to believe that the allies were planning to attempt the landing further north, at Pas de Calais.

Assistance also came from the French resistance, who sabotaged rail networks and electrical facilities. However, it was the bravery of the soldiers that landed on the beaches, and the sacrifices they made, which won the battle and eventually the war.

The landing beaches covered a 50 mile stretch of the French coastline and were given the code names, Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword and Utah. Today it is possible to visit each one and pay homage to those who fought for freedom. Many have small visitor centres and museums and, across the area, there are ever present reminders of D-Day and its ongoing legacy.

Normandy lies just two hour’s drive from Paris or, if you are crossing the channel by boat, an appropriate way to arrive in the area, the Portsmouth to Caen ferry allows you to disembark at the easternmost point of the landings. The picturesque countryside conceals many of the events of the war and yet all along the coast there is a respectful air and museums and memorials can be found in many of the towns and villages near to where the landings took place.

Whether you are planning to visit the area to pay your respects, or simply to gain a deeper understanding of the events of June 6 1944, this brief guide will help you find sites of interest.

Gold Beach

Gold Beach

Gold Beach

Gold Beach, the area between Le Hamel and Ver sur Mer, was assigned to the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, the 47th (Royal Marine) Commando and the 8th Armoured Brigade. The primary objectives were to establish a beachhead to allow further personnel to safely land and then push south to Bayeux to cut off the road to Caen. The British forces achieved their objectives and suffered relatively few casualties during the operation.

At Ver sur Mer is the Musee America Gold Beach which, perhaps surprisingly, recounts the story of the first airmail flight between France and the USA. It also provides details of the British beachhead and the history of the D-Day landings.

At Arromanches, the Musée du Débarquement has on display military equipment and details of how the British created a harbour at Arromanches (20 of the original concrete pontoons can still be seen among the waves). Also in the town is a circular theatre Arromanches 360, which shows an impressive film combining modern day footage with the historic dating back to 1944.

The Batterie de Longues, at Longues sur Mer, is the only coastal battery to still have its guns in place. By standing next to one of these long range guns (they could fire up to 20km), you get a very real picture of the dangers faced by the landing crews and their ships.

At Port-en-Bessin stands a monument to the 47th Royal Marine Commandos who lost their lives liberating the town.  Also at Port-en-Bessin is the Musée des épaves sous-marines, which has on display a number of items salvaged from beneath the waves over the last 25 years, among which is a Sherman tank.

At Bayeux you will find the Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie, the museum has a large collection of artefacts, both large and small, and presents a comprehensive account of the events of D-Day and the days that followed.  Also at Bayeux is the Musee Memorial du General de Gaulle, which is dedicated to the General and the visits he made to the town. On display are film archives, photographs and other related memorabilia.

Perhaps the most poignant area of note is the Bayeux War Cemetery, which is the largest British Second World War cemetery in France. It contains 3,843 graves. On the Bayeux Memorial, opposite the cemetery, the names of 1,808 commonwealth soldiers, who have no known graves, are inscribed.

Juno Beach

Juno Beach 1944

Juno Beach 1944

Lying to the east of Gold Beach, Juno Beach was the area between Courseulles-sur-Mer and Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer. The beach was the target of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and the No. 48 (Royal Marine) Commando. Poor weather conditions meant that the aerial bombardment, which was supposed to clear the way for the landing troops, was relatively ineffective, and the divisions encountered heavy resistance. Casualties were high with 359 killed, 574 wounded and 47 captured. However, by the end of the day, sheer weight of numbers meant that the 3rd Canadian Infantry had pushed farther inland than any other landing crew on D-Day.

There are many monuments to the fallen soldiers in the area. At Langrune-sur-Mer, on the sea front, is a monument to the 48th Marine Commando Unit. Further along the coast at Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer a 50-mm gun casement has been preservedat the Place du Canada.  There are also monuments to the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment, Fort Garry Horse (a regiment of the Canadian Army reserves), and the 48th Royal Marine Commando.

At Bernieres-sur-Mer, La Maison Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, commemorates the 800 men of the Queen’s Own Rifles who landed on the beach on D-Day. At La Place du Canada memorials to the Queen’s Own Rifles, Le Regiment de la Chaudière and Fort Garry Horse stand next to a German bunker. There is also a plaque commemorating the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and Journalists HQ.

The Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer details the part played by Canadian forces in the landings. In the centre of town you will find a Sherman Duplex Drive tank on display, which was salvaged from the sea in 1970, the badges of the regiments who fought in the area have been welded to the side. Also in Courseulles-sur-mer are plaques to commemorate the Royal Engineers who fought in the area and the sailors of the Free French Navy who brought General de Gaulle back to France aboard La Combattante. Monuments and steles to the Canadian soldiers, La Combattante, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the Regina Rifles Regiment and the Canadian Scottish Regiment may also be found. The Croix de Lorraine monument and the Liberation and De Gaulle monument mark the return of General de Gaulle and the liberation of France.

At Graye-sur-Mer you will find the Liberation monument and, nearby, a Churchill “One Charlie” tank. The Breakthrough plaque marks the road which was one of the main access points for allied forces into occupied France. There are plaques to the Canadian forces who liberated the town and, in addition, separate plaques to the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and 1st Canadian Scottish regiment. There is also a monument to the Inns of Court regiment.

The Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery at Reviers houses the graves of 2,044 Canadian soldiers. At the centre of the cemetery is the Memory Stone and, at the entrance, a plaque dedicated to the memory of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

The primary objective of the Omaha beach landing was to secure a beachhead between Port-en-Bessin and the Vire River. The beach was primarily the target of US soldiers from the 29th Infantry Division and the 1st Infantry division alongside nine companies of US Army Rangers. Poor weather conditions meant that the overnight bombing raids were largely ineffective and the natural shelter afforded to the German troops by their cliff-top position meant that Omaha beach saw some of the heaviest allied casualties of the Second World War.

At Saint Laurent-sur-Mer, in the Musée Memorial d’Omaha Beach there is a large collection of uniforms, weapons and other artefacts relating to the D-Day landings. Larger items such as a landing ship, Sherman Tank and ‘Long Tom’ gun are also on display. Film of veterans discussing the landings bring the assault to life in a way which no amount of writing could. Also at Saint Laurent-sur-Mer are monuments to the 1st Infantry Division and the 5th Engineer Special Brigade.

At Vierville-sur-Mer, the Musée D-Day Omaha is dedicated to the landings and houses an interesting array of weapons, vehicles and other artefacts. The immense loss of life on Omaha beach is evident in the number of monuments and plaques in the town. These include steles commemorating the 29th US Infantry Division, 6th Engineer Special Brigade, and 58th Armoured Field Battalion, plates commemorating the 29th DI Engineers, the 5th Rangers Battalion, the 81st CM Battalion and 110th FA Battalion, a boundary marker in memory of the 58th Artillery Battalion and the National Guard monument.

At La Pointe du Hoc stands a monument to the 2nd Ranger Battalion who scaled a 35 metre rock face to take heavily guarded German bunkers. By the time they achieved their objectives only 90 of the 225 men who began the assault remained. The Musée des Rangers at Grandcamp Maisy, contains records of the assault and details a history of the Rangers. Also at Grandcamp Maisy is the Musée des Batteries de Maisy, where the German artillery batteries and headquarters have been preserved on a fourteen hectare site. Field guns, landing craft and other artefacts are on display here.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer contains the graves of 9,387 American soldiers. The row upon row of simple white cross headstones a stark reminder of the sacrifices of war.

Sword Beach

Landing at Sword Beach

Landing at Sword Beach

Sword Beach was the most easterly of all of the D-Day Landing beaches. Among the units landing at the beach were the British 3rd Infantry Division, 41st Royal Marine Commando and No4 British Commando who were accompanied by 177 French soldiers from the 1st Batallion of Fusiliers Marins Commandos who were among the first to set foot on French soil as the attack began.

At Ouistreham the Musée No4 Commando pays tribute to the battalion and the French commandos who landed with them. Scale models, weapons and other artefacts can all be seen at the museum.  The Musée Du Mur De L’Atlantique is a 17 metre concrete range-finding post which has been fully equipped and restored to its former state.  The town is also home to several monuments including the Free French monument - Kieffer monument, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines monument, 13th/18th Royal Hussars monument, and plaques commemorating N°4 Commando and Commando Kieffer. Commando Kieffer and two of his men were the first members of the Free French to enter Paris.

The Musée de la Batterie de Merville at Merville-Franceville traces the story of the 6th British Airborne operations. While the Mémorial Pégasus, at Ranville has on display the original Pegasus Bridge and a Horsa Glider. Nearby stand several monuments to the 6th British Airborne Division.

At Lion-sur-Mer you will find the Liberation monument, the Royal Engineers Corps monument and a stele commemorating the 41st Royal Marine Commando. At Colleville-Montgomery a plaque in memory of the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment is mounted on the Hillman Battery main block house. There is also a statue of General Montgomery and just 100m along the road, the Kieffer and Montgomery monument.

The Musée Du Radar at Douvres-la-Delivrande is located at a former German radar base. Outside there is a large German Wurzburg (receiver dish) and inside you can learn about the evolution and operation of radar.

The British Cemetery at Hermanville-sur-Mer is the final resting place of 1,003 soldiers. The Ranville War Cemetery has 2,235 graves, of which a large proportion belong to members of the 6th Airborne Division.

Utah Beach

Sherman Tank at Utah Beach

Sherman Tank at Utah Beach

Whilst the poor weather conditions hindered the landings on the other beaches, on Utah, they actually assisted the allies. More by accident than design, the troops of the US 4th Infantry Division landed at the less defended southern end of the beach. The Division met with relatively little resistance and by the end of the day more than 23,000 troops had landed with just 200 casualties.

Plaques in the streets of the village of Sainte-Mère-Église tell of the actions of the US Paratroopers. The village saw heavy casualties for the paratroopers. Their parachutes were attracted to the heat of burning buildings before they could land and they were pulled into the flames or they became snagged in trees and were shot by the Germans. One paratrooper, John Steele, became entangled on the church spire and hung there for two hours pretending to be dead before finally being captured by the Germans.  Steele later escaped and re-joined his division which went on to capture 30 Germans and kill another 11. Steele’s plight is commemorated by an effigy of the paratrooper, which can be seen hanging from the spire today. The church also features a stained glass window of the Virgin and child surrounded by paratroopers.

Also at Sainte-Mère-Église is the Musée Airborne, the museum is dedicated to the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions and exhibits include a Douglas C47 and a Waco Glider. There is also an extensive collection of artefacts, which help to put the role the airborne forces played in the landings into context. The Dead Man’s Corner Museum at Saint Come du Mont houses an important collection of artefacts dedicated to both American and German paratroopers. Located at Azeville, near Sainte-Mère-Église is the Batterie d’Azeville, with German gun encasements, 350m of underground tunnels and a number of underground rooms and storage facilities.

The Musée de l’Occupation in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont is located in a house used as a German garrison post during the war. Inside the building uniformed figures have been used to give a realistic impression of what it would have been like during the war. Also in the town is the Musée du Débarquement, the Utah Beach Landing Museum which has a large collection of artefacts on display. Outside the museum are monuments remembering American soldier’s, the 4th Infantry Division and the 90th Infantry Division. There are also plaques commemorating the VIIth Corps headquarters, the Coast Guard and the US Navy.

The Musée de la Batteries de Crisberg at Saint Marcouf has over 1km of trenches. Much of the site has been restored, and you can see faithful recreations of the hospital, kitchens and recreation rooms. The Memorial de la Liberte Retrouvee at Quinéville is a museum which commemorates the freedom of the French people. It gives an impression of what French life would have been like during German Occupation.

There are ever-present reminders of the events of June 6th, 1944, and the days that followed, in towns and villages throughout Normandy. Whether it be small plaques, steles, monuments or museums, almost everywhere you visit has a focus of remembrance for the brave servicemen who laid down their lives during the D-Day landings. The price paid was high and today we owe a debt of gratitude to those who rest there.

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