Today marks the 71st Anniversary of the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. On June 6, 1944, Western Allied forces, predominantly from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, crossed the English Channel and landed on various beaches along the French coast, with the intent of breaching the German stronghold. The ensuing battle between the Allies and Axis forces was brutal, resulting in thousands of casualties. The invasion was ultimately deemed a success, but at a cost.
Thanks to my father, I grew up knowing a decent amount about the European campaign of World War II and found it to be both fascinating and heartbreaking. Being the massive history buff that I am, it should come as no surprise that visiting Normandy was a very high priority on my list of things to do in Europe. When the opportunity arose to actually go to Normandy, I jumped all over it.
I had the privilege of exploring Normandy with an American friend of mine. Between the two of us, and our short 2 days in Normandy, we were able to cram an fairly decent amount of diverse sightseeing into our itinerary. Our plan: take the ferry from Portsmouth, UK to Caen, France, rent a car and drive around to our hearts content. We stayed at the beautiful La Sapinière in Saint Laurent-sur-Mer. The hotel was absolutely phenomenal and wound up being a very short 5 minute walk to Omaha Beach.
By the time we arrived in Caen, picked up the car rental and drove to Saint Laurent-sur-Mer, much of our first day in Normandy was spent. We made the most of what was left of the day and took a walk down the beach towards the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. During our walk we stumbled upon several old bunkers, gun batteries, the A-21 airstrip (which was of the first operational landing strips along Omaha beach) and several memorials along the beach. Unfortunately the cemetery had closed a few minutes before we made it there, so we had to turn around and leave it for the next day.
My only full day in Normandy was packed to the brim. We chose to focus primarily on Omaha Beach, Juno Beach and both of the major American and Canadian cemeteries and whatever time we had left we could fill as we went. For the sake of being efficient with what little time we had, we worked our way north from Omaha Beach.
Our first stop of the day was the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer. Omaha Beach was one of two American landing sites. It was an absolutely haunting experience. We were among the first tourists to arrive for the day, and found ourselves alone for the majority of our visit. Walking through the Cemetery reduced me to tears. Nothing is more devastating than being surrounded by unending fields of white crosses, knowing that every single one of those crosses marks a man or woman who died. There are 9,387 headstones at this Memorial alone.
After our time at Omaha, we set out in search of Juno Beach, one of two Canadian landing sites. The Juno Beach Centre is located in Courseulles-sur-Mer and consists of a small memorial, park and museum. You can pay for a tour of the beach and associated sights, but we opted to instead pay the small fee to wander through the museum and walk to the beach on our own. After taking in that the Centre had to offer, we struck out in search of the Canadian cemetery. The Canadian cemetery is not located near the Juno Beach Memorial, but is rather located inland near the village of Reviers.
The Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery is about a 30 minute drive from Courseulles-sur-Mer inland, and is surrounded by nothing but fields. We were the only visitors at the cemetery when we arrived. The Cemetery was silent, with the exception of several cheerful birds and the gentle sound of the wind. It was beautiful, perfect and a wonderful memorial for our soldiers. There are 2049 headstones at this Cemetery, most of which belong to 3rd Division of the Canadian Armoured Brigade.
The day was still young at this point, and we had plenty of time left to cram more sightseeing in. We made the call at this point to go to Arromanches-les-Bains, which is located along Gold Beach, the British landing site. Arromanches-les-Bains was the home of Mulberry Harbour, the remnants of which are still sitting in the harbour.
Finally, our last stop of the day was at Pointe-du-Hoc. Pointe-du-Hoc is geographically the highest point between Utah Beach to the south, and Omaha Beach to the north and was used by the German army to defend both. It was attacked on D-Day by and was ultimately secured by American ground forces who scaled the cliffs. This allowed for American forces to land on Omaha and Utah without being attacked by German artillery. The area was heavily shelled during the war and is still riddled with massive craters.
The effects of the war still litter many of the towns and villages along the coast. Each town flies not only the French flag, but the flag of their liberators. Memorials, cenotaphs, museums and more can be found around every corner. It is very clear that the residents of Normandy still remember and are very thankful for the sacrifices made by the Allied forces.
My time in Normandy is something that I will likely never forget. However, if I could go back and change how I approached this trip, I would in a heartbeat. My two-ish days were not near enough time to fully appreciate the amount of World War II history tucked away in Normandy, much less experience everything else that Normandy has to offer. We were unable to venture over to Utah Beach, Carentan or Mont Saint-Michel, all of which I had hoped to do. In the future, I will ensure that I make time to spend at least two weeks, if not more, in this beautiful part of France.
There is no denying that the events of World War II were horrifying. Thousands of men, women and children died during the course of the War. The world changed because of it. However, we must make the effort to remember what happened and honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect us. Their sacrifices made it possible for us to live the life that we do today. We cannot forget that.