“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Normandy and the D-Day Beaches

Omaha Beach today

I've always been a huge WW2 buff and always wanted to visit the D-Day beaches.  I have visited a number of other WW1 and WW2 battlefields and sites including Bastogne, Verdun, Okinawa, Berchtesgaden and a number of Allied cemeteries in Europe but Normandy and the beaches of D-Day have always been my Holy Grail.

So when we decided to make the trip we naturally chose to go during the first week of June to coincide with the annual anniversary celebrations.  I highly recommend going during that week, the commemorative events and activities that occur each year add to the flavor of the visit.

We started our adventure with a drive through the Normandy countryside and it isn't hard to imagine what Allied and German soldiers saw as they fought here.  It hasn't changed much; narrow country roads, century old houses, bocage along field and country lanes and stone walls give the area a distinctly mid-20th century feel.  It's easy to let your mind trick you into thinking it is 1944.

Stone churches and old houses that saw battles still stand tall.

One of many Calvados producers along the Route de Cidre 

Of course, no trip to Normandy would be complete without stopping for a taste of Calvados, apple brandy unique to the area.

Route de Cidre, the "Cider Route".  At least 20 Calvados producers on this road.

But enough of that, on to the D-Day beaches and battlefields, the real purpose of the trip.  Along the way we came upon this WW2 cemetery, unique in that Allied and German cemeteries sit side-by-side.
The German cemetery

German soldiers were buried two to a headstone. This one has the name of one, the other simply identified as "Ein Deutscher Soldat"--A German Soldier

The Allied cemetery.  French, British and American soldiers rest here.

After a brief stop we headed on to Omaha Beach, one of two American landing beaches and the one that saw the most action on D-Day.
There are still remnants of the battles.  These were originally placed on the beaches to prevent landing craft from beaching.

This house is just up the beach and survived heavy bombing and swirling battles.

The view from Omaha Beach to the bluff above.  The remains of a German bunker still stand guard. 

If you're a WW2 buff, the names of the towns are familiar.  Lot of action occurred here.

A battle scarred German emplacement.  Notice the damage from artillery hits.

There were reenactments and other events taking place during anniversary week.  We ran into reenactors and got to talk with them.

This man was French and was an avid reenactor. 

He has taken on the persona of a soldier from Alabama and inscribed info on his helmet chin strap.  He was excited when he learned I was from Alabama.  He is also a Civil War reenactor--go figure, a Frenchman!

There were numbers of WW2 era vehicles--Jeeps, motorcycles, trucks.
We ran into this gentleman and wife.  He was aboard the HMS Prince Albert on D-Day and landed troops on Juno Beach in the British sector.  He was 90 years ad was a 21-year old sailor on D-Day.

He showed us a picture of his ship, HMS Prince Albert

Also showed us a picture of he and his (then future) wife, circa 1944.  They had planned to get married before the war but when he joined the Royal Navy they postponed the wedding and were married after the war.

How often do you get to shake hands with a D-Day veteran?  What an honor!

On to Pointe du Hoc, where some of the fiercest fighting took place on D-Day.
Overlooking the beaches below Pointe du Hoc. Army Rangers had to scale these cliffs to take out a German battery.

Battle scarred but still standing after 70 years.  The Germans knew how to build batteries to withstand  bombardment.

Plaque honoring the Rangers

Standing in a crater to show its size.  Pointe du Hoc was the most heavily bombed site in Normandy.  Massive craters and destroyed bunkers litter the point.  Both American heavy bombers and Navy guns hit the Germans here but they still survived to put up a brutal fight against the Rangers.

More craters and damaged bunkers

Inside the German bunker.
As we walked among the ruins of Omaha Beach, a P-51 Mustang, British Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane flew over.  How fitting.

We walked Omaha Beach, up the draws where Americans fought to gain a foothold on France, and looked out over the waves and imagined hundreds of ships approaching the French mainland.  What a moving visit!
Then we moved on to Utah beach and the villages of the French countryside where so much fighting took place.  In Carentan we met Duncan Hollands, an ex-British soldier who served in the Scots Guards and is a WW2 expert,  Duncan is a font of knowledge on Normandy in WW2 and I highly recommend him.
Duncan Hollands (in center) giving us the history of D-Day at Utah Beach.
Utah beach monument

We ran into this gentleman, an American WW2 vet, at Utah Beach.  It is such a privilege to meet these men.
One of my favorite stops was at the village of Angoville-au-Plain.  In the church there American troops from the 101st Airborne division set up a field hospital and cared for wounded as the battle raged on in the surrounding countryside.  Eventually German wounded joined the crowded church.  sometime during the battle a mortar round came through the roof and struck the floor but failed to explode.  A miracle.  The pictures tell the tale:
Notice the hole in the cupola where the mortar round came through.

Shattered floor where the mortar round hit and failed to explode

Blood marks still visible on the church pew.
Our last stop was at the American cemetery at Colville sur Mer.  So many stories rest here.  Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who died of a heart attack during the battle rests here.

We continued touring through the French countryside, visiting Ste Mere d'Englise, Carentan, Bayeux, Deadman's Corner, Vierville and the French hedgerow country where Allied soldiers fought so hard.

If you are interested in WW2 history, this trip is a must-do.  Do yourself a favor and engage Duncan Hollands for your tour at  http://www.normandysightseeingservices.com/