My visit to Normandy on the 75th anniversary of D-Day gave me a lot to think about this July 4.
I hadn’t been to France since I was 22, and last month I visited Paris and Normandy. Paris is still a gorgeous city with a rich history. Normandy was beyond anything I’d experienced.
Some of you know my sister and I travel together every year. This was our 17th year. We’ve hiked in the Czech Republic and Easter Island, walked on glaciers in Patagonia, visited Machu Picchu, taken a barge trip in Holland, seen the terracotta soldiers in China, walked on the Great Wall, toured Cuba, spent time in Tuscany, and visited New Zealand and Australia. We’ve also slipped in some beach vacations—one in Mexico and several at the Jersey Shore where we grew up.
Each trip was spectacular in its own way, but nothing compared to the feeling I had standing on Omaha Beach. We didn’t realize June 6 was the 75th anniversary of the beach landings when we booked the trip. Fortunately, the festivities were still in progress when we arrived on June 9. We booked a private tour for the day. When our guide asked what would be important to see, I said I wanted to learn what wasn’t in the history books.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Lessons I Won’t Forget
I started reading D-Day by Stephen E. Ambrose in preparation for the trip. The book is 700+ pages, and I’m still reading it. The most fascinating part was learning about the training and preparations for the actual landing. The Allies were severely lacking ships, boats, planes, amphibious vehicles, soldiers, and anything else you can think of.
The Allied preparations were intricate—including decoys in southeast England with blow-up tanks and equipment, so our defenses looked more formidable from German reconnaissance planes. The Allies sent misinformation to communicate with each other, so the Germans had no clue about their strategy.
The drills and training were rigorous and endless. Most of the soldiers were new recruits and had never seen war before. But Eisenhower got them ready. Sgt. D. Zane Schlemmer of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment commented: “You never get enough training, I found. Once you get into combat, you’ve never had enough training for combat. It is a total impossibility.”
Imagine planning an invasion of a magnitude never experienced before, with 2 million men, half a million vehicles, 54,000 soldiers to feed, 4,500 cooks, and more than 2,700 ships. Then coordinating all divisions of the armed forces, gaining agreement from the 12 Allied countries, and sorting out differences of opinion almost daily until the final plan was agreed upon. Even at the last minute, several of the senior officers wanted to modify the plan based on new intelligence.
Only Eisenhower could give the order to invade. You’ll get a glimpse of the angst and the final preparations in the movie, Churchill, with Brian Cox as Churchill and John Slattery as Eisenhower.
The film and book are both great ways to learn about this fateful day in history, but I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of what happened until I saw those beaches with my own eyes.
The Visit to Omaha Beach
June 9 began as a cloudy, overcast day, and there was an eerie quiet as we approached the beach. I was blown away by the expanse of the shores—four miles, our guide said. (Wikipedia says it’s five.)
We learned that the Allies had code names for everything, including Operation Overlord, the code name for the invasion. The beaches were Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Sword. Utah and Omaha because two of the senior officers were from those places. Then there were the three fishes: Jelly, Gold, and Sword. But one of the officer’s wives was Juno, so Jelly became Juno. (Remember, I wanted to learn what wasn’t in the history books.)
The tide had to be just right for the invasion, as the Germans had placed barbed wire, explosives, booby traps, and hedgerows in the sea—as well as tall wood columns known as “Rommel’s asparagus.” The Allied Forces determined they needed to launch the invasion at dawn on a rising tide with a full moon the night before. (Unfortunately, the night was cloudy, and some of the targets were missed.)
In addition to the many casualties caused by German guns and booby traps, many Allied soldiers died because of the heavy load they were carrying (44+ pounds). They had inflation belts around their waists, but when they entered the water, the heavy load tipped them over, and they drowned. In hindsight, they should have worn the belts high up on their chests, but this simple solution was overlooked.
Allied planes began a systematic bombardment of road and rail infrastructure in Northwest France days and weeks before. American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions went in early to free the town of Sainte-Mere Eglise. American Army Rangers scaled the steep cliffs on the west end of Omaha Beach and were the first to secure a place behind enemy lines. The monument at Pointe du Hoc honors their assault.
During our visit, there were plenty of flyovers by both airplanes and helicopters. While we were at Pointe du Hoc, helicopters came toward us. At the last minute, they turned and flew right over us—so close that we could almost touch them. Our guide told us that was totally against regulations, but he was glad we experienced it.
We also learned about the amazing work and courage of the resistance. French citizens funneled key intelligence to the Allied Forces and bombed bridges to prevent Panzer tanks from crossing. Rommel built the Atlantic Wall, a series of battlements that housed machine guns and soldiers. Many of the German’s conscripted men—Russian, Polish, and French men who were forced to join their ranks—also were part of the resistance and communicated exact location information to the Allies.
It took a team effort to win the war. It also took great sacrifice.
The High Cost of War
At Omaha Beach we met an interesting man from Kentucky who is a sergeant stationed at Fort Knox and is now ordained. He comes each year with his French friends, all dressed in army fatigues. This year he was with Sgt. Ray Lambert, a WWII veteran in whose honor a memorial was established to commemorate the medics who dragged injured soldiers behind this huge rock.
The families of the soldiers from WWII who are now buried at the American cemetery were given the choice of leaving their loved ones in France with their brothers in arms or having their bodies sent home. There are more than 9,000 American soldiers buried here. Only one soldier from WWI was permitted—Quentin Roosevelt, who died in 1919. His family wanted him to be buried with his brother Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Junior, who was on the first boat to land at Omaha Beach.
We often forget that, in addition to the soldiers who lost their lives in Normandy, French citizens suffered tremendously. Many were killed in the bombings. Germans took over their homes. There was severe rationing and the risk that one miss-step could land you on a train to the Russian front—or worse.
Visiting Normandy is a palpable reminder about the high cost of war and the value of peace.
About the Normandy Region
Normandy has a varied history, and it’s a delightful place to travel. Nestled into the beautiful countryside are historic towns, small villages, and the medieval town of Bayeux, where we stayed. We visited a huge cathedral that was begun by William the Conqueror in the 12th century. We visited Deauville, Honfleurs, and Mont Saint Michel. I climbed the 800 round-trip steps to the Abby. This piece of rock has a rich history and is a must-see.
The people are lovely and welcoming. We stayed at a charming B&B, which was built in 1788 for the guests of Louis XVI. Our hosts were Sophie and Phillipe at Hotel Particulier POPPA. There are only four rooms, and I would recommend this in a heartbeat.
And the food … oh, the food. The buckwheat savory crepes are mouthwatering. Normandy is known for its Calvados brandy, which is made from the cider apples you see in every orchard. I didn’t taste the brandy (probably should have), but I brought home Calvados jelly, which is great on toast or anything else.
One could easily spend a week in the region—visiting the various D-Day sites and museums, touring the town of Caen (which was almost destroyed completely), and just taking the time to meander and speak with people. And shop, if that’s your thing.
Many people return every year to commemorate the Battle of Normandy on June 6, 1944—a war fought for freedom. And as I celebrate July 4th this year, I will remember the sacrifices made that day (and many other days) to protect our independence, our democracy, and our American values.
(Caveat: I told this as I saw it. If you’re a WWII buff, you may have a different perspective, and I’d appreciate learning from you.)