When traveling to Normandy, France, to visit the D-Day landing beaches, planning where to go can get overwhelming. Do you choose the British landing zones and beaches or the American D-Day beaches and airborne drop zones? When we visited Normandy, I wanted to visit both zones, but quickly realized for such a short visit, there was no way I could see the American and British landing beaches as well as airborne drop zones. We only had two days, so I decided to concentrate on the American D-Day beaches. Here are five ways to experience the American D-Day beaches of Normandy.
First, to get a true understanding of the magnitude of the June 6, 1944, operation, I suggest reading Cornelius Ryan’s D-Day epic, “The Longest Day,” or watching the 1962 film by the same name featuring an international all-star cast from John Wayne to Henry Fonda. Stephen E. Ambrose’s book “Band of Brothers” as well as the HBO miniseries based on the book also offer superb accounts that provide good background for a visit to the Normandy D-Day landing region.
A visit to the landing beaches, airborne drop zones and villages and cities affected by the Allied invasion of Normandy could take weeks to get the full experience. I want to go back to experience the British and Canadian beaches, the bridges near Ranville where the British Red Devils exhibited amazing courage to hold through the night, and the German cemeteries east of Caen. I want to stand in the orchards where Lt. Dick Winters’ men of Easy Company battled through the hedgerows, visit the Memorial Museum in Caen, and spend more time walking in the surf of Utah Beach. For now, I’ll be satisfied with my experience at the American D-Day beaches. Here are five ways to experience the American D-Day beaches.
Utah Beach is the less famous of the two American landing beaches. Compared to the bloodbath that occurred at Omaha Beach, Utah Beach was an easier objective. Confusion led the landing to actually occur about a mile south of the original beach. This turned out to be a good thing for the Americans, as this stretch of beach was less heavily defended. Today, the beach is a great place for a pleasant stroll along a wide swath of sand, or on the dunes above.
There is also a museum there filled with artifacts from Utah Beach that give details about the landing there, and the drive south toward Paris and ultimately Germany that started here.
Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery
If you have as little as an hour to spend in the American D-Day beaches region, my advice is to head straight to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. To witness the sacrifice of the Greatest Generation, it can be seen in the rows of tombstones in the cemetery that overlooks the landing beaches of Omaha Beach. There is a small welcome center with exhibits and films that provide a good introductory to the landing. Outside the building is an overlook to the beach below, where there are long pathways down the cliff to the sand.
Back on top are the tombstones. Take a few moments to quietly walk the rows, paying respects to the thousands of Americans who lost their lives in Normandy.
Pointe du Hoc
When we visited Normandy with our young son, Pointe du Hoc was his favorite spot. He loved playing in the bomb craters that scatter the top of the cliff. The Naval ships blasted the cliff top, leaving a moonscape on top.
The U.S. Army Rangers scaled the 100-foot cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, where their mission was to silence the large guns that would batter the landing troops on Utah and Omaha beaches. Look over the cliff and imagine being a German defender peering down on the Americans climbing the ropes and ladders to get to the top.
The little village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise just behind the Utah Beach landing zone is a tiny spot, but if you read or watched “The Longest Day” you know its place in the invasion’s story. The drop zones of the 82nd Airborne were around the village, not in the village. But planes were scattered during the night, and some of the men dropped inside the village where they were welcomed by German defenders.
The Americans eventually captured the village that night, but the harrowing experience they had can be seen on top of the church where a parachute dangles today. It’s a re-creation of Private John Steele’s landing on the church, where he dangled until being captured later that night. His story is one of my favorites from “The Longest Day.”
Just off the village’s main square is the Airborne Museum. A visit there gives a taste of the experiences of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions who jumped into the Normandy darkness.
Drive the small lanes
When we were in Normandy, one thing I wished we had more time for was to drive the small lanes through the Normandy countryside. The drive from the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach westward to Pointe du Hoc was peaceful and hard to imagine was once the place of so much death and destruction. There are a number of small museums that dot the landscape filled with various artifacts recovered from the beaches and drop zones through the years.
One of my favorite experiences was driving the road that parallels Utah Beach, where we could stop every 100 meters or so to explore the vast array of German bunkers that remain. It was spooky, to be honest, stepping into these dark concrete blocks where German soldiers once defended the continent from the Allied invasion.