June 6, 1944.
That’s one of those dates that doesn’t require additional context or explanations. You just know it.
It’s D-Day, the Allied invasion of France that helped turn the tide in World War II. It is one of the most significant dates in 20th Century history.
Visiting D-Day sites became my obsession when my family began planning a long-dreamed-of trip to Europe. We ultimately chose to spend four days in Normandy, including visits to numerous D-Day sites just 10 days or so after 75th anniversary observances.
It was a sobering and powerful experience. I continue to be amazed at the challenges that the Allies overcame to make it a success and appreciative of the cooperation between nations that it required, cooperation that does not seem to be present in the same quantities it once did.
There were personal notes as well. A family friend who flew B-17s during the war died earlier this year, and I attended his military funeral at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland. Very moving event.
Also, this spring I discovered that a relative on my wife’s side of the family died in Belgium during the Allied march to Berlin and is buried there at one of the U.S. cemeteries.
One further note: When I travel for historical purposes I try as much as possible to walk in the shoes of the participants. Thus, I spend less time in museums and visitors centers. You find out more by just walking around and observing. This has worked well for me in previous tours of Civil War battlefields as well as Lewis & Clark sites and Little Bighorn. Obviously, there are other ways to do these things.
Here, in chronological order is a look at the stops on our tour:
This small village at the western edge of what was called Gold Beach, the landing site for British forces, is known for its use as a temporary harbor, a key loading dock, if you will, for the troops and equipment that moved across the English Channel and into France in support of the invasion.
A similar artificial port was erected to the west at Omaha Beach, but it was wiped out by a storm after just 10 days or so.
Huge pieces of the Arromanches pier, called Port Winston in honor of the British prime minister, still are intact. Most of the 20 or so remnants sit out in the Channel a couple of hundred yards from the shore, but a few pieces are on the beach and easily approachable during low tide.
With all of the attendant oceanic chaos of tides and storms and weather it seems impossible that the chunks are still there 75 years later. Feels like an impromptu monument that has continued to make its presence felt by sheer stubbornness.
The German battery
At Longues-sur-Mer, just a short drive from Arromanches, lies a carefully preserved site that once held a German battery. The four gun emplacements fired 40-pound shells and could hit targets 12 miles away at Omaha Beach to the west or Gold Beach to the east.
The guns are a great example of the extensive use of concrete by the Germans on their Atlantic Wall project. There are massive walls 5-6 feet thick that remain in good shape today. Also at the site are ammo bunkers, a mortar facility and the forward observation post that was used by spotters who sent back coordinates to the gunners.
You can crouch inside the observation bunker and see through the narrow slit the view that the spotters had.
The battery surrendered to British forces on June 7. It is operated by a coastal conservancy group that has worked to keep the area’s vegetation looking just as it did in 1944. Also at the site are interpretive signs that note the archaeological work that has been performed at D-Day sites over the years. The displays are some of the most interesting and informative I saw at any Normandy site.
The toughest fighting on D-Day came here, partly because it had some of the most effective German troops defending it, and partly because cloud cover the morning of the invasion prevented Allied bombers from taking out the German bunkers. The invasion forces — troops and armor — needed a clear path away from the beach on the “draws” that led to coastal towns such as Colleville, St. Laurent and Vierville.
Oh, and there were steep bluffs at Omaha as well. With the draws slammed shut by German guns, creative American troops improvised and went up the bluffs, often taking the German batteries from the rear. It was brutal and dangerous work, and it is not surprising that Omaha invaders suffered the greatest number of casualties on D-Day.
You can look down from those bluffs from the American Cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer. The sea looks far away and the high ground gave the defenders a definite advantage. Turn the other direction from those bluffs and you see the cost. More than 9,000 crosses are laid out on a scrupulously maintained greensward. The trees and flowers are blooming and you feel like you should be tiptoeing through the grounds.
More than 300 of the crosses note that unknown remains lie below. State flags and American flags were placed in front of many of the graves, with floral tributes there as well.
A visit to the cemetery is free. The site is controlled by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Started in 1923 the commission operates 26 cemeteries and memorials. The commission also operates a database that includes every American who died in Europe.
At the visitors center I was able to look up by wife’s relative, Capt. Thomas A. Norwood, a West Point graduate who served with the 326th Engineering Battalion, an element of the 101st Airborne. He died Sept. 23, 1944 and is buried, along with more than 7,000 other Americans, at the Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery near Hombourg, Belgium.
I already had the information from personal research, but I felt … appreciative that he was immortalized in the Normandy computers. He, like the other Americans buried in Europe, should never be forgotten.
We walked the beach at Omaha at Vierville-sur-Mer. The seawall that many of the troops used for cover still is there and the area seems to be experiencing a bit of a housing boom. It struck our traveling party as kind of a strange place to live and seeing kids with floaties on the beach also struck us as incongruous. But this was our first time there, with all of the attendant emotions of first-timers. The French lived through the occupation and the invasion. They deserve the right to play on the beach.
Speaking of the French, we saw American flags (and British and Canadian and others) everywhere in Normandy. For sale in markets. Stuck into geranium pots on windows and balconies. Flapping in the breeze in strings above the narrow streets of the small Norman villages. Americans still are viewed as liberators of the country. The gesture struck us as profoundly meaningful.
Pointe du Hoc
This promontory at the west end of Omaha Beach was the scene of the one of the great miracles of D-Day. U.S. Rangers scaled the cliff and took out the German guns on the bluff. Virtually no German troops were on hand to defend the guns because the Germans believed it was impossible for anyone to climb the bluff. But the group of 200-plus Rangers did it, losing about a third of their strength in the process.
Today the area is an eerie moonscape, with massive craters pockmarking the bluffs, providing the starkest evidence in Normandy of the impact of bombs falling. Also at Pointe du Hoc you drive through some of the famous hedgerows that made for easy cover for the Germans and a challenge for Allied armor to maneuver.
On the way back to Arromanches from Pointe du Hoc we stopped at a cider farm run by the Lebrec family. Credit goes to Euro travel expert Rick Steves for suggesting the stop. Cidermakers in the region offer hard cider, pommeau, a mixture of apple juice and brandy and Calvados, an apple brandy that is 42% alcohol. Another name for the Normandy region is the Calvados Coast.
The farm dates to the 10th century and features a fantastic ancient watch tower and massive buildings which were built from stones quarried on the farm. Bernard Lebrec has apple orchards, wheat fields and pasture for cows on his nearly 300 acres. He also has a picture of the 147th Engineering Battalion, which was housed at the farm after D-Day.
In September 1944 Lebrec’s family built a memorial to the battalion, listed those who died during the invasion, and set it in a garden on the farm. It has to be one of first D-Day memorials to go up.
Lebrec’s father Robert published a paper on the impact of iron and copper in plant growth and Bernard proudly displayed the letter that Michigan State University sent requesting to post it on their website. Bernard noted that Michigan State was an agricultural college and I chimed in about working in Corvallis, a town with its own agricultural college. A brief discussion of land grant institutions ensued.
The American assault on Utah Beach, on the far west end of the five invasion beaches, has some interesting components. First, the beach consists of dunes instead of bluffs, which changed the dynamics a bit. Second, it was a combined amphibious/airborne landing as more than 10,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne and the 82nd Airborne dropped into Normandy starting at around 1 a.m. H-Hour for the beach landings was 6:30 a.m. The goal was for the landing troops to hook up with the airborne units at major road intersections. Dominating the roads was critical because of the invasion’s key objective of taking the deep-water port of Cherbourg, about 35 miles away.
Nothing went the way it was supposed to, but the Americans succeeded anyway. The Germans flooded the marshy areas inland from the beach, forcing troops to wade through the water. And the airborne drops produced chaos as well. Units got separated, coordination was difficult and more improvisation was required for the troops to meet their objectives.
Two Oregon State University graduates played key roles in the airborne assault, as I noted in a story the Gazette-Times published in its June 6 editions. Then-Lt. Patrick Cassidy (Class of 1937), landed with the 502nd PIR of the 101st Airborne. He led the airborne troops who controlled a vital intersection just west of Utah Beach. Cassidy received the Distinguished Service Cross for his D-Day work.
Knut Raudstein also was there. A captain on D-Day and commander of Company C of the 506th PIR, the 1940 graduate received the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts to eliminate the Germans’ Holdy battery near St. Marie de Mont.
Raudstein’s campaign is noted in a display at the museum at Utah Beach. Steves calls it the best museum in Normandy, and we found it to be eminently worthwhile. Original equipment of all kinds was represented, including a Higgins boat landing craft, a B-26 medium bomber, uniforms, weapons, oral history displays, views of the beach and a German mortar facility that wasn’t found until 1993.
I had originally hoped to walk from Ste.-Mere-Eglise, the village closest to the airborne drops, to Utah Beach, but decided against it because the roads are too narrow and there were no shoulders.
Ste.-Mere-Eglise is worth a visit, though. One American paratrooper, John Steele, got stuck on the steeple of the town’s church and remained there for two hours while all kinds of mayhem transpired around him. The Germans eventually captured him, but Steele escaped and rejoined his unit.
He became a popular figure in Ste.-Mere-Eglise and returned to the town regularly before his death in 1969. A hotel/restaurant, the Auberge John Steele, is named for him. It features memorabilia including photos, letters and other items.
Village officials have commemorated Steele’s story by placing a parachute and a dummy on the steeple where he was stuck. The day we were there a constant stream of tourists entered the plaza to take photos. Inside the 700-year-old church is a legendary bit of post-war stained glass, which features the Virgin Mary surrounded by three paratroopers, one of whom is modeled on Steele.
A closing note
As I noted earlier one of the most impressive facets of the D-Day invasion is the international cooperation it required. American troops (and bomb groups) flooded English towns. Canadian forces were involved. British and American generals and politicians had to agree on the when, the where and how of the invasion and the campaigns that followed.
That cooperation extended into the post-war era with the Marshall Plan that helped revive Europe, the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. It’s impossible to overestimate the significance of what a Europe based on cooperation has meant.
Great power wars were a constant factor in Euro politics and history. Until 1945. Yes, the existence of nuclear weapons helped make folks perhaps a bit more cautious about starting major conflicts, but the fact that we have gone nearly 75 years without one is a remarkable, unprecedented achievement.
We should think long and hard about that amid the current political friction among NATO allies and the volatility in the European Union.
The sacrifices of those involved in D-Day have led to peace and prosperity that are worth preserving.