We walked the route to the train station and back yesterday so we would know how long it would take. The tour we were taking to the D-Day beaches, or at least a couple of them, was to meet us at 08:00, so an early departure from the B&B was essential. Our tour van arrived right on time and we were greeted warmly by our attractive, young, French guide and driver Lucille. She explained that there were two other stops in town to pick up the remaining five people that would be joining us.
Once on our way, Lucille told us a little about herself and where we were going. Her family had a long history in Bayeux, and she told of how after the Germans took over the area many residents, including her family, were forced to leave or left willingly to avoid the hardships imposed by the occupying army.
Driving through the quiet countryside of farms and pastures, she explained the background of “Operation Overlord” and what was hoped that it would accomplish. She also explained how many problems encountered were caused by the weather, tides, and currents. However, in spite of the many difficulties faced by the invading Allies, the courage and bravery of the thousands of men that stormed those cliffs and beaches carried the day, though they prevailed at great cost.
Arriving at our first stop, Pointe du Hoc, we pulled into the massive parking lot. We walked on a wide paved path thickly lined with small trees, and past fields of corn toward the battle area. As we entered a clearing, the land was suddenly covered with large craters. Strewn here and there were large blocks of concrete with rusting, twisted rebar sticking out. Vegetation had reclaimed most of the soil, softening the appearance of the craters that were the result of naval shelling and bombing, even so, these craters, some 30 to 50 feet across and 10 to 15 feet deep, were everywhere. There were still more massive concrete remnants of bunkers that had been destroyed and tossed about by the explosions. Several of the bunkers and gun emplacements appeared to have survived both the shelling and time, and showed how heavily fortified this area was.
As we climbed to an observation area atop one of the remaining bunkers, we could see over the 10-story cliff and down onto the beach where the invading American troops faced unbelievable resistance. Entering the German observation bunker on the edge of the cliffs, we could look through the slit in the concrete and see up and down the beach where the enemy could direct their weapons on the invading troops. The obstacles and difficulties that were faced that day must have seemed overwhelming.
The operation at Pointe du Hoc was for the US Army Ranger Assault Group to silence the six 155mm guns that could effectively control the beaches both east (Omaha) and west (Utah) of the point. At the end of the two-day action, the initial Ranger landing force of 225+ had succeeded and was relieved by troops from Omaha beach, but were reduced to about 90 fighting men.
We all quietly returned to our van to go next to Vierville-sur-Mer a village on the beach that was code named Omaha.
Omaha beach was quiet the day we were there. No tour buses, no crowds, just a slightly cool and breezy, mostly cloudy day at the beach. Unlike Pointe du Hoc, the 5 miles (8 km) long beach here is wide and sandy. This is any small beach village one can imagine, except for the monument to the US National Guard that sits atop a large German bunker with its gun still pointing out across the sands. Three flags wave over the monument, the US National Guard, the US, and the French.
The quiet sandy beach of today was in stark contrast to the beach the Allies encountered in 1944. Back then, looking seaward were obstacles, long gone, all along the shore to inhibit the advance of invaders. Moving inland, the beach gave way to a seawall or dunes followed by a 200 yard shelf that was filled with mines, before encountering heavily defended bluffs rising 100-200ft.
A pair of horse carts
swiftly trot across the sands
where so many died.
It was a relatively short drive from the small beachside village of Vierville-sur-Mer, on Omaha beach to the American Cemetery. Like all other overseas American cemeteries in France for World War I and II, the government of France granted use of the land for The Normandy American Cemetery, in perpetuity, as a permanent burial ground without charge or taxation.
Our guide, Lucille, gave us a brief talk on the Cemetery and its memorials, but indicated that as this was a place of reverence and meditation, we would be on our own. Wandering to the overlook of this small part of Omaha beach we were, again, taken by how peaceful this day was contrasted with what it must have been like those 70 years ago. We walked on the path along the bluff overlooking the beach below, and as we turned and saw the thousands of bright white markers covering most of the 172 acres we were speechless. There are 9,387 burials, and in a semicircular garden on the east side of the memorial on the Walls of the Missing, are inscribed 1,557 names.
THIS EMBATTLED SHORE, PORTAL OF FREEDOM, IS FOREVER HALLOWED BY THE IDEALS, THE VALOR AND THE SACRIFICES OF OUR FELLOW COUNTRYMEN – inscription on the semicircular limestone colonnade of the Memorial.
The ride back to Bayeux was quiet.
The last afternoon in Bayeux was spent with more wandering the town and visiting the Bayeux Museum (MAHB) housed in the Bishop’s palace (11th – 18th Century), the museum provides a journey through the history of Bayeux from archeology to Modern Art, including two of the primary industries that were prominent over the last 300 years – lace making and fine porcelain.
After a dinner in a restaurant crowded with too many tourists (all English speakers, with little to no French even attempted), we returned to our B&B to get packed for the next day’s train to Brussels to meet our good friends Niels and Jette, who were flying from their home in Denmark to spend the weekend with us.
But for now, “Bon nuit.”