Visiting the D-Day Beaches in Normandy, France
The History of the D-Day Invasions
The D-Day Beaches are a 50-mile-long stretch of beaches in Normandy, France. In WWII, over 150,000 allied soldiers landed on the beaches in an attempt to drive off the German army entrenched there. The Germans were well defended by a linked series of bunkers, guns, barbed wire, and land mines. The allied invasion force was represented by troops from the U.S., Britain, Canada, and France.
On June 6, 1944, the U.S. assaulted the beaches code-named Omaha and Utah, the British fought to capture Sword and Gold beaches, and the Canadians took Juno. It was the largest amphibious invasion in history.
The allies were victorious, despite losing over 4,414 men and suffering over 10,000 casualties. The successful D-Day invasions led to the liberation of France and ultimately the end of the war.
Where to Stay Near the D-Day Beaches
If you want to visit the D-Day Beaches today, it's easily combined with a trip to Paris. It's only a few hours drive north-west of the City of Light. When I visited, I stayed in the town of Ouistreham. The town is a port and ferry harbor (from England) where you can still see German gun batteries, bunkers, and to my surprise, palm trees.
Ouistreham is a small town. It doesn't have a lot of lodging, but it is quiet, pretty, and accommodations are reasonably priced. Ouistreham is a nice place to stay if you're checking out the Normandy area on your own. It doesn't offer a lot of tourist infrastructure, but that may suit some people, as it did me.
Most visitors' guides suggest the town of Bayeux as a sightseeing base. Bayeux is home to the famed Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry is an almost 1000-year-old, 230-foot-long, tapestry depicting the battle of Hastings. Visitors will also find the Bayeux War Cemetery, the Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum, the Bayeux Cathedral, public gardens, and much more along the town's many cobblestone streets.
If you'd rather take a guided tour than explore on your own, Bayeux is a good place to stay, as a number of D-Day tours start there. There are plenty of restaurants and hotels around the area.
If you're driving to the D-Day Beaches, brown signs saying "Plages du débarquement" will help guide the way.
The D-Day Beaches Today
Driving along the 50 miles of beach and seeing all of the gun emplacement, monuments, and concrete pillboxes really gives a sense of how huge the D-Day battle was. Many of the guns and bunkers that were part of Hitler's Fortress Europe are still intact today. I personally couldn't believe how many of these are still around. The only reminders of that bloody day that I expected to see were monuments, signs, and headstones.
At the town of Arromanches-les-Bains, you can still see remnants of a makeshift harbor, called a mulberry harbor, used to offload men and equipment during the invasion. Here, huge concrete slabs form an arc in the ocean around the town.
The Normandy American Cemetery
Behind Omaha Beach, where the U.S. 1st Infantry Division made the toughest landing of the operation, is the U.S. military cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer. This is the cemetery seen at the opening and closing of the movie Saving Private Ryan. 9,387 American soldiers are buried at the Normandy American Cemetery.
If you want to visit the cemetery make sure you show up before 4 pm. It closes at 5 pm, but you won't be allowed in anywhere close to that time. I found this out the hard way.
Inland Towns With D-Day History
There are also plenty of D-Day historical sites inland and away from the beaches, including the towns of Sainte Mère Église and Saint-Lô. Sainte Mère Église holds a D-Day celebration every June 6th commemorating the landings. I didn't have time to visit either of these towns, but I'm really hoping to in the future.
Like the memorial at Coleville-sur-Mer, the Normandy region of France is quiet today. The coast is filled with a mix of beautiful sandy beaches and cliffs. Away from the beach, among the lush hedgerows and farmland, it's hard to imagine such an epic battle took place.
Being interested in WWII and also a Francophile, I had always wanted to visit the D-Day Beaches of France. It was a humbling experience to be on the beaches where so many brave young men fought and died and turned the tide of history.
© 2020 Chad Claeyssen