Then we stormed the beaches…

As we progressed onto France, we went and stayed at a hotel in Bayeux. Bayeux is a small country town in Normandy. The air was clear and the people there were hospitable and it was a good place to adjust to the French language. I felt like one of the international students on campus who are in a foreign environment and doesn’t understand the local language. The language barrier was difficult and I don’t know French and what Spanish I do know was unhelpful when trying to communicate with the locals.

Bayeux was the first town liberated from the Germans after the Allied invasion of France called Operation Overlord or also known as D-Day.  The D-Day invasion happened on the Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah beaches. While in Normandy we visited the Utah, Omaha and Gold beaches. The beaches were not what I expected when I learned about them. They were different from what I had imagined. The Utah Beach was the first we visited and it reminded me of the beaches of North Carolina.  With that in mind, I tried to imagine traversing the beach with all of the wet, heavy gear and weapons the soldiers of the D-Day invasion had to carry along.  The wet sand that they sunk into only made their assault harder under enemy fire. Later that week we went to Pont de Hoc, the small peninsula between the Utah and Omaha beaches. Pont de Hoc was where the Germans had heavy guns that could have affected the Allied navy’s assault and the Allied invasion. Pont de Hoc was covered in mass craters caused by the Navy shelling. Allied forces had to climb up the cliff face to surprise the enemy and capture the guns. The sight was beautiful but it was hard to think that it was a battlefield.  Later we went to Omaha and I had my biggest surprise. Most of the beach was flat and then there were tall hills instead of the rock faces that I thought that the soldiers had to climb. It turns out that I was thinking about Dog Green, the farthest west Pont of the beach closest to Pont de Hoc. Dog Green was the rockiest part of the beach while the rest was easier to advance on but the soldiers had to deal with heavy enemy crossfire from down the beach.  I learned that the amphibious transports dropped off there load to far from their intended target range. They were supposed to drop off the tanks 3 to 5 clicks off the beaches in low tide but they dropped them off almost 7 clicks and from there most of the heavy armor and tanks drowned. Through the actions of the transports, the Omaha assault had only 10 percent of their original tanks.  The last beach we saw was the Gold Beach. I didn’t expect to see that it had a town on the beach front. So that when the allies advanced on to the beach, they rolled right up to the town and had to face the enemy in an urban area.

Normandy underwent heavy strategic bombing, the allies destroyed the local’s homes and businesses, their communities and had to deal with all of it under the Nazi occupation. It was hard to think that the Normans were thankful to the allies for freeing them from occupation when these same people who freed them also destroyed their property and left their homes in ruins. It was a surprise to learn that the church in Bayeux was unharmed by the allied bombing. The church is called the Notre Dame de Bayeux and it was built in the 1100’s.

While we were in Normandy we went to the different cemeteries. We first visited the German cemetery. It was located near a highway and was not was I expected from a cemetery. The German soldiers who died in Normandy were buried there. Their tombstones were flat on the ground and when closer examined they had multiple names. Many of the graves were shared graves and many unknown soldiers. In the middle of the cemetery, there is a large mound that was actually a mass grave of unknown German soldiers. It was a very despondent sight. How the cemetery was arranged brings to mind trying to remember the fallen but not what they fought for. The other cemeteries we visited were the American and British cemeteries. The American cemetery was close to the ocean, with the well-known white crosses and star of Davis’s. The sheer scale of graves brings into perspective how many died. It is one thing to know the number of those who died and another to be there and see the graves.  The British cemetery was different in that they had tombstones for all who were involved because they believed that in death all of the soldiers deserve a proper grave. They also had the different designs of the soldier’s regiment on their tombstones. What they have written on them was left to the families to decide. This made the graves more personal and hopefully brought closer to the families.

One thing I really liked in Normandy was the airborne museum that had a building to show and inform people of Operation Neptune. Inside they had an area where people had to walk through a replica of a plane that dropped the paratroopers over France and had a small scale of what the paratroopers were dropped over under a glass walkway. It was really cool to see what the paratroopers experienced as they jumped. And then from Bayeux, the group travels to Paris.

Leave a Reply