After spending five days in bustling London, it was quite refreshing to experience the coastal area of Normandy, France. The region is filled with beautiful, vast farmland, dotted with cows, sheep, and hedgerows of trees. Even our hotel sat next to a field of grass being tended to by two cows, and a horse veterinarian to our south. It was hard to imagine the brutalities of war encompassing these farms and towns, but in June 1944, the liberation of Europe had to begin, and Normandy was circled on the map.
The town of Bayeux is located a few miles inland from the coast and during World War II, it served as a major intersection for military supply routes. Today, its location provides tourists with a home base within reach of the major Normandy attractions. Bayeux was big enough to have a variety of things to do, with enjoyable café and restaurant options, but small enough to feel hospitable and remain quiet after dark.
It seemed that every town in Normandy had a monument or memorial dedicated to the war, this because this peaceful region of France was the beginning of the end to the Nazi regime. Our visit to Normandy began with a trip to Caen, to visit the Caen Memorial Museum. The memorial featured large boulders, gifted to France from other nations, with peaceful and pro-democratic messages inscribed on them. The museum told the story of the war from the French perspective, in which heavy emphasis was placed on the French Resistance. Afterwards, we visited Abbey d’Ardenne, where twenty Canadian soldiers were executed by members of the 12th SS Panzer Division, which served as another brutal reminder of the twisted immorality of war. I really enjoyed our next stop, at Pegasus Bridge, where the first British boots on the ground kicked off Operation Overlord. Just sixteen minutes into D-Day, British Army Major John Howard and his ninety men landed near the bridge in gliders, and successfully captured the crossing which would provide an exit eastward for the British troops landing at Sword Beach. The first building to be liberated in France was now a small café and souvenir shop, where our class enjoyed a few coffees.
The next day brought us to the coastal town of Arromanches. While the few deep-water ports in western Europe were heavily defended by the Germans, Allied naval commanders needed to figure out a new way to provide logistics for Overlord. At Arromanches, they showed their adaptability and innovation by constructing massive floating piers in the channel. A break wall was constructed behind them, allowing ships to dock, unload their equipment and supplies, and depart, while remaining hundreds of yards off the coast. The supplies, along with jeeps, tanks, and other vehicles, could be driven over the floating docks into town. After visiting Arromonches’s theater and museum, we headed back to Bayeux, to walk the first of three cemeteries on our itinerary.
The Bayeux War Cemetery, aka the British War Cemetery, holds the remains of over 4,000 Commonwealth soldiers and 466 German soldiers. The cemetery is meant to honor those who died under the Commonwealth flag while in Normandy, as well as the Germans who died at the nearby Bayeux hospital. The German graves, however, were far less personal and only included dates of birth and death.
The following day, we had the opportunity to visit the church where Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore treated wounded American and German soldiers during the first few days of Operation Overlord. Having studied at The Ohio State University, Robert Moore’s memorial gave our class a sense of connection to the 101st Airborne medic. Afterwards, we walked on Utah Beach, had lunch in Sainte-Mère-Église, and learned about the impacts of the paratroopers at the Airborne Museum.
To end the day, we visited La Cambe German Cemetery. This cemetery is controversial, due to it being the resting place of hundreds of German soldiers who carried out the Nazi agenda. However, there was no security presence at the cemetery, which shows me it cannot be that controversial. As we walked the burial ground, we observed flowers, wreaths, and other tokens placed next to headstones. Among these headstones was an infamous German tank commander responsible for destroying seventeen Allied tanks. The grass in front of his headstone was heavily disturbed, showing a high amount of foot traffic to see his resting place. Realizing this German “panzer ace” was so frequently visited in the cemetery, as well as flowers at his grave, was quite suspicious. Regardless, war is hell, the Allies achieved ultimate victory, and I believe most humans deserve proper burial and a resting place. However, maybe this cemetery would be better located in Germany.
Most of us were excited for Friday, where we would make a trip to Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery. After taking a group photo, many of us tried our best to comprehend the situation on the beach that morning. It was low tide, similar to when the first wave landed, and the distance from the water to the seawall seemed like a mile. Prior to the beach landings, the bombing runs and naval gunfire meant to soften the target proved ineffective. Now, elevated German machine gun bunkers, aware that the invasion had begun, could wait for the Americans to land on the beach. I felt dangerously exposed while standing on Omaha. As I looked left and right, I noticed the complete lack of cover and concealment. That’s when I realized that it was simply a numbers game. The Germans machine gunners couldn’t target everyone. If the Americans could push enough troops on the beach, some were destined to make it to the seawall. The cost, however, would be 2,400 casualties in a few hours. Understanding and accepting your death, as long as it contributes to the success of the mission, shows no greater act of courage.
Following Omaha Beach, we visited the Normandy American Cemetery. Altogether, the site was incredible. The landscaping, architecture, and museum all set a triumphal tone. To honor the twelve Ohio State Buckeyes buried at the site, we read their biographies aloud and placed university flags at their headstones, an activity that completed the connection for us all.
This leg of our trip was personally fulfilling, as well. My grandfather, a Captain in the 101st Airborne Division, was one of the hundreds of soldiers who jumped into France on that early June morning. He would later gather sixty random paratroopers and lead a counterattack on a German defensive position. The opportunity to observe the environment that he entered on D-Day, and walk the streets of his fellow soldiers, was simply incredible. As I type this blog, I still feel my experience in Normandy cannot be described in words. From standing on Omaha beach, to seeing the 9,387 buried at the Normandy American Cemetery, the commemorations were heavy. Our five days in Normandy will most likely be the highlight of my trip.