Normandy Invasion Beaches 2021
Due to the COVID epidemic, the country of Morocco, which was my destination this year, closed its borders. This left me with an extra ten days to stay at my sister’s home in Senlis, France. About forty years ago we both visited the D-Day invasion beaches. It was a moving experience, but at my youthful age I did not truly appreciate the experience. Now that I have studied history in more depth and been to war, I thought it would be a good opportunity to visit the region once again.
We packed the car and decided to bring my 20-year-old niece along. She is studying fine arts in Georgia, and I was quite sure history was not part of the curriculum. Prior to our departure I had her watch Saving Private Ryan and the Longest Day so she could have some sort of appreciation for what we were about to see.
We stopped in Bayeux today on the way to the Normandy Invasion Beaches. Bayeux is beautiful, has a magnificent cathedral, and is home to the famous Bayeux Tapestry. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos of the tapestry, but it is displayed in all its glory, full length (210 feet x 3 feet) with a backlight. You also have a remote device to listen to the story of the tapestry and the battle it depicts as you walk its length. Time very well spent.
We continued into the Normandy region spent the following two days visiting sites of the D-Day Invasion. The first stop invasion related was the Pegasus Bridge. Much to our dismay, the museum was closed due to COVID. Had to take photos through the fence.
Forty years ago, when my sister and I visited this site we had lunch at a restaurant located at the original bridge location. An elderly lady spoke with us and related that she was a young girl living just across the river when the battle began. She watched it unfold from her bedroom window.
“Hold until relieved, hold until relieved.” You remember that from the movie ‘The Longest Day’?
The bridge has since been moved upriver to its present location for display.
Pegasus Bridge, originally called the Bénouville Bridge after the neighboring village, is a road crossing over the Caen Canal, between Caen and Ouistreham in Normandy. The original bridge, built in 1934, is now a war memorial and is the centerpiece of the Memorial Pegasus Museum at nearby Ranville. It was replaced in 1994 by a modern design which, like the old one, is a bascule bridge, draw bridge.
On 6 June 1944, during the Second World War, the bridge was, along with the nearby Ranville Bridge over the Orne River, the objective of members of a British glider-borne force who were part of the 6th Airborne Division during Operation Tonga in the opening minutes of the Allied invasion of Normandy. Under the command of Major John Howard, D Company was to land close by the bridges in six Airspeed Horsa gliders and, in a coup-de-main operation, take both intact and hold them until relieved by the main British invasion forces. The successful capture of the bridges played an important role in limiting the effectiveness of a German counter-attack in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion.
Cold, overcast, and damp day today. Saint Mere-Eglise was the furthest point for sightseeing, a bit over an hour away. I first visited this site about 40 years ago. There is a new airborne museum, but other than that, not much has changed. There is a representation of Private John Steele hanging from the church spire, a true event. You can see the display in the photo below.
Forty years ago, my sister and I stayed here at the John Steele Inn. When she told them I was an American paratrooper, the champagne flowed. It is not so these days. Those who remember the occupation have since passed.
In the hours before dawn on D-Day, just over 18,000 American paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions jumped into Normandy. Many drops were off-target, and some were made at too fast an airspeed or too low an elevation with disastrous consequences.
The town's main claim to fame is that it played a significant part in the World War II Normandy landings because this village stood right in the middle of route N13, which the Germans would have most likely used on any significant counterattack on the troops landing on Utah and Omaha Beaches. In the early morning of 6 June 1944 mixed units of the U.S. 82nd Airborne and U.S. 101st Airborne Divisions landed nearby (some in the town itself!), giving it the claim to be one of the first towns liberated in the invasion.
The early landings, at about 01:40 directly on the town, resulted in heavy casualties for the paratroopers. Some buildings in town were on fire that night, and they illuminated the sky, making easy targets of the descending men. Some were sucked into the fire. Many hanging from trees and utility poles were shot before they could cut loose.
Later that morning, about 0500, a force led by Lt. Colonel Edward C. Krause of the 505th PIR took the town with little resistance. The German garrison was confused and had retired for the rest of the night. However, heavy German counterattacks began later in the day and into the next. The lightly armed troops held the town until reinforced by tanks from nearby Utah Beach in the afternoon of 7 June.
We grabbed a quick lunch at a pub on the square. Ham on baguette bread and a D-Day brand beer to wash it down.
We had originally thought about bypassing Sainte-Mere-du Mont (Saint Mary of the Hill). However, we had just enough daylight left to visit before we headed by to our hotel which is located at Juno Beach. The sun is setting here around 5:00.
SMM is located three miles inland from Utah Beach. This small town was the scene of fighting between the American 101st Airborne Division and the German Wehrmacht. The centerpiece of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont is the Church of Notre Dame. An American bazooka opened the main door during the battle. Around town there are numerous panels which, using military diaries as well as first-hand accounts of residents which tell short stories about what happened in each spot.
We checked into our hotel, La Cremaillere, located on Juno Beach where the Canadian Forces landed during the invasion. The hotel is right on the beach and the restaurant is first-class.
After a good night’s sleep, we headed to Carentan and stumbled upon Deadman’s Corner which is located near Saint-Côme-du-Mont.
This is a very well-done restoration of the battle site and has a superb museum. The staged scenes do not have the typical mannequins, but very lifelike figures. There is also a C-47 (cargo plane used for dropping the airborne troops) ride where you are actual in the aircraft, and it bumps and shakes as your fly over Normandy on June 6, 1941. When you reach the end of the exhibit at the exit, make sure you stop and listen to the narration...tears will flow.
The “T” junction highway corner had to be taken by the American paratroopers and held for expansion of the beachhead. The German viewpoint was to keep the corner open as their escape route. Dead Man’s Corner was a focal point for several days of close hand to hand fighting. Few roads ran north-south entering and exiting the Contentin peninsula. National Highway 13 was the main road of the only three usable roads. Cutting all the roads at the base of the peninsula would eliminate three German divisions’ resupply opportunities and their potential southern retreat route if needed.
June 7th, (D-Day +1), afternoon, Dog Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, (that would 11 months later capture Hitler’s mountain home in Bertesgarten, Austria) advanced on the Corner accompanied by a column of light tanks that had landed across UTAH Beach the previous day. From the Douve hamlet, a few hundred yards south, on the N13, the crack of a 57 mm German PAK anti-tank gun echoed along the road shoulder hedgerows. The armor piercing missile found its mark on the first tank at the corner as it passed next to the concrete posted steel mesh fence present today. To-days museum building, at that time, was an aid station manned by American and German medics handling the wounded of both sides.
The shell penetrated the tank in the driver’s area, exploded ripping part the crew. The resulting blast of enveloping flames flushed through the open turret incinerating the lieutenant commanding the tank. The battle progressed. The Corner fell and the 506 PIR’s men moved south towards objective Carentan. The Germans withdrew south from Ste Come du Mont along the elevated railroad embankment a few hundred yards west of the N13 road.
The burned-out tank and the commander's corpse remained at the corner several days before graves registration could remove, identify, and designate a temporary cemetery for burial of the four sets of remains. The T-junction had much traffic but no official name, so the passing soldiers and vehicles described it, “where the dead man is in the tank turret”. Heavy supply traffic from UTAH Beach and Cherbourg continued to go through the Corner over the following 8 months until the north coast ports of France and Belgium were captured and opened to off load the incoming US shipments. So named “Dead Man’s Corner” is official. Its name commemorates not just the crew of one tank but the casualties of human lives it cost to gain the insignificant but important “T junction”. A place of honor to “Stand Where They Fought”.
The sight of the Battle of Bloody Gulch and the bayonet charge which saved the day.
When the 101st Airborne entered the town of Carentan on June 12, 1944, after heavy fighting on the two previous days, they met relatively light resistance. The bulk of the surviving German defenders had withdrawn to the southwest the previous night after a heavy Allied naval and artillery bombardment. Both sides realized the importance of the town: for the Americans, it was a link between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach and would provide a base for further attacks deeper into German-occupied France. For the Germans, recapturing Carentan would be the first step towards driving a wedge between the two American landing beaches, severely disrupting and possibly even repulsing the Allied invasion.
The remnants of the 6th Fallschirmjäger resupplied and were reinforced by assault guns and panzergrenadiers of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division on the night of June 12–13. The combined force counterattacked northeast towards Carentan at dawn on June 13, just as the 506th and 501st PIR were attacking southwest to enlarge the American defensive perimeter around the town. The 506th took the brunt of the attack, and by 10:30 a.m., the outnumbered and outgunned paratroopers were pushed back to the outskirts of the town.
Under intense German fire, F Company of the 506th's left flank broke and fell back. This exposed D Company's right flank. That company also fell back, leaving E Company all alone. Cpt. Thomas P. Mulvey, the commanding officer of F Company, was relieved on the spot by the battalion commander.
When a German tank attempted to penetrate the left flank, two soldiers of E Company successfully destroyed it with a bazooka. Meanwhile, battalion headquarters stopped the retreat of D and F companies, pushing them forward 150 metres (490 ft) to cover the left flank. The 2nd Battalion of the 502nd PIR took up positions to the right of the 506th, but by 1:00 p.m. they too had suffered many casualties, and the German attack was on the verge of breaking through their defenses.
At this critical point, six tanks from Combat Command A of the 2nd Armored Division and accompanied by infantry of the 29th Division,counterattacked southwest from Carentan at 4:30 p.m., inflicting severe casualties on the Germans and forcing them to withdraw with the loss of four tanks. The American victory led to the linkup of forces from Utah and Omaha Beaches, creating a secure lodgement area for further American operations.
The actions of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment during the Graignes incident south-east of Carentan, played a part in the successful capture of Carentan and the Battle of Bloody Gulch. Had the mis-dropped paratroopers of the 507th not stopped the advance of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, it is possible that the German division could have made it to Carentan before the 101st Airborne Division. Furthermore, the 507th caused the Germans significant losses in the few days that they held Graignes and this influenced the Battle of Bloody Gulch.
Utah, commonly known as Utah Beach, was the code name for one of the five sectors of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France in the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944.
D-Day at Utah began at 01:30, when the first of the airborne units arrived, tasked with securing the key crossroads at Sainte-Mère-Église and controlling the causeways through the flooded farmland behind Utah so the infantry could advance inland. While some airborne objectives were quickly met, many paratroopers landed far from their drop zones and were unable to fulfill their objectives on the first day. On the beach itself, infantry and tanks landed in four waves beginning at 06:30 and quickly secured the immediate area with minimal casualties. Meanwhile, engineers set to work clearing the area of obstacles and mines, and additional waves of reinforcements continued to arrive. At the close of D-Day, Allied forces had only captured about half of the planned area and contingents of German defenders remained, but the beachhead was secure.
The 4th Infantry Division landed 21,000 troops on Utah at the cost of only 197 casualties. Airborne troops arriving by parachute and glider numbered an additional 14,000 men, with 2,500 casualties. Around 700 men were lost in engineering units, 70th Tank Battalion, and seaborne vessels sunk by the enemy. German losses are unknown. Cherbourg was captured on June 26, but by this time the Germans had destroyed the port facilities, which were not brought back into full operation until September.
The German military cemetery at La Cambe has over 21,000 interned soldiers. The bodies are two to a grave and the mount you see with the cross and two figures is a mass grave.
La Cambe is a Second World War German military war grave cemetery, located close to the American landing beach of Omaha, and 25.5 km (15.8 mi) northwest of Bayeux in Normandy, France. It is the largest German war cemetery in Normandy and contains the remains of over 21,200 German military personnel. Initially, American and German dead were buried in adjacent fields but American dead were later disinterred and either returned to the US or re-interred at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial 15 km (9.3 mi). After the war over 12,000 German dead were moved from approximately 1,400 field burials across Normandy to La Cambe.
Point du Hoc
The Pointe du Hoc is the name given to a small advance, a small cape,of the Normandy coast in the Channel Sea, located in Calvados. It consists of a cliff 90 feet high preceded by a needle that extends into the sea and it overlooks a pebble beach about 30 feet wide. The tip is in the town of Cricqueville-en-Bessin.
It was the scene of one of the operations of the Allied landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944. Located between the beaches of Utah Beach (to the west) and Omaha Beach (to the east), the point had been fortified by the Germans. It was at one time equipped with heavy artillery pieces whose range threatened the two nearby beaches. It was considered essential for the success of the landing that the artillery pieces be taken out of service as soon as possible.
This mission was entrusted to the 2nd Battalion of American Rangers who managed to take control of the site at the cost of heavy losses. Subsequently, the artillery pieces turned out to have been moved by the Germans shortly before and moved back 1,300 meters inland.
Unfortunately, a portion of the cliffs fell into the sea in 2022.
Omaha Beach is the name used by the Allies during World War II to designate one of the five beaches of the Normandy landings. Assigned to American troops, she was the one where the Allies lost the most troops, earning her the nickname "Bloody Omaha." The beach landing scene from Saving Private Ryan depicts the landing there. An interesting fact about the landing and what the movie depicts; Tom Hank’s unit are Rangers who were supposed to land at Point du Hoc but a communication issue sent them to their alternative objective, Omaha. If the Rangers had not landed on Omaha, there was a possibility the beach would not have been taken.
American forces suffered over 4,000 casualties on Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of five landing sites on the Normandy coast on June 6th, 1944.
Normand American Cemetery
This was D-Day – the epic event that altered the course of World War II.
Today the Normandy American Cemetery, sited on a bluff high above the coast, is one of the world’s best-known military memorials.
These hallowed grounds preserve the remains of nearly 9,400 Americans who died during the Allied liberation of France.
Three Medal of Honor recipients rest here.
Forty-five sets of brothers lie side by side.
We headed back to Senlis, and to avoid Paris, drove through Honfleur, an ancient port city near the Seine Rivers entrance to the English Channel. Honfleur is a Norman port commune located on the south bank of the Seineestuary, opposite Le Havre, very close to the outlet of the Normandy Bridge.
It is best known for its Old Basin, characterized by its houses with facades covered with slates, and for having been represented many times by artists, including Gustave Courbet, Eugène Boudin, Claude Monet and Johan Barthold Jongkind, forming the Honfleur School that contributed to the appearance of the Impressionist movement. Alphonse Allais and Erik Satie were born in the same street.
Our trip ended with our return to Senlis and we settled in to enjoy the holidays with family.