July 11, 2014

Operation Overlord - Normandy Part 2

Just as promised, the weather on Monday was sunny, which is exactly what we had hoped for our day-long tour of the WWII sights in Normandy. "Operation Overload" was the code name for the Battle of Normandy, the Allied operation that launched the successful invasion of German-occupied western Europe during World War II. The operation commenced on 6 June 1944 with the Normandy landings. A 1,200-plane airborne assault preceded an amphibious assault involving more than 5,000 vessels. Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on 6 June, and more than three million allied troops were in France by the end of August.

Having read a lot of information about the area and how best to visit the sights of the D-Day invasion, we decided to hire a private guide who was knowledgeable about the history of this monumental event. Whenever I start my travel planning, I always seek out the knowledge of my fellow travelers on Fodor's. Based on Fodor's high recommendations, we hired Colin Mcgarry as our guide. Colin was a wonderful guide, filled with so much knowledge and trivia about the area and the events that took place on June 6, 1944. There's just no way we would have enjoyed the experience as much left on our own to discover all there was to see along this 55-mile stretch of coast.

We met Colin in Caen at 9:00 AM, about an hour drive from Trouville. Our plan of the day was to visit the Germany cemetery, Utah beach, Omaha beach and the American cemetery.  Reflecting back on our day as I write this blog post, I am reminded again what I love so much about travel. I love history and there's nothing more exciting than actually SEEING what you've either read about or perhaps learned in a history class long, long ago. Being able to actually have context around facts and events is just spectacular. It rejuvenates my interest in certain things and now I can't wait to go home and watch certain movies, like "The Longest Day", and "Band of Brothers" to actually put into context the events of D-Day.

I am also reminded just how lucky I have been that in my lifetime, my city hasn't been invaded by enemies and I haven't had to say goodbye to loved ones who have given their life so that I can enjoy all of the freedoms we take for granted. Thousands of young men (average age was 24) lost their lives just during this WWII operation alone. The Russian Army even had soldiers as young as age 14.

We drove through the village of Bayeux on our way to the Germany cemetery. The cathedral is magnificent; I wish I could have stopped and viewed the inside.

Next, we arrived at the Germany cemetery. It was a somber place, with a small indoor exhibit depicting large photos taken during the war. It also featured a kind of strategy map of D-Day depicting all of the German footholds along the 55-stretch of beach and the various attack plans for the Allies.

After viewing the exhibit, we spent a few minutes in the cemetery. Originally, this is where American soldiers were laid to rest, but they were later removed to today's location.

There's interesting symbolism with the single door leading into the cemetery. There are approximately 12,000 German soldiers buried here between the ages of 16 and 72. Apparently the batching of the 5 crosses is because German soldiers were found in temporary graves containing 5 bodies.

Our next stop was the village of Sainte-Mère-Église, where it played a significant part in the war and was one of the earliest villages liberated during the invasion. The early paratrooper landings, at about 0140 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. whereby paratroopers landed in advance of the beach landings behind enemy lines.

The town church is participating in the D-Day tourism with a dummy on the roof demonstrating where one paratrooper landed. A well known incident involved paratrooper John Steele of the 505th PIR, whose parachute caught on the spire of the town church, and could only observe the fighting going on below. He hung there limply for two hours, pretending to be dead, before the Germans took him prisoner. Steele later escaped from the Germans and rejoined his division when US troops of the 3rd Battalion, 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment attacked the village, capturing thirty Germans and killing another eleven. The incident was portrayed in the movie The Longest Day by actor Red Buttons.

Inside the church, there are two stained glass windows paying tribute to the paratroopers.

From here, we visited Utah beach. There's still bunkers along the beach, along with several memorials. We had lunch at "Le Roosevelt" which was decked out in WWII memorabilia and even used newspaper and magazines from that era as wallpaper.

While we were there, "trotters" were practicing on the beach.

After our respite, we were provided a quick tour of the adjacent bunker behind the restaurant. Once occupied by the Germans as a central communications bunker, it was later overtaken by the Americans who also continued to use it in the same manner. The bunker still contains the equipment.

Our next stop was Omaha beach. Along the way, Colin drove through several small villages that also played various roles during the invasion. This small church was used as an aid station during D-Day and still has blood-stained pews as a testament to its service.

While we were visiting, these two guys were re-roofing the church. We all wondered how they were going to "hold on" once they finished laying down the last of the roofing tiles.

I won't lie, by the time we had reached Omaha beach, I was pretty much on information overload and not much interested in seeing another beach with more bunkers and guns. To Dad's surprise, there was a Healey in the parking lot. I suppose we now have set a high bar that Dad now expects to see vintage cars along the way as he tours various European countries! Apparently these guys were on their way back to the UK after participating in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which had just ended a couple days prior.

Finally, our visit took us to the American cemetery, which is a very somber place. It's beautifully maintained and the gardens are lovely.

There are more than 9,000 American soldiers buried here (representing only 40% of the Normandy invasion total casualties), with another 1,300+ missing soldiers memorialized on a wall. There are 45 pairs of brothers here, and 4 women.

The cost of the Normandy campaign was high for both sides. From D-Day to 21 August, the Allies landed 2,052,299 men in northern France. The Allies suffered 209,672 casualties from 6 June to the end of August, including 36,976 killed, 153,475 wounded, and 19,221 missing. The British, Canadians, and Poles suffered 16,138 killed, 58,594 wounded, and 9,093 missing, for a total of 83,825 casualties. The Americans suffered 20,838 killed, 94,881 wounded, and 10,128 missing, for a total of 125,847 casualties. The Allies lost 4,101 aircraft and 16,714 airmen killed or missing. Allied tank losses have been estimated at around 4,000, of which approximately half were fighting in American units. Just wow.

What a huge sacrifice and one that I am more greatly aware of and thankful for. It was a very long day and an experience I will never forget. I know that our one day was just a tip of the iceberg and perhaps I will visit again one day in the future to learn more about the rich history in this area.

À bientot!

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