This article promised you great WW2 related sites to visit if you happen to be in Normandy. Now I tell you of one that I’d recommend staying away from, despite its 4.3 stars on Google Maps: the Musee America at Gold Beach in Le Bout de Bas. We should have probably guessed something was rotten in the state of Denmark when we were charged only 4.5 euros for the entrance.
Why am I so harsh? There’s not too much war-related stuff to see in yonder museum: mostly small-sized dioramas and more than half of the museum is dedicated to the US Air Postal service. I still don’t understand why a large part of the gallery is dedicated to the postal service in what the name leads you to believe is a war museum. After a quick and rather disappointing tour, we headed out, in search of more satisfying vistas.
Since I handpicked the parking spot in the shade of a big tree, at least our ride was cool enough by the time we finished with the American museum. It was time to visit the most famous (for all the wrong reasons) of the four landing beaches: Omaha.
Omaha Beach was supposed to link the British forces landing at Gold Beach to the east with the other Americans assaulting Utah Beach to the west. To that end, a complex battle strategy was formulated to break through the German defences. Because of the choppy seas and stronger than anticipated enemy defences, none of those plans worked out as intended. This led to a high number of casualties, especially compared to the other landings sites.
On a sunny day, as it was when we visited, Omaha Beach is a tranquil and pleasant place. Cosy-looking stone and wood houses decorated with American and French flags line both sides of the Avenue de la Liberation that leads to the beach. The few cafes, hotels and restaurants hint of the connection they share with the war: D Day House, L’Omaha, etc.
On the beach itself a couple of hard to understand memorials remind you of what happened here. Otherwise, the place is unassuming: no bunkers or fortifications can be seen. The town of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer that borders the beach resembles any other small French coastal town.
There are two places I can recommend you visit should you be in the area. One of them is the Musee Memorial d’Omaha Beach found in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer — images below. The other is the Normandy American Cemetery that is reached through Colleville-sur-Mer. Sadly we didn’t have time to also visit the Overlord Museum that is very close to the American Cemetary. Google has it at 4.5 stars out of over 4000 reviews.
If the Musee Memorial d’Omaha is really interesting and in possession of countless fascinating artefacts, the American Cemetary and its visitor centre predispose you to reflection. The rows upon rows of white crosses stretching to the horizon are enough to make you appreciate the blessed peaceful times we live in. It certainly made me pause and reconsider how lucky I am to live in this century.
After deciding to leave the American Cemetary for the next day (and the next article), we headed towards Pointe du Hoc.
Pointe du Hoc is a promontory with 30 meter high cliffs that separates the American Utah and Omaha beaches. As the Germans had gun emplacements and several casemates on the cliffs, it had to be conquered, despite it being almost inaccessible from the sea and heavily fortified. To that end, heavy bombardments had to be conducted prior to the attack.
Once you leave your car in one of the many well mentained car parks next to the promontory and make your way to the entrance a peculiar sight is revealed. It’s funny but at first I thought I was looking at sand dunes, so wavy was the ground. Only some minutes later, when I realised the ground is not sandy and hence not prone to form dunes, did the full scale of the bombardment dawn on me. The craters resulted from the shelling pockmark the ground, deep grass-covered scars stretching in all directions. Here and there various types of bunkers, in various states of decay, welcome you with their black gaping maws. Most of the once-solid metal doors have since disappeared and the damp bunkers are of course empty; nothing is stopping you from inspecting them at leisure, although a flashlight is required. Despite not being deep underground, an welcomed chill, contrasting with the dry heat of the summer afternoon, awaited as we ventured inside the fortifications.
Before moving on: the admittance to Pointe du Hoc is free!
It was getting late so we decided to head to Caen for the night. But since there still some light outside — God bless the long summer days! — we made some pauses along the way. The country roads we took through the various villages of Normandy were nothing short of amazing. Great asphalt, high visibilty meanders through the corn fields and virtually no traffic are any amateur pilot’s dream. I surely got carried away and “might” have gone over the 80 kmh speed limit a couple of times.
One more stop, between the Omaha and Gold Beachs, at the Batteries of Longues-sur-Mer. This is another impressive site and what’s even better, as at the Pointe du Hoc, there is no entry fee. The toilets as well as the small souvenir shop were closed by the time we got there, as it was already past eight in the evening, but that clearly didn’t deter us from exploring. As luck would have it, the late hour meant there were almost no tourists around except for us.
What is spectacular about this place is the way the bunkers are revealing themselves to you as you are investigating further and further from the car park. The first bunker is a cracked concrete shell, showing only the rusted remnants of some heavy machinery, presumably some parts from a gun. By the time you get to the second one, fearsome artillery pieces in perfectly preserved concrete bunkers dazzle you with their pugnacious might. And then another bunker, in even better shape. And another one. You can really get a glimpse of what the Allies had to face when you are staring down the thick barrel of one of these guns.
Despite taking damage in bombardments before and on D Day, the battery continued to be active and fired both at ships that strayed too close and on the landing beaches at Omaha.
This is the only battery in Normandy to retain its original guns and it has been listed as a historical monument so it’s a must see.
Before reaching Caen, we stopped one more time, this time at the Canadian cemetery at Beny sur Mer. We were the only visitors so there was nobody to disturb our thoughts, nor the peace of the sunset. It was finally beginning to cool down and the shadows cast by the tall trees were spreading all around. Not much to do here, except for keeping a moment of silence for the fallen and ponder on the stupidity of war. All the tombstones that I stopped to read were telling the same depressing story: I was (far) older than most of the boys interred here. I am only 36.
After the long day we stopped for dinner. The images seen kept spinning in my mind’s eye. The huge menacing gun emplacements. The rows upon rows of tombstones. Being inside of one of those LCVP crafts. All these made it clear, once again, that I would not have overly enjoyed being part of this war. Or any war for that matter.
That’s why preserving these memorial places is extremely important. And even if the French might make a profit nowdays from the history that happened on their doorstep, I still think it’s a fair trade. Because all the places we visited remind us of all that was lost so we can live the life we have today. Until next time, please remember them and don’t stop wandering!