D-Day beaches

The D-Day Beaches are in the Calvados department of Normandy, France. They were the landing places for the Allied invasion of western Europe during World War II.

An excellent time to visit is on the June 6th anniversary when there are numerous memorial ceremonies to mark the occasion. A large number of reenactment groups attend, adding pageantry and atmosphere. The church bells ring in the towns to celebrate the anniversary of their liberation. The French people will be happy to see you - these people remember, and the welcome will be warm.

It has been a long time since 1944 and not all that many of the old soldiers survive, but those that do often return to these beaches on June 6th. For the 70th anniversary in 2014, 90-year-old Royal Navy veteran Bernard Jordan was denied permission to leave his nursing home because of his health; he snuck out and got on a ferry to France anyway. Two elderly paratroopers, a 93-year-old American and an 89-year-old Briton, jumped into France that day as they had 70 years earlier.

Understand

See World War II in Europe for context.
American troops going in; the high ground visible here made the landing on Omaha Beach especially difficult

On 6 June 1944 (D-Day), the long-awaited invasion of Northwest Europe (Operation Overlord) began with Allied landings on the coast of Normandy (Operation Neptune). The task was formidable, for the Germans had turned the coastline into an interlinked series of strongpoints with artillery, machine guns, pillboxes, barbed wire, land mines, and beach obstacles. Germany had 50 divisions in northern France and the low countries, including at least a dozen in position to immediately be used against this invasion.

Following an extensive air and sea bombardment of the assault areas, the Allies launched a simultaneous landing of U.S., British and Canadian forces. About 160,000 ground troops were involved, roughly half American and half Commonwealth. About 4,000 ships, almost 200,000 sailors, 11,000 planes and many airmen also took part in the operation. Overall commander of Allied forces in Europe was the American General Eisenhower while the British General Montgomery was in charge of the ground forces.

This was the largest seaborne invasion in history and an important Allied victory, though the costs in both lives and material were enormous.

The landings

The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Just after midnight 24,000 men came in by parachute and glider on the flanks, to secure key points. Then the main seaborne landings on five separate beaches began at dawn. East-to-west, the attacks were:

The main assault routes

Every beach has monuments and museums; see the Beaches section below for details.

When the seaborne units began to land, the allied soldiers stormed the beaches against strong opposition, and despite mines and obstacles. They raced across open beaches swept with machine gun fire and stormed the German gun positions. In fierce hand-to-hand fighting, they fought their way into the towns and hills and then advanced inland. Casualties were heavy in all areas and on both sides, though initially the Germans in their fortified positions had lighter losses than the Allies.

By the end of the day the 3rd British Division was within three miles of Caen, the 3rd Canadian Division was well established on its intermediate objectives and the 50th Division was only two miles from Bayeux. In the American zone, the 4th Division had established a 4-mile deep penetration inland and was within reach of Ste-Mere-Eglise, where the 82nd had fought throughout the night. At Omaha Beach the Germans had an advantage of terrain from the bluffs above the landing sites, but there too beachheads had been established.

It was a magnificent accomplishment; the formidable Atlantic Wall had been successfully breached. By the end of D-Day, the Allies had landed more than 150,000 troops in France by sea and air, 6,000 vehicles including 900 tanks, 600 guns, and about 4,000 tons of supplies and, astonishingly, had achieved complete surprise in doing it. More soldiers and supplies were pouring ashore to continue the advance; by early July the Allies had over a million men in France, and in August the total reached two million.

Other allies

The main invading force was American, British and Canadian, but several other allies had observers present or were involved in other ways.

The captive nations of Europe contributed significantly to their own liberation; they all (even Germany) had resistance movements, and several of these nations also had more formal forces involved; on D-Day there were Free French on the beaches and Norwegian Navy ships offshore. A Polish armoured division fought as part of the Canadian army in Normandy; later in the war that army had Belgian, Dutch and Czechoslovakian contingents. During the fighting in Normandy, the French resistance disrupted both German communications and their efforts to move urgently-needed reinforcements and supplies. On D-Day, Free French paratroopers were dropped in Brittany (the province west of Normandy) to help with that; their success was a factor in the American victory on the Cotentin Peninsula.

Australian and New Zealand personnel served in every branch of the British services, and on D-Day ships of the NZ merchant marine delivered troops and British-based squadrons of both the RAAF and the RNZAF were in action.

Towns

The usual bases for visits to the beaches are either Caen or Bayeux; all the beaches are easily reached from either, though both are a bit inland not right on the beaches.

There are other choices.

The area has many other villages; most are quite picturesque and are able to accommodate tourists.

One could also stay in one of the towns outside the actual landing area where an important battle was fought later in the Normandy campaign. See the After D-Day section below for details.

Almost every town in this area was damaged during the war; some such as Caen, Saint-Lô, Vire and Falaise were mostly destroyed. However, they have all long since been rebuilt.

Climate

Normandy has a temperate-zone maritime climate. The summers are warm and winters are mild. Rain however is a part of the climate all year round, winter seeing more rain than summer. The ongoing rain isn't enough to spoil a vacation most of the time and it does have a benefit, the nature is incredibly lush and green. Winter does see the occasional snow and frost as well, but in general the climate is pretty moderate in winter.

Summers are a little warmer than in southern Britain with up to 8 hours of sunshine per day. Cyclists love the region because it is not nearly as hot as most other parts of France and can be more compared to southern England than inland France. Either way, sunscreen and a hat are necessary; even if it doesn't feel as hot as the rest of France, the sun is still beating down with force!

Get in

Normandy is easily reachable from Paris, either by car (2 to 3 hours drive) or by train (2 hours from Paris St Lazare station to Caen central station). Alternatively, a ferry across the channel will take you in just over 3 hours from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, the easternmost D-Day target, an ideal starting point.

Other ferries go to Cherbourg and Le Havre, nearby though not in the actual landing area.

Caen also has an airport, near the village of Carpiquet west of the city. Control of the airfield was fiercely contested in the weeks after D-Day.

Get around

Tour the beaches and battlefields, see the various museums and cemeteries throughout the area, and visit the seaside villages and towns.

Guided tours including transport are available; most travel agents in the area and many of the hotels can arrange these if required. The Memorial de Caen museum also conducts daily tours of the beaches.

Independent travel either by car or using public transport is also possible.

Local tourist information offices provide a leaflet (in English) that lists key visitor attractions, and has details of seven route itineraries which are also signposted on the road network.

By car

Car rental in Normandy can be arranged through several international chains including Avis, Budget, Eurocar, and Hertz. Cars can be picked up in Caen. Driving in France is on the right-hand side of the road and all distance and speed measurements are in km.

Bus

Bus routes in Normandy with services between Caen and Bayeux, Bayeux and Ouistreham, and Bayeux to Grandcamp. These cover most of the main landing beaches. All the routes are operated by Bus Verts du Calvados, and free timetables can be acquired from the main tourist offices. Telephone 0810 214 214.

From Bayeux train station, you can catch a bus to some of the D-Day beaches. On the bus website there is a map of the bus route to the D-Day beaches. Bus 70 takes you to Omaha beach, the American cemetery, and to Pointe Du Hoc. Bus 74 takes you to Arromanches Beach, the location of the Mulberry harbors. According to Wikipedia: "Omaha beach is 5 miles (8 km) long, from east of Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes to west of Vierville-sur-Mer" and these villages are accessible via Bus 70. Buses are few and far between, so take the few number of buses into account. Also, buses do not run when there is heavy snow, so check the bus website beforehand during snow season.

Bicycle

Bike tours are very popular in France and biking is an excellent way of visiting the battlefields. You can rent bicycles at most major towns and railway stations in France.

On D-Day, some of the invading troops used bicycles; see the photos below of British troops at Lion-sur-Mer and Canadians at Juno Beach.

Beaches

Now 70 years after D-Day, the Normandy coast is peaceful with lovely seaside towns and picturesque beaches. Many of the towns have names of the form something-sur-mer; sur-mer is French for "on the sea". Behind the coast is an old-fashioned farming landscape of grain fields, cattle and pastures, hedges and farmhouses.

"Take time to stroll on the beaches and through the villages and to drive country lanes that are once again regulated by rural rhythms, just as if they’d never been devastated at all. It's pretty and poignant, and here’s a strange thing, it brings out the best in people. There’s respect in the air and a common bond between visitors. Folk behave well, smile and chat more easily than usual." Anthony Peregrine, The Sunday Times.

However, the memories of war and D-Day are engrained in the landscape. Along the 80-km (50-mile) D-Day invasion coast there are the remains of German gun emplacements and bunkers, while war memorials and monuments mark where the allied forces landed. Inland, there are monuments in almost every village and at every bend in the road, for there is barely a square yard that wasn’t fought over. Along the coast and inland there are numerous D-Day related museums. Only by visiting do you get a proper idea of the vastness of the enterprise.

The following description of the beaches is organized in an east-to-west order, so that it can be used to plan a driving or biking tour along the coast. The length of a tour depends on how many sites and museums a person decides to visit. Enthusiasts could spend several weeks, but two or three days are enough to cover the major sites. A good starting point is to get an orientation to the area and the history of D-Day at either the Memorial de Caen or Musée du Débarquement (The Landing Museum) in Arromanches, and from there set out to explore.

The beaches are still known today by their D-Day code names.

Sword Beach

Sword beach, the most easterly of the five beaches, stretches from Ouistreham to Luc-sur-Mer. The British 3rd Infantry Division landed on the 4 km (2½-miles) of beach between Ouistreham and Lion-sur-mer. The 41st Royal Marine Commando landed at Lion-sur-Mer, while the N°4 British Commando landed at Ouistreham. Integrated with the N°4 British Commando were 177 Frenchmen of the 1st Batallion of Fusiliers Marins Commandos who were granted the honor to set foot on Normandy soil in the first wave. On the eastern flank of Sword beach, the Sixth British Airborne had parachuted in the early morning hours of June 6th to seize bridges over the River Orne and Caen canal, silence gun batteries and secure the eastern flank of the D-Day beaches.

British troops at Lion-sur-Mer
Pegasus Bridge

There are two Commonwealth cemeteries near this beach; see the cemeteries section for details.

Juno Beach

Second-wave Canadians, bringing bicycles to move inland quickly

Juno beach is five miles wide and includes the towns of St. Aubin-sur-Mer, Bernières-sur-Mer and Courseulles-sur-Mer. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division reinforced by the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade landed in two brigade groups and fought their way across the beaches and into the towns. The No. 48 Royal Marine Commando secured the left flank at Langrune-sur-Mer.

The coastline had been fortified by the occupying Germans and bristled with guns, concrete emplacements, pillboxes, fields of barbed wire and mines. The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha.

D-Day Memorial, near Bernières-sur-Mer, Juno Beach
Sherman Duplex Drive tank, Courseulles-sur-Mer

There is a Canadian cemetery near this beach; see the cemeteries section.

Gold Beach

British tanks roll ashore, from an American-manned ship

Gold beach is more than 5 miles wide and includes the towns of La Rivière, Le Hamel and Arromanches-les-Bains. The British 50th Infantry Division reinforced by the British 8th Armoured Brigade landed in two brigade groups at Gold beach. The 47th Royal Marine Commando landed on the western flank with the objective to take Port-en-Bessin.

Gold Beach overlooking Arromanches, site of the Mulberry harbour
The Longues-sur-Mer battery housed four 150mm guns with a range of 20 km

The Bayeux War Cemetery is not far inland of this beach, and the Bayeaux Memorial near it commemorates soldiers with no known grave. See the cemeteries section for details.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach, after the high ground was taken
Pointe-du-Hoc Bomb Craters

Omaha beach is overlooked by bluffs which rise to 150 feet (46 m) and command the beaches. These naturally strong defensive positions had been skillfully fortified by the Germans with concrete gun emplacements, anti-tank guns and machine guns. In particular the guns at Pointe du Hoc were in position to be deadly. Allied bombing left these largely undamaged, and since there was no cover on the beach, this tranquil strand of beach became a killing field. Within a mile to the rear of the beach lay the fortified villages of Colleville-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer.

The US 1st Infantry Division had the most difficult landing of the whole Allied assault on D-Day and took around 2,000 casualties. One reason was the terrain, another that they faced the only German division on the coast which had a full complement of German troops. There were three divisions on the Cotentin Peninsula and three more defending the British and Canadian beaches to the east, but those divisions were either below strength or composed partly of Russian, Polish and other forced conscripts.

Monument, Pointe-du-Hoc

There is an American cemetery near this beach; see the cemeteries section.

Utah Beach

Utah beach, the most westerly of the five beaches, was attacked by the US 4th Infantry Division. By mistake the landings all took place on the south part of the beach which happened to be less well defended. Airborne troops landed through the night to secure the invasion’s western flank and to open the roads for their colleagues landing by sea at dawn. The objective was to cut the Cotentin Peninsula in two and take Cherbourg.

Utah Beach
Statue on a bridge in Ste-Mère-Église

After D-Day

The mayor of Cherbourg greets American General Collins, whose troops liberated the city

The successful landing was a turning point in World War II, a major step toward the defeat of Nazi Germany. After D-Day, the Allies went on to liberate all of Europe; on the Western Front, the three main participants were the US, Britain and Canada. At the same time, Russian forces on the Eastern Front drove forward relentlessly.

D-Day (June 6) was the start of a campaign in Normandy that lasted until late August. Those interested in wartime history may wish to visit the sites of the other main battles of that campaign.

There was heavy fighting on the Cotentin Peninsula, west of the beaches, shortly after D-Day. The Allies urgently need the port of Cherbourg and sent American troops to take it. However, three German divisions were cut off in that area by the American advance, and they put up a spirited resistance. Terrain on the peninsula is largely unsuitable for tanks, so some hard foot slogging was required. Cherbourg fell at the end of June.

Canadians in Caen

Unlike Cherbourg, the Germans were able to reinforce Caen; at one point they had seven divisions in and around the town. The Allies tried repeatedly to take the airfield at Carpiquet, just west of Caen, but were beaten back each time until early July. The British and Canadians fought house-to-house in Caen itself and pressed hard in nearby areas, but did not gain full control of the town and environs until late in July. In the process, much of the city was reduced to rubble.

After Cherbourg, the Americans turned south to take Saint-Lô against stiff opposition; the town was thoroughly destroyed. Then they smashed through German lines in the same area to break out of the peninsula in late July; this got them into open country better suited to mobile tank warfare. By this time nearly all German reserves had been committed in attempts to hold Caen and Saint-Lô and many German formations had been badly chewed up; the Americans had both more tanks and far better air support than the enemy. They used these advantages to full effect in a textbook example of armoured tactics, similar to the blitzkrieg (lightning war) with which the Germans had devastated several countries a few years earlier.

The Americans swept down the peninsula taking Coutances and Granville, punched through German defenses around Avranches, then moved very quickly in several directions. Part of their force swung west to take Brittany with little resistance in early August, and by mid-August they had extended their lines south to Nantes and Angers on the Loire and east to Le Mans and Alençon. In mid-August they took part in the battle around Falaise, and by the end of the month they had liberated Paris.

Falaise

The Falaise pocket

The decisive battle of the Normandy campaign was fought around Falaise, some distance inland of Caen, in the first half of August. Around 100,000 German troops were almost surrounded in the "Falaise Pocket"; the Allies hammered them with massive air and artillery bombardments and attacked them on the ground as well. British forces by now held everything around Caen on the north side and they had taken Vire on the west, while the rapid American advance had put them on the south side. The Allies pressed in on all sides and hoped to completely surround the enemy force by closing off the only exit, the "Falaise Gap" on the east.

To close the gap the Canadians thrust south near Falaise and Americans moved north in the Argentan area. However the by-now-desperate Germans fought hard to keep the gap open and escape through it; it was eventually closed, but not until after more than a week of extremely heavy fighting.

Falaise is a distinctly controversial battle; all commentators agree that it was an important Allied victory and that the victory might have been even larger if the Allies had closed the gap sooner, but they disagree vehemently over whether that would have been practical. Two of the senior generals' decisions have been severely criticized: Patton's Americans were ordered to stop their advance near Argentan, rather than continuing north to join up with the Canadians and seal the gap, and the British reserves were not sent to reinforce the Canadians who appealed urgently for them. There were reasons for both decisions, but they were heatedly debated both at the time and later.

The Canadians and Poles, unassisted, could neither close the gap completely nor hold against German attempts to batter their way out; they did try and got quite badly mauled. There were nine panzer divisions in the pocket; by now all were badly damaged but they could still mount devastating thrusts against chosen targets.

On the German side, Hitler overruled the generals who wanted to conduct an orderly retreat early in the battle, ordering them instead to hold their ground and even mount counter-attacks. Most historians believe the generals were right, a German defeat was inevitable, and Hitler's interference only made it worse.

Devastation near Falaise

Falaise was a major Allied victory; about 10,000 Germans were killed and 50,000 surrounded and forced to surrender; some did escape to fight on, but they lost nearly all their equipment and many were wounded. After Falaise, the Germans had no effective force west of the Seine and what troops they did have in the area were in full retreat; Paris was liberated only days later.

The battle was utterly devastating to the countryside; Eisenhower wrote: I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.

After Falaise

The campaign in Normandy was a major success for the Allies overall. Their losses were heavy about 200,000 killed, missing, wounded or captured but German losses were at least twice that. Both sides lost many tanks, guns, vehicles and other supplies, but at this stage of the war the Allies could better afford those losses.

American troops in Paris

The Normandy campaign ended with Allied forces driving toward Paris from Normandy and the Pays de la Loire which the Americans had taken after breaking out of the peninsula. After Falaise, the German forces in the area were in severe disarray and the Allies still had air superiority so the advance was rapid. The German garrison in Paris surrendered on August 25.

Meanwhile American and French forces, plus some British paratroopers, invaded southern France (east of Marseilles) in mid-August. Between that and the victories in the north, they soon liberated all of France.

After that, the British and Americans drove through eastern France and then into Germany; the Canadians took the left flank, liberating Belgium and Holland. By then the Germans had regrouped and they put up a stiff resistance in all areas, and even mounted some counterattacks. The Allied advance slowed down, but it was unstoppable.

Caught between the Russians on the east and the Western Allies on the west, losing on both fronts and being heavily bombed as well, Germany surrendered less than a year after D-Day, on 5 May 1945.

Cemeteries

Beautiful cemeteries overlook the sea and countryside and are essential stops along the way to understand and reflect on the human cost of the war. This was enormous; around 100,000 soldiers (about 60,000 German and 40,000 Allied) died in Normandy during the summer of 1944. There were also air, naval and civilian deaths, plus large numbers wounded or captured.

Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, Reviers
American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer

We list the cemeteries in two groups; the first four near the coast and the rest further inland. Order within each group is east-to-west.

Normandy has other war cemeteries; this list includes only the ones close to the invasion beaches with large numbers of dead who fell sometime between the invasion on June 6 and the end of the Falaise battle in mid-August. Not all the dead are buried in Normandy; nearly all the French dead, many of the American ones and some others were shipped home.

Go next

From this area, one might go anywhere in France or across the channel to the UK. Both Normandy and Brittany, nearby to the southwest, are major tourist areas with a range of attractions and the Channel Islands, located just off the coast, are another.

Other places of possible interest to war buffs are the scenes of two Allied raids on the German-held French coast in 1942. A predominantly Canadian force attacked Dieppe, further north on the Normandy coast, and British commandos raided Saint-Nazaire, near Nantes to the south. Losses were extremely heavy in both places and arguably both raids were disasters, though the Saint-Nazaire attack did knock out an important drydock for the rest of the war. On the other hand, it is often claimed that these raids were essential preparation for D-Day, tests of German defenses that gave intelligence required for planning the invasion.

People interested in earlier history can see sites associated with William IV of Normandy, who invaded England in 1066 and is known there as William the Conqueror. He was born in Falaise and is buried in Caen. His invasion fleet sailed from Bayeux and a museum there has a famous tapestry depicting his conquest of England.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Tuesday, June 02, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.