History explorer: D-Day beaches

Seventy-five years ago, the largest seaborne invasion the world had ever seen was unleashed on a quiet stretch of Normandy coastline. Ellie Cawthorne explores the beaches, cliffs and villages that still bear the scars of D­-Day

Looking out across the Channel, shell craters pockmark Pointe du Hoc – a German artillery position seized by US Rangers. The promontory is one of many reminders of D-Day along the Normandy coastline. (Photo by Getty Images)

Stand at the centre of Omaha beach, where the ‘Dog Red’ and ‘Easy Green’ sectors once met, and you’ll be confronted by towering shards of metal protruding from the sand. This striking memorial – simply called Les Braves – is a reminder that, although the water here is now calm and the beach empty, this was once the site of fire and fury, its sea and sand stained red with blood.

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From shell craters to rusting gun batteries, reminders of the invasion that unfolded here in 1944 can be found up and down the Normandy coastline. Walk east along Omaha beach from Les Braves, and on the other side of the quiet bluff you’ll find the Normandy American Cemetery. Between wide avenues lined with oaks and pines, row upon row of immaculate white crosses stretch out, each one marking a US serviceman who lost his life during the Normandy campaign. Looking at the headstones spanning this vast plot, it’s hard to comprehend that the 9,380 graves here represent just 40 per cent of the Americans who died during the battle for Normandy, the majority having been returned home to their families.

Although the water here is now calm and the beach empty, this was once the site of fire and fury

Walking between the headstones, I am joined by a guide carrying a green bucket full of wet sand. She gives this to all visitors who have relatives buried here, encouraging them to rub a handful of sand into the words inscribed on the grave of their loved one. While this may initially seem like a strange ritual, its purpose soon becomes clear – afterwards, the carved names stand out in stark relief against the white marble. Collected directly from Omaha beach, the sand is a poignant reminder that the site where so many of those buried here lost their lives is just a stone’s throw away. Listen carefully and you can hear the waves breaking on the shore.

Battery charge

Looking out at the sea from the clifftops at Longues­sur­Mer battery, you gain a different perspective on the invasion. From this spectacular vantage point, it’s easy to imagine how ominous a sight it must have been for the Germans stationed here when thousands of Allied vessels appeared on the horizon. Today a beautiful spot coated with vivid yellow rapeseed fields, Longues­sur­Mer offers panoramic views of the Omaha and Gold beach sectors. Back in June 1944, however, these extensive vistas made the battery here a serious threat to the invasion fleet. Beefed up on Rommel’s personal orders shortly before D­Day, the four six­inch guns on this section of the Atlantic Wall were able to wreak havoc on targets more than 20km away. However, the battery’s clout was short­lived. After heavy shelling, it was seized from the rear, and the surrounding fields – still littered with the mangled remnants of guns – turned into a British airfield.

Face east from Longues­sur­Mer, and you’ll spot something unexpected just off­shore from the coastal town of Arromanches. This sleepy fishing village was the site of one of the most ambitious engineering projects of Operation Overlord: Mulberry B. Constructed by British forces in just 12 days, this vast artificial port allowed the Allies to pour men and equipment into Normandy following D­Day. Hulking lumps of the concrete harbour known as ‘spuds’ still lie beached on the sand, now covered with lichen and barnacles. Crumbling sections of the seawall towed across the Channel from England – some as heavy as the Eiffel Tower – can be seen emerging from the waves. Climb up to the tank­topped German casemate on the hill for superb views of the fragmented seawall and the town below.

Further inland, there’s still plenty to discover. South of the British Sword sector, on the eastern flank of the landing zones, is Bénouville – or ‘Pegasus’ – Bridge. Crossing the Caen Canal, this was one of the key strategic sites seized in the opening moments of D-Day, renamed after the emblem of the British airborne forces that captured it.

Those interested in the British experience should also stop off at the medieval town of Bayeux, whose winding streets and Romanesque cathedral were largely bypassed by the fighting (quite literally – a new road was built by the Allies because the town’s lanes were deemed too narrow to navigate). Here you’ll find the Bayeux War Cemetery, the resting place of 4,100 British and Commonwealth soldiers, each bearing an individual message. A Latin inscription on a memorial to 1,800 fallen with no known grave fuses the town’s wartime experience and Norman heritage: “We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.”

The legacy of the Second World War has become a key part of Normandy’s regional identity

Head west of the landing beaches to the flat sweeping farmlands of the Cotentin Penin sula to find the small town of Sainte-Mère-Église, famously liberated by the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment on D-Day. In the middle of a sleepy square, lined by quaint cafes and 1940s-inspired shops, stands the town’s modest church, the site of one of Operation Overlord’s most hair-raising stories. Dangling from the bell tower is a dummy parachutist, marking the spot where US paratrooper John Steele found himself stranded after his chute snagged on the spire – an ordeal he survived by playing dead. Inside the church, kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows depict paratroopers descending from the skies.

Keeping the story alive

The legacy of the Second World War has become a key part of Normandy’s regional identity, and it’s nigh on impossible to drive through the fields, farms and towns without coming across a museum or visitor attraction dedicated to some aspect of the campaign. In all of them, there is a determination to find new ways to communicate the story of those key months. While for most, this means focusing more on personal stories and less on grand strategy, the D-Day Experience in Saint-Côme-du-Mont is taking this modernising mission to a whole new level. Alongside an Imax cinema, they offer visitors the chance to recreate a paratrooper’s journey across the Channel in a C-47 flight simulator, complete with deafening surround sound, billowing smoke and a holographic commanding officer.

Seventy-five years from June 1944, as fewer and fewer veterans are able to attend anniversary events, questions are being raised about how the memories of D-Day will remain alive once those who witnessed it have gone. Travelling through Normandy, it becomes clear that there is no intention here of letting those memories fade. They are woven into the landscape – not only in the crater-ridden clifftops and wide, empty beaches, but also in the museums and memorials run by those determined to keep the story alive.

For more information on planning a trip to Normandy, go to normandy-tourism.org.


D-Day in Britain: four places to visit

Churchill War Rooms, London

As dawn broke on D-Day, one of its main architects was working in bed in a bunker beneath the heart of White-hall. This warren of claustrophobic corridors and stuffy offices was Churchill’s wartime HQ. Look out for Winston’s chair in the cabinet room – its arms scratched to pieces by his signet ring – and a facsimile of a letter from George VI begging the PM not to accompany the invasion force.

Find out more here

The D-Day Story, Portsmouth

Based at a major embarkation point for the cross-Channel assault, this is the only museum in Britain solely dedicated to D-Day. Exhibitions include the Overlord Embroidery – an 83-metre-long tapestry depicting the events in vivid hand-stitched detail. 

Find out more here

IWM Duxford, Cambridgeshire

Air support played a crucial role in the success of the landings, and many flying that day set offfrom Duxford airbase. In the site’s American Air Museum, you can see aircraft daubed with the black and white Allied ‘invasion stripes’ to avoid friendly fire on D-Day. On 4–5 June, Duxford will be marking the anniversary with ‘Dakota’ flight displays, parachute jumps and and even a cross-Channel flight. 

Find out more here

HMS Belfast, London

HMS Belfast – now moored on the Thames – was one of almost 7,000 vessels that descended on Normandy, heading up the bombardment of the Gold beach sector. In the admiral’s brig, a replica of Belfast’s log book records its actions on 6 June, when the vibrations of the six-inch guns were so penetrating that they cracked the ship’s porcelain toilet seats. 

Find out more here

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This article was first published in the June 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine