Visit to NORMANDY
Countless historians have chronicled the preparations for the invasion of France and one can find page after page written about the events that took place there in June 1944. Films such as “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan” as well as the recent special “Band of Brothers” brought these events alive visually. So I write not necessarily of the history, but of impressions, emotions, and observations. Traveling with two other couples who, like us, had long wanted to visit the Normandy area, we chose Bayeux as our base from which to visit the historic sites. I was the only one of our group who had a father that served in WWII. . ..mine served in Italy. However, everyone was equally fervent about wanting to see as much as we could in the two days allotted to the area.
Our guide Nigel Stewart was an Englishman who has lived in France for 14 years. His wife is French and teaches English in a French elementary school. Their two boys he has dubbed “Frenglish.” We spent nine hours each day with Nigel as he imparted a “boatload” of information to us regarding the events of the invasion and battles of Normandy. His passion and emotional involvement is obvious in everything he does and says. We were enthralled by the “stories” of specific people as they particularly brought the area “alive” for us. One of our favorites involved Joe Beyrle, More about him later.
The lovely town of Bayeux is an excellent spot in which to stay and explore the area. Our residence, The Hotel Churchill was right in the heart of town; a few steps out the front door and one is in the heart of Bayeux with shops and restaurants easily accessible. There is a magnificent cathedral and the famed Bayeux Tapestry for non-war related sightseeing. Bayeux is where Charles de Gaulle established his first seat Free-French administration until Paris was liberated. British Engineer Corps constructed a ring-road round Bayeux soon after D Day due to the center roads being too small for large military transportation. The locals still refer to the modern overlay in English – the “bypass”.
The Churchill is only 2 stars, but clean, comfortable, and its proprietress, Ms. Rima Hebert, a wonderful hostess and extremely helpful. One of the best things about the hotel was that they have mastered the art of making coffee as we Americans like it! Of course breakfast also included Tea and Chocolat and the fresh bread and pastries that we heard delivered to the hotel each morning about 5:00 AM! They were so good that we couldn’t complain about our early wake-up call!
Our first day started with a visit to the German Military Cemetery at La Cambe, something those with less time often do not see. 21,115 German soldiers are laid to rest in this cemetery which was inaugurated on September 21, 1961. Each German slab has the names of two soldiers…typical is an actual soldier’s name and Ein Deutscher Soldat (one German soldier for an unknown identity.) In the middle of the cemetery which is dotted with maltese crosses is a mass memorial marking the interment of 296 known and unidentified soldiers.
From there to La Fiere, the site of the statue of “Iron Mike” and a memorial to the 82nd Airborne Division. Our day consisted of a gorgeous, cloudless sky overlooking the pastoral French countryside which made it difficult to imagine the intense fighting that took place for the bridge over the Merderet River. Here along the swampy flooded ground of the River many men perished when their heavy equipment held them down in the unexpectedly high water levels. The Germans closed lock gates in low-lying areas across occupied Europe so as to flood land to hinder the opposing side. The river that had flooded over its banks in June of 1944 was hardly a trickle when we were there; apparently it still floods at times. For those soldiers who knew French, I am sure they felt the river was aptly named!
Ste Mere Eglise was the first French town liberated by the Americans and is the site of one of the most enduring images of the area... that of Private John Steele, whose parachute caught on the steeple of the church. For hours he watched the fighting all around him, feigning death and slowly was deafened by the bells. He became famous through re-creation of this in the movie “The Longest Day where he was portrayed by the actor, Red Buttons. Taken prisoner by the Germans, he was later rescued. He continued to visit Ste Mere Eglise during his lifetime and was made an honorary citizen of the town. Today a full-size dummy paratrooper hangs from the steeple of the church in his honor. A marvelous stained glass window in the church depicts the Virgin Mary surrounded by paratroopers.
After St. Mere Eglise, Nigel asked if we were ready to see some German concrete………………..the Azeville battery, And concrete there was…….overwhelming in its magnitude! The battery consisted of a 170 men garrison occupying 4 bunkers for 105mm guns, underground tunnels, and adjoining buildings that were camouflaged to appear as ordinary dwellings. The complex was not an immediate threat to Utah beach on D-Day but proved a tenacious threat to the coast over the following days. Overwhelming in its design and the sheer scope of the size of the walls, we were awed to see that those walls were indeed penetrated by a bomb from the U.S. Nevada that passed through two walls of the bunker shattering the concrete and killing the men inside before it landed unexploded in a field the other side of the building. In stark contrast to what Nigel was telling us was that same field hosting a couple of cows as they nibbled their way through the pasture.
Utah Beach was our next stop. Nigel took the opportunity to draw in the sand what was so carefully planned down to the last detail and how events transpired so differently from the plan….the landing crafts hitting a sand bar and having to off-load the troops in waist-deep water, the fact that they actually came in south of the intended landing zone because of the strong currents, and soldiers using the obstacles placed by the Germans on the beaches as cover from German fire, making it difficult to blow up and clear the beach of those obstacles. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. eldest son of former President Teddy Roosevelt was in the first wave of men, despite suffering from arthritis, in poor health and his walking with a cane. He was 57 and had been twice told not to go until his 3rd insistence was accepted. He posthumously won a medal of honor for his actions that day, having died of a heart attack in Normandy one month later, and is buried in the Normandy American Cemetery. Next to him is buried his youngest brother, Quentin, who was killed in WWI.
Today a café across the road from the beach and museum sits atop a bunker used by the Germans until captured by the Americans. It in itself is a “museum” accessed through the kitchen by permission and gives a realistic perspective of what it look like then as very few changes have been made. The famous Betty Grable pinup occupies a position of importance as does one of Rita Hayworth. The bunker looks as if the soldiers just walked away, leaving everything intact!
Driving on we came to a small church (11th century) at Angoville Au Plain that offers a very interesting and moving story that has special ties to Georgia. Two soldiers from the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, Private Kenneth Moore and Private Robert Wright, established an aid station here. While tending the wounded (including a child that survived and is alive today) a German officer opened the door of the church. When he realized what its use was, he asked if they would take care of the German wounded as well. The two medics agreed with the stipulation that all weapons be left outside. The church area of Angoville changed hands three times during the fighting here, over two days, but because both sides were being cared for, (About 80 men) this church and sanctuary for the wounded was left alone. 3 Americans died in the church. Blood stained pews and bullet marks help tell the story of these eighty men and the one child. Coincidentally, the church is dedicated to two martyrs who were doctors. A stained glass window here shows a paratrooper descending upon a church. Outside the churchyard stands a marker saying Place Toccoa because of where the 506th PIR started and trained. Easy Company, immortalized by “Band of Brothers”, defended Angoville between June 8th and 11th as it became the 506th regimental HQ, commanded by Col Robert Sink. Linked also to Toccoa is Joe Beyrle who was mentioned before….I am amazed that his story has not been turned into a movie; perhaps because one would find it implausible and unbelievable. Here it is…….
Joseph Beyrle was an American POW who escaped not once but twice from the Germans, following his capture on D-Day. En route to the Stalag in the east, still in Normandy, he met Rommel. After the Stalag was later liberated by the Soviets Joe fought with the Red Army till the end of the war. Wounded, he met Marshal Zhukov in a Russian hospital near Poland. Marshal Zhukov gave him a letter identifying him as an American paratrooper and he was sent to Moscow and taken to the American Embassy. There he was placed under armed guard and faced great scrutiny as he was shown to have died on June 10, 1944 in France. He could not convince them otherwise until he asked to be fingerprinted and his identity was then confirmed. During all this time his family had been notified that he was missing, then a prisoner of war, then killed in action. (It is thought that his dog tags were taken and ended up around the neck of a German soldier who was killed in France while wearing an American uniform). His funeral had been held, GI insurance paid, and his name inscribed on the memorial in his hometown. He later was married in the same church in Muskegon, Michigan where his funeral had been held. During a visit to Toccoa, Georgia (the town of his parachute training) in 2004, he died in his sleep and was buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery. A book has been published on Joe’s incredible WWII journey, called “Behind Hitler’s lines”.
Finishing our first day was Pointe Du Hoc, which is between Utah and Omaha Beaches. My first impression was that with the many holes made in the terrain from the pummeling of large naval guns the land looked oddly like a Scottish golf course. This was the famed and sad Pointe Du Hoc--a natural watchtower, consisting of massive gun emplacements connected by tunnels and underground rooms. It was bombarded by Allied Air Forces, like other coastal positions and cities in Europe, well before D-Day. On D-Day itself, prior to assault, the goal of the bombardment from air and from the naval guns was to reduce the threat this site held for both Omaha and Utah beaches; there was significant damage, but not enough. Col. James Rudder was in command of the elite 2nd Ranger Battalion, who were sent to scale the cliffs and capture the German guns The commanding general of the First U.S. Army, Omar Bradley, was quoted following the Normandy invasion as saying, "No soldier in my command has ever been wished a more difficult task than…Rudder.". More than two thirds of the rangers were lost over the two days before relief reached them on June 8.
Pointe Du Hoc’s guns had actually been moved inland and dummy guns and camouflage put in place to appear as if they were still there. The real cannons were found and destroyed on D-Day but German infantry resistance around the Pointe was tenacious. Today one can follow through trenches and explore the pill-boxes where the mighty guns were. Massive hunks of concrete are scattered throughout the site, probably blown up from within, it is thought. As one looks at the vista and its terrain, it is truly hard to imagine the bravery exhibited by the courageous men who scaled those massive cliffs while being shot at from above. We stood in awe.
Our second day began with a visit to the British Cemetery. This cemetery is serenely beautiful with its row after row of white headstones surrounded by beautiful roses and other colorful plants. Particularly poignant to us was a marker saying, A Soldier of the War and below that, Known Unto God. Another marker is that of Corporal S. Bates, whose marker says…..His parents proudly remember him as a true Camberwell boy and a loving son. It is obvious this cemetery is visited frequently by grateful Commonwealth citizens.
Omaha Beach…….at first sighting one sees holiday cottages, and people strolling along the beach and in nice weather swimmers and sunbathers. Nigel said that some visitors are bothered by this, but that the feeling is that this is what the fighting was all about and that the beach, instead of being a shrine, should reflect freedom and liberation. At 6:30 AM that day in June, there was a different scene indeed. Omaha Beach, some six miles wide with its overlooking cliffs, was the setting for the film, “Saving Private Ryan,” seen by countless people. The highest losses of any of the invasion sectors of the first day took place here. Some 1st and 2nd wave companies lost half or more of their men. With Nigel painting the picture, we could visualize Allied air bombardment’s ordinance falling too far inland, the short time allotted to the naval guns (only 40 minutes!), the placement of the bunkers (facing down the beach instead of to the ocean) allowing for crossfire patterns, the amphibious tanks sinking before reaching the beach nullifying cover for the infantry.….all this resulted in German defenses largely intact when the first assault waves hit the beach. Once again we stood in awe and wondered how on earth the Americans gained the upper hand with all the adverse conditions they faced. Nigel explained that small groups managed to climb the bluffs and made their way to launch attacks from the rear. By the end of the day approximately 34,000 troops landed on this beach with extremely heavy losses, but the Americans had achieved their goal. Today not much remains immediately visible to demonstrate what happened that day, despite some German positions that are now memorialized with the badges of the troops that stormed them. It is up to history and guides like Nigel to bring it to life.
We then traveled west along the beach from Omaha to the American Military Cemetery, containing the graves of American soldiers, many of whom died at Omaha. This is hallowed ground….those were my feelings as I stepped into the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer………….the first thing I saw was a poignant Rest in Peace sign and then beyond it row after row after row of markers. The cemetery is laid out in a rectangular shape with the main paths forming a Latin Cross. The area of graves is ten plots, where lie the remains of 9,387 servicemen and women. Each white marble headstone, either a Cross or a Star of David, faces west and therefore toward home. Three hundred and seven are unknowns whose graves simply say, “Known only to God.” The headstones are meticulously laid out so that from any vantage point, there is complete and precise alignment. Unlike the German and British cemeteries, there are no ages indicated on these markers. The average age of the men buried here is between 19 and 24. The youngest was just 17.
Planted on three sides of the immaculately maintained cemetery are Austrian pine, Laurel, Cypress, and Holly Oak; the fourth side of the cemetery is the sea. The cemetery is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, established in 1923 by Congress for the maintenance of military cemeteries and memorials on foreign soil. The ground was given by France. 23 other US cemeteries from WWI and WWII and Korea, are overseas. These cemeteries are the resting places for men and women whose families did not request the return of the body to the US. 60% of the dead from those wars were returned home. The over-riding motto of the ABMC is from General Pershing, father of the Commission : “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds”.
The chapel is especially beautiful; its altar of black and gold marble with is inscribed “I GIVE UNTO THEM ETERNAL LIFE AND THEY SHALL NEVER PERISH.” A mosaic ceiling shows America blessing her sons departing by sea and air to fight for freedom and France bestowing a laurel wreath on America’s dead who gave their lives in the fight.
The Garden of the Missing is a semi-circular wall and reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. It contains the names of 1557 missing whose remains haven’t been recovered or positively identified. An asterisk identifies 6 men that have been recovered since the wall was erected. Amazingly this does happen as excavation occurs for a building or a farmer plows a field and unearths remains.
There is an unforgettable feeling of peace and serenity, a hush broken only by the beautiful carillon playing the signature songs of each branch of the military. In our group of 6, there was not a dry eye, and even our guide who has been there hundreds of times, says that it still “gets” to him.
Our next to last stop was Caen and The Memorial, a museum for Peace that was inaugurated in 1988. Not a conventional museum by any stretch of the imagination, it focuses instead on facts and events shaping history through the use of pictures, quotes, and films. Exhibits are few, but the impact is huge. The trail through history begins after WWI following world events through to the failure of peace and the rise of the Third Reich. D Day and the Battle of Normandy are brought to life through a film starting with a dual display…..Allies on one side and Nazis on the other gradually melding into one screen depicting both the logistics of the operation as well as the human aspect. I breathed a sigh when the film was over and was emotionally spent.
We couldn’t leave Bayeux with having our picture taken with the statue of General Eisenhower; I would imagine most Americans visiting the area do the same. What a huge task he was assigned….at 54 years old he successfully commanded the Landing in Normandy…..it has been said “he was the right man in the right place.”
These two days I don’t believe any of us would trade having spent as we did and will always revere the memories and sights. We will never forget the bravery demonstrated, and the sacrifices made for us. I know that there are probably some reading this who were there, and to them I say, “Thank You” from the bottom of my heart.