Whether you are passionate about History, served in the allied armies during World War II or are just interested in the epic and tragic events of this historical moment, you may consider a day trip from Paris to Normandy which includes a tour to Omaha Beach, a visit to the American Cemetery of St.Lawrence and a stop at Arromanches.
Leaving downtown Paris early morning, we head to the northern coast of France. During the trip, our guide tells us quite a lot of information about the D-Day and the Battle of Normandy which follows. Travelling through the beautiful Normandy countryside, it is difficult to imagine that this area was once the site of the largest amphibious invasion in History.
We arrived late morning at Omaha Beach. This one is the beach of the Normandy landings that cauhad sed the highest death toll of casualties on D-Day (30% of total loss of 6 June 1944) and shares with Juno Beach the strongest rate of loss with 8% of landed, many by drowning. 1’000 americans were killed and 2’000 injured on Omaha (the precise toll remains unknown), 90% of men in the first wave were killed or wounded. History remembers the nickname “Bloody Omaha” as famous movies like “The Longest Day” and “Saving Private Ryan” were staged. Standing in the middle of the landing beaches is a strange experience, even if the situation was a lot different at the time.
We eat at a restaurant nearby and then head to the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. This cemetery is one of the 252 permanent United States burial sites on foreign soil and is situated on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of President Theodore Roosevelt, is buried here with nearly 10’000 american soldiers killed during the Battle of Normandy in World War II.
Although aisles provide access to the cemetery in multiple locations, visitors would normally access the site through the east. Here is a memorial on which stands a bronze statue of seven meters high, the work of Donald De Lue. It occupies the center of a semicircular colonnade honoring airborne troops as the role of shield they performed at both ends of the front of the amphibious landing during Operation Neptune. Oriented to the West, his gaze embraces the many rows of graves. It symbolizes “The Spirit of American youth rising from the waves.”
Every half hour, a melody breaks the silence of the area by its few notes and suddenly seems to remember the inexorable flow of time facing the memory forever frozen in this place. The “Taps” (bugle call of the American army), may also be heard after the chime has performed “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The ends of the memorial mix large loggia with large walls on which are four military operations maps. The most impressive one, “Normandy landings”, represents the establishment of the bridgehead and the operations that followed and allowed the Allies to finally enter the land (Operation Cobra, Battle of St. Lo, the Battle of Cherbourg). A second map entitled “Air operations over Normandy – March to August 1944” traces the various aviation operations during this period: bombing, parachute drops, glider towing, etc. A long text in English and French summarizes the events of June 6 until Avranches breakthrough in late July 1944. The third map titled “June 6, 1944 landings amphibious assault” presents the naval attack plans from English ports through the “Piccadilly Circus” rallying point to the final landing areas. A fourth and final map “Military operations in Western Europe, June 6, 1944 – May 8, 1945” refers to the Allied landings on June 6, 1944 until the end of the war on May 8 , 1945.
A second text entitled “From Normandy to the Elbe”, outlines the major milestones that have marked the Allied in Europe from June 6, 1944: the Falaise Pocket, the Provence landings, the liberation of Paris, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge, the capture of Remagen Bridge, to the Elbe Day.
A little further away is the cemetery. Ten blocks, separated by the aisle into two groups of five, form the space dedicated to the graves where are buried the bodies of 9’388 people, including 307 unknown and four women. In total, there are 9’384 soldiers and four civilians, most of them died on D-Day or in the following weeks in Normandy, mainly in combat. 14’000 remains, first buried in Normandy, were then repatriated to the United States at the request of their relatives. The white marble headstones are in the shape of a Latin cross or Star of David, depending of the person’s religion. Each year during the commemorations of June 6 and the Memorial Day, two flags, American and French, are planted at the foot of each stone while associations take care of adding flowers onto the graves in order to perpetuate the intergenerational memory. During their visits, relatives and families can pick up sand from the beach below and apply it on the engraved letters on crosses or stars, to give them a golden and bright appearance. This help to restore identity as stones seem usually anonymous by their large numbers and their homogeneity.
Our stop at the area include a visit to the visitor center, where you can learn that despite careful planning of the landings, almost nothing went as planned.
We then hit the road to our last stop of the day, Arromanches. Today you can still see on the beaches debris of Mulberry, a temporary artificial harbor that allowed the landing of heavy equipment without waiting for the conquest of deepwater ports such as Le Havre or Cherbourg. The British built huge floating reinforced concrete caissons called “Phoenix” which, after being towed across the Channel, were assembled by flowing through valves to form walls and piers diking and delimiting the artificial harbor, including floating pontoons which followed the tides and were grounded by floating roadways. After some time wandering on the beach, it’s time to go back to Paris.