Posts filed under ‘D-Day’

Farewell to Normandie

Day 16 of the 2011 European Adventure was our last day to see D-Day sites. A couple of friends had each told us that Arrommanches had a fantastic museum, but when I was researching, I found that Arrommanches had several museums. So I picked one, and while it didn’t have light-up maps on the floor (I have been wanting to go to another museum with light-up maps on the floor ever since I went to Gettysburg when I was 9), I’m glad that we ended up at the Mulberry Harbor museum.

Here’s another aspect of D-Day that I didn’t know before visiting Normandy: the Brits brought a homemade harbor to France, and that’s why the troops were able to continue advancing after the initial attacks. Churchill had the foresight to realize that they would need a major harbor to transport vehicles, equipment, supplies, more troops, etc. after the invasion. Unfortunately, the Nazis also knew this, so they guarded the northern harbor cities most fiercely. So the Brits built one. They had an incredible manufacturing industry throughout the country, and factories all over were converted into harbor-making machines. For the most part, the workers had no idea what they were making, since the top-secret venture was carried out in pieces. The pieces were then assembled into larger pieces, and when it was time invade, the larger pieces were towed toward Arrommanches. Storms destroyed much of the harbor just a few weeks after it was constructed, but replacement parts were brought in quickly. It really was an amazing feat of engineering, and one of the keys to the Allied success. And the museum on the process is really well done. After we went through the museum and watched a couple of films, we went down to the beach to see the ruins up close.

Mulberry Harbor 1

Mulberry Harbor 2

One of the classic tourist sites for Americans visiting Normandy is the American Cemetery. The Americans, the British, and the Canadians were all given pieces of land to bury the soldiers that were killed in the D-Day invasion and in the months after. As can be expected, the American Cemetery is the largest and most built up, with a huge parking area for both cars and tour buses, a large visitor centre, and several elaborate memorials.

Path in the American Cemetery
Walking past the visitor centre and towards the graves, I almost forgot that I was in a cemetery—this path has the serenity of a seaside park.

American Memorial
Of course, I remembered soon enough. The sculpture inside the main memorial where the graves start was stunning in the bright sunlight.

Reflecting Pool
The memorial also features a reflecting pool with lily pads, even more gorgeous on a day with a rich blue sky.

Of course I had seen the statistics for the number of lives lost, but you don’t fully understand until you are standing among the rows and rows of white crosses, keeping in mind that there are more plots with more crosses (and Stars of David).

More crosses

I am posting about this day all out of order—we actually did the American Cemetery before Bayeux, and then the Mulberry Harbor museum, but this order made more sense to me, topically.

Our last stop of the day was on a whim. We were heading back to Ouistreham for dinner, but knew that we were still a little bit early. I had put Ouistreham into the GPS, and instead of driving along the stop-and-go coastal highway, Lee (my GPS) took us inland for a bit, and we passed through the town of Bény-sur-Mer. I knew I’d written than name down in my notes, but I didn’t remember why, until I spied a red-and-white maple leaf flag waving on the side of the road. The Canadian Cemetery. So we stopped, of course.

It was smaller and simpler than the American Cemetery, with no tour bus parking. We didn’t even notice the gravel parking lot at first and left our car on the side of the road, but it didn’t matter. Only one other couple was walking through the grounds, and they appeared to be looking for a specific grave. The monuments were pretty, and Mom noticed that everything was written in both English and French, which made me wonder if, like the Juno Beach Centre we’d seen the day before, it took a while to get the funds together to build the memorials. Canada did not recognize its dual official languages until 1969. But that’s a story for another day.

Canadian Cemetery Graves
The graves were traditional headstone-shaped, with either a cross or a Star of David on each one, along with a name, dates, and sometimes an epitaph, too. I liked the flowers between the headstones.

Large Cross
This large cross is a memorial in the centre of the cemetery.

And of course the fleur-de-lis was ever-present, too.

Once in Ouistreham, we walked up and down the pedestrian-only Avenue de la Mer to choose a restaurant—we knew that we were going to stay far away from the mini-golf place this time! The one that we picked served 17 different kinds of mussels, so we each got a cauldron-full of them. Mine were baked with apples and camembert…for me, this is pretty much food heaven. The only thing that could have made it better was gelato, and that was our next stop. Pretty great way to spend our last night in Normandie!


December 5, 2011 at 8:09 pm Leave a comment

Utah, Omaha, and Grandpa

On Day 16 of the great 2011 European Adventure, my mom and I woke up early, even before our inn started serving breakfast. That didn’t matter, since we’d opted out of the 7 EUR/person hotel breakfast, anyway. We knew that every little French village has a little French boulangerie, so after a quick Google, we were off to the town centre, where we feasted on delicious pains au chocolat. The only drawback to skipping hotel breakfast was the lack of coffee. The French have not embraced the coffee shop concept, so we were left with only bottles of water to fuel our drive up the coast.

Stop #1 on our packed Day 16 itinerary was Utah Beach, the westernmost tip of the D-Day beach region. We planned to drive all the way west first, then make stops as we headed back towards our hotel throughout the day. Utah Beach was one of the American sectors of the invasion, but it was not nearly as bloody at Omaha Beach, so it is not as well known. The area is much more remote, with just a memorial on the beach until a few years ago, when a museum was built. There’s also a gift shop just across the road, where they sold neat postcards of old black & white photos, and where I spent 10 minutes trying to buy two of them. The proprietress was engaged in a very exciting phone call and had little interest in taking my money. But anyway, on to the photos of Utah Beach:

Utah Beach Memorial
The day was just perfect for sightseeing—not a cloud in the sky and breezy-warmish—but the direct sunlight made photography less than ideal. Our itinerary was too busy to come back later in the day, when I wouldn’t have to shoot straight into the sun. Fortunately, I like lens flare!

Utah Beach
Once again, Utah Beach doesn’t look anything like a battlefield anymore.

Rowe Road
All of the roads around Utah Beach (and they were truly roads, not streets…some were really lanes, not roads!) were named after men that had died in the D-Day campaign.

Next up was Sainte-Mère-Église, where U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne sailed into town just before the beach invasion began. One of the paratroopers, John Steele, was caught on the spire of the church and was wounded, but played dead during the battle. He was taken prisoner by the Germans (once they figured out that he was alive), but later escaped and returned to fighting for the Allies and survived the war.

The church has a permanent model of Steele attached to it.

Our early schedule had put us at Utah Beach ahead of the tourists, but we hit Sainte-Mère-Église at the same time as a couple of tour buses. We knew it would be a busy day, so we decided to skip the small museum in town and kept moving.

Omaha Museum
Our next stop was the first scheduled museum of the day, the Musée Mémorial d’Omaha Beach. The funny part about this trip through the beaches was that we never knew what to expect. For some reason, I had the idea that this museum was a brand-new, high-tech sort of thing, with light-up map murals and such. As you can see below, this museum was one of the first built after the war, and it hasn’t changed much.

Omaha Museum Display
The displays were simple exhibits of found artifacts from the war with explanatory postcards. I loved the awkward English translations. For example, this card about the mines uses the word “explosed.” The presentation may have been old-fashioned, but this museum was packed with information. I especially loved the letters on display—it was nice to connect with some of the personal stories. The main story of Omaha Beach is one that many Americans know quite well. At one time, I knew it extremely well, since my middle school social studies teachers were big war buffs and arranged for a theatre to play The Longest Day for us. Almost everyone hated it because it was so long, but I liked it so much that I watched it again the same weekend when it happened to be playing on cable.

The museum also featured lifesized diorama displays with mannequins. A little creepy, but retro and kind of cool. I especially liked this one, since it showed what my grandfather did as part of a communications unit. They came over after D-Day to maintain communication lines as the Allies advanced through Europe. They didn’t make movies about the communications guys, but they were an integral part of the last stage of the war. Abraham Jones Markham, my mom’s father, was one of the men who did this job.

Seeing the D-Day Beaches was important to my mom and me not only because we are history nerds who love Europe, but also because it’s a connection to her father and my grandfather. He passed away 11 years ago, and it’s still hard for me to think about him without getting emotional. My grandparents lived in Tulsa, OK, and my mom and I lived in central Illinois and then Chicago after I turned 3. We didn’t have family nearby for most of the time I was growing up, so the few times a year that we saw my grandparents were always precious times. I adored my grandparents. I would sit on Grandpa’s lap in his blue recliner, eating plums before dinner while we watched Jeopardy, until I was much too big for it, I’m sure. He didn’t talk about himself very much with me. I had an assignment in 8th grade to interview a veteran, and I’m thankful for that, otherwise I might not have ever heard him talk about his time in the war. He was quiet, but always seemed so strong to me; he was sick my entire life, but never seemed frail until the very end of his life. I’m sure that his wife and children knew his faults just as well as his strengths, but to me, he was perfect. I never saw him do anything wrong, unless you count sneaking a piece of chocolate that was strictly against his diabetic diet. I loved him dearly, and I only wish that I’d had time with him when I was older.

So being at Omaha Beach with my mom was a very special moment. I didn’t want to cry all the way through our busy day, but after I had time to reflect, I understood what a blessing it was to be able to see the Normandy Beaches and to be able to make the trip with my mom.

Omaha Beach Sculpture
Omaha Beach itself has two memorials at St-Laurent-sur-Mer, right on the same strip of beach. This is a sculpture called “Les Braves” by Anilore Banon, a French artist. Both memorials are dedicated to the Americans that liberated the region. The three sections of this sculpture, which was commissioned for the 60th anniversary in 2004, represent “The Wings of Hope,” “The Rise of Freedom,” and “The Wings of Fraternity.” Mom and I both thought it was a beautiful tribute and I found it to be very moving. Although quite a few people were milling about, everyone was very quiet and respectful.

Omaha Beach Memorial
This is the first memorial, built on street level, above the beach. I’d seen this monument before in photographs, and seeing it in person was so compelling. The text at the top is in French, with the English below: “The Allied Forces landing on this shore which they call Omaha Beach liberate Europe – June 6th 1944.”

I still have one more D-Day museum and the cemeteries, but they will have to wait for another post.

November 8, 2011 at 12:19 am 1 comment

O Canada

I love Canada. Most of you reading probably know this. If you stumbled across this blog recently, you can catch up with my feelings about Canada by reading some of the entries under “Canada” in the right sidebar. To say the least. So in planning the itinerary for this Europe trip, I was so excited that we would be in Normandy on July 1st and 2nd. We wanted to see some of the Canadian sites anyway, so of course it made sense to see them on the 1st. Even in Europe, I would get a Canada Day! So I wore my “True North Strong and Free” tee-shirt and once we were done with the British sector, we headed for the Canadian area.

Maple Leaf

The Americans and the British were quick to memorialize their efforts in D-Day on French soil, but it took much longer for the Canadians. Without the advantage of proximity that Great Britain has and the military budget that the United States has, Canadians had to raise their own funds, and it took quite a while. In 2003, Juno Beach Centre was finally opened at Courseulles-sur-Mer. From my research, I knew that it existed, but it wasn’t until we arrived in Normandy and I picked up a brochure and saw the billboards, that I realized that this museum would be a big one.

Juno Beach Centre

Inside, we paid our admission, and the cheerful Canadian staff wished us a Happy Canada Day and commented on my shirt. I expected her to ask where I was from, and I was tempted to just say Toronto to avoid the explanation, but she wasn’t that interested in me, I guess.

The metal-clad building has a modern design with five sections. From the air, it looks like a stylized take on the maple leaf. I thought it was quite cute how the first area of the museum was an introduction to Canada. Canada and I are already pretty well acquainted, but I enjoyed the overview of what things were like for the country just before the war erupted. My mom enjoyed the large map on the floor, and she had me walk the route that I drove last summer so that she could see it. Since the museum was so new, the information was presented very well, and we both learned a lot.

Once we were through, we took a bit of time to explore Juno Beach and the lovely town of Courseulles-sur-Mer, which was set up like Honfleur with a large bassin in the centre.

Canada and France
The flags of my two favourite foreign countries, flying side by side. A real treat for a girl who loves flags and photographing flags.

Juno Beach East
Juno Beach was so lovely that I knew that I had to take panoramics to try to capture the serenity. It wasn’t what I expect from a battlefield at all. See this one larger here.

Juno Beach West
The above photo was taken looking east, and this one was taken looking west. Larger photo here.

The inukshuk is a symbol known very well in Canada, but not as well in the rest of the world. They were originally built by Inuits and other First Nations in the northern stretches of Canada, possibly as navigational markers, but their usage has spread recently. Since the inukshuk was used as a symbol of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, seeing one in Normandy brought back a flood of excellent memories for me.

This Sherman DD tank sank in the D-Day invasion off of Juno Beach, and it was recovered in 1970 and placed in Courseulles-sur-Mer, just off the beach. It now serves as a memorial.

We were both pretty exhausted after our full day in Normandy, so we checked into our hotel (Hotel Le Canada!) in Hermanville-sur-Mer, and took power naps before dinner. I am usually responsible for finding restaurants when we eat out at home, but without Yelp, I was at a bit of a loss. We ended up driving to Ouistreham, which seemed to have a lot of variety and since we wanted something simple, we tried a beachfront place that had a large patio and also mini golf. I don’t usually eat at restaurant/mini-golf combos, but since it was in France, I thought it was worth a shot. The food wasn’t great, but it was okay. I had a galette (savoury crêpe) that was too thick and Mom had a pot of mussels:

We’d seen the British museum at Pegasus Bridge, but we hadn’t seen the British beaches yet, so our post-dinner ice cream cones also gave us a chance for a little walk on Sword Beach. Just as I was surprised by the serenity of Juno Beach, I was also surprised that Sword Beach is now a typical summer beach, with sand castles, kids in swimsuits, and beach volleyball games. Ouistreham has a ferry to Great Britain, so it’s a popular destination for D-Day tourists, as well as families on seaside getaways.


After the beach, we strolled down Avenue de la Mer, which is a pedestrian-only street for a couple of blocks and is lined with tons of restaurants, all of which looked better than the mini golf restaurant that we chose. Mental note for the next night!

October 23, 2011 at 12:32 am 3 comments

Pegasus and Hillman

After our roadside picnic, Mom and I got back into our Corsa and continued on towards Ranville and the Pegasus Bridge Memorial and Museum. We had a day and a half to see the D-Day Beaches, which wasn’t nearly enough time to see absolutely everything. Almost every town has its own memorial, and many towns have small museums, too, to tell the stories of their own occupations and liberations. So instead of trying to see everything, I decided that we would see a few things from each of the British, Canadian, and American sectors. Since we’re Americans, and since the American sectors are the most built up, I decided that we’d spend most of our second day at different American sites. That left our first half-day to split between the British and Canadian areas. Since we were coming from the east, we started with the British and Pegasus Bridge.

Pegasus Bridge
Pegasus Bridge is still a working bridge, but it isn’t the same structure that bridged the Caen Canal in 1944. The new bridge was built in 1994 and the old bridge (pictured above) was saved and is now part of the Pegasus Memorial Museum.

In American history classes, we always focused on the beach landings when we discussed D-Day. They were the bloodiest parts, best suited for Hollywood movies and to capture the short attention spans of 8th-graders in Mr. Broccolo’s history class. Before our trip, I didn’t have much concept of the events that occurred in the hours just before the beach landings, including the taking of Pegasus Bridge.

In order to cut off German counterattacks and the arrival of relief troops, the Allied Forces isolated the Normandy beaches by destroying most of the bridges across the Caen Canal and River Orne. Of course, they didn’t want to box in their own troops either, so they sent British air troops in gliders (that is, aircrafts without engines that were dropped from other aircrafts to secretly land in enemy territory) to take and defend Pegasus Bridge until the troops that stormed Sword Beach could reach them. It’s a fantastic story, and one that the small museum told wonderfully well.

This cannon is located just outside the museum with the flags of the Allied Nations.

Poppy Wreaths
One thing I learned from this visit was that the British share the Canadian fascination with red poppies as memorial flowers. I had to explain to to my mom. I think that the average American has probably heard “In Flanders Field” before, but we don’t have the same strong association for red poppies that Canadians and, apparently, the British do.

After Pegasus and Hillman, the next stop on my list was the Site Fortifié Hillman. Unfortunately, I only had the road (rue du Suffolk) and the closest town (Colleville-Montgomery), and the vague reference in my notebook: “can go in many remaining defensive positions.” We drove to the town, but I wasn’t even sure what we were looking for, so I was about to give up when I saw a tiny sign that said “Site Hillman” with an arrow. We had stumbled onto rue du Suffolk after all.

We found the parking lot and wandered onto an open, grassy area, where a group of British schoolchildren were being lectured about not littering while they had their lunch. One of the teachers was desperately trying to get someone to eat the last apple. I almost volunteered to take it.

So my mom and I just kind of wandered around some ruin-ish things, and then we stumbled upon this:
Bunker 1

The stairs were narrow, but there weren’t any signs or ropes indicating that we shouldn’t walk down them, so we did. I touched the walls, read the plaque, and we poked our heads around some corners. We found something that may or may not have been a huge water tank, and then we found a portal that we could put our heads through.

Head through a portal
Photo op!

I thought that it was pretty cool, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking at. The tiny area seemed more like a cement version of a WWI trench than anything that I’d seen associated with WWII in the movies. I had expected a gun battery somewhere, but I didn’t see anywhere that could have housed a huge gun, and besides, what would huge guns have done underground. Regardless of the confusion, I thought the experience had been really neat. Mom agreed, and we were just heading up the stairs when a cheerful French guy appeared and asked us if we would like to see inside.

My mom replied and said that we’d already been inside, and that it was very interesting. He asked again if we wanted to see inside, and my mom said again that we already had, and then he said, “No, you haven’t been inside, because I have to unlock it.” And he motioned for us to follow him.

He ducked down one of the small “hallways” off the main “trench” area and pulled open a heavy door, entered an alarm code, and fiddled with several locks. Okay, I guess we hadn’t seen the inside yet. Another couple who had been wandering around followed us inside and the cheerful guy, a volunteer with the local historical society that was working on keeping up and restoring the bunker, gave us an impromptu tour.

It turns out that the Site Fortifié Hillman was a German bunker. It had been built during the occupation, obviously, and it was an extensive underground, fortified site of German operations. It contained living and working quarters for the commander of operations in the region, as well as his staff.

Inside the Bunker 1
Inside the Bunker 2
I was really interested in the desk in this second photo. It was the station for getting messages in and out of the bunker during the war. Telegrams, maybe? I’m not sure of the right terminology, but it was really neat.

Our guide spoke quite fast and he used a lot of vocabulary that I didn’t get in Mme Bourg’s high school French classes, like “generator” and “commander” and “forces,” so Mom had to catch me up a few times. I did understand a decent amount, though, and I was able to ask a question or two in French and thank him for showing us around. So when we emerged, we somehow started with the woman in the other couple, and she was pretty shocked that she thought we were American. Somehow, between my mom’s good French, my stumbly French, and us speaking to each other in English occasionally, she thought that we were German. Still haven’t figured that one out, but we all laughed about it. She was Parisian, but had married a Londoner and had lived in London for years. They were biking the D-Day area because her husband really wanted to, and she was just along for the ride.

I didn’t ask our Parisian-Londoner friend for her name (I’m terrible with getting names when I talk to people), but I did snap a photo of her as she pedaled away.

Bunker 2
Hard to imagine this country as a war zone on such a beautiful day, isn’t it?

I really enjoyed our random tour of the bunker, and I’m glad that we were in the right place at the right time! The guide told us that the restoration of the bunker had only begun in the past couple of decades, because the occupation had been such an awful experience for the townspeople. After it was over, no one wanted to preserve a place associated with so many bad memories. They used the area as a junkyard and it had to be “rediscovered” before it could become a historical site. A group of veterans, like our guide (not of WWII, he was younger than that), had taken interest in the site, for the sake of history, but it hadn’t really taken off like some of the other more popular tourist sites because they didn’t have any funding. Who wants to fund the place where the Nazis worked, right? But at the same time, it still has historical value, and I’m glad that a group of locals took enough interest in it to preserve it so that my mom and I could wander into it. Very interesting.

October 4, 2011 at 9:39 pm 3 comments


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