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|The Road to Liberty, Normandy to Bastogne, Part One|
|Written by Rich Truesdell|
|Friday, 05 June 2009 11:24|
Operation Overlord, the Beaches of Normandy
Sixty-five years ago tomorrow, America's greatest generation landed on the beaches of Normandy to help put the nail in the coffin of Nazism and free occupied Europe. It's the perfect time to look back, follow in their footsteps, and pay respect for their sacrifices while visiting a unique part of France.
Almost eight years ago, after covering the Frankfurt International Automobile Show, in the immediate aftermath of the events of September 11th, I traveled to the Normandy coast of France. It was to be the start of a long-planned trip tracing the route of Allied forces across France in the summer and fall of 1944. From D-Day's Normandy beaches to the forests of the Ardennes, site of the Battle of the Bulge, it would be an epic road trip best made in a Jeep Wrangler. The shadow of 9-11 gave me a different and more-emotional perspective. My original intent was to visit dozens of historically significant sites related to the battles from the Normandy landings to the Battle of the Bulge, but the trip transcended its original purpose. In a way that I could never have predicted prior to September 11, 2001, it forced me to pause and reflect on what it means to be an American and the sacrifices that others have made over the last 235 years so that I can enjoy the freedoms I too often take for granted.
Nowhere was this feeling more palpable than on the Friday afternoon following the 9-11 attacks when I visited Omaha Beach, center of America's D-Day universe. Today, Omaha Beach bears few scars of the momentous events of Operation Overlord, June 6, 1944. To most eyes, it looks like a sleepy seaside village, and with the exception of a number of monuments commemorating battles fought more than a half century ago, an occasional museum or souvenir shack, it looks decidedly peaceful and tranquil. But 65 years ago, it was a battlefield, the scene of a titanic struggle between the United States and the forces of Nazi Germany. The D-Day invasion of Normandy--which marked the start of the liberation of France and ended with Germany's surrender and occupation 11 months later--was costly to both sides with the total killed, missing, and wounded numbering 425,000 including over 209,000 Allied casualties with nearly 37,000 dead among the ground forces and a further 16,714 deaths among the Allied air forces. Allied casualties were spread among US, British, Canadian, French, Polish, and a small number of ground forces coming from other occupied nations such as Denmark. German losses can only be estimated, but it's believed that approximately 200,000 German troops were killed or wounded with an additional 200,000 soldiers becoming prisoners of war.
Omaha Beach conjures up deep emotions. Upon my arrival in late afternoon, the sky was dark and gray--overall the view was almost black and white--like countless History Channel documentaries. Looking north out over the English Channel, it was easy to imagine the hundreds of landing craft approach the beach through the early morning fog. In the years since those images have been burned into our collective psyche by those documentaries and classic movies like "The Longest Day" and "Saving Private Ryan." Looking back over my shoulder, it wasn't hard to imagine the concrete- and steel-reinforced fortifications of Hitler's Atlantic Wall, most now long gone, the guns catching the GIs emerging from their landing craft, some more than a hundred yards from the shore, in a murderous crossfire, thousands of young lives snuffed out in a heartbeat even before reaching the beach. If I paused and listened closely, it seemed I could almost hear bullets whizzing by my ears, mortar shells exploding, and the resulting spray hitting me square in the face. The carnage that resulted was so horrible that in the aftermath of the landings the English Channel was stained red with blood.
Monuments are everywhere along Omaha Beach, and after pausing to read the inscriptions I drove north along the beach road until I saw an opportunity to take my Wrangler down on the beach. There were no gates, no "No Trespassing" signs, just a clearing to the bleached tan sands of this sacred beach. As my Jeep left the pavement, it was not at all difficult to imagine it morphing from a black Wrangler into an olive-drab MB, the first in a long line of Jeep vehicles that are linked inexorably with battles from the beaches of Normandy to the steamy jungles of the South Pacific. This is the start of the real tradition behind the Jeep legend, one of the four weapons that General Eisenhower said helped win the Second World War.
Stepping from the Wrangler, the cool waves of the English Channel splashing on my shoes, was like walking through history. It is not stretching the truth to say that my breathing became a bit more labored, and my heart beat a bit faster with so many emotions welling up deep inside my gut.
My mind started wandering as I imagined what it would be like to be some 20-year-old farm kid from Iowa, wading ashore, hitting the beach in full gear and wondering if this was where it might all end. For so many GIs, this was where they made the ultimate sacrifice, for God and country. For others it was simply the start of an ordeal, an odyssey that might later end in some hedgerow, in some nameless town in the French countryside, in a cold and soggy forest, or on the Elbe River deep inside Germany. If he was lucky, he got a return ticket home to his family or wife although he would be forever changed by his experience. Before leaving the area, I suggest heading west on the coastal road until you encounter the D-Day Omaha Beach Museum. There you will find an example of a German Enigma machine, used to encrypt messages between German commanders and their units in the field.
Overlooking the sands of Omaha Beach you will find the American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer, which is now the final resting place of 9,400 Americans along with a monument to 1,500 more listed as missing in action. It is a majestic and powerful place. Walking among the headstones, simple white crosses or Stars of David, most with a name and hometown (307 lack a name and are noted simply as a comrade in arms), is a moving experience; I couldn't help but notice just how many of them are marked with the date "June 6, 1944."
Some of graves are the final resting place of those with famous names, others are remembered and loved only by those who knew them; I wondered what they might have accomplished had their lives not been cut so tragically short. Then, as now, it's impossible for my thoughts not to turn to those lost in the collapse of the twin towers. Just as in Normandy, those who perished in New York came from many nations, not just the United States; 90 nations in all. Certainly if there were ever a time for reflection and soul searching, a visit to the American Cemetery is it. The American Cemetery at Coleville-sur-Mer has been given from the French people to the United States in perpetuity and should be on the itinerary of any American visiting Normandy.
Less elaborate but in many ways no less moving is the main German Cemetery on the Normandy peninsula at Le Cambe inland, less than 10 kilometers away along highway N13 between Bayeux and Ste. Mère Église. It is a much less elaborate facility than its American counterpart, but no less solemn, marking the final resting place of 21,000 German soldiers since 1948.
Here the grave markers are darker than at Coleville-sur-Mer. I could not help but notice just how many markers noted the final resting place of an unknown soldier. Again, like at Coleville-sur-Mer, my thoughts returned to New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, where loved ones were wrestling with the reality that many of those lost in the terrorist attacks would never be recovered nor identified. Until 1947, this was an American cemetery, but at the time the remains of the American fallen interned here were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It is a melancholy place, a graveyard for soldiers, many of whom had not chosen the cause or the fight. They, too, have found rest in the soil of France.
Leaving Le Cambe, but before leaving the Omaha Beach area, continue west on N13 then make right turn north on D514 towards the beaches. Along the way you will encounter the US Rangers Museum in Grandchamp-Maisy and Point du Hoc. It was at Point du Hoc that the Rangers scaled the 90-foot cliffs to neutralize the 155-millimeter German guns that could rain fire on both US beaches; Omaha to the right, Utah to the left. After a fierce battle the Rangers secured Point du Hoc only to find that the guns had been relocated prior to D-Day. For two days the Rangers held their ground until relieved. Of the 225 Rangers who participated in the attack, just 90 survived. The view of the Omaha and Utah invasion beaches and out over the English Channel from Point du Hoc give some perspective of the scope of the US invasion efforts on D-Day.
Doubling back to N13 I continued to head west, driving through Carentan, which played a central role in Stephen Ambrose' book Band of Brothers and the landmark HBO miniseries based on it. Finding D913, I again turned right and headed to Utah Beach. While much of the visual history of D-Day comes from the photos and documentaries made at Omaha Beach, Utah Beach succumbed to American attack with far less resistance. Today the area is windswept, with markers denoting the heroes of the battle and museums displaying artifacts left behind by the battle. One constant of each of my four visits over the years to Normandy has been the number of elderly Americans I've encountered. They are easy to spot, as almost all wear an American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars cap, and almost all participated in the events 65 years ago. Most seem willing to talk about the role they played on June 6 if you make an attempt to strike up a conversation. Every year their ranks thin with age, and most likely in the next 20 years all will have passed on, joining their brothers in arms who fell on these very beaches.
Staying on the coastal road, driving past bunker ruins, I set out to locate the Azeville Battery, one of the best remaining examples of Hitler's vaunted Atlantic Wall. After locating Azeville, the batteries themselves are reached by driving on D269 and following the signs. The scene of fierce fighting from June 7 to June 9, the batteries were captured by units of the US 4th Division using flamethrowers. The batteries were in a sad state of disrepair at the time of my 2001 visit. They were refurbished a year later and it's possible to get an idea of the kind of defenses that the Todt Organization, which also constructed Germany's Autobahns, built along the coast of France in 1942 in anticipation of the Allied cross-channel landings.
Among the many world-class military museums along the Normandy coast--including but not limited to the Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum in Bayeux and the Museum of Peace Memorial in Caen--is one of the most engaging from an American perspective: the Airborne Museum in Ste. Mère Église. It pays homage to the American pathfinders of D-Day, the members of the 82nd (All Americans) and 101st Airborne (Screaming Eagles) Divisions. Inside the two-building museum is a fully restored C-47 Dakota transport, the military version of the DC-3, the same plane that delivered thousands of airborne troops to the battle. There's also a faithfully restored Jeep MB in the building. It is easy to spend hours there as all sorts of memorabilia from the battle and those who participated in it have been collected.
Be sure to visit the Automotive Traveler image gallery for more of the photos taken inside the museum.
Outside the museum across the square is the famous church of Ste. Mère Église. In the early morning hours of the attack, a US paratrooper, John Steele, had his chute caught on the church tower and today, a mannequin paratrooper hangs there. Steele, although injured, survived his ordeal but was deafened by the ringing of the triumphal church bells before he was cut loose. As Ste. Mère Église played such an important role in the first hours of the invasion, I would suggest planning to spend some time walking around the town. While it has more than its share of tacky souvenir shops on the square, everywhere you turn you are literally walking through history. Around the corner from the church in front of what appears to be the town hall, you'll find the first marker for the Road to Liberty, which ends in Bastogne. (There is a second start for the Road to Liberty, with a cone-shaped marker at Utah Beach.)
While it is possible to follow this route and visit all the locations listed above in a single day if you start early and finish late, I suggest at least a day each for the sites in and around Omaha Beach and a second day for the locations from Utah Beach to Ste. Mère Église. You simply can't do the tour any justice, especially the museums, if you rush through them. While flash photography isn't usually prohibited, you will get better results if you use a tripod instead. And both of the suggested chateaus below are centrally located to tour Normandy from Caen to the east all the way to Cherbourg in the west and on to Avranches in the south.
Although most of my travels covered sites of interest to Americans, that's only part of the Normandy story. While Americans hit the Omaha and Utah beach heads, British, Canadian, Free French and forces from other occupied nations hit the eastern beaches of Gold, Juno, and Sword. From N13 take D6 to the coast at Port-en-Bessen where there is a golf course which is the demarcation point between Omaha and Gold Beaches. There I again was able to pick up the coast road, D514 heading east. While it winds through the French coastal towns along the way there are many markers designating the landing sites and the battles fought here 65 years ago.
Along this stretch keep your eyes pealed for signs leading to the Longues Battery. These batteries, which in 1944 were equipped with heavy guns with a range of 12 miles, could threaten both Omaha Beach to the west and Gold beach to the east. They were put out of action by naval gunfire on June 6 and were occupied by British troops on June 7 when the 120-man German garrison was captured. Four of the concrete bunkers have been preserved along with three of the original guns. Every time I've visited the battery I imagine that I'm the German soldier in "The Longest Day" looking out at the vast invasion armada on D-Day. It's a site that shouldn't be missed on a visit to Normandy.
Staying on the coast road I continued east to Ouistreham then headed south towards Caen to one of the best known landmarks in Normandy, the Pegasus Bridge and Memorial. Before dawn, British paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division, like their American counterparts at Ste. Mère Église, dropped in behind the beaches, securing several strategic objectives. Their aim was to secure the Pegasus Bridge along the Orne Canal, which, if captured, would make it difficult for the Germans to reinforce their beach defenses. With its capture early on the morning of June 6, the Café Gondrée at the Pegasus Bridge became the first building liberated in France on D-Day and the battle sequence was captured in great detail in the 1962 release "The Longest Day."
On the day of my third visit in 2004 marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day, members of the British 6th Airborne Division, sporting their maroon berets, were enjoying a luncheon reunion at the Café Gondrée, hosted by Madame Arlette Pritchett-Gondrée, whose parents George and Thérèse owned the Café on the day of its liberation. Most of these heroes of D-Day, now well into their seventies, some into their eighties, were clearly enjoying themselves. It was impossible not to overhear them swapping stories about what was the most important day of their lives; it certainly was a treat to listen to their war exploits, which on June 6, 2004, were not dimmed at all by the passage of sixty years. Try to imagine jumping out of an airplane into the darkness that was occupied France. By any measure, it takes a special brand of courage. From the Pegasus Bridge, the all-important strategic crossroads of Caen is less than a half hour away.
While it took weeks for the Allied forces to break out of their Normandy beachheads, ultimately their control of the air over France combined with their overwhelming strength pushed the German defenders back towards Paris. With Operation Cobra starting on July 25, General Patton, in a brilliant end run, was able to make a breakthrough south of St. Lo while British, Canadian, Free French, and Polish forces moved south from the vicinity of Caen which fell to British led forces on July 10. With the pincers closing in from both directions, the Germans were finally forced to retreat. In what would later be called the Falaise Pocket, American forces from the south and Canadian and Polish forces from the north would meet in Chambois east of Falaise; the gap was closed on August 22, two and a half months after the D-Day landings and the battle for Normandy was effectively ended.
Where to Stay in Normandy
Although a great deal of attention and interest for visitors visiting Normandy is focused on the landing beaches facing the English Channel, there is so much more to see, and more importantly, great places to stay. The old saying "When in Rome" has never been truer than in Normandy. For about $100 a night per person, including a gourmet breakfast, one can stay in the restored 17th century Château de la Roque, about 10 kilometers outside of Ste. Lo and 10 minutes away from the German cemetery at Merigny. It is not difficult at all to transport yourself back in time, either to 1944 or 1644, and imagine battles being fought in the surrounding Terrette Valley. Hosts Mireille and Raymond Delisle speak English fluently and Raymond was a champion bicyclist.
And then there's the Château de Vouilly, which is centrally located in Isigny-sur-Mer between Omaha and Utah beaches and close to Ste. Mère Église. James and Marie-José Hamel own the manor which dates back to the 12th century when it was a fortress, but what makes the Château de Vouilly so interesting is that the Hamel's estate hosted the American correspondents and photographers in the weeks following the landings, including 60 Minutes' Andy Rooney and Robert Capa, Life's photographer who captured and forever immortalized the D-Day landings. Breakfast is served in the former press room where you're surrounded by memorabilia from the Hamel's extensive collection. Charles even has a vintage Jeep MB outfitted for war correspondents. If you want to really feel as if you are a part of history on your visit to Normandy, you will not be disappointed by staying at the Château de Vouilly.
With so many D-Day-related sites to visit, my itinerary only begins to scratch the surface. By consulting the books and maps below (see The Road to Liberty) as well as the feature movies cited, you can spend weeks planning your own Normandy itinerary before even arriving. For most, that will mean a flight to Paris, renting a car, driving about three hours to Normandy, and starting the tour of the battlefields and monuments the next day. Although the highlights can be visited in just a few days, I suggest planning at least a week. That way, you'll be able to enjoy the luxury of going off on an unexpected exploration or taking advantage of the cuisine or calvados (apple brandy) of the region. It's easy to relax among the friendly people with the great French food and wine.
I returned to France three times following my initial visit in 2001; this narrative includes my visits to Normandy in 2002, 2005, and for the 60th anniversary in 2004.
The Road to Liberty
In Normandy there are literally hundreds of sites denoted by blue historic markers that memorialize the sacrifices--on both sides--of those who fought here in the summer of 1944. The search is made easier by the hundreds of books that have been published on the Normandy invasion. If you have any doubt, browse the US history section of your favorite bookstore. Not only is the World War Two section stocked with dozens of titles but the shelves are dominated by volumes dedicated to D-Day. While well-known authors such as Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers) seem to dominate, lesser-known authors bring a valuable perspective on the struggle to liberate Europe.
If you're considering your own pilgrimage to Normandy, I would like to suggest one small volume in particular, D-Day and the Battle for Normandy by Carl Shilleto and Mike Tolhurst, part of the Traveler's Guide series. Combined with a few maps, it will provide you with a road map not only to the Normandy beach heads but the Allied dash across France.
Just published is the Time 65th Anniversary paperback D-Day, available at most bookstores. With concise text and photographs culled from the Time-Life archives, this is an essential volume for anyone wishing to fully understand the significance of the events from 65 years ago. At just $11.99, it is an absolute bargain and an essential publication for anyone with an interest in the Second World War.
When it comes to selecting maps, let me suggest two maps reissued by Michelin: Battle of Normandy, June--August 1944, and Road to Liberty, June 1944--January 1945. Reproduced from original maps first published in 1947, they give an unusual perspective to the invasion and the battles that followed.
In an effort to simplify your own planning for a visit to Normandy, I have used Google Maps to show the locations of all the points of interest mentioned in the text. Here are two itineraries, one for the American points of interest starting from the Château de la Roque, the other for the Commonwealth points of interest from the Château de Vouilly.
This is the first of a three part series. Part two, coming in September, will mark the Allied dash across France to the borders of Germany in the summer and fall of 1944. Part three, covering the German Ardennes Offensive, Watch on the Rhine, will be published here on Automotive Traveler in December on the 65th anniversary of the famous stand by the 101st Airborne in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, the last marker on the Road to Liberty.