I found the British and Canadian sector to be the most fascinating. Perhaps because it was the first day of my tour, so my mind was particularly receptive and eager. But it was more likely that at the time I lacked sufficient appreciation for the tremendous contributions made by the British and the Canadians during D-day. We Americans tended to focus much more on our own roles in Omaha Beach and Utah Beach and throughout the Battle of Normandy. We also deserve lots of credit for Operation Cobra that punched through the German lines and led to the Allies' rapid advance eastward. But the tour of this other sector left me wondering, 'Gee, how could have we done much of anything without the British?'
This travelogue provides clues to that answer through visits to four locations in the British and Canadian Sector. These are Pegasus Bridge near Bénouville, Hermanville, the Hillman Bunker Complex, and Arromanches-les-Bains, site of the eastern Mulberry Bridge. These are not all the best sights in this sector, but they were the four that left the greatest impression on me.
For introduction, the stretch of beach from the coastal town of Arromanches-les-Bains eastward to Ouistreham and the mouth of the Orne River comprised the British and Canadian sector. The British were assigned the outer beaches Gold and Sword, while the Canadians advanced in the middle, Juno Beach. Like the other beaches, amphibious landings by infantry were preceded by naval bombardment and airborne landings further inland. The bombardment's purpose was to disrupt the German defenses and capture key terrain and landmarks. In this sector, those were primarily bridges. The airborne forces were tasked with securing five such bridges. The first of these successfully liberated was a one-piece drawbridge near Bénouville, now known as "Pegasus Bridge". Pegasus Bridge was easy to get to from Caen by following the signs along the Orne River. The bridge now occupying the site, shown in the first photograph, was not the original.
The story of Pegasus Bridge was compelling. A team of British airborne landed there just after midnight on the 6th of June 1944. By 'airborne', I didn't mean parachutists (the main airborne deployment means nowadays), but gliders. Those gliders were simple wooden boxes with wings that essentially crash-landed on the site. Those that survived the landing got out and fought.
Cool, eh? No wonder they stopped using them after World War II.
Anyhow, Pegasus Bridge was the first bridge captured, and the second photo shows the very landing site of Major Howard, commander of the band of 6th Airborne Division soldiers who landed first. Monuments (connected by paved path) also mark the site of the other two gliders that landed nearby (the one marking the second glider can be seen in the distance of the second photo).
What was so cool about this place was the cafe we ate at, run by a charming old woman who was only 8 when D-Day happened. She remembered the four years of German occupation before the invasion and remembered exactly what happened when the first three British gliders landed after midnight on the 6th of June to liberate the bridge. Her house sat right next to it, so she witnessed quite a lot. Even though she probably told the same story hundreds of times (as evidenced by the incredible amount of memorabilia that crammed the cafe), the memories remained very vivid and she told the story with great emotion. Meanwhile, the 'official' memorial to Pegasus Bridge, that also contains the original bridge mechanism, sat a block away. I recommend ignoring that and go to this café instead, as the company was much more interesting and the food was wonderful.
From here, we proceeded toward the ocean. Signs marking the route to the D-Day landing sites were very easy to follow (although traffic was often heavy). Once we reached Ouistreham, we were at the very eastern boundary of the sector, and thus headed westward along Sword Beach. The beach contained numerous monuments and historical landmarks. Each was worth a look.
The next major stop on the journey was to the village and environs of Hermanville. Hermanville was the site of a particularly important battle once the landings was secured. Several monuments (such as the 8th British Infantry Regiment Monument shown in the third picture) were located in a draw from the Queen Beach sector of Sword. The colorful tiles on the ground formed the regimental crest, while the map at best told the story of the 8th. At that spot, elements of the 8th broke through the German fortifications after the initial invasion and made their way inland.
Unfortunately for them, waiting in the distance were the Germans at the Hillman Bunker, a stronghold on high ground inland from Hermanville and nearby Colleville (now known as Colleville Montgomery, the second moniker being that of the British commander). This bunker complex was outside of naval gunfire range, so as the British forces advanced, they ran into fresh and ready German opponents well-hidden and well-protected in bunkers like the one in the fourth photo. The photo is pointed in the direction of the British advance, showing the unobstructed German sightlines that favored the defenders.
During my visit, several local Frenchmen were in the process of rebuilding the entire Hillman Bunker area to its original 1944 state. This included restoration work on the bunkers, the connecting trenches, ammo bunkers, water well, and various monuments commemorating the site. It was a lot of detailed work, which was difficult because of the need to be historically accurate. They were making tremendous progress.
But by far, I found Arromanches-sur-Mer and the eastern Mulberry Harbor to be the most intriguing. The Mulberry was a fully functioning artificial harbor that the British constructed using sunken ships and thousands of tons of cement. This harbor was what allowed the massive amount of supplies and equipment needed to support the invasion to get ashore during the all-important early days of the campaign. Words were insufficient to describe the undertaking to complete such an architectural feat merely days after D-day. Consider the following:* the four-mile long breakwater (located 1-1/2 miles from shore) was constructed using 17 scuttled de-commissioned ships; 115 concrete pontoons, 70m x 18m x 16m (220ft x 60ft x 52ft) each weighing 3,000 to 6,000 tons (each pontoon was tugged across the channel -15 per day - to Normandy, then sunk); 7 floating pierheads totalling 2,300 ft in length, linked to the shore by a roadway of small pontoons linked by metal bridges, each roadway was 4,000ft long (some of these roadways were designed to handle tanks); and this whole construction (creating a port the size of Dover) was completed in less than a week. Don't you wish Interstate highway crews were this efficient? The fifth photograph shows a portion of the harbor still visible near the shore -- a long stretch of the harbor was visible from the shore but too distant to catch in a good photo.
Why was an artificial harbor necessary at all? If you look at the map, you will notice that the part of Normandy that was invaded was not the part nearest to Britain (Pas de Calais). That's because the Germans *expected* the invasion to go toward Calais. Also, with Cherbourg being another major port, that city was made into a fortress. So, the Allies figured neither port was a good place to invade. Normandy was chosen as Germany's weakest spot and the best place to attack. But the Allies needed a full-capacity port to sustain the advance, something lacking in the area. So the only way to get such a port was for the Allies to build one themselves.
The town of Arromaches was absolutely fantastic in its own right. Along with the town museum (a great collection of WWII memorabilia from all the Allied powers and wonderful models of the Mulberry Harbor), Arromanches' beachfront was laden with great eateries and souvenir stands. Plus, there were monuments perched on the hilltop over the town from where the sixth photograph was taken. As evidenced by this photo, the view there was fantastic.
A full tour of the British and Canadian sector easily filled a whole day. I especially recommend taking your time in the museums, they are universally educational and interesting.
*These figures came from a handout from our tour guide, titled "Port Winston".
Trip Taken 2 June 2002 -- Last Updated 17 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin