I made reference to the movie "Saving Private Ryan" in the Normandy home page because when I made my own first trek to that part of France, it was incredibly difficult not to think of that movie. Between the walks along Omaha Beach and the visit to the Normandy-American Cemetary nearby, I pictured the scenes from the movie. They left me awestruck by the bravery those soldiers exhibited in the face of almost certain death.
Remarkably, the battlefields of Omaha were still very much intact and largely unchanged some sixty years later. This travelogue covers several key sites that were must-sees in this sector: Pointe du Hoc, site of the German clifftop defensive stronghold that was peppered prior to the invasion; Omaha Beach itself; and the Normandy American Cemetary near Colleville-sur-Mer.
The first two photographs show Point du Hoc. This was a major operational objective for the Allies, as it was the site of the German's major coastal artillery battery, with the ability to hit both the Utah Beach to the west and Omaha to the east. The first photo shows the devastation that the site received from aerial bombardment. I titled most of my photos there "Moonscapes" since the pockmarks were so deep, like scars that never healed. Meanwhile the second photo shows the immense height of the cliffs that were scaled by the 2nd Ranger Battalion after the bombardment. It was the tremendous and overwhelming success of the Rangers in this battle that established them as one of the US military's truly elite forces, a legacy that continues to this very day. The presence of the crowd and the Point du Hoc memorial gives one an idea of just how tall the cliffs were, and the Rangers scaled them by hand.
The years since 1944 have been kind to the area. At the time of the invasion, Point du Hoc was all dirt and mud, a barren landscape dotted with several of those massive concrete bunkers and their huge cannons. But fifty years of peace and preservation have allowed fresh green grass to grow over the landscape, making it now appear like a strangely hilly meadow. The cliffs were about as pretty a landscape I had ever seen.
Unfortunately, the success at Point du Hoc didn't make life appreciably easier for the soldiers coming ashore at Omaha Beach. If you look at the third and fourth photos, you see a very open and inviting beach, if you were a beach bunny. But back in 1944, this was hardly the case. The beach was very rocky back then, and loaded with barbed wire and steel obstacles designed to slow the advance of both troops and tanks. Plus, notice how far it was from the water to the base of the cliff. That was roughly how far the troops had to move in order to get from their pontoon boats and safely to the base of the cliff. Facing them were German machine gun positions in the middle of the cliffs, raining bullets down onto the beach, as the boats came to the shore and unloaded the thousands of foot soldiers.
What's not quite as apparent were the sandbars that resided just below the water line. These sandbars produced pockets of high and low ground underneath the surface, sometimes low enough to surprise -- and drown -- the heavily equipment-laden soldiers as they crossed.
With these images in mind, it was clear that the invasion's success was based on the sheer weight of numbers. Despite the heavy losses, there were simply too many invaders coming ashore, and the Germans became overwhelmed by about three hours into the battle. After all, this wasn't a heavily defended area. Still, all the accounts would say that so many had died that the sea changed color to red. Yes, that too was re-enacted in "Saving Private Ryan" through modern digital magic.
The importance of Omaha Beach was that it covered five draws leading inland. (A "draw" was a low path that a river cut out when it passed through a cliff and into the sea. It was up the draws that the Americans hoped to drive their tanks when they came ashore). The fourth photo shows the mouth of the Vierville draw, the site of the U.S. National Guard and 29th Division monuments. The large A-framed building in the center was a guesthouse and restaurant, and other tourist establishments sprang up nearby. After getting a coffee there, we walked along the beach toward the west, looking to the high ground to the south to see what the ground looked like to American forces as they landed. The terrain clearly favored the Germans, except for those invaders fortunate enough to reach the dirt bank inland.
My group walked almost the full length of the beach past the Plage de St. Laurent almost to Colleville-sur-Mer. It was helpful to have historians with us who were well versed in the battle and who told the whole story at each point, otherwise it would have been a very long walk.
The final location in this chapter is the Normandy American Cemetary, which really should be visited last in any Normandy itinerary, in my opinion. Located just outside of Colleville-sur-Mer, this was the main American cemetary in France. 9,500 American soldiers, mostly from the battle of Normandy (6 June through 25 July 1944), were buried there. It also included the names of almost 1,700 soldiers missing in action from World War II, engraved on a large wall behind the sculpture in the fifth photo.
This Cemetary complex was extraordinary in its size and power. The sculpture in the fifth photo was titled "The Spirit of American Youth Rising over the Waves", and it stood in the middle of a memorial that housed maps of the D-Day invasion and the operations that followed. The maps included the Allied penetration via Operation Cobra and the eventual fall of the western front leading to the German surrender on the 8th of May, 1945.
The marble crosses and stars of David were an incredible sight. Even the final photo doesn't show even an appreciable fraction of the cemetery ground. Visitors will be interested to seek out the three Medal of Honor winners among the graves -- the excellent Visitors Center has the precise positions available, along with the citations describing the heroic feats of those soldiers. In the center lay the Chapel, which had a beautiful mosaic honoring both the fallen Americans and the grateful French people.
The latter was a point not to be undersold. Whereas modern day politics and cultural difference may place the French and Americans at odds, the fact was the French people in Normandy easily ranked among the friendliest and most genuine of people I've encountered in Europe. The cynics among us may attribute that to the tourist industry, but that doesn't give credit where due. The descendants of Allies and Germans alike walked these grounds not as bitter rivals but as friends, and they were welcoming and accommodating to everyone. There's something to be said about that.
Trip Taken 2 June 2002 -- Last Updated 18 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin