By RICH GRANT
At 10 p.m. on June 5, 1944, Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower stood by an airfield in England and, in the growing darkness, watched an incredible sight. One by one, more than 800 C-47 airplanes taxied down runways and rumbled off into the night. As they circled in the sky, they formed a flying squadron that was nine planes wide and 300 miles long. Inside the planes were 13,000 highly trained young men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions – the Screaming Eagles and the All Americans. They were about to take a short one-hour flight and then parachute behind Nazi lines into occupied France.
Ike’s air marshal, Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, thought it would be a bloodbath. Leigh-Mallory predicted that 80 percent of these paratroopers would be killed, wounded or captured within a few hours.
Nearby at sea, more than 3,000 ships were forming into 75 squadrons in the English Channel. They were packed with 150,000 troops. Many of them were seasick, vomiting, miserable and scared. The vast majority had never seen combat. The ships were also loaded with hundreds of tanks, millions of tons of equipment and thousands of landing craft that would ferry the troops the last few hundred yards to the beaches, where they would be met by mines, barbed wire and machine guns.
Ike, the supreme commander of the Allied Forces for the invasion of Europe, watched the planes disappear into the night. Then he turned to his driver and said simply, “Well, it’s on.”
In a modern era of atomic bombs and spy satellites, nothing like Normandy will ever happen again. It was, and will always be, the largest invasion in history – an operation so massive that it is very hard to grasp how huge and complicated it was. And how dicey. Those who have seen the films “Saving Private Ryan” or “The Longest Day” can recognize the horror of the fighting. But as we approach the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019, the only way to fully comprehend why Normandy is perhaps the single most important historic site in Europe, is to visit it.
Here are five places that will help you do that. They can all be visited in two or three days as a side trip from Paris. Since the invasion stretched over 60 miles, the sites are presented not necessarily in the order you would visit them, but rather in a way to tell the story of the battle.
By 1942, Adolf Hitler had captured more territory in Europe than he could hold. In his madness, rather than give up conquests, Hitler ordered the building of the Atlantic Wall, some 15,000 gun placements, bunkers and fortifications that would stretch 3,500 miles along the Atlantic coastline from Norway to the Bay of Biscay in France. The gun battery in Longues-sur-Mer is the only one in Normandy left intact with its guns. Though it seems hard to believe today, at the end of World War II, no one was thinking about future tourism, so most of the guns and batteries were destroyed. But the guns at Longues-sur-Mer are partially intact and provide a good look at Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
The heavy guns here could fire accurately 12 miles out to sea or be trained on troops attacking the beaches. They were controlled by a forward observation post, where German spotters with binoculars could telephone instructions to the gunners a few hundred yards behind. Tens of thousands of mines, metal obstructions, machine gun nests and barbed wire would also defend the beaches.
It is certainly eerie to climb down into this surviving cement observation post and have the exact same view of the sea from the same bunker the Germans used on June 6, when 3,500 ships began firing and landing troops. Despite the power of the Allies, looking down at the beach, you can appreciate the advantages the Germans had defending and how open and vulnerable the allied troops would have been, heavily weighted down with equipment, in completely soaked clothing, trying to run across 200 yards of wet, open sand into machine gun fire.
Of the 60 miles of the Normandy battlefield, this was Germany’s most heavily defended spot. Surrounded by 100-foot cliffs, the six huge German guns mounted here could fire on ships or hit troops on both Utah and Omaha beaches. The guns had to be destroyed or the entire invasion would be vulnerable. Some 225 U.S. Rangers were hand-picked to land on the beach in a true mission impossible. First, they had to use ladders from the London Fire Brigade to get high enough up the cliff to throw grapnels. Then, they had to pull themselves up the cliff and fight hand-to-hand through barbed wire to take the guns.
Of the 225 Rangers who went in,135 were killed or wounded in 30 minutes. In an ironic finish, the Rangers captured the bunkers, only to discover the guns had been moved. But the giant cannons had been hidden a short distance away and were destroyed, saving many lives throughout the campaign.
Today, Pointe du Hoc looks like craters on a green moon. Before the Rangers went in, some 1,500 bombs were dropped here, more TNT than the atom bomb at Hiroshima, creating huge circular depressions. No place in Normandy gives you a better idea of the terror that fell on the Germans from the air and sea bombardment. The surviving Germans said the ground literally shook like an earthquake. But a visit here also shows how inaccurate bombs from the air and sea could be. Most of the bombs missed the bunkers or were ineffective, accomplishing nothing but creating the huge holes, now overgrown with grass, that still survive 75 years later. Standing on top of the cliff, it is simply impossible to imagine how the Rangers could have fought their way up and survived.
This is one of the largest Normandy museums and a great place to get the overall picture of the battle. To win the war, the Allies had to invade Europe and pierce the Atlantic Wall. The question was, where? Calais was the obvious choice – it’s only 25 miles from England and on a direct line to Berlin. To invade at Normandy would require going the wrong direction and attacking 100 miles south instead of east, and it would mean that the Allies would have to fight all the way across France to get at the heart of Germany.
Both sides realized this. Hitler heavily defended Calais, while the Allies gambled that the difficulties of invading at Normandy would be offset by the huge advantage of surprise. Plans called for an attack over 60 miles long, with Americans to take the beaches designated Utah and Omaha, while a combined force of British, Canadian and Free French would storm Gold, Juno and Sword.
To pull off the invasion, the Allies would need 29,000 paratroopers, the largest fleet in history, thousands of bombers, coordinated attacks by the French resistance, an invasion army of 150,000 troops, and the greatest spy network and intelligence deception ever attempted.
The museum that tells this thrilling story at Utah Beach is as amazing as the attack itself. It is built into an actual German bunker overlooking the beach.
A massive hanger was constructed to hold one of only six B26 bombers left in the world. There are Higgins landing craft, tanks, guns and every type of equipment and uniform that will give you a better understanding of the tools used, and the men involved in the fighting.
After the museum, walk along the beach to Le Roosevelt Café. The building here was a German command post during the battle, survived, and has now been converted to a simply wonderful café filled with hundreds of photos of the battle, mixed with photos of the survivors who returned here for reunions. It is a wonderful juxtaposition to see photos of old men, overweight and balding, but smiling, next to grim pictures of similar men fighting and dying at this exact spot.
4. The Flanks
Most of the first day’s fighting at Normandy wasn’t on the beach, but on the flanks, where a total of 29,000 paratroopers were dropped behind Nazi lines with the mission to seize roads and bridges, fight back counter attacks and link up with the Allied Forces coming from the sea.
It was mostly a mess. Many of the pilots had never flown under fire. Cloud cover hid natural landmarks. The result was that the paratroopers were dropped way off target, spread out in the dark, many with damaged radios and no way to communicate. The battlefield disintegrated into small groups of Allies and Germans fighting in the dark.
All the small French towns inland from Utah and Omaha beach have historic markers telling of these violent encounters. At Angoville-au-Plain, there was a scene like out of an old Western movie, where a German and American saw each other at the same time and shot it out in the town square. The American was killed; the German wounded, but ironically saved by American doctors in the village church. These heroic American doctors helped all wounded, regardless of what uniforms they wore.
Ste-Mere Eglise is the town where soldiers landed right in the village in plain view of the Germans, who shot them down; one unlucky American paratrooper famously floated down on to a church steeple and hung there for hours. Nearby is a picturesque monument to all these heroic paratroopers. Captain Richard Winter, the commander of Easy Company (featured in Stephen Ambrose’s book and the HBO series, “Band of Brothers”) is used as a symbolic representative of the young boys who landed on D-Day.
The most fascinating of these behind-the-lines small battles to visit is Pegasus Bridge in the English sector. Here there were two bridges over the Caen Canal and the Orne River that had to be captured intact.
To do that, silent gliders carrying a few dozen British soldiers each had to crash land at 95 mph right beside the bridge. In one of the greatest feats of the war, in total darkness and low cloud cover, five gliders managed to crash at exactly the right spot, and British soldiers, though temporarily knocked out by the impact, managed to revive and capture both bridges, sending out the code words of success, “Ham and Jam.” They were the first fighting soldiers to land in France on D-Day.
Today, the original bridge has been moved a few hundred yards to a museum, but you can cross the nearly identical replica bridge, touch the German gun emplacements, and stand at the exact spot where the first glider landed.
Most amazing of all, you can sit at the edge of the bridge and have a beer at the Pegasus Bridge Café Gondrée. The café was here at the time of the attack, and the Gondrée family were key members of the French Resistance who supplied valuable information. Arlette Gondrée was here on D-Day as a five-year-old girl. Today, she owns the café and in July 2018, we had the pleasure of seeing her still working – an increasingly rare opportunity to touch the history of World War II first-hand.
5. Omaha Beach
The planning for the assault on the six-mile crescent of sand at Omaha Beach was meticulous. Thousands of aircraft would drop 13,000 bombs of explosives, wiping out the bunkers, creating holes on the beach for cover, while eliminating the barbed wire and mines. If there were any Germans left living near the beach, they would be wiped out by a ferocious naval bombardment. Some three dozen tanks would then land to clear the six roads up from the beach, making it a “cake walk” for the 40,000 troops assigned to land here, seize the beach and move forward.
Everything went wrong. Because of low cloud cover, not a single bomb, from the planes or the navy, hit the beach. Twenty-eight of the tanks sank immediately on leaving the landing craft and the rest were soon destroyed. The American troops landed soaked, seasick, exhausted and overloaded with equipment into a living hell. Some of the men were so overpacked and dropped so far from the beach, they sank in deep water and drowned.
The Germans held their fire until the last moment. Every inch of the beach was pre-sighted for machine guns and cannons. When the first wave of Americans landed, they were nearly annihilated in one unending horror. It was such a disaster, the commander of this sector, General Omar Bradley, considered halting the attack.
On the beach, successive waves went into burning tanks, floating dead bodies, debris and exploding mines, only to be torn to pieces by metal from machine guns that could fire 1,200 rounds a minute. Colonel George Taylor, commanding the 16th Infantry, went among his men saying, “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die.” But then he added, “Now let’s get the hell out of here.”
In small groups, by ones and twos, the Americans moved forward. They crawled up the sand bluffs — hundreds of heroes — moving slowly through deadly fire until they were so close to the enemy that they were able to take out bunkers with hand grenades and rifle fire, using even bayonets and boot knives when necessary.
This beach and the graveyard on the bluffs is, and always will be, hallowed ground for Americans. It is also American soil, presented to the people of America in perpetuity by the grateful people of France.
Visiting is very emotional. It breaks down into four experiences. First, it is worth the long security lines to go to the underground museum, which is free and tells the history leading up to Omaha Beach, as well as personalizing the fight with many first-hand accounts from soldiers, including a video of General Eisenhower describing his emotions as the battle unfolded.
From the museum, a quiet path leads to an overlook with maps telling what happened at this part of the beach. Today, all the obstructions of war have been removed and the beach looks like almost any beach along the Normandy coastline. But follow the stairway and walk down to the water.
Perhaps no one has ever described better the feeling of standing on a battlefield, than Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg, who wrote: “In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls … generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”
Such is the experience of visiting Gettysburg – and of standing on Omaha Beach.
Above the beach, on rolling grass lawns are 9,387 simple white marble crosses and Stars of David representing soldiers killed in action here and in the coming Normandy campaign. Each marker has the soldier’s name, home state and the date they were killed, but not the date they were born. Their dog tag number is etched on the back. No picture can capture how moving this scene is, especially when you consider that these fields of graves that stretch to the horizon are a small part of the 425,000 Allied and German casualties in the full Battle of Normandy.
Nearby, is a peace memorial and the Garden of the Missing, where there are the names of another 1,557 soldiers missing in action and never found. It could not be a more peaceful or beautiful spot to remember the sacrifices made by so many to begin the campaign that started here and ended 322 days later with the suicide of Adolph Hitler and the end of the war in Europe.
WHERE TO STAY
After a day on a battlefield, you need to get away and see the French way of life these men were fighting for. No place does that better than Honfleur, a nearby, picturesque, thousand-year-old port town that was untouched by the war and today is one the prettiest and most popular places in Normandy.
The center of town is a square harbor filled with colorful bobbing boats and lined with dozens of outdoor cafes, each offering a gorgeous view of the harbor. Cobblestone streets lead off in all directions, past elegantly decorated shops, wine stores, bakeries with windows full of pastries, art galleries and clothing boutiques. Monet, Boudin and other French impressionists painted here in the late 1800s, admiring the sea views and the soft Atlantic light.
Today, it’s a popular weekend spot for Parisians (Paris is only two hours away), who come to enjoy the local seafood of oysters, shrimp, crepes and mussels and fries and to walk along the harbor and the sea.
Honfleur is not undiscovered and can be crowded on weekends. But it does celebrate all that is good in life. The town’s streets, packed with smiling people window shopping, eating ice cream and drinking wine, while seagulls squawk overhead and motorboats chug through the harbor, presents such a lovely scene of peace and harmony and freedom from fear, that it is the embodiment of the world that the men at Normandy sacrificed so much to achieve.