As the 75th-anniversary commemorations wind down, David & Anne from Orchid look back at our own recent visit to the D-Day sites.

D-Day

On 6 June 2019, leaders of the US, Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Australia and other nations gathered in northern France. They were taking time out from their domestic concerns to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. That momentous event marked the start of the Battle of Normandy, also known as Operation Overlord, which turned the tide of World War II in western Europe.

Just a few weeks ago, Anne and David from Orchid were lucky enough to be travelling in Normandy. We took a day out from our more hedonistic pursuits to tour some of the D-Day sites, accompanied by an excellent local guide. This blog looks back on that day.

As the 5 landing beaches are spread over 80km or so of coastline we chose to focus on the western sector, scene of the major US operations. Hopefully, we’ll be able to visit the British and Canadian sites further east another time.

La Cambe German War Cemetery
La Cambe

This was a surprising first stop, but proved to be very moving. It is the largest German cemetery in Normandy, holding the remains of 21,000 German troops. Despite this huge tally the cemetery covers only a small area, and is maintained exclusively by volunteers.

Our guide impressed upon us, and a sign at the entrance reminded us, that many of those who lost their lives resisting the landings, including conscripts from annexed territories, were young men “who had chosen neither the cause nor the fight.”

Grave markers are made of a dark basalt lava, giving it a very sombre atmosphere when compared to the luminous white headstones and crosses that dominate the US and Commonwealth war graves.

Sainte-Mère-Église
Sainte-Mère-Église

Our next stop was the small village of Sainte-Mère-Église, located on the Cherbourg Peninsular just inland from Utah Beach. US paratroopers landed in and around the village in the early hours of June 6, their mission being to secure the main routes to and from the beaches prior to the landings.

The village has become a favourite stop for US veterans. They come to pay homage to the bravery and sacrifice or the paratroopers, whose exploits reached a wider audience through the war movie ‘The Longest Day’. This focused on John Steele, who hung from the church spire by his parachute while fighting raged around him. An effigy of Steele now hangs from the spire, and stained-glass windows within the church feature and thank the paratroopers.

We also visited the adjacent Airborne Museum, which displays a huge array of artefacts, including a restored WACO Glider and C-47 aircraft.

Utah Beach
Utah Beach

A few minutes later we were at Utah Beach, our first chance to step onto the famed sands. This beachhead was secured quickly and with relatively modest US casualties. That success was thanks in part to the defenders' heavy reliance on poorly equipped - and presumably poorly motivated - non-German conscripts.

We stopped for lunch at Le Roosevelt, a restaurant located in an old house (featured in the photo above), located just behind the Utah dunes. Attached to the house is a disguised bunker that served as a communications post, first for the Germans then the US troops, and has been preserved and fitted out as a tiny private museum.

Pointe du Hoc
Pointe du Hoc

The tour was an educational experience for us. Many of the events that have etched their way into American consciousness don’t have the same resonance amongst Australians or South Africans, who were fighting their own battles elsewhere at the time. This is certainly the case with Point du Hoc, our next stop, which was unknown to me but proved quite an eye-opener.

This heavily fortified promontory was the highest point between Utah and Omaha beaches and therefore had an obvious strategic interest. That said, the necessity of capturing it at all cost has been a topic of fierce debate amongst military historians, especially since the heavy guns had been relocated by the Germans sometime before the invasion.

What has never been in dispute is the bravery of the US Rangers who eventually secured the site. They suffered great losses, first in landing, then in scaling near vertical cliffs in a mission verging on suicidal.

The dramatic cliff-top setting, huge concrete gun emplacements, and massive craters dominating the landscape make a lasting impression. When peering over the cliff edge it defies belief that anyone would attempt this action, let alone succeed.

Omaha Beach & American Cemetery
Omaha Beach

This 8km stretch of sand has achieved iconic status as ‘Bloody Omaha’ due to the carnage that took place on D-Day. Unlike Utah, very little went to plan here thanks to a combination of navigational errors, strong defences, challenging geography and largely ineffective naval support.

After walking on different sections of the beach we moved on to the American Cemetery. Over 9,000 graves are set out in a manicured park-like setting. From a high vantage point, you look out over a wonderful panorama of the beach, the tranquillity of which belies the events that took place there 75 years earlier.

As 5pm approached the crowds gathered to witness the ceremonial lowering and folding of the US flags, a fitting end to the day before our guide drove us back to Bayeux.

 

About the Author:

David Lacey is Communications Manager at Orchid Systems, and Anne Fouche is one of the co-founders of Orchid. You can find out more about David, Anne and other Orchid staff members at the bottom of our About Us page.

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