Lest We Forget - D-Day Beaches of Normandy
September 04, 2013
In France, the first week of November marks back-to-back long weekends: November 1st (La Toussaint - All Saints Day) and November 11th (Armistice – Remembrance Day). Commonly translated, this is vacation week. But leading up to Armistice, we combined it with a deeper meaning: a visit to the D-Day beaches in Normandy. Anyone who has seen the opening scene of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan needs no reminder of the importance, nor bloodshed, these 80 kilometers of beach represent. The successes of the combined efforts of the Western Allied Forces (comprised of Canada, the Free French Forces, the United Kingdom, the United States and many more countries) resulted in the loss of the German position in most of France.
An hour drive from a friend’s Deauville country house (or a 2 hour and 45 minute drive directly from Paris), our first stop was at Juno Beach, a beautiful and interactive Canadian museum presenting the Canadian war efforts at Juno Beach (the Canadian landing). Our timing was perfect as we stepped inside just before a sporadic torrential downpour (typical of Normandy). The enthusiastic tour guide, a history buff from New Brunswick, wasted no time answering our questions and giving us some “not on the tour” info. Of the 1,200 deaths that took place on Juno Beach, she starts, it represented only a 6% death toll of the 21,400 men who landed on the beach. Although even one death is too many, she continues, overall D-Day was a successful operation
Back in the car (PARISIANIST TIP: for those looking to hop between multiple museums and attractions in the area, renting a car or joining an organized tour is the best option), a short 20 minute drive west along the coast brought us to Arromanches 360: a 360° movie theater depicting the sequence of events during, and leading up to, the Normandy Landings. This experience was more moving than expected. A collage of original video footage and photos set to action-movie music, you feel overwhelmed as you take in images of Hitler standing in front of the Eiffel Tower and boats of young men awaiting their impeding sail to the Normandy beaches. At the end of the short-film, we wait outside under umbrellas for a friend’s boyfriend to capture the “perfect” angle of the beach below (compliments to his photo below), and then were off for our final 30-minute drive to one of the most popular sites in the region: Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery and Memorial.
After parking the car, we walk past the Memorial Museum (a small, modern museum whose basement floor has two large movie-theatre rooms) to the cemetery. Rows and rows of white crosses and Stars of David (for fallen Jewish soldiers) in perfect alignment stretch to the cliff top overlooking Omaha beach below. Here on these 172.5 acres lay the graves of 9,387 American soldiers, most of whom lost their lives during the D-Day landings. Again, for those who have seen Saving Private Ryan, this is where the opening scene takes place. Looking down at the beach below you understand quickly why this beach was the most intensely fought over. Incoming American soldiers had to penetrate first a beach, and then a cliff, to secure the German territory above. These soldiers bravely accomplished the impossible, with a tragic casualty rate of 2,400 soldiers.
Visiting the D-Day beaches of Normandy is not just a one-time experience. The region is vast and the amount of monuments and museums are endless. Should you have time to continue your visit about few hours, further west you can visit the Pointe du Hoc (where you can see old bunkers and the bomb craters), the German Military Cemetery, and Utah Beach Landing Museum (touted as one of the top museums in the area).
With Armistice (November 11th) now upon us, we will be standing proudly as ever back in Paris on the Champs-Elysées, taking in the annual parade in memory of France’s fallen soldiers. Lest we forget the sacrifices that have been made for us and lest we forget the value of living in a world at peace.