Being an American, and especially an American who has a family member in the military, there are several historical/military sites that are sacred. These places give us perspective, give us a better understanding of our past, and allow us to be thankful to live in the best country in the world. One is the Normandy region of France. (Others on my list include Pearl Harbor, Arlington National Cemetery, Ground Zero, etc.) Spending a few days in Normandy was well worth the out-of-the-way travel. We had the opportunity to see several WWII battle sites: Pont du Hoc (the site where the Army Rangers first took the French coastline), Omaha Beach (the famous beach where 3,600 Americans were killed), Longues-sur-Mer Battery (an essential site for German artillery), the American Cemetery and Memorial, and the German Cemetery.
A WWII Army Infantry solider once said:
You can manufacture weapons and you can purchase ammunition, but you can’t buy valor and you can’t pull heroes off an assembly line.
This is important to keep in mind because the mission that many of these soldiers faced at Normandy was, by most standards, impossible. The Germans had a stronghold on the Normandy coast. They had large artillery guns that spanned for miles along the beaches, and they had the advantage of being perched high on the cliffs of the French coast, while the Americans arrived by sea below (or in some cases by air). They had been constructing the “Atlantic Wall” for years, knew the area, and had set up many traps/mines, both on land and in the water.
The first mission was not easy by any stretch. Pont-du-Hoc was the site of the first ground attack by the Americans in Normandy. The order was given for 225 Army Rangers to scale the faces of the cliff at 6:30am on June 6, 1944. However, the soldiers suffered navigational errors from the current and dark and wound up arriving at 7:10am, forty minutes after the first assault by naval gunships. Having recovered from the initial shock, the German gunners had time to regroup and fire upon the Rangers. The Rangers made the summit, however, and were able to take the strategic position at Pont du Hoc. They took over several of the large guns and permitted the other American soldiers to storm Omaha and Utah beaches simultaneously. D-Day was underway.
The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers — the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms. – President Reagan speaking at Pont du Hoc on the 40th Anniversary of D-Day in 1984
Even though the Rangers took Pont du Hoc, Omaha beach remained an incredibly difficult obstacle for the Americans to overcome. On D-Day, the untested 29th Infantry Division, joined nine companies of Army Rangers (that were redirected after the successful Pont du Hoc invasion) assaulted the western half of Omaha beach. The veteran 1st Infantry Division was given the honor to take down the eastern part. Ultimately, the goal was to secure five miles between Port-en-Bessin and the Vire River, linking up with the simultaneous British landing assaults at Gold beach to the east and American soldiers at Utah beach to the west. The initial assault wave consisted of tanks, infantry soldiers, and combat engineers. They were given the order to clear the way to allow larger ships to land afterwards. By 9pm, only 14 hours after the first landings, Americans had made strong headway in French soil. They did not meet all of the objectives of D-Day by the end of the day, but Hitler’s Atlantic Wall started to crumble. Of the 34,250 Americans that landed at Omaha beach, 3,600 died. 450 more perished at Utah beach.
The eyes of the world are upon you….I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. – General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander
The American Military Cemetery and Memorial sits just above Omaha beach. Nearly 9,400 graves of American servicemen and women are buried here. They were put to rest just a short distance from where they last walked this earth and their families chose this, as they said the soldiers wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was our only conquest: all we asked…was enough….soil in which to bury our gallant dead. – General Mark W. Clark, Chairman, American Battle Monuments Commission (1969-84)
On the walls of the memorial, much like the cemetery in Florence, stone maps depict the battle movements of the war. Graphically, I find them interesting.
This is the only church mosaic I’ve ever seen with military warships.
Inside the visitors center at the American Cemetery and Memorial, there was a wonderful museum filled with artifacts, information, and videos from the Normandy invasion.
The German Cemetery brought some strange sentiments out of the both of us and we ended up just feeling confused and torn. I had a few questions going in:
1) Why would the French allow 21,000 German soldiers, who invaded their land, to be buried on their soil?
2) How does one fund a German cemetery in France?
3) Should I feel something (sorrow?) for the Germans buried there?
The first is a little difficult to answer. One of the quotes in the cemetery’s visitor center urged us to remember that not all Germans who fought in the war sided with Hitler and not all of them believed in the cause. However, there were also some that did. How can we distinguish between the two?
The second question was a little easier to answer, but a little surprising. The German Cemetery is run on donations, mostly from German citizens. Many people (mostly Germans) paid for one of the “peace trees” that line the road to the cemetery, and with these funds, they keep up the maintenance of the cemetery. Some German-American families sent their kids to a camp that helped plant the trees, and in turn the camp instilled the message of peace and understanding.
As I said before, I still don’t know how to feel about the overall experience. Naturally, I believe we want to honor the dead, no matter who they are. Bobby and I were left torn between feeling sorry for those that were forced by the Third Reich to fight and feeling disgusted by those who championed their efforts.
Our last stop was short lived because it was very cold and windy. However, it was interesting to see the artillery battery the Germans had placed on the cliffs overlooking the English Channel. There were 4 large, 152-mm cannons.
The second day in Normandy was actually my birthday and I couldn’t have picked a better place to spend it. It just reminds me how lucky we are that Bobby was selected as an Olmsted Scholar and we get to spend this time together traveling all over Europe. Normandy is probably one of my favorite places we’ve visited since living in Europe. This is the second mini-birthday cake I ate in one day