June 6, 1944, D-Day, Operation Overlord. Considered the turning point in World War II, the events that took place in and around the beaches of Normandy, France personified a generation. 65 years on and people, by the millions, flock to the quiet towns and villages that still show the scars of their involvement in D-Day. Anyone interested in visiting the sites connected to the 1944 offensive will not be hard pressed to find tours. The main key is to know what you want to see and experience.
Most people don't think of heading to the beaches that lie on the edge of the English Channel in January but it certainly insured that the sites would not be crowded. For the most part, my friend and I had Normandy to ourselves. The down side of picking January is that the majority of France is on vacation to warmer locations and many of the museums were closed. We booked a full day tour of the beaches and towns with a local company, BattleBus. Operated by Paul and Myriam Woodadge, BattleBus tours are on a smaller scale than the regular tour buses which means they can get to some of the smaller sites that the big buses can’t. It was early in the morning when we met the small red van not far from our bed and breakfast in Bayeux. Given that we were the only two on the tour, we were able to make the tour more personal. We were both fans of the HBO series Band of Brothers and Paul our guide, who had the honor over the years of giving veterans of Easy Company tours of their former battlegrounds, was more than happy to take us to some of the lesser known locations.
Our first stop of the day was the village of Sainte-Mére-Èglise. As we barreled up the motorway the wind gusted continuously and the clouds threatened, which was quite similar to the weather on that June day decades ago. We arrived in the town square and began our tour. The small stone church was the focal point of the square and it also played a part in the D-Day events. In the pre-dawn hours of June 6th, dozens of paratroopers descended behind enemy lines. Many of the aircrafts had veered off-target due to anti-aircraft artillery. As a result, some members of the 82nd Airborne Division landed in the town. Unfortunately, the German troops assigned to the town were in the main square tending to a fire and quickly open fired on the paratroopers. One of the most famous accounts from the landing in Sainte-Mére-Èglise was that of John Steel. As he came in for landing, his parachute got tangled on the spire of the church and he was too far from the ground to cut himself out. He stayed there for two hours while the fighting continued below him. Afterwards the German troops cut him down and took him prisoner. His experience was portrayed in The Longest Day, an epic movie that best tells the overall story of D-Day. On the outside of the church hangs an effigy to commemorate Steel and the rest of the paratroopers that landed in Sainte-Mére-Èglise. As we walked along the buildings that faced the square, the scars of that night were still evident. In between erected monuments to the paratroopers, brick buildings are dotted with holes and divots, steel gates are dented from wayward bullets.
On the way to Utah Beach we drove along the tight country lanes through tiny villages that cannot have changed too much since 1944. In Beuzeville-au-Plain we stopped at a small memorial. As the planes carrying the paratroopers neared their drop zones many of the planes were under fire. One of the C-47 Skytrain transport aircrafts was hit and crashed into a nearby field killing everyone on board. The aircraft held members of the 101st Airborne Division, including First Lieutenant Thomas Meehan, the commanding officer of Easy Company, as well as other commanding officers. After an archaeological dig unearthed artifacts, dog tags, a stopped watch and signet rings, the field was confirmed as the crash site. A memorial was erected in 2000 just in front of the field where the remains were found. The most touching part is that the memorial was paid for entirely by the local villagers, only about 40 people total. Though it is not as popular a stop as Sainte-Mére-Èglise or the beaches, it is a reminder of how appreciative the locals are for the sacrifice of those soldiers.
Paul was such a font of information, especially related to 101st Easy Company, that as we drove along he was able to point out where particular people landed that morning. “Dick Winters landed just over there and made his way down that road.” We also stopped at the intersection where, those fans of Band of Brothers will recall, members of Easy Company ambushed a small group of German soldiers.
Utah was one of the two beaches, Omaha being the other one, where the American forces landed. The Canadians landed at Juno Beach and the British, along with smaller contingencies from Allied countries, landed at Gold and Sword Beaches. The first wave of the invasion was set for 6:30am. When the soldiers departed the landing crafts at Utah, they met little resistance. It was not until the first wave had landed that they realized they were off course by about one mile. It was left to Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. to decide on the next move. Confident that they would be able to complete their goals from this location, they continued; Roosevelt stated “we’ll start the war from right here.” At the end of the day over 20,000 soldiers had successfully made it ashore, the causalities for the assault was just over 200. Monuments line the dunes of Utah Beach and stand out against the sand. We stood on the beach as the wind gusted and Paul took us through the events of the landing. One of the things that was so surprising to me was that the beach looked just like any other. It was not particularly wide so it was hard to believe that so many men had landed there. You can’t help but stand there and think about the many beaches you have been to and then imagine tens of thousands of people rushing ashore. From our position, we could see exactly what those men saw, though understandably our views were much more tranquil. In the distance we could make out the red building that tipped off Roosevelt that they were off course. The Utah Beach Museum was begun in 1962 by a local mayor and is housed in what used to be a German bunker.
Another benefit of touring with BattleBus is that the company had established relationships over the years with some of the privately owned sites. Brecourt Manor is one of those sites. Once the members of Easy Company, who had been scattered throughout the countryside, regrouped they were sent on their first combat experience: go to Brecourt Manor and take out a battery of guns that were capable of hitting Utah Beach, where soldiers were coming ashore. The assault, led by Lieutenant Winters, was a huge success. The members of Easy Company, assisted by members of Dog Company, were able to destroy the four long guns in quick fashion. The mission was so successful that it became the textbook example of overcoming superior enemy numbers with a limited about of soldiers. The field where the guns were set up shows little signs of its previous incarnation. The tree line and hedgerows though give you enough visualization to plot how the attack was carried out. As we stood on the edge of the muddy field, Paul pointed out where the guns had been, where Lipton’s Tree still stood (Sergeants Lipton and Ranney climbed up a tree to provide cover while the men attacked the batteries) and had countless pictures from that time that enabled us to match what we were seeing now with what they would have seen then.
Part 2: Angoville, Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, American cemetery, etc.