D-Day / Jour J Exploring in Normandy

After a lovely morning in Mont-Saint-Michel, we got back in our car and headed north, where we’d celebrate Easter Sunday touring the D-Day (Jour-J) beaches and cemeteries.

The clouds/rain from the previous day were long gone, and we had a beautiful drive and afternoon ahead of us.  The trip from Mont-Saint-Michel to Point du Hoc is about an hour and half through some absolutely gorgeous landscapes.  In many ways it reminded me of the rolling hills of Kentucky and in many other places, the terrain of Western Ireland (on the way to Galway and/or around the Cliffs of Moher), which shouldn’t surprise me, as our neighbors had mentioned either Normandy or Brittany (I think Normandy) is known as Little Ireland around France.

The area is so pretty, around lunchtime I started suggesting we buy a summer home in Normandy, so we could return to France each summer once we’re retired.  Until then we could rent it out to pay for the whole thing.  Pipe dreams, but something I definitely toss around in my head (I said the same thing when we were in Ireland for Mike & Rebecca’s wedding back in 2015).  So, who knows?

We started our tour at Pointe du Hoc.  For those unfamiliar with the scope and importance of this spot, let me provide a short summary from the ABMC, “On June 6, 1944, elements of the 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled the cliffs, seizing German artillery hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah Beaches.  They held on against fierce counterattacks.  The French government transferred the area to the American Battle Monuments Commission on January 11, 1979 for perpetual care and maintenance.”

Looking at the photos above, the yellow point is somewhat of a little island off the immediate coast or the “pointe” if you will.  The other two photos show the rocky cliffs on each side (the left photo toward Omaha Beach, the right toward Utah).  The photo in the upper right corner shows the area where the Rangers climbed the 100 foot cliffs using ladders, rope ladders, grappling hooks, ropes, bayonets, and even knives to help with the ascent, all while under enemy fire.  There’s something special about standing in this place that really gives you perspective and appreciation for those soldiers.  It’s awe inspiring, really.

The above photo is the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument, which is a symbolic sword in the stone, recognizing the friendship between the US and France.  Directly below this monument is the observation bunker and machine gun position (upper left photo), which provided views of approaches to both Omaha and Utah beaches.  These machine guns were positioned (and firing) at the Rangers ascending the cliffs.

Additionally, in the upper/middle right photo, you can see a number of “craters.”   As we walked around, Jim had pointed out many of the bunkers had underground tunnels connecting them (so German soldiers wouldn’t be walking about above ground), and I said, “I can see where the tunnels are, basically below all the sidewalks, right?”  Jim responded, “No, I think those are from bombs and other explosions from the Allieds.”  I felt a little silly.  Then I did a 360.  Those craters are everywhere.  EVERYWHERE.  I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to have been there or what sort of bravery it would take to charge forward.  It was a really powerful moment, maybe one of the most powerful war sites I’ve ever visited.  Here, you could really see the wreckage and play out what might’ve happened (thanks also to American cinema with films like Saving Private Ryan).

We then continued toward Omaha Beach (above).  We’d read/been told the American beaches (Utah & Omaha) still resemble the beaches from the 1940s, while the British/Canadian Beaches (Gold, Juno, and Sword) are all more commercialized with hotels, restaurants, and casinos.  As such, we only visited Omaha Beach, which (also) reminded us quite a bit of the California coast.  It was a short, but gorgeous beach with two monuments (above).  After taking about a mile walk up and down the beach, we stopped for lunch at the local Restaurant L’Omaha.  If you’re hungry, this spot will fit the bill, and it seems to be open all day (they were still seating customers for lunch well after 2pm).

After lunch we hopped back in our car and made our way toward the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  We didn’t realize this, but it is one of 14 permanent American WWII military cemeteries on foreign soil.  The French government granted use of this land (in perpetuity) as a permanent burial ground without charge or taxation.

We had heard mixed reviews regarding the cemetery, but the visitor building is top-notch, featuring numerous videos with veterans (both American & French), historical reference materials, etc.  I’d wager we probably spent an hour inside the visitor’s center before going outside to view the cemetery itself.

Once outside, the cemetery is absolutely immaculate.  It might be one of the prettiest plots of land we encountered, with lovely trees, shrubs, and views of Omaha Beach and the English Channel.  We were also impressed that every Unknown Soldier grave had a rose/flower on it.  Every single one.

We expected we’d see only Americans at all of these sites, but were pleasantly surprised to find the overwhelming majority of visitors were French (or at least speaking French).  Again, there’s something special about being a part of this visit, it’s being part of something larger than ourselves.

These are two of the most powerful and moving sites I’ve visited.  If you’re planning a trip to Paris, I’d urge you to extend your trip and take some time exploring this area.  It’s incredibly special.

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