“D-Day, June 6, 1944, was a day without precedent,” said our guide, Stuart Robertson of Normandy Battle Tours.
We were on the Normandy coast of France, the region that was the site of the D-Day invasion and the subsequent 11-week-long battle (code name Operation Overlord) to liberate northwest Europe from Nazi occupation during World War II. Our day-long tour of two of the five landing beaches, a town whose liberation was critical to the operation’s success, and two of the 27 military cemeteries where lie thousands of soldiers, both named and unknown, was a day without precedent for us – a deeply emotional one filled with a heightened sense of awe and appreciation for the duty and sacrifice of so many who literally changed the world for the better.
Even on the eve of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, with all of the facts and personal accounts that all forms of media have chronicled since then about that momentous event, the statistics Stuart cited still were staggering and seemed inconceivable:
- 400,000 men crossed the English Channel in the world’s greatest amphibious and airborne military operation with the aim to put 135,000 men on five landing beaches over 60 miles of coastline
- 170,000 people lost their lives – 24,000 British and Canadians, 28,000 Americans, 100,000 Germans, and 18,000 French civilians
- 11,000 aircraft
- 5,000 ships and landing craft
- A coalition of 16 Allied nations
As Stuart, a gifted raconteur who brought this history to life, explained, the story of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy isn’t just a recitation of numbers. Rather, it’s how events unfolded and the diverse, personal stories of the people involved.
Stuart himself has a connection. His great-uncle died during the Battle of Normandy. Stuart’s grandfather, his childhood hero and the one who inspired his interest in military history, earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal during World War II for saving a wounded colonel from a German ambush outside of Rome while being wounded himself. Ten years ago, Stuart, a former military archivist, and his wife, Jenny, both Brits, moved from England to Normandy to start their tour company. They also run a bed and breakfast inn for tour guests.
It was ironic that the weather during our visit was mostly cool, grey, windy, rainy, and overcast. Similar conditions, including dense fog, prevailed on June 5, 1944, the intended day for the invasion, and carried over into the next day for the actual invasion on June 6. Weather, we learned, played a dramatic role in D-Day. Driving through miles of peaceful, pastoral countryside, it was difficult to reconcile today’s views with the chaos and carnage of seven decades ago.
Our first stop was near Bayeux at La Cambe, the largest cemetery, where some 21,000 German troops are buried. Actually, more than a third of those aren’t even German — they’re eastern Europeans and Russians who were forced into serving in the German army when the Nazis conquered their homelands.
With the German dead left behind Allied lines as the Allies advanced and the Allies focused on fighting, it was up to the French to bury them. The French generally made makeshift, unmarked graves. In the mid 1950s, the Germans were allowed back into the area to retrieve their dead. They eventually identified 1,200 separate burial sites, exhumed the remains, and reburied them at La Cambe, which opened in 1961. Amazingly, as cities in the region continue to expand their boundaries, they’re still finding remains of German soldiers.
The narrow stone arch entrance symbolizes that visitors enter as individuals and should judge those buried there as individuals. The large memorial with the black lava stone cross and flanked by two figures representing grieving parents is a mass grave. At first glance, we assumed the small black crosses scattered throughout the grounds were headstones, but they’re landscaping features. Ground-level plaques mark the graves. The cemetery reflects the reconciliation between France and Germany following the war.
Next was Sainte Mère Église, which the Allies needed to overtake to protect the Americans landing at Utah Beach. Planes dropped hundreds of paratroopers in the early hours prior to D-Day. Complicating the mission was heavy cloud cover that obscured visibility for the pilots. Consequently, most of the paratroopers were misdropped. Some landed within the waiting gun sights of Germans who were supervising a bucket brigade to quell a house fire in the town square.
The town’s namesake 13th century church is the focal point of the square. Catching our eye was a uniformed mannequin strapped to a parachute that was snagged on the church’s roof. The scene recreates an actual experience for one paratrooper, who played dead, was taken prisoner, and then released soon after as the Allies drove out the Germans. The townspeople paid tribute to its airborne liberators by installing stained glass windows inside the church that bear related images. One shows paratroopers surrounding Mary as she holds baby Jesus. Another includes St. Michael, patron saint of paratroopers.
One was the incongruity of the stunningly beautiful surroundings serving as the backdrops for such incomparable violence and human loss. Another was the sheer size of the beaches. We walked on the beaches at low tide/rising tide, the same level as when the American soldiers came ashore. The expanse of sand they had to traverse fully exposed to the superior German weaponry strategically situated on the high ground was immense, and spoke to the depths of their valor. Further, were the vastly different battle outcomes and casualties along the five beaches, based on the specific sectors of beach where the soldiers landed and the strength of the enemy’s defenses at those locations.
An additional determining factor was, again, weather-related. The Germans had built some 60 strongpoints overlooking the Normandy beaches and other fortifications to defend the exit roads. In the pre-dawn of D-Day, planes from the Allied air force dropped thousands of pounds of bombs in an effort to knock them out. Heavy cloud cover and fog over all but one strongpoint at Utah Beach, the only one they destroyed, precluded success because pilots couldn’t see their targets. The air force commanders had cautioned against that very result.
Stuart said the main 70th anniversary ceremony next month will take place on Sword Beach, one of the British landing sites. With veterans now in their 90s, it will be the last official commemoration with them. Many Allied heads of state are invited, but the 1,000 or so veterans expected to attend are the real heroes and honorees.
Most moving of all was the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where nearly 10,000 troops are buried, and the adjacent Visitors Center.
Words and photos don’t do justice to either the solemn stillness of this hallowed ground or the drama of the panoramic overlook high above Omaha Beach. The headstones, just beyond the rectangular reflecting pool, are perfectly aligned rows of simple, white marble crosses and Stars of David. They contrast sharply against the verdant, tree-lined lawn.
Forty-one siblings are buried here, as are the only father and son buried side by side in an overseas American military cemetery. Large maps of the war’s European campaign flank the memorial and its statue depicting the spirit of American youth.
What a memorable experience we had in Normandy…a day of tears, reflection, and gratitude.
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Interested in learning more? Stuart Robertson, our guide, and his co-writer Dale Booth, just published “D-Day, June 6th, 1944: Following In The Footsteps of Heroes.” Click here to purchase.