Memorials and sites from World War II are found throughout north France, though the Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches along the Baie de Seine are the most famous, and the most visited.
The beaches are stunning; today the places for dog walkers, surfers and sand yachts, a far cry from the scene 76 years ago.
The Landing Beaches on D-Day
Early in the morning of June 7th, 1944, 160,000 soldiers landed on the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. It was the start of the remarkable fight by Allied troops against the enemy. Along this stretch of coast 80 kms (50 miles) long, you’ll find the memorials and cemeteries, batteries and bridges of Operation Overlord.
Museums, Memorials, Cemeteries
There are a large number of museums, sites and memorials commemorating the Normandy Landing beaches offensive and the events around Operation Overlord in June 1944.
Some museums and sites are old, but every year a new one opens. Some are financed and run by the French state; others are small private museums, the result of a lifelong passion of an individual enthusiast.
Large concrete batteries line the cliffs. Part ruined, they still echo with the memories of the war.
There are also war cemeteries for the Canadians, Americans, the Germans, the French, the British and the Allies that punctuate the landscape.
And there are many small sites just by the roadside or signposted down small tracks that commemorate a regiment, or a particular significant incident.
The upshot is that you can come back each year, visit the ones you like the best but always find a new one to explore.
This is a very brief overview of the main sites along the coast. My partner, Alastair McKenzie, has a website called MechTraveller.com which covers all the below and more. But for a good overview, start with the…
Mémorial de Caen
The Mémorial de Caen makes the perfect start to any D-Day Landing Beach tour. It’s particularly useful if your knowledge of the events is, as mine was, sketchy. Taking a long overview, it starts with World War I and the aftermath.
According to Anthony Peregrine, one of the great experts on France, the Caen Memorial is ‘probably the best second world war museum anywhere’.
Standing on a hill above the main part of the city, the Caen Memorial was built on the site of the bunker of W Richter, the German general who faced the British-Canadian forces on June 6th 1944.
You walk down a circular walkway, lined with the events of 1914-1918 and the aftermath. You’re drawn slowly into the Great Depression, the re-arming of Germany and Hitler.
A series of exhibitions takes you through the main events of World War II. Archives, testimonies by witnesses, maps, artefacts, room settings, crackling black and white videos and films fill the spaces. It covers the different war fronts that took the conflict from a European War into a World War. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour brought in the Americans; Barbarossa brought in the USSR. It became a total conflict.
And of course, there’s a superb exhibition on the Normandy D-Day Landings.
The Memorial brings you further up to date, with 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
But it’s not just about the big, world wide events. The Memorial also covers civilian life and personal stories. There are small details: exploding dummies dropped by the Allies; a resistance worker’s equipment; machines to code…and de-code and those telephones used in secret. Was it all really only 76 years ago? It seems a different world.
It’s pretty full on, and the films made both during the war and afterwards raise some uncomfortable questions. One which particularly struck me was a French academic talking about collaboration. If your child or a loved one’s life was at stake, what would you do?
You should allow half a day if you can and a day is best if you have time, and energy, But don’t try to do more than the Memorial in a day; it’s comprehensive, packed with those stories and events of the war and it’s best to absorb the knowledge before taking in more of the Normandy sites.
Mémorial de Caen
Esplanade General Eisenhower
Tel: +33 (0)2 31 06 06 45
OpenThe Memorial re-opens on June 20, 2020. Hours to be confirmed. Check the website
Admission Entrance fee (special re-opening 2020 summer price) €14.50. Children’s prices not confirmed. Please take an ID proof of age with you
Utah Beach: The American Sector
Utah Beach was the first to be assaulted by the US 4th Infantry Division under Major General Barton on June 6, 1944 at 6.30am. It was vital to the success of the whole enterprise; the Allies had to cut off the Cotentin Peninsula, blocking Cherbourg harbour to the Germans. By the end of day 123,250 men had landed, with 17,000 vehicles and 1,695 tons of supplies.
To the west, it was the task of the airborne troops. The 82nd Division under Major General Ridgway and the 101st Division under Major General Taylor were deployed to seize control of the area around Sainte-Mere-Eglise. 14,000 parachutists were dropped in various waves. There were heavy casualties of 2,500 men.
It was in this part of the Normandy beaches that the paratroopers of E Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, played their part. Some of the story of Easy Company (who hasn’t read or seen the TV series Band of Brothers?) is shown at the 2 museums here.
Utah Beach Museum
Utah Beach Museum is one of the must-see sites along the whole Normandy coast. It is comprehensive with maps, photos, videos and a huge number of exhibits well displayed in special settings. Don’t miss: the B26 Marauder Aircraft in a large glass-clad hangar and the outstanding film Victory in the Sand.
MechTraveller Review of Utah Beach Museum
Sainte-Mère-Eglise in the Cotentin Peninsula is just a 16-minute, 16 km/8.5 miles from the Utah Beach Museum. Itss a small village with a big history, much of which is told in the Airborne Museum.
As you enter the village, your first sight will be the model of American paratrooper John Steele of the 82nd Airborne Division hanging by his parachute from the church steeple. The story has a happy ending.
MechTraveller Review of the Airborne Museum
Azeville Battery is just a 11km/6 mile, 15-minute drive north of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. It’s bleak with underground paths that connect the bunkers looking out to sea. Walk along these with the audio guide giving you invaluable information, and look out of the narrow slits.
Mech Traveller’s article of the Azeville Battery
Omaha Beach: The American Sector
Omaha Beach was one of the most formidable beaches facing the Allies. It was backed by rocky steep cliffs and strong defences. It was assaulted by the 1st Infantry Division, the 116th Infantry Regiment and the 29th Infantry Division under Major General Huebner.
Just before the 29th landed on the beach, Colonel Goode said to his troops: “You get your ass on the beach. I’ll be there waiting for you and I’ll tell you what to do. There ain’t anything in this plan that is going to go right”. Good old American straight talk.
Renamed Omaha the bloody, there were 2 major batteries to overcome, only one of which was known to the Allies.
La Pointe du Hoc
La Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument stands high up on the windswept headland. You walk past large boards telling the stories of various individuals then onto the headland. Casements and gun pits are surrounded by craters, and at the edge, the observation point.
MechTraveller Review of La Pointe du Hoc
The Maisy Battery, 8 miles away, however was unknown to the Allies. And it remained unknown after the war until it was discovered by Gary Sterne, a World War II historian and collector. Today it’s run by his son who is more than happy to talk. And it’s worthwhile talking to him before wandering through the 2.5 kms of bunkers and trenches and past the rusting guns. And this is only part of the site which is yet to be excavated.
MechTraveller Review of Maisy Battery
The Normandy American Cemetery
Above Omaha Beach stands one of the most moving of the sites along the coast. The Normandy American Cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer is a peaceful place, housing 9,387 US military dead on the huge 172 acre site. 307 are unknown.
The white headstone, dotted with Stars of David stones, run in military precision. Wander at will to look at the names, and look for Preston and Robert Niland, the brothers who inspired Saving Private Ryan.
Gold Beach: The British Sector
At the centre of the landing zones, taking Gold Beach was given to the Briitsh 50th Infantry Division. At 7.30am, the first Brigades attacked around Asnelles. By the evening, 24,970 men had landed; on the beach alone, 413 men were killed, wounded or missing. They had secured 10 kms inland nearly to Bayeux.
Longues-sur-Mer Germany Battery
They faced the German battery at Longues-sur-Mer which was also pounding Omaha Beach. Today it still looks formidable; 4 huge casements with their guns still there pointing out to sea which you wander through.
MechTraveller’s Review of Longues-sur-Mer
This should be your major visit along this part of the beaches. The Musée de Débarquement may be slightly old-fashioned and definitely crowded but it tells the story of the extraordinary Mulberry Harbours. These artificial ports were built to dock the ships arriving with vital goods and supplies after the main troop landings. A film sets the scene, but it’s the long model of the Mulberry Harbour which catches your attention. Then look outside; you can see the remains still in the water.
MechTraveller’s Review of the Arromanches-sur-Mer Museum
Drive out of Arromanches up the hill to the cinema in the round. The film, Normandy’s 100 Days, shown on 9 screens, is pretty graphic, bringing home the reality and horrors of war.
Juno Beach: The Canadian Sector
The 3rd Canadian Division landed at 8am on Juno Beach, delayed by the sea and formidable beach obstacles and suffered heavy casualties. By the end of the day, the Canadians had got further inland than any other division.
Juno Beach Centre
The Juno Beach Centre is another must-see sight. It’s the Canadian Museum, covering a story which we in the UK know far less about. The permanent exhibition takes you through the earlier history of Canada. An excellent film, They Walk with You shows you D-Day from the Canadian point of view. It’s funded and run by the Canadian government. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable young Canadians take you through the exhibition if you want to.
Don’t miss the Guided visits of Juno Park outside the Centre. You’re taken down and through the bunkers on the beach in front of the museum. They were part of the famous Atlantic Wall built by Hitler.
Sword Beach, the British Sector
The westernmost part of the landing site, Sword Beach was the responsibility of the 3rd British Infantry Division under Major General Rennie. They began to land at 7.30am on the beach that had heavy defences around the port of Ouistreham. Their aim? To capture Caen, 10 miles/15 kms inland.
Concerned about the possibility of a counter attack by the 21st Panzer Division, south of Caen, the British sent in General Gale’s 6th Airborne Division.
Museum of the British 6th Airborne Division, Pegasus Bridge
The museum, known as the Pegasus Memorial, brings home the extraordinarily risky task of the parachutists, taken in flimsy Horsa gliders to land inland from Sword Beach. They were the first of the troops to attack, landing at 9 minutes past midnight. Look inside the gliders; they had no motors, no parachutes and no second chances.
Outside, the original Pegasus Bridge takes pride of place. There’s also a Bailey Bridge and various huts displaying the stories of the expedition. If you’ve heard of the landing, it’s mainly because of the myth about Lord Lovat, who, according to The Longest Day, walked across the bridge at Benouville (later named Pegasus Bridge) with his bagpiper. It’s not strictly accurate; they ran over the bridge with no bagpipes playing.
It’s an excellent museum, another of the must-see sites.
Merville Gun Battery
The Merville Gun Battery squarely set in the ground is just a few yards from the sea. Part of the huge Atlantic Wall, built by the Germans to defend Europe against the Allies, it was heavily fortified. It was part of the 6th Airborne’s task: to destroy the Battery.
There are various bunkers which you can visit, all showing different part of the assault and the capture of the battery. It was done at a cost; of the 750 sent on the mission, 150 landed here and only 75 survived.
A trip along the Normandy D-Day Landing beaches is both a dip into a history we should all remember and cherish, and a tribute to those who allow us to live in liberty and freedom today.
More about World War II in France
You’ll find more on World War II in Nord-Pas de Calais