Normandy, France: WWII Sites

Visiting the World War II sites in Normandy, France has been on my bucket list for years. We finally made it happen, and it exceeded my expectations. By far, one of the most memorable days of our trip.

To get a guide or not to get a guide?

I read and researched extensively about whether we should hire a guide. Ultimately we did not – we had a rental car and easily drove from place to place, and we relied on my research notes, Rick Steves self-guided tour, and the information at the museums and sites we visited for details about the events that took place throughout this area during WWII and on D-Day.

Did we miss things and pass over important areas without fully appreciating them? Absolutely. However, I would argue that would have been the case even if we’d had a guide – there’s simply too much history and too many stories to absorb it all in a brief visit, especially in the one day we had to explore.

I had many, many other sites on our list that we didn’t have time to visit: Arromanches, Utah Beach and Museum, U.S. Airborne Museum, “Dead Man’s Corner,” Caen Memorial, the Canadian and British beaches, and Mont Ormel-Coudehard Memorial being a few.

However, the sites we did visit were incredible. We learned a great deal, and it was a very informative and emotional day.

One-Day Itinerary: Normandy WWII Sites

Omaha Beach

We started our day early in the morning at Omaha Beach when it was low tide. Until I started researching our trip I hadn’t considered the need to plan around the tides, but it is important if you want to see the exposed beach or walk out on the sand.

We parked for free right in front of the beach in the lot at the end of the Avenue de la Liberation, following a quick stop at the Memorial Museum of Omaha Beach. The museum wasn’t open yet, which was ok – the items we wanted to see were outside, including the Czech hedgehog and Long Tom gun in the parking lot.

Across from where we parked were two key memorial statues. The first is a stone memorial that was erected by the French in 1949 honoring the American 29th and 1st divisions.

The second is a modern metal statue that was placed in 2004 to honor all of the liberating forces. Each was thought-provoking in its own way, and I was very touched to see flowers and stones that other visitors had left, honoring those who died.

We drove along the beach to an area where the American troops assembled a floating bridge and temporary artificial harbor. In the photos below, you can see other visitors standing on the remains of those structures.

Another poignant memorial was of the “Bedford Boys” – they honor the town of Bedford, Virginia that contributed 35 men to the landing forces, 19 of whom were killed.

We wandered through the National Guard Memorial, looking into the gun station and reading some of the posted placards before walking out on the pier.

The end of the pier was an ideal spot to turn around and look back at the cliffs the troops attempted to reach during the landing.

Pointe du Hoc: German Gun Battery and Ranger Monument

Probably one of the most emotional stops for me was at Pointe du Hoc. A 15- minute drive from Omaha Beach, I was still thinking about that experience when we entered the visitor center and watched a video featuring veterans who told what happened at this site. It brought me to tears.

By mid-1944, German forces manned formidable defenses along the French coast. Of concern to the Allies were German 155mm artillery positions on Pointe du Hoc. They could wreck havoc on Utah and Omaha beaches.

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.

American Battle Monuments Commission, Pointe du Hoc brochure

The skies turned gray and it started to rain as we set out on the loop walking path to view the different features in this area.

The rangers scaled these 100-foot cliffs using rope ladders and ropes with grappling hooks. Because of the severity of the cliffs, the Germans had actually turned their defenses inland, assuming they would be attacked from that direction. The path we walked follows the cliff line, which still features coils of barbed wire.

We climbed up on several viewing platforms to see the giant craters from the aerial and naval bombardment, which are still visible today. Several German antiaircraft, ammunition, and other bunkers are still accessible.

The granite needle pictured below was placed by the French government to serve as the formal memorial of the assault and the American’s success at disabling this gun battery.

German Military Cemetery

During my research, a number of people recommended visiting the German Military Cemetery as a reminder about the full scope of this war. Understated and somber, this cemetery is very conservative and even the design and color of the gravestones is in stark contrast to those in the American cemetery.

While the American cemetery was designed to recognize heroes, this one is described as recognizing humility. It is the final resting place of more than 21,000 German soldiers.

American Cemetery and Visitor Center

One of the highlights of the day was visiting the WWII Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. France gave the U.S. permanent use of the 172-acre site, which is home to a very informative museum and 9,386 white marble tombstones honoring the Americans who lost their lives on the Normandy beaches and were buried on site.

We easily spent an hour in the museum, watching several films and reading the personal stories and information about the events leading up to D-Day.

The museum exit takes you through the Sacrifice Gallery where the cemetery’s permanent residents are named aloud on a continuous loop. We then exited outside into the cemetery grounds where there are bluff views over part of Omaha Beach.

We stopped at the memorial to see the maps of the Battle of Normandy and Battle of Europe and then walked the loop drive through the cemetery itself.

After the war, families could decide if they wanted loved ones to stay here or be brought home for burial. About two-thirds elected to have their loved ones sent home.

Longues-sur-Mer: German Gun Battery

Our last stop of the day was a relatively short visit to the four German casements – three with guns still intact – at Longues-sur-Mer. The guns were arranged in a semicircle about 300 yards inland and could hit targets up to 12 miles away with great accuracy. Seven German soldiers manned each gun, and others staffed an observation bunker closer to the coast.

These are the only original coastal artillery guns in place in the region – most others were scrapped after the war.

While the sites we visited were primarily those where American troops were in battle, there are many other sites in this area where British and Canadian troops also fought and lost their lives.

The museums were excellent, and I highly recommend Rick Steves France guidebook, which has self-guided walking tour instructions and history for the locations we visited as well as many, many others. We were able to read those descriptions as we visited each place for additional background and context.

Regardless of whether you are interested in WWII history, visiting these sites in Normandy offers great lessons we should continue to remember and reflect on today.

One thought on “Normandy, France: WWII Sites

  1. Pingback: Things to Do in Normandy, France – Heather's Compass

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