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Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Normandy Landing Beaches

In the summer of '98 I had the opportunity to tour the Normandy landing beaches for two days. These are some of the pictures I took. Unfortunately this was before the day of digital photography, so some of the shots are not as sharp as I would have liked. On the positive side, having to shoot with film probably kept me from taking several hundred pictures which is what I am sure would have happened had I had a digital camera with me at the time! Anyhow, this is a report on what I did manage to document. If you are reading this blog, you are very likely to be quite familiar with the role that the Normandy beaches and D-Day played in WWII, so I won't dwell on introducing them here. Instead, I'll focus on some of the ground-level details that I encountered during my trip. 

Arromanches, France. Gold beach. 
View of the left half of what remains of the artificial harbor built by the allies to be able to unload additional men, supplies, and material in the absence of a real harbor. This artificial harbor technology is known as a Mulberry Harbor and it was key to be able to sustain the war effort. A combination of these concrete breakwater blocks and sunken ships were used to afford protection from the rough ocean and allow the unloading to happen. The actual harbor was about twice as big as what can be seen in this composite picture, extending to the right side of where I stood.

Sherman tank located on top of the bluff overlooking the Arromanches (Gold) beach. One of many pieces of ordnance left over from the campaign.

Monument to Kieffer's Commandos in Ouistreham, France. 
Kieffer's commandos were the first French troops to land on Normandy. This one is located above Sword beach, the eastmost of the landing beaches.

One of the many pillboxes and small bunkers along the edge of the villages overlooking the landing beaches. Note how this gun is pointing away from the beach though. Seems to be protecting the rest of the position against a flanking move.

Some of the destroyed war materiel has been transformed into monuments along the sightseeing route.

A Churchill tank at Courseulles-sur-Mer, Juno Beach, Canadian sector. Juno was the second landing beach, from the east, after Sword and before Gold and Omaha and Utah (in that order).

Memorial monument dedicated to the Allied forces who liberated France, located at Saint Laurent-sur-Mer above Omaha beach.

Battery bunkers at Longues-sur-Mer, sitting south of the beaches at the border between Gold and Omaha beaches. This battery hosted four 152mm guns and operated throughout D-Day and was eventually captured on D-Day+1. At that point, only one gun remained operational, with the other three having been knocked out of action by fire from ships off shore.

This one shows more damage. Cracks on the left side and a hole in the back.  

Looks like this is the one that survived the battle. It continues to guard the channel...

This shot puts their size in perspective.

Standing on top of the west-most of the four casemates hosting the guns. You can see the other three bunkers and the ocean in the background.

The bunkers from a distance. I would not have liked to have to approach that over open terrain.

The observation post. Located about 100 yards north of the battery bunkers, at the edge of the bluff overlooking the beach. 

The observation post at sunset. A view that the men guarding the Atlantic wall might have seen many times not knowing what the next day would bring.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-Sur-Mer

The morning mist gave it an even more solemn atmosphere...

When you struggle to see where it ends, that's when the magnitude of the cost of war hits you. And this is just a small fraction.

The cemetery contains the remains of close to 9400 men who fell during the Normandy campaign in the summer of '44.

The view from Omaha beach. As you can see, the challenge was not just crossing the beach but going over or around the elevated terrain overlooking the beach.

The view to the west side of the beach. Gives you a better feeling for what the men landing might have felt having to cross what must have seemed like a huge expanse of beach under fire.

The view to the right, the east side. The pill boxes at the edge of the high ground provided deadly enfilading fire.

One of such pillboxes overlooking the beach from the west. 

Pointe du Hoc, Isigny-sur-Mer. 
This was the site of a daring operation by the US 2nd Ranger Battalion. Three Ranger companies landed and climbed the cliffs under fire to capture and destroy a battery of 6 155mm guns. Ironically the guns had been moved 2 days earlier 1 mile further inland. The rangers nonetheless, located them, destroyed them and went on to fend off German counter attacks until they were releived the next day.

The memorial monument to the 2nd Ranger Battalion, sitting on top of the observation post.

The observation post at the tip of Pointe du Hoc.

The pockmarked terrain reveals how intense the bombardment was in this area. It's all one crater after the next, with bunker ruins in between.

A view from the southwest. In the foreground, there is an open circular gun pit that allowed a gun to rotate and be fired in any direction. In the background you can see some more collapsed bunkers and cratered terrain in the distance. Far towards the left-center of the picture that's where the observation post and the memorial are located.

The entryway leading to the door to one of the bunkers that still stand.

German Military Cemetery, La Cambe, France. 
21,000 German dead are buried there. The hill at the center is actually a mass grave for about 300 men, most of them unknown.

View from the top of the hill, at the center of the cemetery, where the main memorial stands. 



  2. If you are asking when the pictures were taken, they are from the summer of 1998. Still taken with film at the time.

  3. These are great photographs. I've never been and I really ought.

    The French and the War Graves Commission and all the people who attend to the war graves of both wars do so with great reverence and respect, for both sides. Recently, in Cornwall, a memorial was erected by an American regiment who in WW2 set off from a certain point, but it seemed really flat compared to others. Not mentioned was defending freedom, or liberating France, or even the contributions or commemorations of other American, Allied and even German soldiers who gave their lives- just 'We were here then'. I wish a little more could be done sometimes.

  4. Thanks. It is definitely a good trip to take if you have a chance. I agree that the folks who look after the graves, no matter the nation, perform a great labor of love. In terms of how much should be elaborated about what they did, I think that's a tricky thing to balance. In every army there are men who fight out of ideological conviction, some who do it out of a sense of duty, some who fight for their buddies, some who fight just to survive and some who would rather be somewhere else. So it's hard to come up with a statement that covers everyone.