France - Normandy - Le Prix de la liberté
Jun 13, 2004
|I'm starting to realize just how little attention I paid during history and geography lessons in school. I'm sure we covered World War II, the German occupation of France, and the Battle of Normandy, but I remember little of it. Perhaps sometimes education is wasted on the youth! But traveling to the places where these events actually took place, setting foot on soil where fierce battles took place and lives were ended ... now that's a much more meaningful history lesson for me. And since it was a history lesson for me, it'll now be a history lesson for you too ...
I traveled eastward from St. Malo, Brittany to Bayeux, Normandy on June 13th, exactly one week after the 60th Anniversary of the Normandy landings. At dawn on June 6th, 1944 - "D-Day" - in one of the largest and most complex military operations in history, nearly 150,000 soldiers of 14 nationalities and roughly 20,000 vehicles were brought in by sea on five landing beaches on the coast of Normandy. Their mission: to link up and face the Germans. The landings on D-Day began the 76-day Battle of Normandy which started the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation. 60 years later the landscape has softened, buildings and towns have been rebuilt, crops now grow in fields that were once ravaged by war, and it's hard to envision the terrible battles that took place here.
Visiting the D-Day Beaches in Normandy was a strangely emotional experience. Seeing the remains of the German bunkers and the harbour where the Allied Forces landed and started "Operation Overlord" ... visiting the museums and seeing footage of old wartime battles and marches through towns ... walking through the numerous war cemeteries, seeing the graves of the unknown soldiers, and touching the cold marble markers of the men who were much too young to die ... le prix de la liberté - "the price of freedom" - was very high indeed.
Numerous 60th Anniversary ceremonies took place at the various beaches on June 6th, 2004. But the real "official" ceremony took place at Arromanches, the site where two artificial harbours were constructed to both shelter the bay from the ocean swell and to enable Allied troops and equipment to be brought ashore. These harbours, by the way, had been prefabricated in England and towed across the Channel in the days immediately following D-Day.
Strict security measures were in place for the ceremony at Arromanches as a real "who's who" of political leaders and royalty were in attendance, including Jacques Chirac, George Bush, Tony Blair, Queen Elizabeth, and Paul Martin to name but a few. Sadly, few veterans of the Battle of Normandy were in attendance; by now they'd be in their 80's if still alive. I heard that while they were doing their utmost to protect the political attendees, they actually kicked out one old vet - one of the first men to set foot on the Normandy Beaches on June 6th, 1944 - because he hadn't pre-registered and therefore didn't have appropriate security clearance. Can you believe it! Somehow that just seems dreadfully wrong. Don't you think he had more right to be there than the politicians?
By the time I arrived in Bayeux I had expected that all ceremonies would be over, but that was not the case. Allied force flags were proudly flying on every street and throughout the countryside (I saw more Canadian flags here than at home in Canada), memorial services and military marches took place daily, bands played in the parks and children danced. It was a wonderful sight to behold.
Now, knowing next to nothing about D-Day history, and because the area spans across 50 miles of beach, I decided to take a half-day organized tour of Juno Beach - the Canadian sector.
Our first stop was near the village of Berniéres sur Mer, where the remains of 2,048 soldiers rest in the Canadian cemetery. What an emotional way to start the day. How sad it was to see row after row after row of grave markers. But it was also a very peaceful setting, rose bushes were in bloom, and it was nice to see that each grave was well groomed and sporting at least one new little Canadian flag, no doubt from last week's ceremonies. Quite honestly, it sounds strange, but I could've spent all day there, slowly meandering, touching one here, reading one there, sometimes having little chats along the way.
Next we stopped at the Juno Beach museum (newly opened within the last year) which details Canada's involvement, shows old wartime footage and has lots of memorabilia on display. Well worth a visit. We also stopped at the area where the first Canadian troops landed, with evidence of old German bunkers still in place along the beach. We also saw the famous Sherman tanks that had propellers and air tubes to make them float and therefore were capable of offshore wet landings. Unfortunately there was no time to actually test the design in advance and some of them didn't quite meet expectations. The one I saw had been recovered from the bottom of the harbour where it promptly sank after being launched from the warship!
Our final stop was at Arromanches where numerous statues and plaques add testament to the historic significance of the D-Day Beaches. On the way back to Bayeux we came across a very large and official French ceremony. Another 60th Anniversary celebration, but of the actual date (June 14, 1944) when General De Gaulle, leader of the French resistance, returned to France from England.
The next day I decided to explore the D-Day Beach area a little more on my own. For your information, there are five beaches where Allied troops landed ... from west to east were Utah and Omaha (USA), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian), and Sword (British). I went by unguided coach on a route that took in most areas of significance.
Stops included Longues sur Mer, where the German army had erected artillery bunkers to cover the sea and fire on any fleets attempting to land ashore. A battery of preserved cannons still remain covering the coast from Omaha to Gold Beaches.
Next stop was Colleville sur Mer, where the American Cemetery looks out over Omaha Beach. There are remains of 9,387 soldiers and a memorial wall to 1,557 others whose bodies were never found. Don't even get me started on the emotional rollercoaster walking through that place was.
Pointe du Hoc was an artillery position built high on the steep cliffs overlooking the sea. Here the Germans installed a battery of guns with a range of 20 kilometers, which meant they could pretty much pound the crap out of any passing ships. A small but mighty troop of Americans scaled the cliffs and eventually took hold of the hill, losing more than half their men in the process. The area was badly scarred by combat and remains largely in the same state it was left in 1944.
The last stop was at La Cambe, site of the German Cemetery where plain flat black markers and random groups of five Maltese crosses mark the remains of 21,200 soldiers. And that was the completion of my history lesson for the day.
I couldn't help thinking that my father would absolutely love to visit Normandy as he's a real war historian and this entire area is a huge museum. Oh well, he's still a young man (he turns 85 years on July 5th!) so maybe he'll make it one day.
I should also mention that, in addition to being a good base location for the D-Day Beaches, Bayeux itself is a lovely little town. It has a beautiful cathedral, an old town area filled with interesting buildings of various architectural periods, and many working waterwheels along the banks of the Aure River, evidence of the tanneries and wash houses that once existed along the river.
One claim to fame for Bayeux is that it's the home of the world-famous "Bayeux Tapestry", a 70 meter strip of embroidered linen, commissioned in 1077 to recount the tales of the Norman invasion of 1066. World famous perhaps, but I didn't actually go to see it myself.
Next stop in Normandy is Rouen ... where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake!