D-Day Sites in Normandy – part I

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In April, my Dad & his oldest son (me), and my oldest son (Jonah) went on a trip up to north-western France to see some of the D-Day sites in Normandy. We spent two days in Paris on the way there, then 3 days in Normandy. The most well-known are of course, the D-Day landing beaches where Allied troops came ashore in the early morning of June 6, 1944.

We wanted to see some of the places where this part of history actually took place.  I hate to call them ‘sites’ as it makes them seem like tourist attractions – instead of places where so much human struggle, grief and pain was born.

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SIDE NOTE: We’ve home-schooled Jonah this year –  mostly because we were quite sure this would be our kids’ last year in the French school system, and it meant him changing schools, and having an incredibly heavy load and long days – all for the sake of a system that he wouldn’t finish. (yes – I did rant on about this earlier). Anyway – one of the real advantages of this has been that we can adapt his curriculum to our life -and visa versa.  If we know we are going on a trip to London…then we can shift some of his history and literature and get him to study England for the weeks leading up to the trip. If we plan a trip to Normandy – we shift his history to include WWII. It’s worked out quite well.

Caen

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We took the train from Paris to Caen, picked up a rental car and spent the entire afternoon at the huge and impressive museum there. Technically it’s called The Caen Memorial – Centre for History & Peace – and that does really describe it.

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In creating the museum, they have managed to avoid glorifying war while at the same time describing what the war (and war in general)  was actually like. It obviously has a great deal on WWII – and notably the parts that took place in Normandy – but it also has an entire section on  how the globe descended into the total war of 1939-1945, the Cold War, and what the struggle for peace has looked like over the past 70 years. Well worth a visit if you ask me.

D-Day Beaches

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We then drove out to the hotel we rented, which turned out to actually have a view onto Gold Beach. We could see one of the artillery fortifications from the room. I can’t figure out exactly why – but it did seem surreal in some way.  It was getting close to supper time – but the forecast for the next three days was (not unsurprisingly for Normandy) a good chance of rain.  So we figured that since it wasn’t raining – this may be our only chance to actually see the beaches without being rained on. We drove up the coast a bit to Juno beach, where the Canadians landed that morning.

 

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Jonah at Juno

We saw Juno beach, then headed up the coast in the other direction, looking for a place to eat. We eventually got to Arromanches-les-Bains, the location of one of the two Mulberry Harbour artificial ports the Allies used during the invasion.

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remains of Port Winston. Still there 70 years after they were built with an expected lifespan of a few months.

Over its 100 days of usage, some 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of other materials came ashore over Port Winston  – right though what is now back to a sleepy seaside fishing and tourist town. 

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We were not far from the town of Bayeaux so we headed there the next morning – to have a look at the 500 year old cathedral which miraculously survived all the conflict that surround it over the years.

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Cathedral de Bayeux – consecrated by William the Conqueror in 1077

Bayeux actually has a bit of history going for a town of its size – not only was it the first city liberated in 1944, but William the Conqueror hung out here a bit, and the world famous Bayeux Tapestry is – not surprisingly – found here.

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Three generations of Watts boys on Juno Beach

The next day we went to the Juno beach centre. The museum there has been really well done, and it gave great insight into D-Day, WWII in general, and a whole lot of Canadian history that I never knew. Canada actually played an interesting role in WWI – considering that the country had essentially no military to speak of at the beginning of the war, and a population of only 10 million, yet by the 1945 over 40% of all its men had volunteered to fight, and it ended up with the third largest navy and fourth largest air force in the world.

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entrance to the Juno Beach bunker
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Bunker tour at Juno Beach

We later drove up the coast to the American Cemetery which overlooks Omaha Beach.  There really are no words to describe this place.

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The British, Canadians, French & Germans tended to bury their war-dead in smaller cemeteries, closer to where they fell. The Americans erected almost 10,000 white-marble grave-markers of their fallen (plus a memorial wall to the 1,500 missing in action) into a 170 acre cemetery up above the cliffs that overlook the landing beaches.

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Later we went to Pont du Hoc, a strategic point that was taken by US Rangers who had to scale the sheer cliff face just to get to the point where they could start trying to take the gun positions.

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Since this was a key target, it was heavily bombed ahead of the landing, and the earth there still bears the scars of that heavy shelling.  Hard to believe that the current state is what the ground looks like after 7 decades of erosion, growth, rain, wind.

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We saw quite a bit in only two days. The weather held out – and we never actually got rained on at all.  Up next – Mont St Michel.

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