The D-Day beaches, 69 years later

Workers scrub the gravemarkers clean in preparation for a D-Day anniversary commemoration at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

German defenders at nearby strongpoints had an unobstructed view of the beach and the approaching landing craft on D-Day.

“They must be crazy,” one German sergeant said. “Are they going to swim ashore? Right under our muzzles?”

Omaha Beach and its overlooks are among several sites along the nearly 55 miles of coastal France that capture the struggles and triumphs of the Normandy invasion.

For Americans, the Normandy Cemetery on the bluff above Omaha Beach — near the center of the landing zones — is the focal point of any visit to D-Day sites.

There among the 9,387 graves rest many of the more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers killed on June 6.

Looking across Omaha Beach at low tide, as it was early on D-Day, you’re struck by the seemingly impossible task that confronted the young Americans. Wet and weighed down by 60 pounds of equipment, they had to run across at least 300 yards of open sand to reach the first protection from the gunfire.

East of the cemetery, brush has been cleared to reveal the Germans’ view of the killing field below.

Nowhere did troops pay a higher price than at Omaha’s western end. Here, Company A of the 29th Division’s 116th Regiment came ashore. Within 10 minutes, all but eight of the company’s 200 men had been killed or wounded. Nineteen of the dead were from Bedford, Va. Three more of the “Bedford Boys” would die in the Normandy campaign, giving the town of 3,200 a sad statistic: the highest per capita loss of any U.S. community that day. A monument atop a bunker at Vierville draw remembers the struggle there.

The lunar landscape left by fierce Allied naval and air bombardment of Pointe du Hoc. U.S. Army Rangers scaled the cliffs at great cost to neutralize German artillery positions, only to learn the guns had been moved farther inland the escape the bombardment.

The lunar landscape left by fierce Allied naval and air bombardment of Pointe du Hoc. U.S. Army Rangers scaled the cliffs at great cost to neutralize German artillery positions, only to learn the guns had been moved farther inland the escape the bombardment.

Farther west along the coast is Pointe du Hoc, where 225 Army Rangers led by Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder, a native Texan and future president of Texas A&M, fought their way to the top of 100-foot cliffs. The high ground is a moonscape cratered by Allied naval artillery fire aimed at German gun emplacements there. A granite pylon honors the Rangers.

Still farther west is Utah Beach, the other American landing area.

Utah’s terrain is strikingly different from Omaha’s. Instead of cliffs, wide sands give way to low dunes and fields the Germans flooded to hinder invaders. Concrete emplacements, most showing little damage, are strung along the beach.

At nearby La Madeleine is one of the better D-Day museums, built in part in a German bunker. It’s the first of 1,182 milestones marking the route that the U.S. Third Army followed from Normandy to Bastogne, Belgium.

Farther inland is the crossroads village of Ste.-Mere-Eglise — the first French town liberated by the American Army. Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne dropped into the town center during the night before the landings. The chute of one,

Pvt. John Steele, caught on the church steeple, and he watched as Germans killed many of the Americans as they landed. A museum there honors parachute soldiers.

Behind the American zones is sobering La Cambe, the largest of 19 military cemeteries in Normandy. Here, the graves of 21,000 Germans are testament to the fierce battle in 1944.

The British and Canadian landing areas are at the eastern end of the battle zone.

Remains of a Mulberry harbor are seen from above Arromanches.

Remains of a Mulberry harbor are seen from above Arromanches.

Near the village of Longues-sur-Mer is a German coastal battery. The big guns, damaged by Allied attacks and rusted by age, are the only weapons in Normandy that remain in their concrete casements. From the command bunker at the cliff’s edge, visitors can see beyond Arromanches on the right. Off the village beach are fragments of giant artificial harbors built in Britain and floated across the English Channel to provide ports for offloading supplies for the invading armies.

The most famous British landmark is Pegasus Bridge, near the town of Benouville. Here six gliders filled with British soldiers landed during the darkness of June 5-6 and within minutes seized several bridges. The action has been celebrated in film and books.

Today, Normandy is once again a place where people come to swim, surf, sun, sail and play. But landscapes and monuments remember the bravery and sacrifice 69 years ago that returned the region to peace.

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