Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial

Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial

Wave upon continuous wave of troops stormed the coast of France at the crack of dawn on June 6th, 1944, a day known in history as D-Day (or Jour J to the French).

They braved everything from heavy seas, machine gun fire, mines and grenades, to clamber ashore and fight their way inland. Their courage and heroic efforts enabled the Allied Forces to gain their first foothold in France. From that day forward, Nazi Germany was destined to crumble!

Recently, my husband and I made the pilgrimage to the D-Day Beaches in Normandy. It was one of those solemn, soul-twisting, experiences - the kind you don’t look forward to, but know is deserving of your time. We felt it important to honour the bravery and sacrifice of the thousands who gave their lives for the freedom we often take for granted. Plus, I’m a big believer in the philosophy of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The chronology of events that occurred on that pivotal day has been broadly depicted. I can’t compete, nor do I want to try. Instead, I thought I’d share some things I didn’t know about D-Day until our visit to Normandy. Perhaps you'll learn something new too!  

Ten fast (and fascinating) facts:

1. The Germans knew an invasion was imminent, but they didn’t know where or when.

2. The “D” in D-Day simply denoted the beginning of the battle, as in, this is “THE DAY”!

3. The submissions in a contest sponsored by BBC for “The Best Beach Holiday Photographs in France” were actually used as intelligence for potential landing sites.

4. There were five beaches, code-named (from west to east) Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. They totalled approximately 80 kilometres of French sand.

5. The Americans landed on Utah and Omaha, the British on Gold and Sword, leaving the Canadians to come ashore on Juno.

6. “Operation Overlord” (the codename) was so top secret, more than 180,000 soldiers didn’t know where they were headed when they boarded ships and planes in England on June 5th.

7. A full moon and low tide at dawn was critical to expose the German’s underwater defences, limiting the potential invasion dates to a precious few each month.

8. June 5 was initially chosen as D-Day, but it had to be postponed for 24 hours because of pelting rain and howling wind.

9. The fickle weather of the English Channel also resulted in only about 15% of paratroopers landing in the right place on the night of the invasion.

10.D-Day was the largest sea-born invasion in history.

The Good, The Sad and The Ugly:

The Good!  Oui, there actually are some good stories about D-Day...

Attacking a Nazi-occupied harbour had not gone well for the Allies in 1942 (remember, disastrous Dieppe!), so a decision was made to land on the beaches instead. But a reliable port was needed for the flow of vital resources to get to the troops.

By D-Day + 12, the British had towed concrete structures the size of football fields across the English Channel and sunk them offshore to create giant breakwaters. Once completed, they functioned as artificial harbours and facilitated the movement of a mind-boggling 2.5 million men, 4 million tons of equipment and 500,000 vehicles.

The portable Mulberries (as they were code-named) are considered to be one of the greatest military achievements of all time. I wasn’t surprised to learn they were the brainchild of Winston Churchill. In my books a man who says, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm” has a hell of a lot of wisdom.

Once the Normandy beaches had been chosen as the invasion site, Allied intelligence went above and beyond to deceive the Germans into believing the invasion would occur in an occupied port like Calais (350 km to the east). Double agents, leaked documents, fake radio transmissions, a phantom army across the Channel from Calais, they even parachuted dummies out of aircraft - all to fool the enemy. The hoax was so complete, the Nazi High Command thought D-Day was a ruse, not the main event.

I love French Resistance Fighters, at least in the movies! But after visiting the D-Day beaches, I have a whole new appreciation for what it meant to take up arms against an occupying power. They were heroes with limitless courage and the skills of a burglar, a forger and a thief. 

When the Allies informed them about D-Day through a series of secret coded messages hidden in broadcasts by BBC, they sprang into action! In the hours before and after the invasion, they disrupted German communications and undertook nearly 1,000 acts of sabotage. The damage they inflicted was critical to the outcome of the Normandy invasion. Vive la France!

The Sad!  Désolé, the sad stories far outnumber the good. Here’s a few that moved me...

The vertical cliffs of Point du Hoc (between Utah and Omaha Beaches) were strategically important and the Germans defended their position there with long-range, heavy artillery. It was perfectly placed to rain shells on Allied forces in all directions, so to succeed the Americans knew those guns had to be disabled.

Early D-Day morning, a battalion of handpicked US Army Rangers scaled the 100-foot rock walls using grappling hooks connected to ropes and ladders borrowed from the London Fire Department. Under heavy enemy fire from above and the threat of rising tides below, those who weren’t picked off by the Germans finally crawled to the top to find the guns were gone - hidden by the Nazis nearby. Undaunted, the Rangers continued until the artillery was found and destroyed - all the while holding off repeated attempts by the enemy to recapture the site. Sadly, reinforcements came too late and less than 40 of the original 225 Rangers survived. 

The landscape, deeply scarred by the fierce fighting, is much as the Rangers left it in June, 1944. Pitted with huge bomb craters and littered with bunkers and casements blackened by flame-throwers, it was the best place for me to imagine what happened that day. Clambering inside a battle scarred bunker and peering out from its narrow slit put me into the combat boots of those soldiers, quite the formidable experience.

Remember the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg’s epic war drama? We didn’t either, but after visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial we watched it again. It’s the cemetery featured in the movie and contains the graves of 9,387 American soldiers, including 33 pairs of brother buried side-by-side – two of whom are the (now famous) Niland brothers on which the film is based. Wandering among the seemingly endless sea of brilliant, white-marble crosses and Stars of David, the human cost of the invasion is inescapable. The setting is peaceful and poignant, but what got me right in the heart were the words on the many headstones of the unknown (i.e. unidentifiable) soldiers, ”Here rests in honoured glory, a COMRADE IN ARMS known but to God.

The most brutal fighting took place on “Bloody Omaha” where the hills above the beach were heavily fortified with German machine gun and mortar nests. Estimates of the exact number of American soldiers killed or wounded that day vary, but considering a single German machine gun could fire 1,200 rounds a minute, how anyone survived is a miracle to me.

The Ugly. . . that would be, the sobering statistics!

I was astonished to learn there are no official casualty figures for D-Day, only estimates. Several sources indicate the total killed, wounded and missing on both sides in the Battle of Normandy (June 6th to 26th) was about 425,000. That, of course does not include the French civilians, who also paid a heavy price. At least 15,000 men, women and children of Normandy lost their lives – ironically many were victims of the Allied bombs that decimated their villages and towns, but ultimately liberated them. So, there you have it – the price of war!

I admit, walking on Juno was a powerful experience...perhaps because that was where the Canadian troops landed. It would have been difficult for me to picture the carnage that occurred on those now-serene stretches of sand, except we had just watched a short video clip in the Juno Beach Centre. Filled with actual newsreel footage and dramatic re-creations, I left the Centre with a lump in my throat the size of a torpedo and felt like the ghost of every Canadian infantry soldier was walking with me down that beach. On a happier note, you’ll be pleased to know the hosts at the Visitor Centre were all young, bilingual, red-shirted Canadians - doing us proud with their eager-to-assist and polite oh-so-Canadian attitudes.

Merci, mes chers amis for journeying with me on our year away, eh! While I'm eternally grateful for all the laughter and transformative adventures our travels have brought so far, I am also humbled. The soldiers who waded ashore on that defining day in history set in motion a chain of events that shaped our modern world. This life I am allowed to lead is because of them and their courage, determination and ultimate sacrifice. Let me never forget that!