1. The Landing Beaches
The DD landings in Normandy were based around the 5 beaches of Gold, Sword, Juno, Utah and Omaha. The sectors were then further subdivided within the beach areas. The USA were responsible for Utah and Omaha with the UK looking after Gold and Sword and Canada with responsibility for Juno.
Today when you visit any of the beaches the first thought is the serenity and total peacefulness of the sites. As you stroll along the sand it is difficult to imagine the sheer noise, terror, death and destruction that took place on June 6th at H Hour and on subsequent days to secure the beachheads. One of the strongest and most iconic images in the British sector is the remains of the Mulberry harbour based at Arromanches-les-Bains on Gold Beach.
The Mulberry has strong links with the South West of Scotland as the trials took place throughout 1943 around the small Galloway fishing village of Garlieston. When the tide is out the block ships and the concrete beetles give a great indication of the scale of this massive strategic project. The bloodiest of the beaches was at Omaha and as you stand at Les Braves monument and look back up to the bluffs above the coast you can just imagine the young men trying to scale these to take out the gun and artillery emplacements.
However, this danger is magnified even further when you visit Pointe du Hoc and hear about the bravery of the commandos who scaled the cliffs at this steep point. All the beaches have their own stories and you need to visit them to experience their similarities and nuances.
There are lots of outstanding museums with a focus on WW2 all across Normandy however 3 really stand out for us at Solway Battlefields Tours. These 3 are must visit museums when you visit this area. Firstly, the Utah Beach Museum which in 1962, the mayor of Saint Marie du Mont, Michel de Vallavieille, decides to create as a living expression of the town’s appreciation and gratitude for the Allies’ sacrifices. The Museum was initially housed in one of the German command bunkers of strongpoint WN5.The Museum’s unique collection of artefacts is largely the result of his efforts. Highlights and must-see exhibits include an original B-26 Marauder in a custom-built aviation hangar and an original “Higgins Boat” LCVP landing craft. The feeling of being immersed in the sand dunes that the American troops were attacking as you wander the fantastic collection of exhibits is really spine tingling.
The second museum that we would tell everyone to visit is the Caen Memorial Museum. This museum is huge, and you need to set a whole day aside to give it justice. When we last visited in 2019 the museum had 5 main areas not including the outside space or the cinema. The sections were superbly laid out and totally intercave and led you from the causes of WW2, through the battle of Normandy, the World at War in WW2, D Day and the end of the war/Cold War. The incredible thing about this space is the use of the shapes of the building to walk you through the conflict in a chronological way. A museum you need to visit more than once to really appreciate it.
Thirdly the Airborne Museum in Saint Mere Eglise is a fantastic place for all those considering the conflict from the air including the role of gliders and all those who parachuted in. When you visit this fantastic museum, you will notice the parachute dangling from the church opposite. It was on this church that John Steele was caught on during the early hours on D Day. This incident was later made famous in the film The Longest Day. You will be offered a Tablet to carry with you as you explore the Waco Building, the C47 Room, Neptune Operation and the Conference area. Highlights include the fantastic feeling of being actually inside an aircraft as it readies itself to deploy marines over the Normandy countryside.
3. The Cemeteries
There are considered to be 27 Cemeteries in Normandy specifically for soldiers who died during WW2. 6 German, 1 French, 2 Canadian, 2 American and 16 British. The cemetery size ranges from one with just 30 burials to one with over 20,000 Burials. Saving Private Ryan made the Normandy American Cemetery at Coleville -sur- Mer more famous than it ever was despite it containing the grave of Theodore Roosevelt son of Former President Teddy. The cemetery overlooks the Easy Red beach sector of Bloody Omaha Beach and is an incredibly emotive site to visit.
La Cambe is a German Cemetery with 21,222 burials with only 207 being unknown. The huge central mound of the cemetery marks a large mass grave and the basalt cross on top gives a panoramic view of this vast site. The Jerusalem Cemetery is a British Cemetery with only 47 burials, and it is visited by many to pay respects to one of the youngest servicemen who died in the conflict. Private Jack Banks was only 16 when he was killed on July 21st, 1944. Any cemetery visit demands respect and solace as a mark of respect for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
4. The Monuments
One of the most emotive monuments on the beaches for a Scot is the wonderful statue of Piper Bill Millin which greets you as you enter Sword beach at Colleville- Montgomery. Millin who was actually Canadian with Scottish heritage, was ordered by his Commander Lord Lovat to play the pipes as soldiers landed on the shore. The Government had banned bagpipes from the landings but Lovatt wanted to boost the morale of his young troops so ordered Millin to play them. Bill Millin played “Heilan Laddie” amongst many others waist deep in water as troops landed either side of him. It is said the Germans refused to shoot this unarmed hero and nicknamed him the “Mad Piper”. This is only 1 of hundreds of monuments throughout the Normandy landing beaches and battlefields – all of which deserve a visit.
A great base for visiting the D Day Battlefields is the historic town of Bayeux in the Calvados department of Normandy. The beautiful River Aure bisects the town which has lots of great hotels and guest houses to meet all budgets.
The central location of the town means that you are no more than a 40 minute drive from all of the 5 beaches, museums, monuments and cemeteries and you are actually only a 10 minute drive from the British Sector at Gold Beach. The town was the first French town to be liberated during the wider Battle for Normandy.
It has a wonderful Romanesque Cathedral that was consecrated in the late 11th Century and is a must visit when you wander the cobbled streets of this stunning town. The most famous historic artefact in the town is the Bayeux Tapestry which was originally housed in the Cathedral but now has its own museum space. The town really is a gem and is a stunning base to use to visit the Normandy landing beaches.