How to visit the D-Day Beaches
This is the Living History podcast, broadcasting live across the airwaves.
Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and I hope you enjoy the recent episodes we’ve had up on the website and available on the podcast. a couple of really interesting ones so if you haven’t listened to recent episodes, really go back and check them out because a few weeks ago, we did an interview with Tobruk and general World War II veteran Bert Le-Merton, which was fantastic. Really great old bloke, a hundred years old he is and it was wonderful hearing his stories about the Second World War.
But also we spoke last week to Meleah Hampton from the Australian War Memorial, and Mel is an expert on the machinations of the First World War, the technology, the weaponry and especially the evolution of the Australian Imperial Force as a fighting force on the Western Front, so go and check that one out. It’s a discussion of just how good the AIF was in the First World War, how should we remember the Australians, and the contribution they made to the war effort particularly in 1918.
This week, no interviews. it’s just me this time, because we are coming up very soon to the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, one of the most famous and significant days in modern history, and as part of that I’m gonna do a few special episodes but I’ve had a lot of people recently ask me how do they get to Normandy? Where should you go? How do you get there? How do you see the battle sites and what you should do while you’re there? so I’ve done a couple of these podcasts before where I talked about how to visit the Western Front and how to visit Gallipoli, so go back and listen to those if you haven’t heard them, but today we’re gonna focus on Normandy.
Now I should say that I’m gonna do this from a fairly general perspective because in terms of Australian and New Zealand involvement, there wasn’t a lot of action from Australians and New Zealanders on the ground. There were some Anzac forces on the ground serving particularly with British units so there were some Australians and New Zealanders who participated on the ground, but almost all of the Australian and New Zealand contribution came on the sea and in the air. The Navy and Air Force were very strongly represented by Australians and New Zealanders during the Normandy campaign, but that’s a little bit difficult to visit when you’re there. It’s hard to go out on the water. It’s hard to go in the sky so we’re gonna focus on the land campaigns, the most significant part of the D-Day operation and to do that, we have to take a fairly global approach because there are a number of nations involved, so we’re going to talk about all aspects of that. So let’s start with a bit of a brief history of the idea of D-Day, what is this all about?
The idea of D-Day was it was the Allied reinvasion of Europe that the Nazis in 1940 had rampaged through France and had taken most of Western Europe and had occupied it since 1940, and since about 1942, the Allies had planned that at some stage they were gonna land in France and take Western Europe back from the Nazis so it was the big re-arrival in Europe of the Western powers from the West. Obviously the Russians were already fighting against the Germans on the Eastern Front but the Allies were going to open a new front in the West and that was going to be spearheaded by the Americans, the British and the Canadians.
So D-Day took about two years of planning. It was and still remains the largest amphibious operation ever undertaken during wartime. Prior to that, there was Sicily which was the largest operation and prior to that, the Gallipoli landings were the largest amphibious landings in history, so D-Day was going to be something pretty special and no one was even quite sure if it would work and amphibious invasions had worked to varying levels of success in previous campaigns, so no one even had much of an idea of D-Day was even going to be possible and was going to be successful so it was difficult times all around.
So the site chosen for the D-Day landings was the Normandy area, and the Allies picked five key beaches that they were going to land on. so they were going to land on a couple of beaches to the west, the Americans would land on Utah and Omaha Beach, then there were two British beaches, and a Canadian beach so Gold and Sword beaches for the British, and the Canadians were going to land on Juno. Now we should remember that in spite of Hollywood and in spite of the huge amount of material that the Americans have put out about D-Day, very rightly proudly celebrating their involvement in it, we should also remember the very significant role of the Canadians and the British. In fact forty percent of the troops who landed on D-Day were American and the other sixty percent were British and Canadians so it was very much a shared operation, the D-Day landings, and while we’re talking about D-Day, I get asked all the time what does D-Day even mean? What does it stand for? Is it an abbreviation?
The term D-Day was used throughout the Second World War and indeed is a term that gets used fairly frequently in war, particularly at this time. The concept was that because it was going to take two years to plan this invasion, they wouldn’t know until very late in the process what the date of the landing would actually be, and by using the term D-Day, it provides them with the opportunity to plan for the invasion without having to fix a specific date on it. So for example, if they knew that two days after the landings occurred, they would need to resupply ammunition to the troops, then they could begin planning that by saying on D-Day plus two, we will land ammunition. if they knew that four weeks before the landing they need to have all the landing craft ready to go, they could say on D-Day minus thirty, we need all the all the landing craft ready to go, so that they could plan an entire operation without knowing what day it would actually occur on and then when they did decide what day it would occur on, they could simply slot everything else based on that. So the plans always said that the invasion would take place at h-hour on D-Day and that hour and that day will be determined at a later date.
So it was originally set for the 5th of June 1944, but bad weather forced a delay because one of the key components of this plan was airborne troops. Parachute troops and glider troops were going to land behind the German lines and secure bridges and important road junctions, and take out gun batteries and really pave the way for the assault troops that would land on the beaches later in the morning. So in the wee hours of the 6th of June 1944, after that delay of 24 hours, British, Polish, Canadian, and American airborne troops took off in the dead of the night and landed at several points behind the German lines, and started causing mayhem to the Germans and then in the morning once the sun was up, the troops hit those beaches.
The landings were mixed in their results. In the American sector, the landing at Utah Beach went very smoothly. The casualties were quite low but at Omaha Beach, all hell broke loose. The Germans had defended very strongly that beach and the Americans had a terrible time coming ashore. This was of course the scene made famous at the start of Saving Private Ryan, the Americans landing on Omaha Beach, so Omaha was quite a slaughter for the Americans and a lot of the casualties that occurred on D-Day occurred on Omaha Beach.
The British and the Canadians also had mixed fortunes as they came ashore at Gold, Sword and Juno. At some sectors it was quite easy to come ashore; in others they had to fight pretty hard but the toughest fighting of the day occurred when the Americans hit that beach at Omaha. They secured a beachhead, the Americans secured their beachhead, the Canadians and the British secured their beachhead, and then they pushed forward from there. So that was D-Day, the actual landing on the beaches 6th of June 1944, and that’s what we’re gonna remember coming up very soon, the 75th anniversary of that D-Day operation.
And D-Day of course is the part of the Normandy operation that gets all the attention because that was the first day, the dramatic amphibious landing, but always bear in mind that the Normandy campaign went for several months. It went for about three months, this campaign, before Paris was finally taken and so the Normandy campaign was a long and bitter slog on both sides. It was some very tough fighting which took place in the tangled hedgerow country of Normandy, and so remember that when you’re reading about it, when you’re studying the Normandy campaign, when you’re visiting and walking the ground. It’s so much more than D-Day but of course D-Day gets most of the attention and indeed that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
We may in a future podcast talk about how to visit the rest of the Normandy battlefield, but to be honest the vast majority of people who go to visit Normandy only go on the beaches. That’s a bit of a shame; you should see more of it. When you get off the beaches and into the inland areas, some absolutely incredible sights to see. I should also say at this point that a little while ago, a couple of months ago I did an interview with Gary Sheffield about new perspectives on the Normandy campaigns so if you want to get a good overview, a historical overview of what was going on, the contribution of various nations, etc., go back and listen to that podcast Normandy: New perspectives with Gary Sheffield.
So I hope that’s made it a bit clearer for you what was actually going on. The Allied invasion of Europe to take France back from the Nazis which took place in the 6th of June, 1944 and it’s probably one of the most famous operations to have ever occurred in warfare. It’s just known by everyone and a lot of people visit Normandy. A lot of Americans go there. A lot of British people and Canadians go there, but a lot of Australians go there too and New Zealanders when they’re in France, and the reason is it’s just so famous. It’s just such an iconic battlefield and to me it’s a bit like Gallipoli but you just know so much about it. You feel you know the story and you want to relate that story to the reality of what’s on the ground. That’s what Normandy is like.
It’s quite an extraordinary place and I thoroughly recommend if you’re going to France, make sure you go to Normandy. Also go to the Western Front battlefields. Also go to the First World War battlefields up in the Somme in the Api-Saliente areas, but make sure you go to Normandy as well. It’s something really, really special and the best thing about Normandy is it’s a beautiful part of the world. It’s a gorgeous area of France, very culturally interesting, beautiful landscape and it’s very close to Paris so it’s quite convenient to get there. It’s due west of Paris and you can get there you can drive yourself in maybe two and a half hours or you can catch a train in sort of three or four hours to get out to Normandy. It’s certainly not very far away so if you’re in Paris, tack on a couple of days to your itinerary and head out to Normandy. It’s easy to visit and it’s certainly worthwhile doing that.
So where to stay is the next question. Where are you going to go, and what are you going to see? The two main towns in the Normandy area are the town of Caen, which is C-a-e-n, it’s pronounced and further to the west the town of Bayeux, which is B-a-y-e-u-x, so grab your trusty map and have a look to see exactly what I’m talking about, but the towns of Caen and Bayeux are the two central towns in the area, and indeed they were the two main objectives. Caen in particular was the main objective for the landings. Bayeux is a bit further to the west. It tends to be the focus of the American sector and then Caen is a little bit further east, a little bit closer to Paris and that’s the focus generally of the British and Canadian sectors. So there is quite a difference between them.
Caen is a much bigger town than Bayeux and crucially importantly, Caen was completely destroyed during the war. The Germans defended incredibly strongly, and the British and the Canadians had a really tough time taking the town of Caen, and in the end they had to call in bombers to basically obliterate the town so Caen was completely destroyed during the Normandy fighting, and it was rebuilt using a lot of the concrete that the Germans had on hand to build their defenses in the Normandy area, part of Hitler’s famous Atlantic war, all the defenses that lined the coast.
Well, there was a lot of concrete left over from those constructions and Caen was built with a lot of concrete left over from the war and so in the 1950s, a new town sprung up because of that it’s in a good location but it’s not a particularly attractive town. It’s big with lots of boxy buildings so it’s not a particularly attractive place to stay but it’s very, very convenient for visiting the battlefields, particularly the ones in the British and the Canadians sector.
Further to the west is the town of Bayeux, a beautiful little town and the reason it was not destroyed is the Germans did not defend it. When they realized that they were losing ground on the beaches and the beach heads had been formed by the Allies, they evacuated from Bayeux and so what that means is the town was not fought over and therefore not destroyed. it’s one of the sad facts of visiting Europe if you find a town intact, it generally means that during World War I or World War II, there was not fighting in that area because the towns where there were are generally completely destroyed and had to be rebuilt after the war so the town of Bayeux is a beautiful little town. It’s a beautiful typical Norman town with beautiful sort of rust colored stone buildings and a little river running through the middle and a beautiful church in the main square. So Bayeux is one probably my favorite place to stay when I go to Normandy. It’s just a lovely town. There’s lots of great little hotels there. It’s a very Norman experience. It’s quite a quite a traditional little village. There’s lots of good restaurants. It’s convenient for the battlefields and it’s a much more picturesque place to stay so Caen is more convenient. You can get off the train sooner and it has more accommodation but Bayeux is just a nicer place to stay in general. It depends what your focus is as well. If you’re focusing on the American operations, you might wanna stay in Bayeux to be further to the west. if your focus is on the British and Canadian sector, you may want to stay in Caen but either of those will serve you very well and there are a lot of accommodation options in that area.
How are you gonna get around when you’re there? As I said it’s easy to jump on the train from Paris and head straight out. There’s direct trains that head straight out to Normandy. The problem with that is once you get there how are you going to get around? Well luckily, there is a booming tourism industry in Normandy to show you the D-Day beaches. Sometimes the guides will take you further inland to show you other parts of the Normandy battlefield, but the majority of them are there and they’re going to show you the beaches where the landings occurred on D-Day so you can either pre-book a tour if that’s what you want to do. Catch the train out and then pre book a tour. Most tours are only day tours but you can mix up a couple of day tours to see a couple of different areas. You can either pre book them online. There’s lots of companies online, hundreds of companies online that offer tours to Normandy.
At this point let me say I would not recommend getting a tour from Paris that goes to Normandy. so getting on a coach in Paris and driving out seeing the battlefields and coming back because it’ll take you probably four hours to get to the D-Day beaches from Paris, so that means there and back eight hours of your day is going to be spent on the coach just traveling there and back, so you’re going to be obviously quite limited what you actually will see on the ground. I would not recommend catching a coach from Paris. If you have no other option, if you only have one day and you’re in Paris, you can certainly do that but it’s an incredibly long day probably 14 or 16 hours you’ll spend on that coach, and you’re just not going to see as much as you would if you headed out there. So my request to you would be like I say with all battlefields, please give it enough time. Show it the respect by allocating an extra day or two in your itinerary to go and see it.
So you can catch the train out. You can either pre-book a tour with a local company and they operate tours every day of the year. You just step onto a coach and to other sites. They’re relatively cheap; it’s probably 70 or 80 Euros it costs to step onto a coach. The only thing I would say and I say this with a great deal of respect to the people in this industry is the quality of the guides can vary, depending on the company. There is a lot of money to be made out of battlefield touring in the Normandy region, particularly from American tourists who will come in and just want to spend a day and are happy to pay a lot of money to do it.
Therefore it has led to quite a disparity between the quality of some of the guides. All the guides are registered with the appropriate licenses and the authorities from French tourism, but it does mean that the quality does vary. Sometimes you get a great guide and sometimes you get a guide who isn’t quite as good, so it’s the cheapest option but it can be a lottery in terms of the quality of the guide that you travel with, but if you’re very short on time, you don’t have much money to spend, you just want to head out there and check it out and just have a look at the sights, then you really can’t go wrong with picking up a local guide, hopping on a local tour in either Caen or Bayeux, even if you don’t pre-book. You can just walk down to the main square in Bayeux for example and jump on a coach. It’s very easy to do, so you can certainly do that but like always when it comes to visiting these sites, I’d recommend that you drive yourself. I mean I’d recommend you can join a Matt McLaughlin battlefield – or if you want to I should say that at the top as well, we offer tours to these areas and you can spend several days visiting the battlefields with our excellent guides, which is obviously a more expensive option but I put my hand on my heart and say that we show you everything you would want to see on the battlefields.
But for those people who don’t want to spend the money of going on a big organized tour, then you can certainly self-drive the battlefields. It’s not difficult to pick up a car. I would recommend you pick up a car somewhere in the west of Paris so you don’t have to drive across Paris. Perhaps one of the train stations towards the west and then just head out. A beautiful drive through the countryside. It’s not very difficult driving. There’s not a lot of traffic especially if you avoid the center of Caen, it’s not very difficult driving and then you can tour the battlefields to your heart’s content.
There’s a lot of good guidebooks out there that show you what to see in the Normandy area. You can pick up guidebooks in the Normandy area itself. There’s quite a tourist industry there so a lot of what you need is going to be available when you get to Normandy, but of course like all things it pays to pre-book if you possibly can. So I’d recommend self-driving as a great option if you’re really keen to see and to explore the battlefield in detail. When you self-drive what you get is time. It just gives you the time to explore in in ways that you can’t otherwise if you’re on a group tour. Obviously you miss out on that experience of traveling with a guide, but you just get so much more time to explore and to absorb the history.
Another thing you could do in Normandy is you could, if you wanted to spend the money, actually hire a private guide to come with you, and then you’d have the best of both worlds, that you could drive in your own vehicle and travel with the private guide and spend as much time as you wanted to exploring those sites with someone who knows that history inside and out. So those are my tips from for how to get there and where to stay. If it was me, I would self-drive and I would stay in Bayeux and perhaps pick up a guide for the first day to show me a few sights, and then spend another couple of days exploring on my own, and I would definitely go inland as well. I’d see the D-Day beaches then I’d head inland and discover more about the Battle of Normandy, so that is certainly what I would do but all the options are good when you’re traveling to Normandy there’s no real bad way to do it.
So what are you gonna see in Normandy? Well, the history that I described can be visited in quite precise detail, and so a very popular part of the experience is visiting the airborne areas where the airborne troops landed. Particularly fans of Band of Brothers, you can actually go on a Band of Brothers trail and visit key sites from where the Band of Brothers fought, but don’t overlook the rest of the airborne force, and also bear in mind that the majority of the Air Force troops that came in did not parachute into Normandy but came in on gliders, so quite a unique part of the story. so learning about the glider crews and the troops, the airborne troops that landed on gliders is quite fascinating, and so there’s lots of sites you can visit associated with the airborne operations in the village of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, which was the first village liberated on D-Day. It was where the Americans landed. There’s a fantastic airborne museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, which I’d certainly recommend that you check out and explore the airborne operations in that area.
I should say going back a little bit that you should split your Normandy visit in two key areas. There’s the American sector to the west and then there’s the British sector to the east, and so each of these aspects I’m talking about can be visited in both the American and the British sectors. So the Americans sent airborne troops in to the western part. You can explore where they landed in the American sector, but you can also explore the British airborne operations which took place further to the east so in the American sector, you can explore the airborne areas and visit the key museum is the museum at Sainte-Mere-Eglise. you visit the landing beaches of course as a wonderful new Museum at Utah Beach, the secondary… not the secondary, but the second beach that the Americans landed at, which gets a little bit overlooked. It’s in the shadow of Omaha a little bit.
The key focus of a visit to the American sector though of course is Omaha Beach, the most famous, the most deadly part of the entire D-Day landing, and if you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan and those horrific scenes at the start of that movie, you will know what it’s important to go and walk the ground at Omaha. Like all things the Americans do this very, very well. the Americans do remember it’s probably better than anyone else and at Omaha Beach is the main American cemetery, the Normandy cemetery which has I think it’s about from memory about 4,000 burials in that cemetery. Don’t quote me on that. That’s off the top of my head but again a typical American, gorgeous, very neatly maintained cemetery, and unlike a lot of the American cemeteries around the world, this one actually gets a lot of visitors.
Americans in Europe in particular don’t spend a lot of time visiting their cemeteries, particularly on places like the First World War battlefields. You don’t get a lot of visitors actually going to these beautifully maintained cemeteries, but it’s not the same in Normandy. This is probably one of the busiest cemeteries in the world, probably the most one of the most visited military cemeteries in the world, and again it’s from Saving Private Ryan. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan with the old man kneeling and next to the Cross of the mates that he’d lost during the Normandy campaign. That’s the cemetery that you can visit on the cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach, so you can spend quite a bit of time there. The cemetery is huge and worth wandering around. Like all these big military cemeteries, it’s really worth getting lost in and just wandering around and reading random headstones and trying to paint a picture of who lies there, and then you can spend quite a bit of time actually down on the beach itself, down on Omaha Beach. There’s a lot of German fortifications that still remain there, big gun positions, there’s the remains of trenches and tank traps, so you can explore those and then of course head down onto the and walk along that sand where so many people were killed on the 6th of June, 1944.
There’s a strange phenomenon I saw when I was there. There’s rocks on the beach. The beach is sand but there’s also quite a lot of rocks there, and for some reason and I’m not quite sure why, I’m sure geologists would be able to explain it, but that the rocks seep this rust-red liquid into the water at certain times of the year, and they say that even the rocks are bleeding. The blood of Omaha Beach still stains the rocks. It’s a really moving place. It’s a very sad place. If you go there in summer, there’ll be families down there having quality beach time and kids playing in the water, which is always a little bit confronting when you think about how many people died there, but as always, I think it’s great that the French have moved on and this is why we were fighting this war in the first place, to liberate the French people. So Omaha Beach is a pretty special place and certainly worth spending quite a bit of time in that area.
Utah Beach is also a great place to visit with its wonderful museum as well, a really good spot to visit so take that in in the American sector as well and there’s dozens and dozens and dozens, probably hundreds of other sites you can visit in this sector. Other important ones are things like Brecourt Manor, which was where Band of Brothers Easy Company of the airborne troops captured a whole heap of guns as it was depicted in Band of Brothers. They captured guns that were firing on Utah Beach, and so that famous action for which they were all received gallantry awards took place at Brecourt Manor, so you can go and explore that area.
Pointe du Hoc is a point which was captured by the Rangers, who scaled sheer cliffs to capture these big guns that were in the American sector. When they got there, the guns had been moved but there was still a pretty tough fight to capture the area around Pointe du Hoc, and today that’s been preserved wonderfully and what you can see there is a complete German pillbox system. Big pill boxes and bunkers with trenches between them, and you can explore these huge concrete fortifications that were captured by the Americans but the other overwhelming factor of visiting that site is just the hundreds and hundreds of bomb craters from aircraft that bombed the hell out of the German positions before the battle began. So it’s quite a fascinating spot to walk around, seeing these damaged German pill boxes and a sea of shell craters just overlapping each other all over the area. Check out an aerial photo of Pointe du Hoc and you will see what I’m talking about. It’s quite extraordinary, the damage that was done so that’s an overview.
There’s gun batteries, there’s other great museums. Every little town has got a story to tell. when you go to Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the town I mentioned before, hanging off the steeple of the local church is a dummy connected to a parachute hanging off the spire of the church and that replicates the unfortunate airborne soldier whose parachute caught on the steeple and he hung above the town for many hours while the fighting was raging below him, and then he was eventually cut down by his mates once the town had been secured, so it’s interesting.
There’s always connections with the history. Also in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, some of the town’s… sorry some of the houses and the main street of the town have bullet holes in the front fence and battle damage to the buildings, so quite a fascinating spot. So that’s really the American sector. That’s an overview of the American sector and then if we head to the British sector again probably, you want to stay in Caen if you are looking just at the British and Canadian sector, although you can certainly stay in Bayeux as well and travel out there.
The three beaches there – Sword, Juno and Gold beaches in the British and Canadian sector – again tough fighting at lots of those beaches, and a very important airborne operation and the key focus for the British with the airborne operation was the capture of a bridge called Pegasus Bridge which the British airborne troops carried out very effectively, and you can visit a museum and the original bridge and see the bridge that was held by the British airborne in the opening hours of D-Day. Other interesting places to visit in the British sector, Arromanches is a small town where there was what they called the mulberry harbour. That was the codename for an artificial harbour that they built. It was always an issue trying to unload ships in the Normandy area. It was very exposed. The waters across the channel come in very strongly there, surge in and so they were constantly struggling with unloading ships and so they brought over from the UK, they towed over floating pontoons which they then basically sunk to form an artificial harbour which they called the mulberry harbour and it’s still there. You can see pieces of it, you can see these large looming chunks of the old harbour that are out in the water, so it’s worth going to Arromanches. There’s also a very good military museum there.
If you enjoy military museums, you’ll get your absolute fill in Normandy. there are dozens of interesting museums, some of them big and well-funded and very expensive and quite an audio-visual experience, and lots of them just small little privately run museums, all of them are very well worth visiting, particularly once you’ve spent a lot of time walking the battlefields, and you want to just relax a little bit more and see another perspective on the battle, so the British sector is great. Again, grab a guidebook, jump on the web and just have a look at the hundreds of sites you can visit that relate to the British and Canadian operations, as well as the American operations.
There are also a number of excellent Commonwealth military cemeteries in Normandy in several towns including Bayeux and Caen. There are Commonwealth military cemeteries and also a German cemetery, a very large German cemetery which contains most of the remains that’s in Roenville, and contains most of the men killed during the fighting around D-Day in the early days of the Normandy campaign. So as I said before there’s more to Normandy than just D-Day but I think the focus of most people, particularly if you’re short on time will be those D-Day beaches.
If you have extra time, visit the D-Day beaches. do one day in the American sector, do one day in the British and Canadian sector, and then spend perhaps another day exploring a little bit further inland to hear some of those wonderful stories and to learn a bit more about that history of what happened as the Allies pushed inland against the Germans, and the Germans sent in reinforcements and counter-attacked very, very strongly.
That’s basically my overview of the Normandy campaign and how to visit the D-Day beaches. I strongly recommend it; one of the most interesting battlefields you will visit. Not a secret battle, it’s not a place that you will go and find yourself alone. You’re going to find lots of other tourists there visiting the battlefields but it’s because it’s just so significant. It’s so important in world history particularly modern history and so if you are going to France, do two things. Go up to the north to the Somme and to the Api-Saliente and visit the Aussie and New Zealand battlefields up there, and take a day or two from Paris and go and visit the Normandy beaches. You’ll be very happy you did.
Thank you very much as always. Visit our website battlefields.com.au to learn more about all of our tours, including our excellent tours to Normandy. We have a full range of tours that will take you out to Normandy, but I hope this has encouraged you to make that trip yourself and to visit the battlefields. I hope to see you over there and until next time, thank you very much for listening.