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Visiting the Main D-Day sites in Normandy
the coast of Normandy is a pilgrimage site for people interested in WW2 sites or history in general. It is incredible to think that the chapter that shaped Western Europe as we know it today happened in Normandy, France. We are talking about the Landing on the beaches of Normandy and the battles that followed, one of the most momentous chapters in modern history that led to the liberation of Western Europe from the Germans.
People visiting the French region of Normandy can still see some of the historical sites related to the D-day in Normandy on a day or multi-day trip. This is a trip sometimes emotionally exhausting but it is important to keep this chapter of our history alive in our memories so it will be never repeated.
D-Day Landing Beaches – Historical Background
The Normandy Landing operations was the largest seaborne invasion in history. The invasion took place on the beaches of Normandy on Tuesday 6 June 1944 by the Allies. The operation, known as D-Day, was the beginning of the liberation of German-occupied France (and later Europe) from Nazi control and laid the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front.
The planning of the Normandy invasion began in 1943 by the US, Canadian and British governments. The main constraints for the success of this operation were the weather, the tides and also the logistics (shipping of soldiers, machines, and guns from the US and Canada to the UK). The French resistance had also an important role.
On the other side, the Germans were expecting an invasion from the sea and of course, they were ready. Adolf Hitler placed German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in command of German forces and of developing fortifications along the Atlantic Wall in anticipation of an Allied invasion.
The first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive. . . . [T]he fate of Germany depends on the outcome. For the Allies as well as Germany, it will be the longest day —Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, 22 April 1944
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely. But this is the year 1944! The tide has turned! The freemen of the world are marching together to victory! I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle.
We will accept nothing less than full victory! Good luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking. —Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, 6 June 1944
We have a sufficiency of troops; we have all the necessary tackle; we have an excellent plan. This is a perfectly normal operation which is certain of success. If anyone has any doubts in his mind, let him stay behind. —Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, commanding Twenty-first Army Group.
The supreme battle is underway. It is, of course, the Battle of France and the Battle for France. For the sons of France, wherever they are, and whoever they are, the simple and sacred duty is to fight the enemy by all means at their disposal. —Gen. Charles de Gaulle, 6 June 1944
After many losses from both sides, the 5 beaches were all taken and connected on June 12. Casualties were very high, and towns and cities were heavily destroyed. This was the price to pay in Normandy for our freedom.
Museums, memorials, and war cemeteries in Normandy France propose visitors a glimpse of this terrible chapter in our history. There’s a big job of documentation and memory behind so we don’t forget.
How to visit the Normandy D-Day Sites
This is one of the most popular day tours from Paris but if you choose this option you can only see a few of the sites listed below. The Paris to Normandy Beaches day tour is a long and tiring trip (it’s a 3.5-hour drive by bus to the first sights in Normandy) and some people may find it too rushed (too much to see – so little time) but it is well worth it if you have limited time.
To get the most out of the Normandy D-Day sites we recommend visiting the area on a 2-3 day Normandy road trip. If you don’t have your own car, we suggest renting a car in Caen and start your road trip from there. You can take a direct train from Paris to Caen in Normandy (2 hours 15 minutes ride).
Normandy Road Trip – Itinerary and Map
The best Normandy Road Trip itinerary includes the D-Day Landing Beaches, towns, and some war cemeteries and memorials. Click on the Normandy D-Day Sites map to see all the stops proposed for this Normandy Road Trip.
» Caen – Juno Beach – Arromanches-les-Bains – Omaha Beach – La Pointe du Hoc – First American War Cemetery – Normandy American War Cemetery and Memorial – Bayeux – German War Cemetery – Sainte Mère Église
DAY 1 | The City of Caen
Caen is the third-largest city in the region of Normandy, only after Le Havre and Rouen. Its strategic position, at only 2 hours from Paris and connected to England by the ferry line Caen – Portsmouth, makes of Caen a great place to start your D-Day sites tour. If you decide to spend more than one day visiting the D-Day Landing sites – which we recommend – Caen can be a good base camp for your Normandy road trip.
The city of William the Conqueror and Matilde is also known as the city of a hundred bell-towers due to its numerous churches. However, Caen was badly damaged during the Battle of Caen in WW2 and many of these churches were destroyed.
At dawn on June 6th, the bombing of towns in Normandy began. The entire center of Caen was destroyed. The Allies’ objective was to destroy the towns so as to obliterate all communications and to slow German reinforcements. On the morning of June 7, about ten of Lower Normandy’s towns including Caen, Lisieux, Coutances, Saint-Lo, and Vire had been wiped from the map.
Today Caen is a lively and animated city. There are many cool things to see and do in Caen, especially if you are interested in history and architecture. Apart from the Caen Memorial Museum (more on this below), the list of must-sees in Caen includes:
- Caen’s Citadel, built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century
- Abbey of Saint-Étienne, in Norman style, founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. It hosts King William’s tomb
- Beautiful traditional architecture, timbered houses built in the 15th century
Caen Memorial Museum
Caen’s Memorial Museum is one of the musts of any Normandy D-Day Sites trip. If you decide to visit the D-Day Sites on a day tour from Paris, this is usually the first stop of the tour.
This Memorial and “Museum for Peace” displays a huge collection of objects and documents related to the Second World War, mainly in France and Europe. The museum was built above General Richter’s command bunker, today restored, so visitors can also see the daily life of German soldiers under the occupation.
Amongst the different exhibition rooms, there’s one dedicated to the D-Day and another one dedicated to the invasion of Caen. There’s also a short documentary about the D-Day landings shown every 30 minutes which is interesting and at the same time heartbreaking.
Don’t miss the three memorial gardens dedicated to the three main allied nations involved in liberating France. They are located at the back of the museum, in front of the entrance to the German bunker.
DAY 2 | Juno Beach
From Caen, drive along the D79 to Courcelles-sur-Mer to explore today’s tranquil sand dunes of Juno Beach. Juno Beach was the codename of one of the main Landing Beaches in Normandy that was stormed by the Canadian troops.
Juno Beach was one of the best-fortified sites after Omaha Beach. The delay of the tanks and the bombardments which had left most of the German positions intact led to high losses in the first waves of assault. By midday, the division had completely disembarked and early in the evening controlled Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer. The following evening, the Canadian forces (21.500 survivors) joined forces with the British troops who had captured Sword Beach.
Every day, from April 1 to October 31, the on-site Juno Beach Center proposes 45-minute guided visits by Canadian guides through this historic site. During the tour, visitors can see firsthand the evolution of the Atlantic Wall defenses throughout the early 1940s and of course the Juno Beach to show how it was that these defenses were overcome by the Canadian soldiers who landed on June 6, 1944. This guided tour is also the only way to visit the German Command Post and the Observation bunker.
Arromanches-les-Bains and Mulberry Harbours
Head west along the D514 to Arromanches-les-Bains to visit the Gold Beach, which was attacked by the British on D-Day, and the Musée du Débarquement.
The Musée du Débarquement details how the artificial Mulberry Harbors (temporary ports for the offloading of cargo crucial to the invasion) were engineered. Dioramas, models and two films explain the logistics and importance of the artificial harbor of Port Winston in Gold Beach.
Today the vestiges of Port Winston are still visible above the waterline only at very low tide.
Omaha Beach is one of the beaches stormed by the American troops and the one where the soldiers suffered the worst on D-Day.
The bombardments before the Landings proved ineffective in wiping out the many German positions dotted along the slopes above the beaches beyond Colleville-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer. Some 1.800 GIs died in the waves or on the sand mown down by German bullets and shells – hence its nickname Bloody Omaha.
Almost 2.300 more soldiers had been more or less seriously wounded and were evacuated by an unceasing shuttle of landing craft between the beach and the ships offshore, where they were given initial treatment before being transferred to hospitals in Brittain.
Despite heavy losses, small groups of Americans made it up the slopes and took German positions from behind, so some gains were made, if at heavy human cost.
Omaha Beach is a long beach, with many memorials along the shore. The memorial Les Braves is located in the center of Omaha Beach while the Wounded Soldier memorial, on the picture above, is located at Sector Charlie.
Pointe du Hoc
La Pointe du Hoc is the highest point between Omaha Beach to the east and Utah Beach to the west. La Pointe du Hoc was one of the key German fortified sites along the Normandy coast and was equipped, at that time, with extensive heavy artillery, that’s why Pointe du Hoc was considered the most dangerous mission of the D-Day Landings.
La Pointe du Hoc was the scene of a daring assault in the early hours of 6 June 1944. That day 225 US Army Rangers scaled the perilously steep 30m-high cliffs with the help of cords, ladders, and grappling irons to capture the site. Once they reached the top, the soldiers discovered the guns had been moved inland, so set off to successfully find and disable them, while enduring enemy counterattacks.
By the time the force was relieved on 8 June, only around 90 men had survived. La Pointe du Hoc is a very beautiful place. The hills and valleys that you can see in the picture above are holes and craters made by the explosion of the bombs. Amongst this special landscape, visitors still can see the ruins of some German bunkers.
Memorial First American War Cemetery in France
On the way back to Colleville-sur-Mer to visit the Normandy American Cemetery, do a short stop at Vierville-sur-Mer to see the Memorial of the first American War Cemetery in France.
The bodies of the American soldiers that had not disappeared in the waves during the storm of Omaha Beach, were given summary burial on the upper part of the beach before being transferred on to this spot a few days later.
The text on the stone memorial reads: “This marks the site of first American Cemetery in France World War II since moved to American Cemetery N:1
1st Infantry Division, 29th Infantry Division, 5th Engineer Special Brigade, 6th Engineer Special Brigade”
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
The World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is definitely the most impressive site of this D-Day Landing tour. It is situated on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel in Colleville-sur Mer, France. Here, we are in American soil because the French government gave this land to the United States of America forever.
The cemetery contains the graves of 9,387 American military Dead, most of whom gave their lives during the landings and ensuing operations of World War 2 and it is the most visited cemetery run by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC).
On the walls of the semicircular garden on the east side of the memorial are inscribed the names of 1,557 American Missing who gave their lives in the service of their country, but whose remains were not located or identified.
The memorial consists of a semicircular colonnade with a loggia at each end containing maps and narratives of the military operations. At the center is a bronze statue titled, “Spirit of American Youth.” An orientation table overlooks the beach and depicts the landings at Normandy.
DAY 3 | Bayeux
Bayeux was the first city to be liberated in mainland France. The city was very fortunate to avoid most of the destruction and tragedy following D-Day that other towns in Normandy suffered. For a very brief moment, Bayeux was capital of Free France and General Charles de Gaulle came to give a stirring speech here on June 14, 1944. Bayeux’s war museum and British cemetery recall the sacrifices made in these parts.
Other interesting attractions in Bayeux include the Cathedral, consecrated with the presence of William the Conqueror, and the Bayeux Tapestry. This 70-meter-long and 50cm high embroidery is an invaluable record of the conquest of the throne of England by William the Conqueror and it is listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. The incredible Bayeux Tapestry shows the clothes, the castles, the ships and the conditions of life in the 11th century.
La Cambe German War Cemetery
On the way to Sainte Mère Église from Bayeux (N13), do a short stop at La Cambe to visit the German War Cemetery. The Kriegsgräberstätte has 21,160 graves. The hill in the middle of the cemetery is a mass grave with 296 casualties.
La Cambe was originally the site of a battlefield cemetery created on 10 June 1944 during the Battle of Normandy. American and German soldiers, sailors and airmen were buried in two adjacent fields.
Following the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the American Battle Monuments Commission began exhuming the remains of American servicemen and transferring them in accordance with the wishes of their families. Two-thirds of the fallen soldiers were transferred from this site back to the United States while the remainder were re-interred at the new American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-Mer, overlooking the Omaha Beach landing site.
The sign in front of the cemetery reads: “The German Cemetery at La Cambe: In the Same Soil of France.
Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948 and contains over 21,000 graves. With its melancholy rigor, it is a graveyard for soldiers, not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.”
Church of Sainte-Mère-Église
The last site of this Normandy road trip is the church of the town Sainte Mère Église, which gained a place in history on D-Day as one of the first towns to be liberated. This was achieved through the efforts of American paratroopers who were dropped into Sainte-Mère-Église on the night of June 5, 1944.
One of the paratroopers, an American named John Steele, got his parachute caught on the church steeple and remained suspended for several hours until he was cut down and taken prisoner by German troops. He escaped several days later, returned to his regiment and survived the war. To commemorate this event and the liberation of the town, a paratrooper effigy remains hanging from its white parachute, near the windows of the bell tower (see picture above).
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