The Complete Guide to Normandy Beaches
June sees the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France. Harriet O'Brien recommends the best and most moving attractions in a region proud of its wartime role
Saturday 28 February 2004
WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THIS PART OF THE COAST?
WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THIS PART OF THE COAST?
Stretching more than 50 miles between Cherbourg in the west and Caen in the east is a shoreline of broad, sandy beaches backed by dunes and dotted with small seaside towns. It's a gentle, pleasant area bordering rolling farmland, where ancient, Romanesque churches stand in quiet villages of mellow stone.
But the laid-back atmosphere of the Calvados coastal region belies the fact that the district was witness to one of the most violent and courageous military operations of the 20th century - the D-Day landings. This year is the 60th anniversary of the remarkable, bloody and ultimately victorious battle campaign.
The date of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France was set for 5 June 1944, but bad weather hindered proceedings so it was just after midnight on 6 June that more than 150,000 American, British and Commonwealth troops began their all-out seaborne offensive. The troops continued to arrive over the subsequent days - on D-Day-plus-one, two, three and so on. By the end of June, 660,000 men had landed. It was the brutal beginning of the end of the Second World War.
SO WHAT WAS THE PLAN?
The operation, code-named "Overlord", was agreed during a series of conferences in 1943 between Roosevelt and a very apprehensive Churchill. Not only were the German forces formidable, they had also fortified almost the entire north-west coast of Continental Europe with an "Atlantic Wall" of gun batteries and concrete blockhouses. Because their defences at the Channel ports were known to be dauntingly strong, the decision was made to storm the lower shores of Normandy, crucially within range of air support from Britain.
The landings ( débarquements, as they are described by the French) were preceded by airborne bombardment and troop drops at either end of the intended front. The success of the invasion hinged on the ability of the Allies to land large numbers of vehicles, weapons and other heavy equipment.
A plan of astonishing ingenuity was devised. Two huge floating docks, known as Mulberry harbours, were constructed in Britain, towed piecemeal in 400 or so units across the Channel and put together at the most significant points where the troops were arriving. Meanwhile, to break the swell of the open sea, 17 ships were sunk off the shore of France. Subsequently, enormous slabs of concrete, called "phoenix blocks" and weighing several thousand tons, were added to shelter the prefab harbours.
AH, BATTLEFIELDS AND BOYS' STUFF...
Not entirely. Even those with little appreciation for tactical military history cannot fail to be moved by the sites of the landings. The poignancy is almost palpable, with numerous memorials in the area paying tribute to the enormous heroism - and the enormous human tragedy on both sides - that took place in 1944. The Normandy beaches are now quite as much a pilgrimage site as a battlefield of 60 years ago. And, despite the horrors that took place here, in the summer the shores become playgrounds for locals and holidaymakers who picnic and sunbathe while their children build sandcastles and squeal happily among the shallow waves.
WHERE EXACTLY DID THE ALLIES LAND?
The five landing areas are still referred to by their code names. On 6 June, the Americans stormed Utah and Omaha beaches either side of the River Vire estuary; the British and Commonwealth troops arrived further east at Gold, Juno and Sword - roughly between Arromanches and Ouistreham.
At Utah, near La Madeleine, the Americans came under heavy fire but ultimately managed to link up with airborne troops. Three weeks later the Cotentin Peninsula, with the strategic port of Cherbourg at its tip, was freed.
Omaha, a remote stretch of sand and shingle west of Port-en-Bessin, saw appalling American losses - graphically portrayed in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Nevertheless the troops succeeded in taking control of the landing area and a Mulberry harbour was later put in position offshore.
From Gold, near Ver-sur-Mer, British soldiers captured the beach-side town of Arromanches, where another Mulberry harbour was erected. From Juno, near Courseulles, Canadians liberated the market town of Creully and a few weeks later were the first of the Allies to reach Caen - where bitter fighting continued for more than two months. From Sword, around Lion-sur-Mer, British forces joined up with airborne troops who had already taken twin bridges around Caen, thereby blocking the enemy from bringing in reinforcements.
All the beaches are clearly signposted under their code names as part of a scheme by the local tourist boards to mark out eight chronological itineraries of the Normandy invasions. Each sign bears the legend "Normandie Terre-Liberté", an echo of the relief felt at the time by the people of the area.
IS THERE MUCH LEFT?
The shores are studded with the remains of wartime concrete constructions. The most complete and probably the most striking of these are the German gun batteries at the Longues-sur-Mer clifftops west of Arromanches.
The two-storey command post still stands, as do grey and pitted mushroom-like shelters housing four 150mm guns which had a range of about 20km. Below, off Arromanches itself, waves slap against large lumps of concrete that straggle this part of the coast.
These are vestiges of the Mulberry "B" harbour, where more than 500,000 tons of equipment were unloaded before the end of August 1944 when the Allies became able to use the conventional docks at Cherbourg and Antwerp. (Mulberry "A" harbour at Omaha was all but destroyed by a storm on 19 June 1944.) Far over to the west, ships sunk off Utah beach are still visible at low tide, while just inland at La Madeleine a former German blockhouse is now a memorial for the American First Engineer Special Brigade. And, of course, quite apart from these remnants of battle, there are hundreds of acres of immaculately-tended cemeteries around the region, as well as scores of war memorials.
WHICH MEMORIALS SHOULD I SEE?
It would take days to visit all the memorial sites in the area. One of the largest and most moving is a statue of the Virgin Mary standing high on the headland above Arromanches. Nearby, in the village of Crépon, a bronze by James Butler commemorates the valour of the Green Howards, who reached there on 6 June, the furthest inland that any infantry unit managed to penetrate that day. Almost more emotive is a simple sign above the doorway to the butcher's shop in the village: "Welcome to our liberators" (in English). This year many similar banners will be erected above shops throughout the region in memory of the grateful welcome Normandy residents gave to the invading Allies.
Yet by far the most sobering memorials are the many war graves - testimony to the appalling loss of life in June 1944. The biggest British cemetery is on the outskirts of Bayeux (off Boulevard Fabian Ware) where 4,686 lie buried, with a further 1,807 names recorded on a plinth. A huge memorial to the American dead stands surrounded by more than 9,000 graves at Colleville-sur-Mer, several kilometres west of Arromanches. The biggest Canadian burial place is at Cintheaux, between Falaise and Caen, with nearly 3,000 graves. But most shocking of all are the numbers of German dead: 21,160 at La Cambe alone, between Isigny and Bayeux.
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE?
There are more than three dozen museums in the area. They range from the Musée de la Liberté at Quineville, east of Cherbourg, which shows what life was like for residents under German occupation, to the Musée de la Bataille at Tilly-sur-Seulles, commemorating the battles in which the village was captured and recaptured 23 times from 7 to 19 June 1944.
For a comprehensive review of Normandy's complete wartime history there are three significant museums. At Arromanches, the newly refurbished Musée du Débarquement on Place du 6 Juin (00 33 231 223 431, www.normandy1944.com) gives a detailed account of how the Allies arrived. It also provides a history of the Mulberry harbour here, with models of the docks and a diorama of the landings. It opens 9.30am-12.30pm and 1.30-5.30pm in spring, and 9am-7pm in summer. Admission is £4.
In Bayeux, the Musée Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie 1944 on Boulevard Fabian Ware (00 33 231 514 690, www.bayeux-tourism.com), focuses on the aftermath of D-Day - 77 days of brutal warfare before the region was fully liberated. Displays include uniforms, photographs, weapons and heavy equipment. It opens 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm daily between October and April, and 9.30am-6.30pm daily in summer. Again admission is £4.
On the north-west outskirts of Caen, Le Memorial de Caen on Esplanade DD Eisenhower (00 33 231 060 644, www.memorial-caen.fr) is subtitled "Un Musée pour la Paix", and indeed peace in a fairly wide remit is the theme here. As well as galleries with displays and information about the occupation and the battle for Normandy, there is a section on the causes and consequences of the Second World War and also a room devoted to the Nobel Peace Prize. It opens 9am-7pm daily (until 8pm from 10 July to 22 August, until 6pm in November and December). Admission is £12 in low season, £13 during the summer peak.
For in-depth guidance, a number of local companies offer group and tailor-made trips around the battle sites. Battlebus (00 33 231 222 882; www.battlebus.fr) charges £53 for standard day tours; D-Day Tours (00 33 231 517 052; www.normandywebguide.com) has a £25 morning tour for Juno, Gold and Omaha beaches and a £53 day tour for Utah, Omaha, Gold and Juno beaches. Maps and information are available from Bayeux's helpful tourist office in the town centre (00 33 231 512 828, www.bayeux-tourism.com).
WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO DO IN THE AREA?
Head for Bayeux, the only town in the region that was not devastated by the war. Here a host of 14th- and 15th-century buildings remain intact along winding medieval streets. Of course Bayeux's greatest attraction is the tapestry, ironically celebrating the Norman invasion of England some nine centuries before the D-Day Landings. You can see it on Rue de Nesmond (00 33 231 512 550, www.bayeux-tourism.com). It is open daily except for the second week in January; 9am-6.30pm in low season, until 7pm in high season, admission £5.30, including an audio guide.
Many of Bayeux's shops sell the products of Normandy's apple and cream culture, but it is more fun to see the local cider, calvados and camembert being made. A number of orchards and dairies are open to the public. These include the Isigny Sainte Mere Cooperative at 2 Rue de Coteur Boutrois (00 33 231 513 388, www.isigny-ste-mere.com) where butter, cream and cheese is churned into shape; and Ferme de la Sapiniere at Saint Laurent sur Mer (00 33 231 224 051) where apples are transformed into jelly, pommeau and much more. There are also plenty of outdoor activities in the region, from golf at the Omaha Beach Golf Club (00 33 231 221 212, www.omahabeachgolfclub.com), to horse riding at Ferme Equestre de la Noe at Castillon (00 33 231 211 273). And there's a wide choice of seaside sports: sand-buggying, sea kayaking, windsurfing at Ouistreham, Omaha and Grandcamp-Maisy.
WHERE CAN I STAY?
Accommodation in the area is already very booked up for the week of the official D-Day anniversary in June. Local hoteliers suggest that it may be more sensible to visit during the low season: before mid April, rates are cheaper and there is far more availability.
Bayeux makes a lively base, with plenty of restaurants and bars. Here, a traditional coaching inn in the town centre, Lion d'Or at 71 rue Saint Jean (00 33 231 920 690, www.liondor-bayeux.fr), has comfortable doubles for £57. On Route de Port-en-Bessin, between Bayeux and the harbour town of Port-en-Bessin, is the picturesque Chateau de Sully (00 33 231 222 948, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). An 18th-century mansion set in glorious rolling grounds, this 22-room hotel offers a variety of facilities including tennis court and swimming pool; doubles from £70.
In the village of Crépon, a few kilometres inland from Arromanches, Ferme de La Rançonniere (00 33 231 222 173, www.ranconniere.fr) offers excellent value (doubles from £32) as well as atmospheric accommodation - all exposed brickwork and ancient beams. This former seigneurie dates from the 13th century, its buildings set around a tranquil courtyard. Fine food and a fairly extensive cellar complete the attractions.
There is also a good choice of chambres d'hôtes, or B&Bs, in the area. These are centrally organised in Paris (00 33 149 707 575, www.gites-de-france.fr). One of the most gracious of these family homes is also in Crépon. The Manoir de Crépon on Route de Caen (00 33 231 222 127) is an 18th-century manor house with four large ensuite bedrooms, wide lawns, antiques, Japanese wallpaper - and even an antiques shop. Doubles are £50.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Flights to Caen have currently been abandoned, so the most convenient option for travellers is now to take a ferry crossing. It may just be a coincidence, but P&O Ferries (08705 20 20 20; www.poferries.com) has chosen what is the 60th anniversary of D-Day to invade the territory of its French rival, Brittany Ferries (08703 665 333, www.brittany-ferries.co.uk).
From April, P&O plans to use a fast craft to almost halve the existing six-hour crossing time from Portsmouth to Ouistreham. Fares from both these operators are very likely to fall.
There are also specialist travel companies which provide a range of short-break packages. For example there is VFB Holidays (01242 240 340, www.vfbholidays.co.uk) which offers travellers self-drive trips from the price of £149 per person.
The price includes a return ferry crossing with a car and three nights half-board accommodation. Several operators provide group trips, such as Motts Travel (01296 336666, www.mottstravel.co.uk) with a four-day package from £149 per person including all coach travel, ferry crossings and B&B accommodation in Caen.
BEST OF THE REST: OTHER BEACHES
From the chalk cliffs at the northern point of the Contentin Peninsula, the coastline gradually softens to the west into long stretches of wild beaches and sand dunes. This side of the peninsula boasts the region's sunniest weather.
Cartaret, a popular windsurfing destination, has two golden sandy beaches from which you can see to the Channel Islands on a clear day. And from Barneville, lined with elegant villas, you can catch a ferry to Jersey.
Portbail is a delightful Romanesque village where the sand dunes are broken up by the broad estuary of the Ollonde River. The two beaches are approached over an old stone bridge; in summer you can watch long-booted fisherman wading underneath. However, the blustery 4km walk to the lighthouse at Pointe d'Agon provides a superb view of the unspoiled sand dunes.
The coast continues south to Granville, the most popular resort in the area, where the long beach is a favourite with tourists. From St Jean le Thomas the sea retreats so far at low tide that you can walk to Mont St Michel, but take care as the tide can come in quickly.
Once you reach the awe-inspiring Mont St Michel, you'll find a lovely expanse of beach, but it isn't exactly a prime sunbathing spot. The magnificent tides, with a 15-metre difference between high and low tide, provide quite a spectacle as they race across the bay.
Although "D-Day" has become almost synonymous with the initial Normandy Landing of 6 June 1944, it is a generic military term.
Where secrecy is imperative, the date of an operation is not mentioned, and "D-Day" is used instead - the "D" simply standing for the day in question. Hence the corresponding French phrase, "Le Jour-J".
D-DAY 60TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS
In June, the official ceremonies organised by the D-Day Committee and the French government are mostly open only to veterans and visiting dignitaries.
However, from May until the end of August a host of other events takes place in the Calvados area. These range from the firework displays on 5 June, at 11pm, in villages and towns along the coast, to parades of military vehicles (as at Sainte-Mère-Eglise on 4 June) and jazz concerts (as at Isigny-sur-Mer on 13 June).
A comprehensive calendar - as yet to be fully confirmed - is available by contacting Normandie 1944 60th Anniversaire, Place Reine Mathilde, CP 70067, 14007 Caen (00 33 231 948 026; www.normandiememoire.com).
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