I have only three thoughts from my day today.
1. God damn war.
2. D-Day was a miracle of miracles.
3. All hail mothers and their woolen socks.
AN EMOTIONAL PLACE TO START
A good place to start is right above Arromanches (Gold Beach), at the center with a great view of Port Winston and a the 360 degree theater. This theater, well worth the trip, was nevertheless incredibly jarring. You stand in the center, and 360-degree scenes shift back and forth between present-day Normandy and actual footage of the invasion, complete with very loud mortar and gunfire. I was very glad when it ended and wondered how anyone could live through that.
AN EDUCATION OF D-DAY
I’m not a war buff, or even a World War II buff, but I had heard of D-Day, and that it was this big invasion of the “beaches of Normandy,” and that it turned the tide of the war.
So forgive me if this is all old hat to you, but this is what I learned.
The length of the beaches that had to be captured was long — miles and miles.
About one hundred individual operations had to be completed on a tight shedule involving dozens of deployments of pilots, paratroopers, infantry, navy, marines, rangers, bombers, and — perhaps most importantly — engineers. Everything had to be coordinated with the French resistance network and kept out of the hands of German spies. The weather had to be perfect. Almost nobody knew the whole picture and had to charge into enemy territory — and on the beaches, highly visible and well-defended enemy territory — praying that they could get their job done.
At Arromanches, perhaps the biggest military engineering feat since Caeser crossed the Rhine occured to start the proceedings. A “temporary” harbor — the remains of which are still visible — was created by sailing seventeen ships 90 miles across the channel and scuttling them bow to stern to form a primary breakwater. 115 football-field-sized concrete blocks created for the purpose were towed across the English Channel and sunk to form a secondary breakwater.
Once the larger defence artillery were taken out, a dock with four mile-long concrete pontoon causeways whose supports could move up and down independantly of each other, keeping the surface of the roads level even with the roll of the waves. (The landing museum at Arromanches has working models of the whole shebang and is completely worth visiting.) They even found a section of the Omaha Beach causeway (a viscious storm took out the American’s harbor after only twelve days) in a junkyard a few years ago, and it’s now on display at Omaha Beach. Within six days, over 50,000 vehicles and 325,000 troops had arrived safely in Normandy on this beah alone. The port would last six months.
And things did go wrong. At Utah Beach (the westernmost beach, with an excellent museum), for example, paratroopers deployed behind enemy lines came down hither and yon. The U.S. Army Rangers mistook the wrong place for the Point du Hoc, costing them time, the element of surprise, and lives. The Germans flooded the plain directly behind Utah Beach, leaving only four well-defended causeways that the Allied forces had to cross (and if the Germans had destroyed them, it would have been impossible to cross).
But it worked. Everything worked. The paratroopers managed to group together and take out targets, though they might be taking out a target they had never been briefed on, following the lead of someone else in their group and their actual location. The Rangers managed to take control of Point du Hoc, and after discovering the guns they had so desperately needed to capture had been puled back, went and found them and destroyed them.
The Allies had to approach at low tide in order to expose the mines and anti-tank defences on the beach. And these beahes are long and wide, running up into hillsides protecting German artillery and gunners. Omaha Beach, termed “Bloody Omaha,” evidently still turns up rusty metal and barbed wire. Of the first group of soldiers to hit the beach, all but two were killed or missing in twelve minutes. But they kept coming and eventually made it.
I didn’t stop at the museum at Omaha, but I spent a few minutes on the beach. I had hoped to spend a good hour, but it was cold and windy, and wind and sand don’t mix.
The Point du Hoc remains open — just as it is. There are only a few areas that are clearly blocked off — you wander in the ruins at your own risk. It is a great opportunity to see what artillery craters look like; the Allies bombed the heck out of it to prepare for the Ranger assault, but due to their navigation error, the Rangers lost the element of surprise. They scaled the cliffs, starting with ladders provided by English firemen. Of the over two hundred Rangers thatnparticipated, only 90 were left 48 hours later when they were relieved — but they held the point. It is still considered a gravesite today.
The Battery at Longues sur Mer, which lies between Arromanches and Omaha beaches 300 yards inland, was crucial to take out, since the guns, with good direction from the sighting bunker fifty yards closer to the coast, could hit ships twleve miles away. Here again you are free to wander and imagine the deafening noise would come with seven men manning these guns that could fire six shells a minute.
I did not have time to visit Juno Beach or Sword Beach, or the American cemetery, or the German cemetery. It would also be interesting to take a road trip on “Liberty Road” that runs from Utah Beach to Berlin.
I am left in awe of and intrigued by military engineers.
THANK YOU, MOM
My day was saved from utter misery by the stripéd woolen socks of my mother, who insisted I pack them. Also, knowing how to drive a stick means you can zip through the Normandy countryside in an excellent little car!